by Bob Alvis, special to Aerotech News
Back in the 1970s, there was a large group of aviation enthusiasts, test pilots and Barnstormers that held yearly gatherings here in the A.V.
The very popular Barnstormers Reunion was so well attended that it was held at the Antelope Valley Fairgrounds, to handle the overflow crowds.
You would think that with all that talent, the speakers would be hard pressed to entertain the crowd, many of whom were considered the originators and keepers of the “Right Stuff.” The organizers never disappointed, bringing speakers to the podium who created rapt silence amongst an audience of aviators, who could only listen in disbelief to the exploits of the early pioneers of aviation.
One such aviator who was a regular visitor to our High Desert home was a man who almost became a statistic as number 81, but was instead lucky enough to end up as an eyewitness to history that, by today’s standards, would seem like a fantasy tale from the studios of Hollywood.
When Capt. Oliver C. “Boots” LeBoutillier walked to the podium in front of an audience of the best of aviation, we can only imagine the anticipation of those in attendance as they waited to hear about April 21, 1918, from this now-old man, who remembered the day as if it were yesterday. As he stood to address the crowd, he was the only surviving person to be a witness to the last flight and fight of Baron Manfred von Richthofen, better known as the infamous “Red Baron.”
The ex-fighter pilot and war ace (six victories and several probables) reminisced about the memorable occasion and was honored to be the featured speaker before such a remarkable gathering of fellow aviators.
When he started his story, silence filled the room as the soft-spoken Ace shared that story of a landmark day in aviation history.
“There were 11 of us in a flight around 12,000 feet over the Somme River,” Boots recalled. “We were up against 28 Fokker Triplanes, where pilots were under orders to wipe out our squadron.” LeBoutiller was one of three flight leaders for the No. 209 Squadron of the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force, the most recognized squadron in the war. He was piloting one of England’s first Sopwith Camels that rainy Sunday morning. “Action was at close quarters in those days and fighting was fast and furious, when our paths crossed with the Red Baron and his flying circus,” he said. “I was shot up pretty bad and was forced to pull out of action and started to make my descent.
“Just then, I spotted this bright red triplane with another one of our squadron leaders, Capt. Roy Brown, hot in pursuit. I could see his tracer’s bullets into the aft fuselage and cockpit of the enemy plane.
Suddenly, the red triplane pulled up and went into a right gliding turn and made a rather gentle crash landing. We didn’t know who was behind the stick of the red triplane until after it crashed,” Boots said. “The Red Baron was our enemy, but he had always been respected by the fliers on both sides and died like a gentleman at the controls of his craft.” Upon later investigation, it was determined the German ace was killed almost instantly by a single bullet which had entered his shoulder and exited below his heart. “I remember tangling with the same plane before its crash,” Boots recalled. “Von Richthofen had shot down 80 planes, up to this day, and nearly had me as his eighty-first.”
LeBoutillier, an American, had learned to fly in 1916 in a model B Wright Aircraft. To the sounds of gasps from the room of Barnstormer attendees, he stated that after he had logged five minutes of flying time, he was considered a pilot and was sent off to war.
He remained with the No. 209 Squadron for the duration of the war, acquiring 600 flying hours by the time the Armistice was declared. Later in England, in recognition of his service to the crown, he was awarded a citation by Winston Churchill.
Back in the United States, “Boots” was so impressed with the thought of flying an airplane without having to dodge bullets, that he decided to find another flying job. His first paying position was that of a sky writer, where he found himself right at home in a World War I converted S.E. 5 Scout. He became one of the pioneers and officials of the Skywriting Corporation of America. Aerial advertising took him to Hollywood, where he joined the daredevil stunt pilots of the early studio era. During the late 1920s and early 1930s he flew in 18 films, including The Eagle and the Hawk and the air war classic, Hell’s Angels. After motion pictures, LeBoutillier flew in the National Air Races and later gave Amelia Earhart her first dual instruction in a twin engine airplane. In 1937, he joined the Civil Aeronautics Administration and in World War II was inspector in charge of the western United States.
In 1948, with 19,000 flight hours in planes from the Wright Model B to multi-engine bombers, he retired from active flying. He founded a pharmaceutical company and ran it for many years, leaving the flying to others after setting up home in Las Vegas.
I have been blessed over the years to hear many of these stories and pass them on, and I feel a bit sorry for those who missed the opportunity to interact or just be a fly on the wall to hear the back and forth of some really incredible folks from our nation’s aviation past. It was these gentlemen who inspired many of us young folks to open those books and embrace the history that was bigger than life.
These folks are now long gone and it’s up to us who had those moments to find a way of passing them on to future generations and make the subject as entertaining as we can, to inspire our young to want to know more.
We no longer have the Barnstormers Reunions and to tell the truth, I don’t think that many today even know what a Barnstormer is! Sure would be fun to have events like this again that relive the swashbuckling of yesteryear’s aviation, but men like “Boots” are few and far between. Little did I know when I was just a young teen that a chance encounter at the home of a friend, whose Dad was a big part of these reunions, would have me face-to-face and speechless with a man who was there the day the Red Baron was shot down — and he looked nothing like Snoopy!
Until next time, Bob out …