“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 Air Force.
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 and there.”
From Stearmans, he went into a heavier aircraft, the BT-13 Vultee.
“We called it the Vultee Vibrator because it vibrated a lot.”
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 Berlin.
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.