A P-51 pilot’s five minutes of fame (or “How to Be an ‘Ace’ for a Day”)

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Capt. L.H. “Bud” Phipps with his plane, the California Coaster. (Courtesy photograph)
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by Bob Alvis, special to Aerotech News
It had been a long day at Fox Field about 10 years ago. The Air Museum at Planes of Fame had brought two P-51 Mustangs up to Lancaster, offering flights for those willing to shell out the bucks to fly in the legend and check it off their bucket list.

As I was signing in the last few people and getting their paperwork in order, my eye caught a gentleman who was leaning against the fence and watching the planes come and go. His apparent age had me thinking and wondering about his desire to hang out and watch old warbirds fly.

When the birds taxied out, I walked over and struck up a conversation to satisfy my curiosity and he introduced himself as “Bud.” Soft-spoken and with no hint of attitude, he had the gaze of a kid and the gray hair of a long life. Quiet and unassuming, he was slow to open up to share any of his story. After a bit, my question was, “Are you just a fan or were you just looking for something to do today?”

“Well, son,” he spoke in a soft tone, “I just wanted to look at a bit of my history one last time, before Father Time calls my name to form up on his wing and head to the field in the sky.”

“So you have a connection to the P-51 Mustang?” I asked.

The markings of Capt. L.H. Phipps units’ aircraft of the 364th Fighter Group, 84th Fighter Squadron, at RAF Honington in England during World War II. (Courtesy photograph)

“Well, son there was a time when I was Capt. L.H. Phipps, a pilot in the 364th F.G. 384th F.S. based in Honington, England, in World War II.”

Looking in his eyes, a million questions swirled around my brain and for the life of me I could not get any words out, as his resume had stunned me into silence. After a few minutes, we were both clicking with give and take and we started those first steps of bonding an older generation with a younger one. We ended up sharing phone numbers so we could maybe get a chance for an adult beverage at the VFW at a later date, and he could share some stories.

The day finally came and, like a kid looking forward to meeting a childhood hero, I walked into the VFW and saw him sitting with a few old pictures in hand. I eagerly offered my handshake and a thanks for his willingness to spend some time together. We talked for hours about his training, deployment and the transition from life as a California teenager to a P-51 Mustang pilot at war.

Bud’s Mustang carried the name “California Coaster,” in reference to his old car back home that was better at coasting down hills then driving up them. It connected him to the state he loved and called home. Bud said, “You’re not going to get any thrilling stories of combat in the air from me, as when I arrived on station, the war was winding down. The milk runs to and from Germany were not encountering much enemy resistance and the reality was, we feared the English weather more than we did the Germans.”

All said and done it was just a lot of “what’s next?” and “when will they pull the plug on us and send us to the Pacific?” an experience which, for Bud, never came, as the Army Air Corps was pretty flush with experienced combat pilots to fill those ranks. Eventually that long boat ride across the pond brought him back home to a life that never included flying planes again.

“Wow,” I said. “Were you disappointed to hang up the gloves and helmet and leave it all behind?” “Not really,” he said, “it was a special time and it was a job and, after all, people move on to newer adventures in life. I wasn’t the only one who walked away with no regrets, as we have our memories of what few ever experienced and that is all that matters.”

After a couple of those old VFW-type drinks, I could see Bud had a bit more to give with his story and it sure cemented our friendship, which we kept going until the day he died. “Bob, there was one mission I flew that had me feeling pretty damn heroic, even if it only lasted for a few hours. Let me tell you about it.

“After the Germans had called it quits, all our planes had been moved to forward bases and a call came down that pilots were needed to ferry the planes back to England, so they could be crated up and sent to the Pacific. Being as I was bored to death, I eagerly volunteered. There was no rush by the battle-tested pilots, who wanted nothing to do with “herding sheep” back to England.

“The next day we reported down to the flight line and boarded a C-47 that flew us to Germany, where we got off and headed to the operations shack for instructions. Looking out at rows and rows of planes, the orders were simple: go get a plane and fly it to the rally point in England; wait for others and get back on the transport, and do it all over again until we tell you to stop! The first day was no big deal and pretty routine but the second day, weather had us on the ground until noon before we headed off east again. Upon arrival, I walked out to the first Mustang on the line. For some reason, I changed my habit of entering the cockpit on the left, and instead entered from the right. No big deal, right? Routine flight, and the Mustang purred like a kitten. When I arrived, a follow-me flight line truck motioned for me to fall in behind and he would lead the way. I thought, “Hmmm this is a first,” as this was not the procedure from the previous day, but what the heck, just flow with it. Pulling up to the hard stand, for some reason again I exited on the right and slid off the wing to a group of fellow airmen from that base who were eager to wine and dine me at the base officers club!

84th Fighter Squadron logo patch. (Courtesy photograph)

“Time passed, and in all my time in England I never had eaten or drank so well. I told the guys I needed to get back to Germany to pick up some more planes to be delivered. Confused looks and questions asked as to why was I, a Double Ace, ferrying planes from Germany? Isn’t that for grunt pilots? Are you in trouble and being punished?  I was more confused than ever as I walked out of the club wondering what had just played out. The answer came when I rolled past that row of Mustangs and saw that, on the left side of the plane I had flown in, was a score card of 12 swastikas and a squadron leader’s identification code with some pretty sexy nose art that had been my ticket to a pretty satisfying day —  they thought I was that Ace pilot! For just a bit of time, I had the feeling of what it was like to be at the top of the pyramid and have the admiration of fellow pilots!”

Story time was over, and I was sad to see it end. That story he told me has helped to sustain me many times when, feeling like just an average Joe, I’d think maybe someday carrying out a routine task will put me in a position to be “ACE” for a day!  

Thanks to the good Lord for making it possible to cross paths with the man I just knew as “Bud,” but known to our nation as Capt. L.H. Phipps, United States Army Air Corps. He was one of many in a long line of American Patriots who answered the call on behalf of freedom-loving people and did the journeyman job that makes up the bulk of service in the American military.

Rest in Peace my Friend, and thanks for the story and your service.

Until next time, Bob out … 
 
 
 

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