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WWII fighter pilots share memories

By Justin Boron

It was World War II, and Lt. Col. Frank Luckman was assigned to give aerial support to a line of tanks somewhere in continental Europe.

Two of them already had been taken out by a 88-mm gun mounted in a nearby building, he said.

Diving his P-47 Thunderbolt fighter plane, he and one other pilot obliterated the building, dropping 500-pound bombs on the target and isolating a German tank in the process.

The encounter was one of many remembered by Luckman and fellow World War II pilot Capt. Russ Gardner at a symposium Veterans' Day weekend hosted by the Dixie Wing Commemorative Air Force.

Luckman and Gardner addressed an audience of about 80 people who met at Falcon Field in Peachtree City to hear a detailed account of the training and contributions to the war cause made by the Ninth Air Force of the United States Army Air Force.

Their training and missions were unique because it was the first time aircraft were used to provide support to ground infantry, said Capt. John Hyle, who moderated the discussion.

Pilots like Luckman and Gardner scathed the treetops at speeds up to 500 mph, hitting any of the military installations held by the enemy, he said.

Facing poor visibility and anti-aircraft fire, the P-47 pilots' task was at time perilous, Hyle said.

"As a combat pilot you have less than a minute before you reach the end of your world," he said.

In preparation for such dangerous and important missions, P-47 pilots went through an intense training regimen leading up to the D-day.

With the possibility of being "washed out" of the program always looming, Gardner said a constant fear of not meeting qualifications often drove pilots to perform.

Gardner said one of the most difficult components of training was the "instruments rating," where pilots virtually flew blind, relying only on the cockpits navigational tools.

Even with all of the training, Luckman said the transition from trained fighter pilot to combat fighter pilot was a difficult one to make.

"We only knew our lives at home," he said. "To over there and be 19 and 20 n suddenly you're going against an enemy bound to kill you. You had to get the mental attitude."

Luckman also elaborated on the legacy of the Thunderbolt, which he said was the most versatile aircraft in World War II.

Out of the 324 squadrons in the Ninth Air Force, 187 of them flew the P-47.

The Thunderbolt was responsible for the destruction of 9,067 aircraft and 6,000 armored tanks, he said.

But Luckman left most of the praise for the talent of his fellow pilots, who he said had incredible aim.

"We didn't have the smart bombs of today," Luckman said.