AS SMOOTH AS SILK
The 45th Bomb Squadron moved from France Field, Panama, to David Field, Panama, in November 1942. We left old, twin engine B-18 bombers at France Field, and prepared to receive LB-30s, a British version of the B-24 American Liberator. Squadron Commander Major Oscar Schaaf and Captain Eddie Glass flew to Albrook Field to be checked out in the LB-30. After making a few take offs and landings with an Instructor Pilot, Major Schaaf and Captain Glass were certified to fly an LB-30 to David Field.
By coincidence, my aircrew had just arrived at Albrook Field as passengers on a cargo plane after delivering our squadron's last B-18 to another field. As we stepped off the plane, Major Schaaf saw us, and sent Captain Glass back to Base Operations to add my crew's names to his clearance forms. That would authorize us to fly as passengers in the LB-30 back to France Field. Major Schaaf instructed my crew to sit in the plane's aft gunner's compartment for our first ride in an LB-30.
Our flight to David Field was uneventful, but when Major Schaaf called the control tower for landing instructions, he was informed that the paved runway was closed due to ongoing construction. Rather than return to Albrook Field, Major Schaaf decided to land on the grass strip we used for B-18 operations. A thick mangrove swamp formed the south boundary of the grass field, and a pasture with cattle formed the north boundary. There was no fence around the pasture to keep the cattle from grazing on the airfield. The men who took care of the cattle lived with their families in two small, wooden houses located in the pasture. The houses were just a few hundred feet from the edge of the field, and in line with the grass runway. In typical Panamanian fashion, half-naked children often played outside their homes.
Major Schaaf elected to approach the runway from over the swamp, and to land headed north toward the pasture. The LB-30 touched down gently a short distance past the mangrove trees. Lt. Willie Gerkin, my Copilot, grinned at me and yelled above the noise in the gunner's compartment, "That was as smooth as silk."
The big bomber's speed did not seem to decrease as it rolled past the Base Operations shack. We became concerned as the plane approached the end of the grass strip. When brakes were applied, the wheels locked and the tires skidded on the wet grass with no noticeable effect on the plane's speed. Captain Glass warned us over the intercom that we were sliding toward a house, and that we were to prepare for a crash. As we tightened our safety belts, an outboard engine roared for a moment, then suddenly all engines were shut down. We were astonished to see a shack pass by each of the plane's wing tips. We had passed between the two buildings as gaping adults and children watched from the safety of their porches. The plane came to rest several hundred feet past the houses.
Everyone piled out quickly to find a herd of cattle staring at the strangers who arrived in a metal bird. The plane was not damaged, but Major Schaaf's dignity took a beating. It's not difficult to imagine what would have happened had the plane hit a house, or some people. The plane was towed to the airfield's parking area where it remained until the paved runway was opened to normal traffic.
What would have happened if we had landed in the opposite direction? I can picture the big plane crashing into trees as it slid out of control into the mangrove swamp. Such an accident would probably have demolished the plane, and caused serious injury to the aircrew and passengers.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *