The Adventures of Billy Possum

                                        Written in mid-1987

Postscript added in 2011

 

Bomber and the Blue Max

By Bill J. Castenholz

 

Copyright 2012, Castenholz and Sons

 

I got my first driver’s license the same year the Blue Max was built. One of the last of the great line of Chance-Vought Corsairs, the Blue Max was an F4U-7. Not much is known of the early years of the plane, but Bob Guilford  purchased it in 1969. He had learned to fly Cessnas and the like, but wanted something more challenging. The Blue Max certainly was that!

     I first saw the Blue Max when it flew over my house one day. After that I must admit, there became a nearly constant vigil on weekends, looking for the Corsair or its sister planes, the Cottonmouth, a P-51 Mustang and a beautiful English Spitfire. The planes became known to us as the Santa Monica Air Force.

 

The Blue Max. The Cottonmouth, a P-51 is just behind it.

 

The beginning of an exciting day.

 

Some people think turning 50 years old means that things are all downhill from there. Don’t you believe it! On my 51st birthday, several of my kids got together and presented me with a certificate. It read:

 

HAPPY BIRTHDAY DAD

Because we know of your love of

airplanes (especially old ones) and

because we love you, it is our

pleasure to give this gift to you.

______________________________________

 

This entitles Bill Joseph Castenholz to a

one half hour ride in the plane of his

choice, either the Mustang or the Corsair.

(We are sorry, but the spitfire has only one

seat.) This coupon is to be redeemed on the

day of your convenience. Simply contact

Bob Guilford at his office.

______________________________________

 

We pray that 51 is the best year yet!

With love, your children,

Karen, John, Brenda and Jimmy.

 

     “I think everyone at home was tired of having Dad jump up and run out of the house every time he heard that certain sound that only a Merlin or a big radial engine makes.

     I was thrilled – so much so that I didn’t call Bob Guilford for about a month. Just thinking about what I had in store was so exciting I wanted to savor the idea as long as I could.

     But arrangements were made, and one Saturday last august I met Bob at the airport. Bob is an attorney with a passion for flying. Also, as I was about to find out, he was a superb pilot. His control of the Corsair, a notoriously difficult airplane to fly, was very impressive. This was not “Top Gun” but the serious business of flying – fun, but with the caution that comes from knowing how fast a plane can turn into a smoking hole in the ground.

     The Blue Max was awesome! It was not a small plane. And, as a Corsair, it would never be confused with any other type of plane. The inverted gull wings, the rudder set forward of the end of the fuselage, the long nose with the cockpit almost behind the trailing edge of the wings, and a propeller that looked like it belonged on the Spruce Goose. All this in a deep blue paint, with the proper markings of MVF-214, the Black Sheep Squadron. As a matter of fact, the Blue Max was one of the Corsairs used in the filming of the TV series, Ba Ba Black Sheep.

 

This photo looks like it could have been taken on a south Pacific island in 1944.

 

It was thrilling to see the Blue Max rolled out onto the tarmac. The Cottonmouth was also moved out of the hanger and I wasn’t sure which plane I would get to fly in. I had decided some time ago just to let Bob decide which plane he wanted to fly that day.

His choice was the Mustang. Secretly, I had preferred to go in the Corsair, but who’s going to be disappointed with a ride in a P-51! Bob said that flying up from San Diego the night before, the P-51 had lost a generator. The plan was to check it out before we used it. Bob handed me a screwdriver and asked me if I would help take the cowling off the left side of the Mustang. What would you say? I get a thrill just looking at these planes and he wanted me to work on one. I grabbed the screwdriver and started undoing the Dzus fasteners. With the panel off one look showed that Cottonmouth wasn’t going anywhere until the generator was replaced. “I guess we’ll have to take the Corsair,” Bob said. I remember saying something to the effect of “I think I can deal with that.”

 

The door to the second seat is just visible below the horizontal tail, at the bottom of the picture.

 

     All Corsairs are one-seat fighters. There isn’t room in the cockpit for anything but one person. But the Blue Max, like many of the remaining Corsairs, had a jump seat installed immediately behind the cockpit, in the interior of the fuselage. The portion of the bulkhead supporting the headrest had been removed and two small Plexiglas windows were installed on either side of the fuselage just behind the canopy.  The visibility wasn’t great, but it was adequate.

     Access to the jump seat was by way of a small equipment door on the lower side of the fuselage, just large enough for a person to fit through. Bob’s friend Judy helped me adjust the harness and the intercom. The door was closed, and there we were.

     If you have never sat behind 2300 horsepower, reading this won’t help. It was indescribable.

