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.
The concept: an air squadron that would help you out no matter where on the ground you were or what condition you were in. No longer did wounded men have to die in the jungle, “rotting under a tree,” as one soldier put it. A trusting C-47 crew, landing on a strip the commandos had cleared on a plateau and marked “Land here” with parachute silk, evacuated wounded Chindits to medical facilities. A Life magazine photographer was aboard that airplane. His photographs of the Chindits, picked up within 14 miles of a Japanese air base, show men so haggard and hollow-eyed they look like ghosts. Yet all have wide smiles.
A division of Chindits, including the Gurkha troops from India, was scattered around the jungle, waging a series of savage campaigns that disrupted Japanese supply lines and captured air bases. By late 1943, the Allies were gaining control of the skies. With the C-47s at their call, “the British and Indian soldiers knew that being surrounded and apparently cut off meant nothing if you had air power and air superiority,” Russell writes in his book.
Aerial ground support techniques were developed, and training was intense. Some radio operators in 194 Squadron learned to parachute down from a mere 700 feet, with Fatty there to congratulate the volunteers after their practice jumps. Since full-service support now included not only pinpoint relief operations but also, when needed, troop airlifts, ground crews focused on off-loading four tons of cargo in minutes.
In the spring of 1944, for the first time ever, an entire division and its gear were airlifted directly to the battlefield, with the C-47s of 194 flying 758 sorties and U.S. aircraft flying others to the strategic town of Imphal. That monster battle, lasting four months, relieved the siege there and marked the greatest defeat of Japan’s Imperial Army to date.
Under Pearson’s command, during the big offensives of 1943 and 1944, crews flew multiple times around the clock, with much of the flying low-level and stressful. Downdrafts could require the full strength of the pilot and sometimes a second man to regain control. Sweating crews flew shirtless; in May, as the monsoon season started, they confronted surprise icing.
Despite the arduous conditions, only three of 194’s airplanes were lost.