There But For the Grace of God
The Grumman F2F & F3F
We knew him as "Whispering Joe" for when he spoke on the flight line in Miami his normal tone of voice was said to be audible up in Jacksonville, without benefit of radio.
He was officer-in-charge of fighter indoctrination in Advanced Training where the rudiments of flying carrier-type aircraft were being taught to Naval aviation cadets who had completed their primary and intermediate phases in Pensacola or Jacksonville.
He looked like a boxer, but wore tailored uniforms and used cologne -- his toughness matched his physiognomy rather than his get up.
Those who had attended the Naval Academy with him said that when he hit someone on the football field the "smack" resounded throughout the stadium.
He was first called "Jumping Joe" due to his incessant activity, and his second sobriquet arose when he and his voice were commissioned, joined the fleet, and ultimately when he became a Naval Aviator.
Those of my vintage came to know him just before World War II. He was then Lieut. Joseph Clifton, USN and would eventually retire after the war as a Rear-Admiral.
The carrier training unit used out-moded fleet aircraft, and for fighter training there were early Grumman bi-planes -- the F2F and F3F.
These were the most thrilling and pleasing aircraft I ever flew, including some early jets I flew during the Korean War, though not in combat.
They seemed fast for that day and that era in our development as airmen, and were definitively maneuverable, seeming to go into a steep "flipper" turn when the pilot did little more than think about turning.
They were light compared to the all-metal Grumman fighters, the F4F "Wildcat" and F6F "Hellcat" which would be mainstays in the Pacific War.
These were among the first Naval aircraft with retractable landing gear, though the wheels had to be rather laboriously cranked up by hand.
It took many turns of the little wheel and crank in the cockpit by which this was done.
Approaching the field in formation, as you broke up for landing, you could see the heads of your fellow wingmen bobbing up and down, and their planes slightly "porpoising" as they rapidly cranked.
In aviation, accidents and types of accidents, tended to come in clusters.
For some reason we had a spate of "wheels up" landings in these fighters.
This was a particularly humiliating type of mistake for it always took place in full view of all the folk kibitzing landings and take-offs -- an avocation which those around aviation never out-grow.
Also, it was a patent pilot error out of which it was impossible to finesse one's way.
In these Grummans a "wheels-up" landing was particularly noticeable because when one "bellied in" on the rocker-like fuselage the plane inevitably nosed all the way over and ended up on its back.
One morning during this epidemic of woe "Whispering Joe" called all his cadets together and warned them that these accidents had to stop and that he would deal with further such incidents severely.
The very next day, when kibitzers were in full flower, a Grumman landed "wheels up" and "turned turtle."
As the crash vehicles rolled onto the field the wheels of the plane were seen to be slowly emerging from the upturned fuselage -- like arms being raised to Heaven.
When the crash crew reached the scene they found the pilot dangling upside down by his seat belt with his head bobbing as he frantically cranked on the landing gear mechanism.
It was "Whispering Joe".
April 11, 1996
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