Upon arrival on Okinawa I was assigned to the 31st SRS at Kadena. At that time my long time friend Bill Welch and I were camera repair technicians, working in a run down quonset hut. We were both awaiting assignment on an aircrew as an aerial photo gunner. Directly in front of the repair shack was a
Bill Welch and Mayo in front of Camera Repair Shack, early 1950
cannibalized RB-29. Many times we sat and looked at that forlorn engineless derelict. Bill pointed out that the horizontal stabilizer was out of alignment with the wings, and the vertical stabilizer was out by several degrees. With no engines and other parts missing it was always the topic of conversation. We found out that when the plane was jacket up to work on the gear the jacks were placed improperly and the plane got "warped". There were places on the fuselage the skin was wrinkled. Bill called it a cock-eyed ramp queen. It was a 42 model, the oldest RB on Okinawa. The plot thickens. An Operation Readiness Test was coming up and the 31st needed to get every plane available in the air. This is hard to believe, but they decided to put the ramp queen, 42-0903 back together.
Four engines were installed, and crews worked day and night reassembling it. About this time Bill Welch and I were placed on flying status. As luck would have it, a crew was formed for 903 and I was assigned to that crew. The plane was now affectionately known as "The Heap". My first flight of five hours and 10 minutes was more or less a shakedown flight, and the plane performed without incident. I did notice a strong smell of gas fumes that nobody seemed worried about. At least I was flying and proud to be on a flight crew, so the problems didn't bother me. Little did I know what was in store for me on our second flight. On June 16, 1950, we were on a proposed routine five hour flight. We were practicing GCA approaches and then it happened. There was a gear malfunction. The main gear motor had apparently burned out. This old model did not have the hand crank system in case of emergency, so an electric motor was used to raise and lower the gear. It worked on the left gear, but it also burned out when used on the right gear, lowering it only part way. At that time I was mainly concerned with the gas fumes. We flew around for a total of 10 hours and 50 minutes burning off fuel. It was finally decided that the crew would bail out, as a crash landing could result in many fatalities. I checked my chute, a back pack, making sure the pins were not bent. At 7:35 PM The Heap made it's first bail out pass. I was first to jump from the rear door. I couldn't believe how difficult it was to get out the door. When I saw the ground I pulled the rip cord (which I still have ), and got my head jerked off when the chute opened. As I neared the ground I saw I was going to land on the runway. I tried to slip the chute (bad idea), and a portion of it collapsed, dropping me hard on the runway. Four of us jumped on the first pass. Four more jumped on the second pass. On the third pass the pilot and two more crewmembers jumped. At 8:04 PM the Aircraft Commander set the plane on automatic pilot and bailed out. Eleven minutes later a flight of F-80s shot the plane down over the ocean. There was only one serious injury. Paul White lost his leg after developing gangrene from a compound fracture. He also had landed on the runway.

This was the experience of a lifetime, one that is still fresh in my mind even today. I applied to the Switlik Parachute Co. for admission to the Caterpillar Club. This club is for airmen who have made an emergency jump from a disabled plane. I always wear my pin as it is a great source of conversation, every so often I run into a fellow member. I wear it proudly.

The Stars and Stripes published an article concerning this incident. You can read it by going back to the "table of contents" and click on "JETS SHOOT DOWN CRIPPLED B-29 IN CHINA SEA AFTER CREW JUMPS." After that article please read the Bill Welch story of "THE HEAP", you will find it most interesting.




The Caterpillar Club was originated at Dayton, Ohio between October 20 and November 11, 1922 by Messrs Hutton, Verne Timmerman, J. Mumma and Milton H. St. Clair. This world-wide club is for aviators, military and commercial, who have saved their lives with a parachute in an emergency.

It all started with a young army test pilot named Harold Harris. On October 20, 1922 he was flying a Loening W-2A monoplane fighter in a mock dogfight with a friend. His plane had been equipped the day before with experimental aerodynamically balanced ailerons. After taking off from the test center at McCook field, Dayton near where the Wright brothers tested their plane, his plane suddenly rocked violently and Harris found he could not control it. He had to bail out.

Standing in the cockpit, he was sucked out by the slipstream. After three tries he found and pulled the rip cord. This main chute opened about 500 feet above the street of Dayton. Looking up he admired the beautiful silk from which the parachute was made and marveled at how white and clean it was. He was the first American known to be saved by a manually operated parachute in an emergency jump from a disabled aircraft.

Two reporters from the Dayton Herald, discussing the event, suggested that since there would be more jumps with the chute, a club should be formed to embrace these entrepid airmen. They considered several names for the organization and selected the Caterpillar Club. The reasoning was simple, the parachute main sail and shroud lines were woven from the finest silk. The lowly caterpillar worm spins a cocoon and crawls out and flies away from certain death.

Among many Caterpillars who carry or carried Caterpillar Club membership cards are former President George Bush, General Doolittle, and Col. Lindbergh, to name a few.

Source the Switlik Parachute Co.


Story by Wayland Mayo, website historian

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