Charles M. Donovan ’39

Donovan '39

Charles M. Donovan '39

(1920–    )
USN, Lieutenant Junior Grade

Buzzards Bay? Not Today!

An instrument flight instructor’s duty at Pensacola in World War II was no path for recognition or decoration. After flight training as a prospective carrier pilot at Barin Field, whose safety record was infamous, I was assigned training as an instrument flight instructor, later in full press pressure at Whiting Field, Pensacola, in a parade of aviation cadets, officers undergoing flight training, and Royal Navy cadets. The science of so-called blind flying was evolving in the Navy as improved instruments, radio aids to navigation, and radar appeared.

I learned early never to permit my flight student to place the plane and me in a position from which there was no recovery. The plane did as it was told. My theory worked in hundreds of hours of such exposure. Taking emergency procedures was never routine but always very helpful if you know the procedures.

Contrary to my better judgment, in June 1946 I hitchhiked travel from the Naval Air Station, Anacostia, D.C., my final duty station, to the Naval Air Station, Squantum (Boston). Off flight status, I was on a terminal leave. The plane was a small twin-engine Beechcraft SNB-1, a bombing, navigation trained, piloted by a Navy Commander and co-piloted by a Lt. Commander. A Lt. (j.g.), I had impressive time flying versions of that Beechcraft. The interior of the plane was barebones—no passenger seats, and unfinished—showing spars, cross members, and outer metal skin. My seat was a simple bench at the rear, next to the exit. A tiny catwalk connected my area with the flight deck.

I entered first, not acknowledged by the entering flight crew. Departure and flight path was northbound over Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, then along the Connecticut coast toward Cape Cod. We were finally over water, I’m guessing at about 3,500 feet.

Suddenly both engines quit. The propellers started windmilling. There is no silence in the world to equal an aircraft in flight without power.

Crewmembers in the cockpit flailed around as the plane headed down toward water. This plane did not glide; it wallowed from side to side. Nothing was happening. We were headed for the drink. I quickly broke loose from the seat harness and made my way up the catwalk.

What I did then was pure court-martial stuff; I assumed command and pushed the pilot’s hand off the engine control while shouting “I’ll start the engines!” We continued dropping toward the water. I quickly adjusted the engine controls…air mixture full rich, props set to low pitch, throttles greatly reduced, a touch of carburetor heat. Then I told the co-pilot to man the wobble pump sticking out of the floor on this left and start pumping very slowly on my signal. I switched tanks from the auxiliary, now bone dry, to the main, then signaled pumping. I stood over both men with my finger on the fuel pressure gauge. Pumping slowly raised pressure…zero to one pound, then two pounds, then three pounds. Escape from the plane appeared impossible. Then three and a half pounds, and I screamed “Fire!” Instantly both engines simultaneously commenced operating smoothly. The plane made a slight climb, which I adjusted. I readjusted all engine controls to normal setting, told the co-pilot to watch the pressure gauge, and asked the pilot to take us to Boston.

Remainder of the flight was routine, if there is ever such a thing. Waiting outside the Operations area for a Navy jitney to the Boston subway, I was ignored by both crew members headed for a parking lot. Suddenly, well past me, the Commander stopped and returned to me: “Thanks for your help!” was his comment. He turned and walked off. No court-martial or official report followed. On the subway, I concluded three lives and a Navy aircraft had a close call and, anyway, heroes did not travel on the subway.

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Filed under In Uniform, Western Front

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