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by Tyrone Power

printed in Flying Magazine, May 1949



When I think of Saipan, I think of the Marines and the C-46 I jockeyed around the Pacific during the war. And every time I climb into a cockpit, I force myself to re-live a hellish 30 seconds or so I spent on Saipan while starting a routine flight mission. I re-live those seconds because they taught me a flying fundamental I don’t ever want to forget.

All pilots know that you can’t overlook the checklist. It gets to be almost habit after a while. If you’ve logged hundreds of hours in the same type of plane, you give it that pre-flight check automatically. You go back, you go forward, you go down, you go across the instrument pattern.

photo of Tyrone in Saipan, 1945
(wife, Annabelle's photo on desk)


During the war I flew a Curtis Commando week after week, month after month. I think I knew its insides better than I knew what was in my pockets. And, like a lot of other pilots, I got careless.

The hydraulic system on the C-46 is somewhat complicated. Under the condition we flew the planes, the seals for flaps and gear had a tendency to dry up easily. We had to actuate them frequently to keep the actuating cylinders flexible and to make certain we’d lost no fluid from dried seals.

So, habitually, I’d actuate the flaps while waiting on the line-just to make certain everything was all right. I’d flip them up and down, up and down.

Then, taxiing, I’d flip them up and down again.

In our squadron it was SOP (standard operating procedure)to go through three full cycles on the flaps. First, on the line or in the revetment, again while taxiing for take-off, and once again after final mag check.

That morning on Saipan I was hauled out of bed at 5 o’clock for a rush flight to Okinawa with a heavy load of materiel and four or five men. I picked up my co-pilot---a new one, checked the plane, and we were ready to go.

I wanted to be extra certain those flaps were okay, just in case I should need them on take-off. I made the prescribed check in the revetment and another one while taxiing for take-off. Then, while we sat there on the end of the runway waiting for a bevy of planes to take off, I checked it again. We went through the entire check-off list.

My co-pilot got clearance, nodded to me, and off we went. The C-46 scuttled down the runway while I kept watching for the prescribed number of inches on the manifold pressure. I knew immediately something was wrong. The plane wanted to come off in about 1,000 feet! And we were loaded to the gunwales.

Down the runway the plane barreled, trying to pull off, with me pushing hard on the yoke to keep in on the ground. Second by second we were eating up that runway, roaring toward the end-and I had a quick vision of what would happen: We were lurching along at 60 m.p.h. Then 65. And faster. The last few feet of the runway would be coming up soon, and I’d either have to chop those throttles right away or there wouldn’t be time left to do anything expect pray.

I couldn’t figure it out, though I was trying to remember in those quick seconds everything that could possibly be wrong. All I knew was that the darned plane shouldn’t take off at that point, and yet it was tugging and pulling to get off the ground. We were still accelerating, and the remaining feet of the runway looked like only inches.

Then off she roared. I couldn’t hold her down any longer. As the plane lumbered off the runway, it seemed to stagger. Desperately, I whipped a look around the cockpit. Maybe the trim was off. I thought of a thousand things, discarded them. I caught a glance at my co-pilot, who about that time looked like a lad walking the Last Mile.

And then we both looked down and at the same instant saw what had happened.

I had left full flaps on the plane!

That spanking new co-pilot worked like a high -speed machine. His arm shot down, and he dumped the flaps in a fraction of a second.

There’s no need to tell pilots what happens when you dump the flaps-especially with a heavily-loaded plane the size of the Commando.

Ordinarily, the flaps would have been set at 15 degrees because any setting beyond that acts as a drag and cuts down forward acceleration. Taking off with full flaps, we became airborne faster (the tail just wouldn’t stay down) but forward acceleration was slowed almost to the stalling point.

So there we were. The co-pilot had dumped the flaps. He knew what would happen then, and so did I felt like I was piloting a big hunk of lead. We lost altitude-I don’t know how much. I was too busy gunning the plane at full throttle and rolling forward with all my might on the trim tab to keep from stalling. The co-pilot realized better that I that we were about one foot from eternity.

My gear was up by this time, and we were still so low that the prop tips were missing the ground by inches. The red lights at the end of the runway were getting big as cannon balls-and right behind them was a hill. Even at that moment, while I was breaking out in a cold nervous sweat, thought mirthlessly about the headlines back home: “Tyrone Power’s Last Scene-A Smash Hit.”

But almost miraculously, we squeezed over that hill with the old Commando’s engines screaming. The rest of the ride to Okinawa was anti-climax. But today, whether I’m flying a plane in California or in Rome, I sit for a second or two before take-off and remember that day on Saipan. It helps me remember that I’ve got a lot to learn-and that in flying, you can’t afford to do any forgetting.

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