My WWII "Contribution"

Posted 11/16/03

By Keith Horton

In July 1941 I reported to work at TWA (then known as Transcontinental and Western Air) at 10 Richards Road, Kansas City Municipal Airport. I was fresh out of college with a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering in my pocket, and a great desire to learn all I could about those wonderful airplanes that were then blazing new trails across the skies. My position was to be a Shop and Hangar Equipment Engineer, charged with developing and procuring equipment and special tools, and working out procedures for the overhaul of aircraft and their components.

The training program laid out for me involved working somewhat like an apprentice mechanic in the hangar and each of the shops, and also out on what was called "the line" where the airplanes were parked in front of the hangar for and servicing and maintenance. One of my most vivid memories about those first few months on the job was during the fall of 1942 when I was working airplanes out on the line, the place I liked best.

Wartime activities were progressing at nearly full speed by that time, and one of our activities on the home front was supporting the sale of War Bonds. One program that I vividly remember involved a group of four military airplanes that were touring the country to bring our military efforts to everyone’s attention, and to emphasize the need for the finances that the sale of War Bonds would provide.

Those touring fighter planes came to Kansas City, and since TWA had the technical knowledge and the best facility to accommodate them, they ended up one evening being parked on the line outside our main hangar. There were four airplanes and some "Seniors" may remember them. One was a Lockheed P-38 "Lightning" that eventually was very instrumental in establishing air superiority in both the European and Pacific theaters. Another was the famous Curtis P-40 which, if memory serves correctly, was called the "War Hawk." This plane gained much renown as one of the valiant front line fighters at the very beginning of the war. The indomitable British "Spitfire" that served so well during the Battle of Britain was a third machine in the group, while the fourth was one which battled all too successfully against Allied aircraft -- a German Messerschmitt fighter. Somehow that airplane, a captured one, had been brought to our shores and pressed into service for the War Bond drive.

A few days later the quartet was being made ready for departure to another city on the tour. We fueled and serviced them as necessary, and prepared to start their engines for departure. The three Allied planes had self-starters and the pilots had virtually nothing to do but press a button in the cockpit. The German plane, however, had an inertia-type starter that consisted of a heavy flywheel buried at the lower rear of the engine, which had to be hand-cranked up to a high rotational speed and then, when engaged by the pilot, would have enough inertia to turn over the engine and start it running. The procedure for cranking up that flywheel required some very difficult physical rotation of a crank that was inserted into a hole in the side of the fuselage, just above the wing and directly behind the engine.

The older mechanics in the TWA crew knew very well just how hard that job was, and since I was the junior man on the crew you can readily guess who was elected to man the crank. I thought that it might prove to be a very interesting experience, however, so I didn't object. After all, not many people on the home front could boast of having cranked up a Messerschmitt.

So, up on the wing I climbed and engaged the crank. On a signal from the pilot I commenced throwing every ounce of strength I had into turning it, and after only about ten seconds I realized I was into a very hard job. I continued to crank, and crank, and crank with my arms and shoulders feeling like they were about to self-destruct, until the pilot engaged the flywheel and the engine began to turn over. But (oh, no) it sputtered, coughed, backfired and tried to come to life, but it just would not and quickly ground to a stop.

The pilot in the cockpit said he was awfully sorry that he didn't get the engine started, and that I would just have to crank it up again. This I did with what little strength I had left, but I finally got the flywheel turning at a pretty good clip. This time, the pilot was going to assure that the engine would get enough gas and actually start, so he pushed the throttle further open. Well, it "started" all right, catching with a loud roar and a prop blast so strong that it blew me right off the wing, depositing me rather unceremoniously on my backside on the concrete ramp about three feet below.

Not only did the pilot have a good laugh at my predicament, but my co-workers were doubled over with laughter at yet another engineer in over his head. Later, when the U.S. was victorious in WW-II, I still could get a twinge in the seat of my pants remembering my "contribution" on the MKC ramp.

Keith Horton, 1941-1983, served in Maintenance/Tech Services - Engineering and Field Maintenance, Kansas City

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