NEWS | May 11, 2011

Hump pilots last reunion

By Christin Navitsky, Joint Base Charleston public affairs

Climbing down from the cockpit of a C-17, five Airmen from The Greatest Generation concluded their visit to Joint Base Charleston.

These World War II Army Air Corps pilots are the few remaining survivors of the "Hump," pilots who flew across the Himalayan Mountains, the highest and most dangerous mountain range in the world. They flew C-47 and C-46 cargo planes, as well as B-24 bomber planes, providing supplies to Chinese soldiers fighting the Japanese after the Burma Road was shut down. Their aircraft were loaded with 10,000 pounds of gasoline, food, ammunition and bombs.

For more than 65 years these Army Air Corps Hump pilots have commemorated their heroic actions of World War II with a reunion. Their first reunion was in 1946 and this year could quite possibly be their last, as age has taken its toll on the group. Although their actions have gone in history as some of the most heroic exploits of the war, they will be the first to look back at those days with humor and an insight that comes from years of wisdom.

"I enjoy these reunions," said 91 year-old Tex Rankin from Fort Worth, Texas. "Every time we meet, the Himalayan Mountains get higher and the weather gets worse. There are more Japanese fighters in the sky than there were in their whole fleet," he laughed.

During World War II, the Japanese had cut off all supply lines to the Chinese fighters. The U.S. military devised a plan to fly over the Himalayan Mountains and help supply China with the necessary equipment and supplies needed to fight and survive.

They coined the term Hump pilots, as a tribute to the hump of the treacherous Himalayan Mountains. The mountain peaks were treacherous, the winds were unpredictable and the World War II aircraft did not have the navigational equipment and avionics of today.

"We flew without global positioning. All we had was a radio compass," said eighty six-year-old Don Marshall from Scottsdale, Ariz.

A typical flight to China would take two hours due to 100 knot tailwinds. The flight home could take up to 10 hours as the planes got battered by extreme headwinds as they climbed to gain altitude to get over the hump.

"We were inexperienced pilots and had never encountered a weather terrain like this before. The Himalayas ran north to south and we flew east to west. This was the first we learned of vortex winds, the jet stream and the effect of headwinds," said Mr. Marshall.

Terrain and weather weren't the only obstacles. The C-46 airplane many of the hump pilots flew was a new aircraft and was rushed into production. Most of the kinks were worked out flying actual missions as the crews encountered numerous problems in the air.

Bill McKarn, 88, from Bryan, Ohio, shared a story about one mission flown on Christmas day. While he was en-route, the base he was scheduled to land at came under attack. Due to the air raid it was impossible to safely land his plane loaded with valuable cargo. He was forced to remain airborne until night. Finally, low on fuel and completely exhausted, he had no choice except to land the plane in the dark, flying by total recall.

"It was so dark you couldn't see anything but black," Mr. McKarn said.

The next morning, on the return flight, Mr. McKarn had to keep the plane at 12,000 feet just so he and his crew could breathe, but had to climb to 14,000 feet to avoid hitting the top of the mountain peaks. He described the trip as thrilling and exciting.

"We are the reason they coined the term, 'flying by the seat of your pants'," Mr. McKarn said. "I have always compared it to the feeling of putting a cork in a washing machine."

During their reunion and visit to Joint Base Charleston, the Airmen, all in their 80s and 90s, had the chance to see what today's Air Force is capable of.

Climbing down from the cockpit stairs of the C-17, Bill Thomas, 91, from Charleston, S.C. said, "Real technological airplanes amaze me. I have never seen such machines with such capabilities."

During the tour, Mr. Rankin commented, "A couple of these C-17s could have replaced all the work we did on those C-46 planes."

All the men nodded in agreement. "It is amazing what can be accomplished with today's technology," Mr. Marshall said.

Mr. Thomas expressed his gratitude for the base tour and spoke on behalf of the other reunion attendees. "One thing has not changed since I arrived at Charleston Air Force Base in 1967, and that is the great relationship with the community. The support is wonderful."