Beware of Black Cats Before Flying

Dancing on the wing with an umbrella and other pilot superstitions

This crew named their B17 “Bad Penny” for luck, since bad pennies are returned. (Frank Capa/ Courtesy Magnum Photos)
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In his new book, Flying Against Fate, S.P. MacKenzie explores the myriad, often amusing ways a belief in superstition governed the actions of World War II flight crews hoping to avoid bad luck. He recently spoke with Senior Associate Editor Diane Tedeschi.

Air & Space: What is the chief surprise your research uncovered?

MacKenzie: Just how common magical thinking of various kinds was among combat fliers. Given their educational background and level of intelligence, these young men ought to have been less likely than average to be superstitious. Yet it’s clear that irrational beliefs were very widespread.

Did higher-ranking officers ever try to ban superstitious practices?

Actually, most commanders seem to have turned a blind eye to superstitious practices. Often they held their own magical beliefs. George Kenney, for instance, while commanding the Fifth Air Force, always carried a pair of lucky dice. Even if they themselves were not personally superstitious, men like Jimmy Doolittle, when commanding the Fifteenth Air Force, tacitly understood that magical thinking was as good a way as any to lift aircrew spirits in the face of bad odds.

Were there any instances of air crews keeping animal mascots to bring good luck?

Indeed there were. Living mascots, especially dogs, but also everything from a donkey to a crow, were very common. A few were even taken on bombing missions.

What was the most common superstitious practice?

A lot of combat fliers carried personal charms of one sort or another. These were often small objects: lucky coins or soft toys like teddy bears that could be stuffed into flight clothing. Good-luck rituals were also very common. These ranged from dressing in a particular order to urinating on a specific tire before boarding.

What is the strangest example of superstition you discovered?

For me, it has to be a rather complicated ritual involving dancing on the wing with an open umbrella before getting down and entering the fuselage of a heavy bomber. This must have taken at least five minutes to complete and looked very odd.

What was the funniest act of superstition you came across?

As he was about to begin his takeoff roll, a heavy bomber pilot suddenly realized his rear gunner hadn’t performed his usual ritual. The pilot hit the brakes and insisted that the man climb out and spit on the tailfin. The rest of the squadron was brought to a halt, but the bomber pilot ignored all signals to move until this vital act of safety was completed and the gunner hauled back aboard.

Did any superstitious behavior involve black cats?

Anything that was traditionally thought to bring bad luck—the number 13 or a black cat—was commonly avoided like the plague. I know of a case where a crewman walked half a mile through a field to avoid the possibility of an ebony feline crossing his path.

Were superstitious beliefs limited to Allied aircrews, or do you think German and Japanese pilots also shared them?

Every nation’s combat fliers seem to have had such beliefs. They might, though, differ from one region to another, depending on what a particular culture considered lucky or unlucky. And, of course, in the case of the Japanese, this could involve something that would help bring about a heroic death rather than, as for everyone else, personal preservation.

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