"Bill" Main sat in the pilot's seat
of the Curtis C-46 Commando. I sat in the co-pilot’s
seat beside him. Before us loomed an assortment
of aircraft never before seen together in battle
- a Japanese “Zero,” a B-25 Mitchell bomber, and
a navy F8F Bearcat fighter.
The air was stale in the old C-46 workhorse,
a World War II cargo plane, used to flying missions
over the “hump” in Southern China against the
Japanese. But with the cockpit windows open, a
warm breeze made the day’s mission tolerable.
And fortunately, we were not in battle. We were
sitting on the tarmac of Camarillo airport in
front of an old bungalow housing the Confederate
The C-46 is one of several planes owned by the
CAF, a national organization dedicated to the
preservation of World War II aircraft. The Zero,
the B-25, the Bearcat were also part of their
collection and in various states of restoration.
Bill Main is one of 250 local members. My mission,
while sitting next to him in the cockpit of the
old C-46, was to hear his life story.
Bill grew up a farmer’s son in Colfax, Iowa,
milking cows and growing corn. When World War
II came, he enlisted, volunteering for the Army
Air Corps. He learned to fly in Blythe, California
in a Stearman PT-17 biplane. He remembers the
skies over Blythe in 1943 full of Stearmans. And
the desert was hot all the time, the only relief
being the joy and cool of flying the open cockpit
plane at 5000 feet. After just eight hours of
flying, his instructor turned him loose to solo.
“On my first solo, I nearly hit a tree at the
end of the runway,” he recalled. “I was so scared,
I landed. I wanted to drop out. But the instructor
made me take off again. I’m thankful to him ‘cause
that could have ended my flying career right then
From Stearmans, he went into a heavier aircraft,
the BT-13 Vultee.
“We called it the Vultee Vibrator because it vibrated
He learned “multi-engines” in an AT-17 Cessna
Bobcat, called the “Bamboo Bomber.”
“It was made out of out of wood and fabric, had
two engines, and a wooden propeller. They made
‘em out of wood because of the shortage of aluminum.
And they didn’t fly well on one engine. The joke
was, if you lost an engine, you threw out a rock
and followed it down.”
Finally, he was assigned to B-17’s, then the nation’s
primary bomber. The B-17 “The Flying Fortress”
had four engines, eleven machine guns, carried
5000 pounds of bombs, and a crew of ten. Bill
was the pilot. He had a copilot, engineer, bombardier,
navigator, radioman, ball turret gunner, 2 waist
gunners, and a tail gunner.
With a brand new B-17, he arrived in England
in November 1944, part of General Doolittle’s
8th Air Force. A lot of bomber crews were lost
early in the war but by the time Bill arrived,
the “percentages” were much more in his favor.
He flew missions over Germany, to Frankfurt and
They flew in a diamond formation for protection,
four stacks of 9 ships each.
“With eleven machine guns in each airplane that
was a lot of concentrated firepower,” he remarked.
“And the P-51’s took us all the way in. Flak was
more of a hazard than fighters. Had one engine
knocked out by flak once. And a tail gunner hit.
Still have the pieces at home.”
A story he relates is that once Goering, head
of the German Luftwaffe, saw P-51 fighters escorting
bombers over Berlin, he knew the war was lost.
After the war, Bill settled in California, went
to school on the GI Bill, and began flying for
American Airlines. He flew for American for 34
years, advancing into bigger planes as aviation
advanced. He flew 747’s in his last years on the
L.A. to Honolulu run. “It was a good life,” he
says, and true to the image we have of pilots,
he married one of his stewardesses.
"The 747 is a great flying plane,"
he told me. The B-17 on the other hand rattled
and shook and spewed flames from its engines as
it backfired now and then. The B-17 had no stewardesses
nor first class meals. It wasn’t even pressurized
or heated. At times, on missions at thirty thousand
feet, it was as cold inside as minus 40. And they
flew in formation. “With 25 to 50 feet between
wings, you don’t dare do much sightseeing.” But
still the B-17 was a great plane. It won a war
and brought Bill Main home safe. When he reminisces,
he does so without bravado. While his wartime
flying might have seemed to him quite routine,
just doing a job, in my eyes, sitting in the co-pilot
seat of a C-46, his youth was quite an adventure.
Bill finished 35 missions in his B-17. With
the war ending, he was assigned to ferry the weary
plane back to the states. Once home, it was cut
up for scrap. Out of nearly 13,000 “Flying Fortresses”
built, there are perhaps only a dozen left today.
They are relics of history that will always be
flying in the memories of the men who flew them
-- men like Bill Main.