Flightlines Nov. 29

Del Smith, 98-year-old World War II dive bomber and fighter pilot, prepares to take a flight in a Cessna 172 at the EAA 1240 Aviation Development Center.

\From time to time I receive an e-mail, text, or a phone call from folks in the area asking about aviation or commenting on a recent article. The following e-mail from Fred Carino set in motion a very special day last Saturday morning at the EAA Chapter 1240 Aviation Development Center on the flightline of the Sebring Regional Airport.

“I am a retired naval officer (surface), member of the Military Officers of America Association (MOSAA) and also curator of the Military Sea Services Museum here in Sebring. Through both organizations I have come into contact with Delbert Smith. Del served as a dive bomber and fighter pilot aboard USS Hornet CV-12 during World War II. I was honored to have him ride in the tow vehicle Monday in the Veterans Day parade as we pulled a replica of USS Samuel B. Roberts DE-413 downtown. On Tuesday, my wife and brother were honored to take him to see the new movie, ‘Midway.’ Del is 98 years young but this movie was quite gripping for him. Afterwards I asked him what he thought of the film and he answered, ‘Very accurate. Too accurate in fact.’

“Del still drives and lives alone in Sebring Village (his wife of 66 years passed five years ago.). I haven’t asked him about it, but I think if someone suggested it to him, he might like to go flying sometime. And so, I am asking you if it would be possible to make this happen could we talk? I’d be happy to cover the fuel costs and get him out to the field, if this is something he’d accede to. Of course, I wouldn’t broach the subject with him without a green light from you.”

I was all too happy to arrange a flight for Del, and after a few phone calls it was all set for 9 a.m. Saturday. Billy McCullers, president of the Heartland Flying Club, would be the pilot, and Del would be in the co-pilot seat and fly the Cessna 172. Fred had sent his email earlier in the week, which gave me time to announce the flight to my high school aviation classes. I encouraged them to come out and meet Del and hear some stories of his service and meet a veteran who was in the thick of the Pacific aerial war from aircraft carriers.

Like many, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Del enlisted in the U.S. Navy and went into flight training though the Civilian Aviation Corps learning to fly in Piper Cubs. A progression of different bases and more advanced aircraft, he was soon practicing takeoffs and landing on aircraft carriers in Lake Michigan. The U.S. Navy converted two-side paddlewheel lake ferries to aircraft carrier training ships. After that, Del was off to the Pacific flying the Dauntless and Curtiss Dive Bombers off the USS Hornet CV-12 in the Pacific. I asked him what it was like to roll over in a high-altitude dive and face all the anti-aircraft fire. He said he was following his training and was too busy to worry about much else, he was just doing his job.

While on submarine patrol, he spotted a sub but before he could turn around and line up his attack it had submerged. The next day, George H. Bush was picked up by a submarine in the same area after ditching his torpedo bomber. Del felt it was the same sub, and how history might have changed.

Another mission required a long-distance attack on the Japanese fleet launched in the late afternoon. This meant that those returning would be low on fuel and must make a night carrier landing. When he returned, there were so many aircraft trying to land, he ran out of fuel, he didn’t make it back on the carrier. He ditched his plane next to a nearby destroyer, and he and his rear gunner were soon out of the water and on their way back to the carrier. He flew missions the next day saying he was just doing his job. All of us were honored to meet Fred and Del, and for students Madison Murphy, Carson Danzey, and Anthony Colon it was a unique history lesson.

Soon Del was off on his 45-minute flight with Billy. Upon his return, Billy said Del did most of the flying and was as smooth as silk and if he was a flight examiner, he would have awarded Del his pilot’s license right then. The last time Del was at the controls of an aircraft was 1951. Del still has the touch. We hope we can do it again soon.

Last Saturday was an example of how our EAA hangar is more than a place to hold classes, programs and pancake breakfasts. It can be a touchstone back to our history, a history that can be forgotten too soon in our faced paced lives. If you go see the movie “Midway”, and I hope you do, please take time to remember and appreciate all the sacrifices the men and women of our armed forces who gave so much so we can have our lives today. After all, they were “Just doing their jobs.”

John Rousch is EAA Chapter 1240 president and is the director of the Highlands Aviation and Aerospace Academy, a community partnership between the School Board of Highlands County, the Sebring Regional Airport, EAA Chapter 1240, and Career Source Heartland, and other community groups supporting youth He can be reached at johnrousch73@gmail.com or you can call or text 863-273-0522.