Among Heroes & Flying Legends
The Old Bold Pilots Breakfast – Oceanside Ca.
Virtually every pilot who has ever soloed an aircraft is familiar with the saying “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots.”
While I concede that I am past the 50 year mark, in the world of pilots and flying experience I am not really that old. Nor am I a bold pilot. They generally end up as smoking holes in the ground – as the saying goes.
But there I was, attending my first Old Bold Pilots Breakfast at a Denny’s restaurant in Oceanside California a few weeks ago.
I had been invited by a new acquaintance, a local who just added Catch the Sky to his extensive, world class collection of aviation books.
I would argue that is a half-truth. Yes, many bold pilots never make it to the age where they will need a walking cane. But as I looked around the room I knew I was among some very bold pilots - more accurately legendary and heroic pilots.
Across the table from me was a retired USAF Brigadare General James (Jim) Greshik, who flew a prop driven A-1 Douglas Skyraider on FAC and search & rescue “SANDY” missions in Vietnam. As a Forward Air Controller, Greshik spent many hours flying over the Ho Chi Minh Trail on close air support missions.
Sitting on my left was a Russian test pilot, Alexander Poddoubnyi, who in 1991 parked his Antonov An-124 airplane in San Diego Ca. and defected to the United States. At the time he walked away from his life as a soviet test pilot, Poddoubnyi had 10,000 hours in the cockpit of the world’s largest airplane. It was the same year the USSR collapsed. I strained hard to hear through his thick Russian accent as he chuckled about how in the USSR, it was common knowledge that now President Vladimir Putin finished dead last in his classes at the KGB Institute.
At a nearby table sat one of the older people in the entire room; a distinguished looking gentleman who wore the age of 96 most admirably. There were no walking canes to be found near him. I was told he was "The Flying Greek.” I will come back to him.
Before taking our seats I had been introduced to a number of people in the room. I only wished I could take notes during the introductions – but that would surely be rude.
The gentleman whose hand I was shaking was introduced to me as the very first Navy Seal Admiral. But anyone who is a true admirer of U.S. Navy Seals knows that they were born out of UDT – Underwater Demolition Team. Richard (Dick) Lyon was a Navy Scout and Raider in WWII. In 1951 he commissioned UDT Team 5 and in 1974 he became the first Special Warfare (SEAL) Admiral in the History of the U.S. Navy. I was surely among legends.
The Old Bold Pilot’s Association has been written about in numerous publications since they began meeting in the 1980s, such as this May 2014 article in Air & Space Magazine. Virtually all the meetings take place at the same Denny’s restaurant, where an entire section is partitioned off for the every Wednesday morning get-togethers. The walls are adorned with incredibly detailed aviation art, many of which depict the exploits of the very people gathered therein. A number of WWII era model airplanes hang from the ceiling.
There were so many others in the room; the former military pilot who was the very first corporate pilot for the Sears & Roebuck Company.
A Marine helicopter pilot – Col. Bob Stoffey who authored Cleared Hot ; The Diary of a Marine Combat Pilot in Vietnam. I did not get to meet or speak with Col Stoffey. That will have to wait for another day.
This is the place where stories are told. The one about the American pilot and the German pilot who shot him down, meeting for the very first time in this same Denny’s parking lot a just few years back.
Then there is the pilot who tells the story of his father, himself an aviation legend and a member of this same group before passing.
During WWII he was an aviation maintenance officer at North Field on Tinian in the Mariana Islands. It was August 6th 1945 when the maintenance officer noticed three B-29 Superfortress Bombers parked conspicuously by themselves at the opposite end of the air field. Believing they may need maintenance services he approached the aircraft to offer assistance. As he neared the lead aircraft a young crew member leaned out of a doorway with a pistol in his hand which was now pointed directly at the maintenance officer. The crew member barked “that’s close enough sir.” The maintenance officer got the message that there was something special about these aircraft, and it did not include him. As he retreated from the group of bombers he took note of the name painted across the nose of the lead bomber, “Enola Gay.”
That brings me back to The Flying Greek. Col. Steve N. Pisanos USAF (ret.) was born on November 10, 1919 in a suburb of Athens, Greece. At a very young age he knew he wanted to be a military pilot. Convinced he would never be admitted into Greece’s elite military pilot training, he left his family behind and immigrated to America in 1938 for the sole purpose of learning English and learning to fly airplanes. He accomplished both.
In 1941 as Germany began to invade its neighbors Pisanos volunteered to fly for the British Royal Air Force and was accepted. He served in the 268 and 71 Eagle Squadrons - two of the three squadrons which allowed U.S. volunteers. In 1942 these squadrons were absorbed into the U.S. Army Air Force. Pisanos, who was not yet an American Citizen was now flying combat missions for the United States over Europe. In 1943 Steve Pisanos became the first individual in American History to become a citizen while outside the U.S. Col. Pisanos was in London England when he was naturalized.
Col. Pisanos went on to fly combat missions in the Spitfire, The P-47 and the P-51 Mustang. He scored his first aerial victory on May 21, 1943 and became an Ace with 10 kills by January 1, 1944. But Pisanos would soon find himself in the hands of the French Resistance after engine failure forced him to crash land his P-51 in occupied southern France. After Paris was liberated Pisanos returned to England but the Air Force would no longer allow him to fly combat missions. His knowledge of French Resistance operations were too great to risk allowing him to be captured again. Instead it was off to test pilot school for the Flying Greek.
Col. Pisanos would serve in the U.S. Air Force until 1973 after 30 years and 3 wars. His long list of awards and citations come from countries such as Britian, France, the U.S. and even the Republic of Vietnam and include three Legions of Merit, five U.S. Distinguished Flying Crosses, and even a Purple Heart.
As the Old Bold Pilots began to filter out of the Denny’s I was able to catch up to Col. Pisanos for a brief moment and shake his hand. What an honor it was.
I arrived home later that day with a borrowed copy of The Flying Greek tucked under my arm. I don’t read as much as I should, but I am going to enjoy this book.