An Old Eagle Flies Again

by Stu Simpson

Two figures walked toward the biplane that sat gleaming in the sun. One was of medium height; a quiet, competent man in everything he did. The other was tall, moustachioed and tanned from a lifetime spent in sunny climes. The tall one spoke with an easy Texas drawl of his admiration for the other man’s beautiful aircraft. Trailing them was the Texan’s wife, more than a little concerned with the realization that her husband was about to take wing in the biplane. It didn’t look much like what he used to fly.

The two men were soon strapped into the tandem cockpit, and just before the owner started the engine, the Texan‘s wife approached him.

“I want you to know”, she said nervously, pointing toward the Texan in the front pit, “that this man is my whole world. My everything.” Her words were heavily laced with both love for her husband, and menace for the owner should any ill befall her love during the biplane flight. It was a warning the man in the back took seriously.

After start-up the biplane taxied smartly to the button of runway 11, turned into the gentle summer wind and took off. For the man in the back, it’d been only about 31 minutes since he last had the controls of an airplane in his hands. But for the Texan, it had been 31 years.

A Flying Career

Major Virgil Ross Hughes, USMC (Ret.) was born in Texas and as a boy once saw a barnstormer in a biplane doing rolls and loops over his home. He knew then and there that he’d someday fly airplanes, too. So it was no surprise when he stood with his classmates in 1954 while a senior officer pinned a set of U.S. Naval Aviator’s wings to him.

“I wanted jets“, said Virg, “and the Navy was going to put me in Avengers, World War II torpedo bombers. The Marines guaranteed me in writing that they’d give me jets. That‘s why I joined them.”

From then on, Virg had the chance to pilot some of the most fabled aircraft of the 20th century, in both war and peace. The list of types he flew is staggering. There was the North American SNJ (naval version of the Harvard/Texan), the T-28 Trojan, T-34 Mentor, the F9F-5 Panther, and it’s swept-wing stablemate, the Cougar; the Douglas Skyraider, 0-1 Bird Dog, O-2 Skymaster, A-4 Skyhawk, Douglas R4D (naval version of the DC-3), R5D (DC-4), C-130 Hercules, Grumman Tracker, the Lockheed T-33, and the Beech King Air. And those are just the fixed-wings he flew. Virg also flew helicopters, including the Sikorsky S-55, H-34, and the Kaman Husky.

Virg was in on the infancy of carrier jet aviation. He spent some years flying Panthers and Cougars off small WWII-sized, straight-decked carriers equipped with hydraulic catapults. These mechanisms developed their greatest power at the start of their stroke, rather than at the end when it was needed most.

In the late 50’s there was a crisis in Laos where the Americans and Soviets nearly came to blows. Virg was on a carrier off the coast of Vietnam, just east of Laos. He was assigned to fly O-1 Bird Dogs, with U.N. observers in the back seat, across Vietnam and into Laos. The plane was hurriedly painted white with prominent U.N. markings so it could be seen as neutral and not as a direct American military asset in the region.

Laos was, and is, a desolate and lightly populated nation that consists largely of dense jungle with very few roads and little infrastructure, or even recent technology. To go down in such a region would mean virtually no hope of rescue. Hughes made several of these flights before the crisis passed.

He soon learned to fly helicopters and once again found himself back at sea piloting the military versions of the Sikorsky S-55s and S-58s. The Marines were developing the concept of sea-launched helicopter assault and since Virg had recent carrier experience, albeit in jets, he was a natural choice to help his fellow Marine aviators transition to a seaborne environment.

He also spent time based at El Toro, south of Los Angeles, flying Panthers and Skyraiders over California. He still speaks mischievously about piloting Skyraiders at telephone pole height, going beak-to-beak with trains in the desert, and pulling up at just the last second. He tells of formation flying in Grumman Panthers where the perfection of the moment might be spoiled by a wingman who was a foot or two out of position.

“You’d glance over at his plane“, Hughes said, “realize who was flying it and think disgustedly, ‘Ya, that guy’s married’.”

On one occasion, he was right wing in a tight diamond of four Panthers inbound to El Toro on a ground controlled approach (GCA) into an undercast layer. The flight entered the soup, and a few hundred feet above ground Hughes suddenly got vertigo, an incredibly dangerous situation to the whole flight. He veered away from the formation and heard the GCA controller tell the flight leader one of his wingmen had broken off. Virg re-oriented himself, went around and landed safely on the next approach, but later received a monumental chewing out by the flight leader for breaking formation.

In 1965, Virg was once again in Southeast Asia, this time flying Sikorsky H-34s. The Marines were landing troops from helicopters to establish a base at Chu Lai and rout the enemy from the area. As was standard practice of the day, Virg was flying while his copilot pointed an M-16 rifle out the open cockpit window on the other side. The crew chief also had a mounted .50 calibre machine gun.

