BY BARRE T T TILLMAN
You’re 22 years old and in prime health, except for the lingering effects of last night at the officers’ club. Youarestrappedintoatight space redolent of high-octane gasoline, hot oil, and hydraulic fluid.
Taken together they spell a-i-r-p-l-a-n-e.
You are sucking 100 percent oxygen
through a rubber mask at altitudes most
humans rarely think of. You can move your
hands, feet, and—most importantly—your
neck. You cannot move much else. Nor will
you for hours.
You are “butt sprung.” You can hardly
move your human empennage into any position that does not hurt. Wiggling on your
parachute pack—which includes a CO2
bottle to inflate your life raft—you seek a
moment’s relief from the ache. Without
Welcome to the war.
World War II fighter pilots fought in cockpits of different sizes, from the shoulder-cramping Spitfire to the head-knocking
Bf 109 to the square-dance roominess of a
Thunderbolt. The duration of confinement
varied immensely, from a few minutes to several hours. So, let’s strap in and see what it
was like to experience “the long and short of
;e short end
Some of the shortest missions of the war
were flown over southeastern England,
when Royal Air Force Spitfires and Hurricanes clashed with Luftwaffe fighters and
bombers in 1940. Rather than keeping large
numbers of fighters airborne on standing
patrols, the RAF benefited from radar to
provide warning of inbound raiders. The
electronic marvel allowed pilots to stay on
the ground until needed most. In today’s
parlance, the British flew “point-defense”
missions, with a premium on rate of climb
to intercept the enemy. Many of those missions were surprisingly short.
The RAF Museum has Sir Douglas Bader’s
logbooks on display. He was best known as
the legless prewar pilot who talked his way
back into the cockpit when war was declared.
Flying Spitfires in early June, Bader’s
Dunkirk patrols during Britain’s evacuation
from France typically ran two hours. That
situation changed dramatically when he led
the Biggin Hill “big wing” flying Hurricanes
with No. 242 Squadron. Bader’s entries for
early September show 22 flights totaling 19
hours 20 minutes, an average of 52 minutes. Only one two-hour patrol was longer