There’s a little fighter pilot in every sailor

December 2006

By Dodge Morgan

I read that the remains of legendary fighter pilot “Earthquake McGoon” McGovern, who flew for the Tiger Shark squadron for China before we entered WW II and later for a CIA combat “airline” in Indochina, has just been found and returned for burial with family in this country.

It reminded me of those days when war was a classic male event fought by colorful volunteers and seemed to us to be for just causes.

And it reminded me that fighter pilots are drawn to sailing, probably because both can be considered airborne activities and that the aging pilot is encouraged to slow down and to pour a drink in the cockpit while watching a sunset.

Romeo McCrystal and “Douchebag” Kirksik, a couple of characters I flew F-86s and F-94s with in the ‘50s, come to mind. Both had seen much combat flying Mustangs in WW II and Sabres in Korea and, having no real combat time myself I stood in awe of them.

Romeo had close to a double-digit number of kills in his past, from Jap Zero’s to North Korean MIGs. We flew together for the Air Defense Command at Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod and he was one of those fighter pilots whose credentials and history allowed him to overlook the rules and get away with almost anything.

The right tip tank on his plane was dented from continually knocking the brass ball off a base flag pole. He flew under both Cape Cod Canal bridges, one right after the other, to show off to his girlfriend. He had to do both since he forgot which bridge he told her to stand under (I flew under just the Bourne Bridge, no girlfriend watching).

In flight at altitude, having nothing to shoot at, he would remove his helmet and smoke a cigar. Flying off his wing, I watched him alternately disappear in a cloud of smoke then quickly re-appear; he was clearing the cockpit by hitting cabin dump which meant that his body was going instantly up and down from 30,000 feet to about 4,000 feet. He snuffed the cigar out on the cockpit ledge.

Our squadron commander had to bail him out of the brig after he landed at Andrews Air Force Base in D.C. without clearance. When confronted on the taxiway, the story is that he put a fish bowl bought for his mother over his head and answered the question, “Who are you and where are you from?” with “I am from Planet X and there are more a-coming”.

Romeo once sailed with me in my 110. He was acutely aware of the wind but bent more on a steep heel than on a destination. He continually sipped from a flask but never showed it, adhering to that maxim, “Drinking booze is a man’s duty, getting drunk is his damnation.” He would have been a terror on the racecourse.

I never sailed with Douchebag because we flew together in Alaska. But I know he would have been happily seasick most of the time. Rat racing, which he was very, very good at, always made him airsick and the first thing out of his plane upon landing was another hat full of puke. He was the one who insisted on carrying just one survival tool, a 38 with just one bullet in it. He was also the one who could float an orange mid-air in front of him and hold it there in float while doing snap-rolls. His recording G-meter always registered the highest number amongst us after a flight of play fighter combat.

There is a little fighter pilot in every sailor, isn’t there?

Dodge Morgan broke all sorts of records when he singlehanded American Promise around the world without stopping in 1985-86. He lives on Snow Island in Harpswell, Maine.