41st was First Pilot President
At time, youngest pilot to qualify
Survived horrific crash
It wasn’t until the 41st President that the person occupying the Oval Room was a pilot [since the airplane was invited during the term of the 25th, the gap is not that great and #43 was a pilot before coming to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue]. When George Herbert Walker Bush became President, he did so with a flight book reading:
- the youngest to become qualified as a pilot by the Navy 19 (at the time)
- 126 carrier landings
- 1,228 combat hours
- 58 combat missions– Chichi Jima Saipan, Rota, Marcus Island, Guam, Manila Bay and Wake Island. – 8 missions after being shot down, rescued and returning to the USS San Jacinto (CVL-30)
- the Distinguished Flying Cross, three Air Medals with two gold stars (three awards), and the Presidential Unit Citation.
- reassigned to Norfolk to train new torpedo pilots at Norfolk NAS. Later, he was assigned as a naval aviator in a new torpedo squadron, VT-153.
As President, his notable aviation actions included dealing with the Pan Am 103 bombing (Lockerbie) and increasing the level of airport security (Aviation Security and Anti-Terrorism Act of 1990). Admiral James B. Busey and General Thomas Richards were President Bush’s appointees to head the FAA; that period involved few significant issues.
It is appropriate to review Lt. Bush’s naval aviator history:
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese Imperial Navy launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. On that same day a 17 year old senior decided that he must enlist in the Navy to serve his country. On that same day, Grumman held a ceremony to open a new manufacturing plant and display the new TBF to the public.
True to the instincts of a teenager of the greatest generation, Bush felt compelled to become a pilot. That sense of urgency led to a brief contemplation of enlisting in the Royal Air Force in Canada because, he thought it offered a faster path to combat. The tempestuous teenager reconsidered and enlisted in the USN.
He began preflight training at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After completing the 10-month course, he was commissioned as an ensign in the US Naval Reserve on 9 June 1943, several days before his 19th birthday, making him one of the youngest naval aviators.
After finishing flight training, he was assigned to Torpedo Squadron (VT-51) as photographic officer in September 1943. As part of Air Group 51, his squadron was based on USS San Jacinto in the spring of 1944. San Jacinto was part of Task Force 58 that participated in operations against Marcus and Wake Islands in May, and then in the Marianas during June.
On 19 June, the task force triumphed in one of the largest air battles of the war. During the return of his aircraft from the mission, Ensign Bush’s aircraft made a forced water landing. The destroyer, USS Clarence K. Bronson, rescued the crew, but the plane was lost. On 25 July, Ensign Bush and another pilot received credit for sinking a small cargo ship.
At dawn on Sept. 2, 1944, Bush was slated to fly in a strike over Chichi Jima, a Japanese island about 500 miles from the mainland. The island was a stronghold for communications and supplies for the Japanese, and it was heavily guarded. Bush’s precise target was a radio tower.[the cover collage -the upper left map shows the island; upper right is a picture of the island during a bombing raid; the lower right is a painting of a TBM bombing Chichi Jima; bottom left is a Distinguished Flying Cross.]
Around 7:15 that morning, Bush took off through clear skies along with Radioman Second Class John Delaney, and Lieutenant Junior Grade William White, USNR, who substituted for Bush’s regular gunner. During their attack, four TBM Avengers from VT-51 encountered intense antiaircraft fire. While starting the attack, Bush’s aircraft was hit and his engine caught on fire. He completed his attack and released the bombs over his target scoring several damaging hits.
With his engine on fire, Bush flew several miles from the island, where he and one other crew member on the TBM Avenger bailed out of the aircraft. The other man’s chute did not open and he fell to his death.
The wind grabbed his parachute driving him backward into the tail which injured his head and eye. The pilot floated in the sky tethered to a parachute, hitting the water hard enough to have him hit the sand. he saw his plane crash into the water and disappear below. He swam to the surface and removed his shoes to better float. In addition to his head, the escape left him with burning eyes and mouth/throat raw.
Fifty feet away bobbed a life raft that Bush managed to inflate and flop onto. But the wind was carrying him toward Chichi Jima, so Bush began paddling in the opposite direction with his arms.
The Lieutenant thought he was delirious when, suddenly, a 311-foot submarine, the USS Finback, rose from the depths to rescue him.
“Welcome aboard, sir,” greeted a torpedoman second class.
“Happy to be aboard,” replied the future President.
During the month it took for the ship to transfer its rescued pilots, he remained on Finback, Bush participated in the rescue of other pilots.
It may have been useful for a President to have had aviation experience;
perhaps of greater significance was having lived through the rigors of combat.
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