Naval airman, 91, aloft again
By Linda Girardi For The Beacon-News March 26, 2012 8:52PM
Commander Donald Thompson, a U.S. Navy pilot during WWII, poses in front of an SNJ-5 airplane on Sunday, March 25, 2012, before taking off for an honor flight out of Aurora Municipal Airport. After takeoff, Thompson was allowed to take the controls and put the plane through its paces, including rolls and loops. | Jeff Cagle~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 28, 2012 8:04AM
World War II veteran Don Thompson got a chance to relive his wartime memories as a pilot flying across the Pacific and Atlantic oceans on anti-submarine warfare missions.
On Sunday, Thompson climbed into a 1944 vintage AT-6 at the Aurora Municipal Airport — one of the aircraft of Gauntlet Warbirds, which has a fleet of aerobatic and military planes.
“It was a wonderful experience. It pretty much felt like the old days,” Thompson said after a 45-minute flight, which included loops.
The AT-6 is similar to one Thompson flew during his Naval training. The aircraft flew 15 miles to the southwest of the airport. It cruises about 130 knots (150 miles an hour) and can reach 200 knots in a dive. The aircraft, piloted by Vess Velikov, climbed to about 6,000 to 9,000 feet above the cloud cover and then leveled off.
Thompson, 91, flew missions for the U.S. Navy from 1942-1946 in the PBY Catalina, known as the American flying boat of the 1930s and 1940s for protecting merchant ships from foreign submarines.
“The merchant shipping was taking a terrible beating at the time,” Thompson said prior to his flight.
The retired U.S. Navy Lt. Commander remembers losing an engine on a 1944 mission while flying in the Caribbean from a U.S. base in Curasol, Venezuela.
“We were doing U.S. submarine join-up with merchant shipping and were four hours out from the base when we broke an oil line in the starboard engine,” he said.
Thompson said they dropped 2,000 gallons of fuel and all supplies except for liferafts and life jackets.
“The skipper wanted to land in the ocean, but I talked him out of that. He thought we weren’t going to make it, but we did. We landed on the water and taxied into a ramp off of Aruba,” Thompson said.
Thompson said sonic buoys or receivers dropped in the water made it possible for pilots to hear foreign submarine propellers and report their position, heading and speed.
“Our patrols were long: 10 to 12 hours. Most of it was over the water and at low altitude, below 2,000 feet,” he said. “It was so our sonic buoys would work effectively. There were a lot of night flights. It was very thrilling. With those big winged tips out there — if they caught a wave you’re done.”
Thompson said he would wear a sheep skin lined leather flying suit in the PBY because there wasn’t much heat in the aircraft. He is still as fit as in those days, but he decided to leave his military flight suit at home, and wore one courtesy of Gauntlet Warbirds.
Thompson was accompanied by his son, Bruce and daughter-in-law, Mary and a group of friends that watched him take-off from the taxiway.
Herschel Luckinbill, an ambassador for Honor Flight Chicago, arranged for Sunday’s flight. Thompson made the second Honor Flight trip to visit the WWII memorial in Washington in 2008 with 23 area veterans.
Thompson took a civilian pilot training course at Lewis School of Aeronautics in Lockport. He received his private pilot license in 1942, the same year he was drafted at the age of 23; Thompson decided to join the Aviation Cadet program so that he could fly.
Thompson said his interest in aviation began at age 12, when his father introduced him to airmail pilots at Checkerboard Field in Maywood.
Thompson said in February 1946, while on leave from his base at Naval Air Station Quonset Point, Rhode Island, he met his future bride, Doris Trudel in a drugstore in Providence.
“She was with a girlfriend and I was with my co-pilot,” he said. “We met in February and were married in July.”
Thompson graduated from East Aurora High in 1938 and had a 36-year career as customer service manager for Lyon Metal Products in Montgomery. He retired as a Navy Reserve in 1960. His wife died on his birthday last October after 66 years of marriage.
“Doris would be thrilled,” Thompson said of his return to flying.