Who Was Fatty Pearson?
A World War II British foot soldier’s best friend in the air, and the man who rescued Ernest Hemingway.
- By Tim Belknap
- Air & Space magazine, November 2012
Imperial War Museum
(Page 3 of 5)
Guessing that a certain dark patch was the field, Pearson landed blindly, braked hard, and discovered that he had stopped five yards from the hangar’s door.
Another night dark beyond belief: monsoon season, 1943. Again, he was at the controls, again a good friend beside him: Wilfrid Russell. This time, Pearson was flying for the RAF; Russell, who recalled the incident later in his book Forgotten Skies, was a fellow wing commander. The usual occupant of the copilot’s seat, Pearson’s bull terrier, Sue, had been assigned to the rear with the only other human passenger, Russell’s terrified aide. No navigator. Their C-47, the military transport version of the Douglas DC-3, was deadheading back to India after delivering troops in Burma.
Below the aircraft, the Himalayan foothills climbed to 8,000 feet; ahead, also unseen, monsoon cumulus towered to 20,000 feet. Pearson’s attempts to skirt the massive cloud bank failed. Rain hammered on metal; lightning boomed.
“Whizzo,” said Pearson, impressed.
They reversed course and tried to outrace the front. The buffeting eased when gaps developed between the thunderheads, allowing the moon to appear for a second or two. But where had the storm blown them? Pearson banked and looked down. Finally: a glint. He dove, and there it was, the only lake within hundreds of miles. With that bearing, they thundered up a valley to a covert airstrip, fired down a flare, and in its illumination, landed, in Russell’s words, “as gently as a kiss.”
By then, Pearson could fly just about anything. On top of his bush piloting skills, he had flown Imperial’s lumbering intercontinental behemoths and, with the outbreak of war, served as a test pilot in Pakistan, flying a wide variety of RAF aircraft. One day, Russell recalled, after a Supermarine Spitfire landed in Pakistan, Pearson’s flight sergeant asked if Pearson had ever flown one. No, never even seen one before. Had he flown any single-engine fighter? No, but he would like to; would anyone mind if he certified it for service? No one did, so, squeezing his six-foot-one, 235-pound bulk into the cockpit, Fatty took the Spitfire up and gave it “20 minutes of outstanding aerobatics.”
Soon, Pearson was leading a photo-reconnaissance squadron that shadowed the Japanese advance in eastern Asia. The sight of him bouncing up and down to settle his bulk into the seat of a Hawker Hurricane, only slightly bigger than a Spitfire, regularly drew a small crowd of marveling airmen. Still, it wasn’t Pearson’s size but his charisma that was described when a wartime writer, watching him deplane at a badly shot-up airfield, said that it was “like seeing the Rock of Gibraltar get out.”
He was promoted to commander of 31 Squadron, which used transports to make air drops behind enemy lines. Then in the autumn of 1943, he moved to the 194. Pearson had pull at the RAF’s New Delhi headquarters, which enabled him to reshape 194, transforming it from a courier squadron into his own creation: a unit that would provide full-service support for the troops fighting below. After selecting its key officers from his old squadrons, he came up with its nickname, the Friendly Firm, and its nose-art insignia, a Dumbo-like flying elephant.