I thought I was the world’s greatest fighter pilot just like all twenty-four-year-old recent graduates of pilot training who were long on ego, and short on everything else.
When I walked in General Russell Spicer’s outer office and asked his secretary if I could please see the general, she asked if I had an appointment. When I said no, she asked me what I wanted. I told her I would like to have permission to fly the general’s F-86F. He was Chief of Flying Safety for the entire Air Training Command at Scott Air Force Base, and had no business letting a lowly 2nd Lt. fly his airplane, especially since I had never flown that model before. That’s what I had going against me.
I had not met the general but knew him by reputation. Everyone did. He shot down three German airplanes in WW-2 and when his P-51 took battle damage, he was forced to bail out over the English Channel. He floated around in a one-man dinghy for two days, finally washing ashore in France. His hands and feet were frozen when the Germans took him prisoner. As the senior officer in Stalag Luft 1, he gave a speech that the German commander said was “riotous,” and Spicer was sentenced to six months in solitary confinement and then execution by firing squad. The day before he was to be executed, his POW camp was overrun by Russian soldiers and the Germans fled. Spicer was liberated.
When the general’s secretary picked up the phone and said, “General, I think you should come out here,” most of my cockiness went south, and I suddenly felt like a crippled ant in an elephant parade.
The general’s huge, black mustache startled me because it separated his nose from his mouth in such a commanding way. I wondered if he could intake air. When he grinned at me, and after we saluted, he invited me into his office. “What can I do for you, Sir?” the general asked as he lit his pipe and offered me a seat. I told him my name, and that I was a pilot in the 85th Fighter Interceptor Squadron flying the F-86D, and that one of our hangars was next to where he kept his plane. We talked for a while. I had seen him many times approach the field at 1,500’, 250 knots, make a tight pitchout, drop the gear and flaps, and land. To me it was like poetry. His F-86F was the same model that had shot down most of the Migs during the Korean War, and I really wanted to fly it
He looked at me for a few seconds, then picked up the phone. “Get my crew chief for me please.” The general said, “Pull my airplane out because Lt. Forrest Fenn is coming down to fly it.” I was really grinning. I thanked him, saluted, and turned to leave when he said, “Don’t you dare break my airplane.”
The crew chief stood on the ladder and talked me through the engine start. That must have been 1954, and I flew for about an hour. It was the thrill of my life to fly that airplane. I went back to my squadron thinking I was the world’s leading ace. When my boss learned what I had done, he came over and congratulated me, not because I had flown the general’s airplane, but because I had guts enough to ask him if I could.
But that’s not all of the story.
Five years later I saw the general again. He was commander of the 17th Air Force at Wheelus Air Base, Libya, where we had a gunnery school. He remembered some brash Lt. asking to fly his plane, but he didn’t remember my name.
Thirty years later, the lady who purchased my gallery hired one of General Spicer’s sons to be her driver. Is this a small world, or what? f