One of the Strangest Planes I Ever Flew

When I was stationed at K-1 airfield in Korea, there was a strange biplane parked in one of the old concrete Zero hangars left over from when the Japanese used it during WW-II. Evidently it had been built in Japan because everything in it was written in Japanese. It was a rather large open-cockpit ship, a bit bigger than a Stearman and fitted with a huge 9-cylinder radial engine. The front seat was wide enough for two people and had dual seatbelts. There were controls but no instruments in the front seat so it was obviously designed to be flown from the rear, which was common for aircraft from the 1930s.

I was intrigued by the old ship because no one ever went around it and it appeared that it hadn't been flown in some time because it was coated with dust, dirt and bird droppings. Both tires were almost flat. I pulled the engine through a few times and it seemed to have compression on all cylinders. I checked the fuel and the tank was about half full.

I couldn't read any of the instruments or markings, but the controls and instruments were pretty basic so I had no problem in determining what they were for. I hit the primer a few shots, pulled the prop through a couple turns and turned the mags on. It took only one pull and the old engine coughed to life in a cloud of smoke and noise with the nine short stacks barking from under the narrow cowling. It sounded even louder since it was still inside the hangar. I let it run long enough to stop belching smoke and settle down to a steady bark then shut it down.

A couple weeks later I was having breakfast on a Sunday morning with Claude Simons who worked in the motor pool, so I asked if he could get a truck with an air compressor or air tank so I could air up the tires on the plane. If he did, I'd take him for a ride. It seemed like a great idea to him so before long the tires were nice and firm. We pulled the chocks and pushed the ship out of the hangar.

I showed him how to hold the brakes while I cranked the engine and we were taxiing to the runway in short order. I did a run up on the engine and the gauges all came up to the green arcs, indicating that everything was working. I pointed the big nose down the runway and opened the throttle. We sped down the runway in a din of engine noise with the dust and dirt leaving a trail behind us. It lifted off easily and flew with only light pressure needed on the controls. Typical of old biplanes of that era, one didn't need instruments to tell what the ship was doing. Nose attitude and wind noise told the pilot everything he needed to know.

We flew around for perhaps twenty minutes and returned for a smooth landing. I considered going around again but decided to put it back where it belonged. As I swung it around in front of the hangar and killed the switches, I looked up to see a Jeep bounding toward us. "ARAB 1" was painted on the red panel below the windshield; it was the Battalion Commanding Officer.

To say that Col. Hales wasn't happy would be the understatement of the year. "What the hell do you think you are doing?" he screamed as he slid to a stop.

"Well, I...." That was as far as I got before he launched into a tirade about the reports and paper work he would have to fill out if I had crashed the ship. As he cussed, stomped and kicked gravel, I figured the sergeant stripes on my sleeve were most certainly gone. When he finally ran out of steam, he told us to put the ship back in the hangar and never come near it again, then he gunned his Jeep away in a cloud of dust.

"Whew, was he ever mad!" breathed Claude. "Good thing he didn't have a gun or he'd have probably shot you."

A month or so later I saw the ship out of the hangar and several Koreans were trying to start it. They were pulling on a strange bungee sort of thing with a boot over the tip of the prop to pull it through. They must have worked on it for an hour before they finally got it started. I thought about offering to hand crank it but decided to steer clear as the Colonel had ordered me to do. I did shoot a photo of them trying to start it. The colonel never mentioned the incident again and I certainly didn't. I never saw the ship again.


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Copyright 2003 by Jim Foreman