Peter B. Mer­sky

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Air & Space Interview -

Air & Space: Why did you want to write about Whitey Feight­ner?

Whitey is a long­time friend. I be­gan promis­ing him I would write his biog­ra­phy, and when he turned 93 in 2012, I fig­ured I’d bet­ter start.

How did he get the nick­name “Whitey”?

No less a per­son­al­ity than the Navy’s first ace in World War II, Butch O’hare, tagged him with that moniker. He was Whitey’s first CO [com­mand­ing of­fi­cer]. Butch started call­ing him “Whitey” af­ter Feight­ner turned red un­der the strong Pacific sun. The name stuck.

How ex­cep­tional is the nine kills that Feight­ner scored dur­ing the Pacific war?

That’s some­thing of a loaded ques­tion. Any mil­i­tary avi­a­tor can tell you that it’s an ac­com­plish­ment to just an en­emy air­craft,

see let alone shoot one or more down. Many peo­ple go through their en­tire ca­reer with­out ex­pe­ri­enc­ing one en­gage­ment. But quite a few aces had scores well above Whitey’s nine. David Mc­camp­bell, the Navy’s top ace, tal­lied 34. None­the­less, Whitey’s score of nine con­firmed kills is cer­tainly re­spectable— es­pe­cially for Al­lied pi­lots.

Did he like fly­ing the Grum­man F6F Hell­cat?

He loved it, as did most of his com­pa­tri­ots. In fact, it is his fa­vorite plane of all the dif­fer­ent types he flew dur­ing his long ca­reer in and out of com­bat. The Hell­cat al­ways brought him home, and al­ways did its job. It of­fered greatly in­creased power over the F4F Wild­cat, longer range, and was sim­ply a much bet­ter fighter.

Was be­ing a test pi­lot at Patux­ent River as risky as fly­ing com­bat mis­sions?

Ac­tu­ally, he con­sid­ers test fly­ing more dan­ger­ous than com­bat. He be­came project man­ager for the F7U Cut­lass only af­ter his pre­de­ces­sors had been killed (see “There Was Never Noth­ing Wrong With It,” Aug. 2012). Test fly­ing of­ten is done at the edge of an air­craft’s en­ve­lope and be­yond. Pax pi­lots flew air­craft do­ing things that had never been done be­fore. He had sev­eral close calls while at Pax, in­clud­ing dead-stick­ing an F4U Cor­sair and man­han­dling a huge Lock­heed Con­sti­tu­tion [trans­port] into the air af­ter its JATO [jet-as­sisted take­off] units failed to fire on take­off.

Af­ter he took a desk job at the Pen­tagon, did he miss fly­ing and be­ing at sea?

No com­bat avi­a­tor wants to give up his cock­pit for a desk, but it’s all part of the ca­reer se­quence. Whitey could fit in any­where—as he did with any new as­sign­ment.

Did aviation play any role in his life af­ter he re­tired from the Navy?

He was al­ways be­ing asked, con­sulted on a va­ri­ety of projects in­volv­ing his aviation ex­pe­ri­ences. That’s how we met. And even as re­cently as the 2014 Cleve­land Air Show and the May 8, 2015 VE Day ob­ser­vances in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., he flew [as a pas­sen­ger] in a former Soviet jet trainer and a vin­tage North Amer­i­can SNJ trainer over the D.C. mon­u­ments at the age of 95.

Any­thing you’d like to add?

I am firmly con­vinced he would have made a great chief of naval op­er­a­tions.

A re­tired U.S. Navy com­man­der, Mer­sky has writ­ten widely on naval aviation. For his 17th book, he wrote

a biog­ra­phy of E.L. “Whitey” Feight­ner, a Navy fighter pi­lot who served in the Pacific the­ater, be­came an

ace, and con­tin­ued his fly­ing ca­reer as a test pi­lot.

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