Wednesday, May 29, 2013


You know you’re getting old when you attend two memorial services in one day.

Actually, it was two services in two hours, honoring Doug Champlin, who died of cancer at 72, and Captain Stanley Vejtasa, USN(Ret) who died in January at 98.

At 2 p.m. on Friday the 24th Arizona gave Doug Champlin a wonderful sendoff, complete with a three-Stearman flyby, a two-SNJ flyby, and a Mustang fly-by (Bill Hane in Ho Hun.)  There were fine tributes from Hiram Champlin, who reckoned he had the best uncle in the world, and business associate Dave Goss who cited Doug's honor, integrity, and kindness.

Everyone in the antique or warbird communities knew about Doug, from the Oklahoma oil family.  I met him in 1974 when he bought the Douglas Dauntless from my father.  Dad and two partners had restored the WW II dive bomber—then the only SBD (navy) or A-24 (army) flying in the world.  Dad bought out his partners and we flew the classic aircraft for two years before Doug learned of it.  When he and his pilot left Pendleton, Oregon, that day, it was a bittersweet moment—the end of a relationship with an iconic warbird and the beginning of a cherished friendship.

Doug was a visionary and a collector.  He accumulated a wide variety of collectibles, from guns to automobiles to airplanes.  In 1981 he moved his growing aircraft collection to Mesa, Arizona, where he established a world-class facility, the Champlin Fighter Museum.  Eventually it totaled more than 30 original and reproduction aircraft from WW I well into the jet age.  I established Champlin Museum Press in 1982, and came to know and respect Doug even more than before.

For an aviation guy, working at CFM was like a kid finding the Big Rock Candy Mountain.  I resolved that I would notice the first time I passed through either hangar without looking left or right.  When I realized I’d walked the length of the WW I collection looking straight ahead, I’d been there eight or nine months.

Working for Doug was more like having a partner than an employer.  Essentially he said, “Tell me which new and reprint books you want to do, and we’ll discuss them.”  He had a few pet projects but generally he let me risk his money on my judgment.  We produced popular titles and academic studies with several memoirs.  The latter included Dick Turner’s Big Friend, Little Friend, Hugh Winters’ Skipper: Confessions of a Fighter Squadron Commander, and Boots Blesse’s Check Six: A Fighter Pilot Looks Back.  We did a coloring book with cartoonist Bob Stevens and we produced the definitive study of Austro-Hungarian aces of WW I, thanks to the industrial-strength enthusiasm of the late Dr. Marty O’Connor. 

We also reprinted two books by Adolf Galland, the WW II Luftwaffe fighter chief.  Getting to know Dolfo was a special treat.  He was a young general who went nose to beak with Goring and Hitler, defending his aircrews from slanderous accusations when they were taking 25% losses per month.  In vivid comparison, during the 1990s the U.S. armed forces had almost nobody willing to stand up for the troops during the Bush Leaguers’ Tailhook witch hunt.

You never knew whom you might meet at CFM: Scott Crossfield, Sergei Sikorsky, Joe Foss, and the full membership of the American Fighter Aces Association.  With typical generosity, Doug made the museum AFAA’s home from 1983 until CFM closed in 2003.  He was able to sell his collection intact to a consortium from the Seattle Museum of Flight—a huge benefit to the cause of aviation history.  But for the CFM family, that last banquet was a two-hankie evolution.

Later that afternoon the Early & Pioneer Naval Aviators Association reunion paid tribute to the ten Golden Eagles who departed the pattern in the past year, including longtime friends Rear Admiral Jig Dog Ramage and Captain Bill Scarborough.

The GE program was drafted with a tight schedule: 2 ½ minutes per eulogy.  Obviously, it’s not possible to cram a 20-pound career story into a 6-pound seabag of oration.  But each Eagle’s accomplishments are easily found, so rather than quickly reciting Swede's exceptional career, I focused on one special aspect of one exceptional day.

Some background: Swede received his wings of gold in 1939, and by 1942 was a seasoned fleet aviator.  Flying SBDs from USS Yorktown (CV-5), he participated in the world’s first aircraft carrier battle, earning two Navy Crosses on May 7-8.  Shortly he was ordered to the new Fighting Squadron 10 under the legendary Lt. Cdr. Jim Flatley. 

In the Battle of Santa Cruz, 27 October 1942, VF-10 helped defend Guadalcanal from enemy reinforcement.  It was a hard-fought contest as USS Enterprise (CV-6) and Hornet (CV-8) faced four Japanese carriers.  Swede made history that day as the first American credited with downing seven enemy aircraft in one mission.

However, Hornet was fatally hit and the Big E took bomb damage that jammed the forward aircraft elevator fully down.  As Enterprise took Hornet’s overflow the flight deck began filling up.  Only the middle elevator could be used to take planes to the hangar deck, as the aft elevator was needed to park airplanes.  Enterprise had eight arresting wires but eventually the landing signal officer began “cutting” airplanes onto the No. 3 wire.  Then the No. 2 wire.  Then only the No. 1 wire, closest to the stern, was available.

Enterprise’s LSO was the best in the business, Lt. Robin Lindsey.  He was willing to attempt the seeming impossible: with room for one last airplane, Robin would bring Swede aboard.

The stakes were enormous: Enterprise was the last remaining big-deck carrier in the Pacific Fleet.  If Swede crashed, the Big E could be out of action for weeks at the height of the vital Guadalcanal campaign.  But Robin and Swede had complete confidence in each other. 

Swede flew up the carrier’s wake, his Wildcat hanging on its prop.  With his paddles Robin gave Swede a “high dip”—drop the nose slightly—then “cut him long in the groove.”  Farther astern than ever before, Robin the gifted LSO compensated for the limited deck space, and Swede the superb pilot complied.  As he said, “I was looking right at the ramp.”

Swede’s tailhook snagged the sternmost cable and his fighter lurched to a stop.  The deck hands chocked his wheels right there: the deck was locked.  I don’t think it ever happened before or since.

I noted that aviation is a meritocracy, with reputations built upon the twin pillars of how much you respect someone's ability and how much you trust his judgment. Swede and Robin had complete mutual trust and respect, and proved it with a "one-wire trap.”  

I was doing just fine with Swede Vejtasa's 2 1/2 minute tribute up to the last five seconds or so.   Fortunately, I didn’t have to relate some of his later contributions: captain of USS Constellation (CVA-64) and founder of the school that later became Top Gun.  All that anyone needs to know about the essence of carrier aviation was contained in that brief episode 71 years ago.

Lord, but I've been blessed to know some wonderful folks.  Look no farther than Doug Champlin and Swede Vejtasa.