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Old Pilots & Bold Pilots
Kathleen Corey Rahme

There must be something in the air that makes people like Sara Payne Hayden, WWII WASP; Jim Baker, Marine and retired Delta pilot; Sam DiNoto, WWII B-17 flight engineer and top turret gunner; and Luther McIlwain, Tuskegee Airman all seem so young. Or is it something about taking a trip to the Lawrence Airport to see their beloved planes that brought about this transformation? On August 18 during the EAA (Experimental Aviation Aircraft) sponsored air show, we planned a rendezvous.

The featured attractions were the B-17 Flying Fortress, Aluminum Overcast and James Baker’s vintage WWII 1944 AT-6 plane. I was lucky enough to be there.

A few weeks ago when the Methuen VFW hosted a motorcycle rally to raise money for a new roof, Hayden along with her contemporary Mary Habib were on hand to announce “ladies and gentlemen; start your engines.” During the playing of the National Anthem, the AT-6 did a fly by. Baker made his way back to the VFW to meet Hayden who flew his plane during WWII while serving in the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots. Of course they traded stories and anecdotes about the plane and that is what led Baker to invite Hayden to take a ride.

When I heard the B-17 Aluminum Overcast, the heavy bomber was coming to Lawrence on August 17-19; the only thing I had to do was worry about the weather. We all committed to meeting up on one of those days to participate in the EAA outing. See www.EAA106.org.

Baker, 75 of Boxford, a sergeant during the Korean War who served as a Radar Navigator in Miami wanted Sara to go flying with him. He asked her if that was a possibility and she told him in no uncertain terms she “never flew the AT-6 from the back seat.” It was priceless. The wind was so great that Hayden, 88, declined the invitation to fly. But not only did she sit in the cockpit to revisit her familiar home, she took a rain-check.

There was so much excitement among the crowd when they saw Sara return to the seat in the plane she flew over 63 years ago. What they talked about, I cannot even begin to share because it was so far out of my realm of knowledge.

Hayden played with all the buttons and pushed on the rudder for the crowd. She remembered where most of the instruments were located. Baker said of the experience, “I got goose bumps when she sat in the cockpit and asked where the backup hydraulic pump was.” He acknowledged how great it was to have this volunteer WWII female pilot sit in his plane.

Luther McIlwain, soon to be 86, and a great friend of Hayden accompanied us to the airport that day and he took his turn sitting in the cock-pit. The Tuskegee Airman is tripled rated as a bombardier, radar navigator and pilot. Upon hearing this gentleman is a Congressional Gold Medal of Honor recipient, the crowd went wild with jubilation and gratitude.

There to capture this remarkable reunion between pilot and plane was Al Grant of Methuen and MCTV, producer of the series “Old Pilots and Bold Pilots” and “Call to Serve.”  I learned the origin of the title from Baker. He quipped, “There are old pilots and bold pilots but very few old, bold pilots.” Grant recorded commentary about the memories that were resurrected during this wonderful visit.

The B-17 has the acclaim of being one of the fiercest fighting machines of WWII not only because of her mechanical capabilities but because of her crewmen like Sam DiNoto, 83 of Methuen. Being with DiNoto, you can truly appreciate the admiration for the B-17 shared by the numerous men who visited the airport that day donning their “Mighty 8th” Airforce caps covered with flare from ruptured ducks to Purple Hearts.

What makes these old veterans pilgrimage to see the B-17 is no mystery. They come to these EAA air shows to pay tribute to the bird that they have loved and respected for over six decades.

While my husband and I were just hanging around taking all of this in, Tom Hatem of Methuen was there to take a ride in the B-17. He encouraged us to join him and with very little coaxing, we did. All I can say is that I am grateful that I didn’t let this once in a lifetime opportunity slip by. We were given a series of pre-flight instructions and then we took off in the magnificent bird. What a thrill!

It was very windy and of course there was no on-board service. We were able experience a small glimpse in 45 minutes what our brave men did for several hours, every day in WWII. One needs to magnify the experience with increased elevation and cold temperatures as well as the stress of combat that occurred in the original flights.

I was able to spend of time in the nose turret and it was so amazing that when it was my turn, we were just approaching the Atlantic over Ipswich. The nose turret is covered by Plexiglas from ceiling to floor.  Sitting on a bicycle seat with a 180 degree vantage point is what I call a front row seat! It is not for the faint of heart. It is an experience I will never forget.

Baker and co-pilot Maureen Monroe of Atkinson, NH went up in the AT-6 and flew over a couple of times to entertain the crowd. At one point Baker tipped the wings in a gesture to say hello. Baker told me that this was the best time he has had in years because he had the pleasure of being in the company of a bunch of old pilots.

Special thanks to the Lawrence Municipal Airport for hosting this event. It serves the community in so many ways.  

Kathleen Corey Rahme is the former Central District Councilor in Methuen and was elected as a city councilor “at large” in 2005. She is also the vice chair of the city council and founder of the Methuen Youth Corps. Kathleen is a candidate for mayor of Methuen. She also hosts “Call to Serve.” You can email her at kcoreyrahme @comcast.net  

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The September 2007 Edition of the Valley Patriot
The Valley Patriot is a Monthly Publication.
All Contents (C) 2007
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