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Tue, Feb 28, 2006

Gone West: Robert L. Scott, 97

God Is His Co-Pilot Now

When this writer was young, and impressionable, he picked up a slim volume from the shelves of a school library. The dust jacket had a picture of a soaring P-40, a picture likely to set any young plane-happy heart to beating, and inside was the first-person story of Colonel Scott, written while the nation was still at war, and no one knew whether he'd be around to see the end.

Scott was born in 1908, the year that Wilbur Wright shook Europe with his demonstration of the Wright Flyer in Paris, so you could very well say he was born with aviation. He grew up with aviation, and his boyhood dream was to become a pilot -- especially, a pursuit pilot. But his age worked against him in the early days of World War II. Instead of fighters, he found himself herding transport planes over the Hump into China in early 1942.

The Hump, as the American cargo pilots called the Himalayan range, with its unpredictable weather and utter absence of emergency-landing fields, offered all of the hazards of fighter flying with none of the rewards. The Museum of Aviation in Warner Robins Georgia (and we'll see in a bit why we quote that particular Museum) notes that the "Air Transport Command (ATC) ... began operating cargo flights from bases in eastern India over the Himalayan Mountains into western China. This area was mostly unsurveyed, uncharted and unexplored."

"The weather was the worst in the world, with severe turbulence and crosswinds of 100-150 mph commonly found on flights over the Hump. The shortage of aircraft and parts was also a limiting factor in Hump operations, the most critical being the lack of all-weather airfields and repair facilities in India."

Scott himself said, speaking in present-tense in the Georgia accent that he never lost, "All I want to be in this war, isn't a general or even a colonel. I'm a fighter pilot. I want to go to combat." That sentiment was recorded in a remarkable video retrospective on Scott's flying life and career that the Museum of Aviation made and hosts on their website (we'll get to the connection, we'll get to it).

"From Claire Chennault, I got the best job in the world," he said, explaining, "When the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor, I was flying a big desk! And you can't do much fighting from a desk, and I'm a fighter pilot. So I... lied... my way into the cockpit of a B-17 and I got to Karachi by devious methods. It was 55 hours before I got to Karachi. And then I found myself flying the Hump!" But Scott was assigned as the Director of Operations for the transport mission.

"I met General Chennault.... I talked him out of a P-40... because sitting on the runway was one lone P-40 and I knew that God had left it there for me."

That first mission didn't go very well. Scott took off from the PSP (pierced-steel planking) runway and went in search of the Japanese -- and the Flying Tigers fighting them. He didn't find either, which was just as well. "I reached for the maps to see where I was, and there were no maps. I reached for the charging handles of the six .50 caliber guns, and there was no ammunition! So if I had met the enemy, I'd be dead."

The loaner P-40 was supposed to be used to protect the planes on the ferry route. In fact, Scott used it to conduct a one-man war, bombing and strafing Japanese ground troops when he couldn't find the enemy in the air. Chennault admired the aggression shown by the Georgia country boy, and Scott was permitted to fly with the Tigers -- "as a guest," he explained. 

Chennault soon put Scott to work, coming to rely on his flying skills and his regular Air Corps leadership, as the independent American Volunteer Group, an arguably mercenary force flying the Nationalist Chinese flag, was subsumed into the 23rd Air Force.

Flying with the Tigers, and later as the fighter commander of Chennault's Air Force, Chennault was credited with 22 aerial victories. He then went on a war-bond tour of the States. Bookseller and publisher Charles Scribner, after hearing Scott's colorful stories, twisted his arm until Scott agreed to write them down. God Is My Co-Pilot appeared in a hero-hungry country in 1943, and was made into a movie in 1945 (Dennis Morgan played Scott).

After the war, he served in a variety of responsible positions, but he was never happy unless it was a flying job, and he retired in 1957.

His long association with the Museum of Aviation in Warner Robins, GA, began when the museum curators rang him up -- he was living in Arizona -- and asked him if he's donate something. "Sure," he said, and drove to the Museum. The next thing you know, they'd adopted each other.

Pat Bartness, president of the museum foundation, told the Associated Press that, "He's been the biggest drawing card we've had. Without him, the museum would just be a different place and not as exciting. He will be sorely missed."

Museum Director Paul Hibbitts agrees. "I've run into people all over the country who have asked me about him. His being part of the museum has opened a lot of doors for us. He's added a lot of credibility. He put us on the map."

"He was a great American and a hero to everyone at the museum," Hibbitts said.

In retirement, Scott maintained remarkable vigor. He walked the Great Wall of China in 1980 at age 72, he carried the Olympic Torch in 1996 (at age 88), and throughout his eighties kept flying anything he could get the Air Force to let him try, including the F-15, F-16 and B-1B.

But many aviation enthusiasts came to know him through his tireless volunteer work with the Museum of Aviation. (Alas, the one time that Nose stopped there, it was at closing time).

Scott has passed away now, but his best-selling books remain to inspire a new generation of pilot wannabees. We can personally recommend God is My Co-Pilot and The Day I Owned the Sky, but there are a dozen more.

Scott had over 33,000 hours in his logbooks, which may not have counted his 12-year-old attempt to fly a homemade glider off the roof (total time, two seconds, crunch) or his more recent stick time in supersonic fighters and bombers. A man like that ought to get to sum up his own life, and he did: "They'll remember me, probably, as a guy who just plain liked to fly."

FMI: www.museumofaviation.org

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