     Typical of radial engines, when Bob started the Blue Max’s engine, the oil in the lower cylinders made a big cloud of blue smoke, but it quickly cleared and after a few minutes of checkout, we started to taxi to the east end of the field. A hard thump now and then was caused by the tail wheel as it bottomed out on some of the bumps.

     When we got near to the takeoff position we were behind a small craft, but the control tower gave us priority so Bob moved around the other plane. There wasn’t much room so Bob just raised the wings and went by.

     I didn’t feel the bow draw back but I sure felt the arrow leave the string. We were in the air before we passed mid-field. Our take-off was low and quick.

 

Takeoff. The main landing gear is up and only the right gear door remains to be closed.

 

I suppose when we’re dropped into a world that’s unfamiliar to us, but one we’ve looked forward to being in, we become acute observers. I noticed the large shaft just below my feet. It was painted red. The entire control of the tail of the plane was by way of that shaft. Rotation controlled one surface; movement back and forth controlled the other surface. Judy had said “Keep your feet away from that!” I did.

     The inside of the fuselage was interesting. Bulkheads spaced every foot or so were connected by little stringers, and covered by a skin no thicker than a piece of cardboard.

     “Where are we?” I asked. “Over the Ventura Freeway, near Agoura.” Then a moment later Bob said “We’re in the acrobatic area.” I thought to myself “Oh, really!” At that moment I realized that there was more to this flight than I had imagined. Bob explained that we were going to do an aileron roll. As the plane began to rotate on its axis, and I realized I was upside down I again noticed the stringers inside the fuselage. My fingers were making fingerprints in them as I attempted to prevent falling out of the airplane! As things righted themselves, and the horizon looked normal again I took a deep breath. But there was something fascinating about what we had just done.

     Then Bob said “Now we are going to do a barrel roll to the left.” I was the horizon begin to rotate. Again I tried to hold on, but it was different. I guess the first time you are upside down in a plane it is hard to know what to expect. The next time it isn’t so strange. As we came out of the roll the G-forces made me feel sluggish. Then we did another barrel roll to the right. I realized that in the second roll I didn’t feel like I was going to fall. So I kept my eyes on the horizon. It was fantastic to see the ground, the horizon, level but with all the earth above the horizon! After the third roll my stomach said stop. The rest of me said “go for it.” Well I told Bob my stomach was quezzy, and we headed for home. As we approached the Pacific Palisades, I asked if we could fly over my house and it was fun to see from the air the streets we have known for a quarter century from the ground.

     Another observation I made was how very stable the Blue Max was. Being a heavy, high-powered plane, with high wing loading, the Corsair felt like it was rigidly mounted in the air. The only roughness I felt on the entire flight was when we began our landing approach to the airport. Later I realized it was when the landing gear was extended. The landing was very smooth, and a great adventure was over.

 

Up close the Corsair is an awesome piece of machinery!

 

     My son John and I loitered around the hanger for a while, took some pictures and then drove home in Bomber. What a contrast – from 46 horsepower to 2300 horsepower and back to 46. My arithmetic says that’s a factor of 50! Well, Bomber can’t fly. But it’s still a great way to get around. Oh yes, Bomber is my 1929 Chevrolet sedan. It is the first model of Chevrolet to use the overhead straight-six which was to become the mainstay engine of the Chevrolet Motor Car Company until well into the 1950’s.

     When I got home my wife and son Daniel were working in the yard. “Did you see us?” “Yes,” they said. Mom had kept asking Daniel, every time she heard a plane, “Is that Dad?” Daniel, without even looking up would answer “No.” Then, before Mom even heard the Blue Max, Daniel said “Here they come.” “How do you know?” “Mom, nothing else sounds like that!”

     Since last August I have gone to the airport several times just to look at the planes in the hanger. On one occasion Mike and I asked if we could walk through the hanger. On leaving I said “Thanks, we had a great flight.” The attendant responded “A fantasy flight?” I’m not sure if it was or not.

 

Bomber and the Blue Max – two great machines!

 

     About a week ago the Blue Max went on its last flight. After an air show in San Diego, a friend of Bob’s borrowed the Blue Max and took a woman who had helped with the air show for a flight – sort of a reward for her help. Observers said the Blue Max was inverted, in a roll, when it struck the ground. Both occupants were killed and the Corsair was completely destroyed.

 

Postscript: About a year ago now, sometime in 2010, I asked David Price “How is Bob Guilford doing?” “Oh,” David said, “He’s dead.” “He crashed his airplane and he and his friend died.”

     Flying in these vintage war birds is a dangerous business.