Just Shoot Me

Late in World War II, the Bell P-63 became an aerial gunner’s easiest target

Bundled against temperatures as low as –60° F, aerial gunners struggled to protect their B-17s from German fighters. (National Museum Of The USAF)
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There were variations in the performances of the RP-63s, especially in the hit-counting system. Vibrations from the flight of the airplane itself could set off phantom hits. On other occasions, the counters failed to work. “Back on the ground,” says Davis, “we’d take a grease pencil and go over the whole plane and mark all the new hits.” The ones from previous missions had been circled; the new ones appeared as dust spots.

Through most of 1945, the Pinball program gave gunnery students their only realistic practice at aerial combat. In all, some 300 P-63s were converted into Pinballs, but the war’s end made them obsolete. A few continued to train B-29 gunners after the Japanese surrender, but by the end of 1947, all the Air Force’s RP-63s had been mothballed. When centralized gunnery control was developed for the B-29 and introduced in the spring of 1944, automated shooting took over. In the first version of the B-52, a gunner was located in the tail, but in later versions, he was moved to the cockpit, where he operated the guns remotely. In the decades since, Pinballs were replaced by target drones. In fighters, heat-seeking missiles replaced machine guns, and some bombing missions are now flown by unmanned vehicles directed by armchair pilots thousands of miles away.

In his book Operation Pinball, Pinball pilot Ivan Hickman recounted, “Most of the pilots I knew felt that the [P]inball program, despite its shortcomings and inherent dangers, was the training device of the future.” Those pilots weren’t totally wrong. But the future they spoke of turned out to be one measured in months. And, as Horace Ashenfelter noted, “It was fun.”

James Dunaway got into the magazine business at age nine, selling door to door in New York City. He is now the editor of American Track & Field. This is his first story for Air & Space.


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