John Landers and "Big Beautiful Doll"
One thing we often forget is that war is always fought
by kids and, in the case of WWII aviators, that meant they were also extremely
inexperienced. When I flew my first fighter, which happened to be the
Mustang, I was 29 years old and had nearly 2,500 hours of flight time
in a wide variety of airplanes. When John Landers, the original pilot
of Big Beautiful Doll, flew his first fighter, a P-40, which is much more
difficult than a Mustang to fly, he barely had 200 hours. By today’s
standards, that’s not even enough flight time to dry him out behind
Of course, there’s flight time and there’s flight time. Not
one airplane in Lander’s logbook was as easy to fly as something
like a Cherokee or Cessna. Conversely, few airplanes I had flown prior
to strapping on a T-6 to get ready for the Mustang were as difficult as
the Stearman Landers probably learned to fly in. The 208 hours he had
by the time he was flying combat in P-40’s in the Pacific was a
very serious 208 hours. When he was shot down and wounded by a Zero December
of 1943, he was already an ace with six kills and probably hadn’t
cracked the 400-hour mark yet. At 400 hours I was no more ready to fly
something like a P-40 than the man in the moon.
There was a fatalistic, Darwinian aspect to WWII flight training and combat.
Those with the talent flourished quickly, others barely held on, while
so many others were simply eliminated leaving the strong to fight on.
It’s impossible for someone like me, a wannabe fighter pilot, not
to wonder where I would have fallen in the Darwin spectrum of fighter
When I finally got my chance to start flying Mustangs it was one of the
high points of my life and all I was going to do was takeoff, fly around
and land. It’s a big deal to be one of the few who have been given
that kind of opportunity. Not so in WWII. It was a given that someone
like Landers, who may have been low time by our standards, could fly the
airplane. That wasn’t what counted. What mattered was his ability
to use the Mustang as a weapon. When he took off he was going to pit his
skill in the airplane against the best that Germany had to offer. It wasn’t
an ego thing. It was a survival thing.
When Landers started flying the Mustang, he was a 24-year-old Lt. Colonel
and Group Exec for the 357th Fighter Group in the ETO. Earlier, while
flying P-38’s, he had already added four German planes on top of
his Japanese victories making him a double ace. Then he moved over and
became CO for the 78th fighter group and continued racking up the victories.
When the war was over he had 4.5 kills in the Mustang with the .5 being
a shared Me-262.
I’ve looked over that long skinny nose and shoved that barrel-shaped
throttle forward to feel the seat back urging me forward. I’ve looped
and rolled and, on occasion, even challenged another Mustang or Corsair
to a fight. I’ve felt the G’s and basked in that delicious
sound track, but I always knew I’d come home. And that’s the
Most fighter pilots who were trained and fought during WWII didn’t
hit 1000 hours by war’s end. Combat, however, makes you get very
good, very quickly. If you don’t, then adding time to your logbook
will be the least of your worries.
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