Suddenly, Virg took a round in the left leg while his chopper was only a few feet AGL. With one leg useless and limp, he uncontrollably jammed the other one hard forward, skewing the chopper sideways into the ground. Because the copilot was holding a rifle and not riding the controls, there was no chance of recovery at such a low altitude. The helicopter thundered in and rolled on its side. Luckily, everyone aboard escaped alive and lived to fly and fight another day.

Hughes was removed from Vietnam due to his injury, and once recuperated, transferred back to jets. This time it was into the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk with the famed Black Sheep Squadron, VMA-214. The Black Sheep found themselves in Vietnam in 1966 and ‘67 flying ground attack missions supporting friendly troops.

From the base at Chu Lai, Virg and his squadron mates launched their A-4s from steel mat runways using rocket bottles attached to the rear of the plane, as well as an actual aircraft carrier catapult. Upon returning to base, they made arrested landings, just as though the runway was a carrier deck.

He survived his tour in Vietnam. But as time went on, Virg a warrior at heart, was becoming more and more disgusted with the Marines’ bureaucracy and internal politics.

“I knew there was no place for me in the peace time Marine Corps”, Virg said. So he decided to retire, but did so unforgettably.

Virg and his copilot were flying an R4D (DC-3) with a load of nurses across the southern U.S. enroute to Beaufort, South Carolina. At one point, an electrical inverter on one of the engines failed, requiring an in-flight shut-down. They landed safely at a field in Florida and had the engine repaired.

Then, on the final leg home, somewhere over Georgia, the other engine lost oil pressure and the CHTs went through the roof. It meant another engine shut-down.

“I figured that with two engine failures on one trip on the same airplane, somebody was trying to tell me something. I landed with no problem, because it’s no big deal landing a DC-3 on one engine. But I stopped right at the intersection of the base’s only two runways. I shut down and walked away from the plane. It closed the whole field.”

That was in May of 1973 and Virg hadn’t been at the controls of an airplane since.

“Every time someone offered to take me up,” Virg said, “I was worried they’d try to show this old fighter pilot what they could do. I thought they’d end up killing us both.”

I got to know Virg in the early 80’s as my girlfriend’s (now wife‘s) uncle. We visited their home in San Diego and Virg took a morning to show me around the air bases in the area. It was a pivotal and absolutely thrilling day for a nineteen year-old kid, and I hung breathlessly on every word of Virg‘s stories about airplanes, places and events I‘d only seen in books or films. He’d actually been there making the history that I’d been devouring for years. I’ll never forget standing at the end of the runway at Miramar while F-14s shot circuits right above our heads. And my guide to it all was a real, live former fighter pilot. For me, there was no turning back; I was going to fly, too.

From then on Virg and I have always had an easy and remarkable friendship; the kind we could set down for years at a time and then pick back up again as if we’d last seen each other only a week ago. It’s a friendship I treasure.

So when Virg visited the Calgary area, where I live, I wanted to give him a gift that would mean something. Knowing he hadn’t flown in so many years, the best thing I could think of was an airplane flight.

COPA Director Bob Kirkby, who owns a Starduster homebuilt, was the natural choice to help Virg shake hands with the sky again. When I asked him, Kirkby eagerly agreed to help. I would’ve dearly loved to fly Virg myself, but ultralight pilots aren‘t allowed passengers.

Virg and his wife Sharon were in Three Hills, my wife’s hometown, about 50 miles northeast of Kirkby Field. I assembled a few other flyers to join me and we made our way there through a beautiful evening sky in early July.

When Virg first saw the ‘Duster he was shocked to learn it’s a homebuilt, but it didn’t dampen his enthusiasm for it one bit. Kirkby helped him strap in, and before long they’d jumped off the active at Three Hills. Their flight lasted about 20 minutes, and Virg was bubbling over with excitement when they landed. He did all the flying except for the takeoff and landing.

“You know”, Virg said, smiling after his flight in the ‘Duster, “it was exciting. But at the same time I felt like I’d been up there forever.” He complained that at one point he’d allowed the ’Duster to fall 300 below the altitude he’d picked. Everyone agreed, though, that 300 feet after 31 years is still well within spec.

We stayed on the ramp for a while talking airplanes and swapping flying stories. It was a treat for us to hear Virg’s tales of airplanes and circumstances we could only imagine. I couldn’t help drifting back to that day at Miramar more than twenty years ago, and I was more than a little pleased that now I had some flying stories of my own to tell.

Winging our way home I wondered what feelings the biplane flight had rekindled in Virg, and suspected they might be similar to the ones he helped inspire in me so long ago.

I’m really lucky to have the heroes that I do; my dad, Bob Kirkby and Virg Hughes. And every now and then I thank God for old eagles, because without them the young eagles might not find their wings.