Jamie Beckett is a CFI and A&P mechanic who stepped into the political arena in an effort to promote and protect GA at his local airport.
This time of year, more than any other, strikes me as a good time for reflection on the world around us. Sandwiched in between the traditional Thanksgiving feast and the good intentions of our New Year’s resolutions, we each have a brief period of time to look back, or look around, and renew our awareness of what is good and noble and worthwhile in our world.
In this space I generally try to make a point or two about how the aviation community can help itself in the political arena. But in this installment, I will depart from that theme somewhat to shine a light on a gentleman who seeks no fame or public recognition at all. We should all be aware of him anyway — and we should keep in mind that he is not alone. The subject of this posting is Jack Cheppo, an unassuming and unfailingly tidy gentleman who I am fortunate to have met and formed a friendship of sorts.
Jack is fond of shrugging lightly as he finishes a story, tossing in a quick, “Anybody could’a done it.” I beg to differ.
Jack spent his career working for AT&T in the days before the big telephone break-up. New Jersey was his home turf an based on his demeanor and level of personal and professional responsibility, I suspect Jack was very good at his job. But being a telephone man isn’t what makes Jack a giant in my eyes. It was his time in the left seat of a B-17 bomber over Europe, and his almost casual dismissal of any praise that comes his way in conversations about his exploits in the air.
We throw around the term, “one of a kind” now and then, but Jack really is — at least in one respect. He’s the only airplane driver I have ever met who has had the occasion to be rear-ended in flight. While flying as lead-ship in formation, something happened, and Jack is absolutely honest to admit that he has no idea exactly what that something might have been, but his B-17 felt a bump in flight. This was not turbulence, however. It was more like a nudge from a trailing bomber that had lost an engine and yawed over hard, or momentarily lost control in some other manner. Either way, one B-17 hit the tail of another, and a significant control issue was born.
Jack’s rudder pedals would not move, and his tailgunner would not respond to a damage check. Finding himself in a situation that no pilot of a large, multi-engine machine loaded with bombs would wish for, he did the only thing he could do — he dropped out of formation, and using differential thrust, he made his way back to base and landed the big taildragger without incident.
The photos show an airplane that I would consider to be darned close to unflyable. The rudder is crushed into the vertical stabilizer. The stab itself is canted forward and to one side. The tailgunner’s windows are torn out entirely, and a gaping hole is showing where aluminum used to close up the back end of the airplane. Fortunately, the waist gunners were able to pull the tail gunner back into the belly of the ship and get an oxygen mask on him. Everybody walked away from this fender bender, or more accurately, rudder bender. That’s a good thing.
That’s also the sort of thing the military gives you medals for, and they presented Jack with quite an assortment for his piloting skills and his quick, deliberate response to issues as they arose.
The good Mr. Cheppo has also had the unfortunate experience of finding himself on the wrong side of the English Channel, with engines 3 and 4 dead as doornails due to enemy fire. The adventure begins at 26,000 feet above France, with Jack being faced with a difficult decision: Do I set the airplane down in German-occupied territory, which will ensure that my entire crew is captured, or do I try to make it home, across the Channel in a crippled airplane that can’t maintain altitude? Making the decision more complex, there are two seriously injured crewmen on board.
Jack, just 21 at the time, made the right choice. He turned for home and nursed his battle-beaten airplane over enemy occupied territory, past fighters that wished him ill, then across the Channel, filled with water too cold for most of his men to survive for long should they end up going swimming. After an agonizingly slow ride home, the flight crossed over the white cliffs of Dover with significant satisfaction and considerably gratitude that the aluminum left in that bird held together, and the lift remained sufficient for long enough to get his crew home again.
“Anybody could’a done it,” Jack repeats. No, respectfully, I don’t think anybody could’a. It takes a special sort to do what Jack has done. And that’s true even if we don’t consider his time under silk after his plane took a direct hit from a flak shell that exploded the oxygen tanks stored behind him in the cockpit. Or the fact that Jack moved through three POW camps during his short stay in captivity. Or that he and two other men took advantage of the confusion during a bombing raid he was on the receiving end of to run into the woods and make their way back home. Jack and his escapee buddies spent four days walking and hiding, without food, as the French underground spirited them back to England and freedom.
Once set free on English soil, Jack went back to flying missions. He did his part, fulfilled his responsibilities, and carried far more than just his own weight through the war. Jack’s one of the good guys. And he’s one of us. He’s a proud pilot who quietly, selflessly, goes through his life making no attempt to seek glory or fame.
I like Jack. I like him very much.
So as we slip from 2010 into 2011 and invariably face issues that rankle us, let’s take at least a moment along the way to remember Jack and the tens of thousands of men and women like him. They did their part and asked virtually nothing in return. Perhaps we can take a page from their book and act with as much nobility, responsibility, and selfless dedication to our own cause. It couldn’t hurt to try. It certainly worked out for Jack – and the rest of us who owe he and his peers so much.
You can reach Jamie Beckett at Jamie@GeneralAviationNews.com.