The Man in the Homburg Hat

Delivering a RP-63A in 1944.

(Bill Firestone)
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In the summer of 1944, as an Air Transport Command ferry pilot based at Great Falls, Montana, I flew all types of aircraft from U.S. factories to national and overseas sites. I would ferry, say, a North American P-51D from California to New Jersey, then pick up a Republic P-47D from Long Island and deliver it to a training base in North Carolina, then pick up a B-17 in Florida and fly it to Africa. Eventually, I managed to fly every type of aircraft in the Army Air Corps.

One day I was sent to the Bell factory at Niagara Falls, New York, to pick up a new P-63A Kingcobra and fly it back to Great Falls and then on to Fairbanks, Alaska, for delivery to the Russians under the Lend-Lease program. I had made this flight at least 20 times. Usually I’d stop at my hometown, Toledo, Ohio, for 20 minutes and visit with my family, who would come out to the airport to see me and whatever I was flying. (These short visits were illegal; we were supposed to stop only at certain authorized airports for fuel or rest.)

When I arrived at the Bell factory, the operations officer gave me new orders: I would be ferrying a new type of Kingcobra, an orange RP-63A, to Dayton, Ohio. The aircraft was experimental as well as secret. Bell pilots had nicknamed it the Pinball.

It was more than 2,000 pounds heavier than production P-63s, and it had armor plating around the cockpit and engine, which was located behind the cockpit. The Pinball carried no guns, but it had bulletproof glass. It also had hundreds of little sensors embedded in its quarter-inch-thick aluminum skin. The idea was that the RP-63 would fly in mock combat with bomber-gunners, who would fire at it with different-colored plastic bullets that powdered on impact. Each hit would register on a counter in the cockpit, hence the Pinball moniker.

The factory pilots warned me that the big orange Pinball took a while to get off the ground, that it landed at 150 mph instead of 100, and it flew like a truck. If the Wright brothers could see what their invention has come to, I thought, they’d be spinning in their graves.

I climbed in, fired up the engine, taxied to the runway, and began my takeoff roll. The Pinball used up about 7,000 feet of runway and took forever to get up to cruise speed. By the time I arrived at Dayton’s Wright Field, I was eager to get it on the ground and be rid of it.

Scratching his head in amazement, a ground crewman waved me to a stop at the operations area. As I climbed out of the Pinball, a group of men in air corps uniforms of assorted high ranks started walking toward me.

As a measly 22-year-old first lieutenant, I was not accustomed to addressing a clutch of full-bird colonels, two-star generals, and a three-star general, along with other officers and a few civilians. I began by saluting. Three-star asked me what the hell I was flying. The others inspected the curious orange airplane.

I showed the general my delivery orders, which stated that this was some sort of secret aircraft, and gave him a simple briefing on the Pinball. He slowly shook his head in disbelief.

Then, as the others drifted away, an elderly man in a suit and Homburg hat started asking me about rate of climb, altitude, weight, airspeeds, and runway required to get airborne. These were interesting questions, coming from a civilian. Maybe he’s an old World War I pilot or engineer, I thought.

When I walked into Operations, I asked the major at the desk who all those people were. He said there was some sort of meeting and presentation going on. “Who was the old guy I was talking to?” I said. “He asked a lot of pertinent questions for a civilian. Is he a former pilot?”

“Are you talking about the old guy in the Homburg hat?” the major said. “That’s him,” I replied. “Well, son, you were talking to Orville Wright. You remember the Wright brothers from your history books, don’t you?”

My jaw dropped. “You mean THE Orville Wright? I thought the Wright brothers were dead!”

“Nope, you were talking to a real aviation legend,” the major said. By the time I realized that I had no camera and had missed my chance to ask for an autograph, the group on the runway was walking into another building. I ran to the window to get one last look at the soft-spoken old man in the Homburg hat who had asked such educated questions about one of the world’s oddest airplanes.

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