Aug. 1, 2011

The Curtiss-Wright people were not happy with their prospective test pilot.

The firm was about to show off its P-40 Warhawk on a wintry day in late 1940 to some important customers— officials from the Chinese government of Chiang Kai-shek. Accompanied by their American advisor, Claire L. Chennault, the Chinese were shopping for aircraft for what would become the famous American Volunteer Group, the “Flying Tigers.”

The US Army Air Corps had dispatched a P-40 and a young pilot to Bolling Field in Washington, D.C., to put on the show. But the pilot, a lieutenant by the name of John Alison, was on the short side. “I wasn’t a very impressive looking officer,” said Alison decades later. The Curtiss-Wright reps wondered if their company’s own pilot could take over the flight.

Alison during flight training at Randolph Field, Tex.

But Bolling officials said the switch would be too much trouble. So Alison taxied to the end of the runway, turned into the wind off the Potomac River, and flew two minutes of aerobatics so astounding they became service legend.

He retracted his gear by the time he passed the reviewing stand. Boosting the engine past its recommended limit, he pulled the aircraft straight up and over in an Immelmann Turn, which left him roaring back in the opposite direction. Coming back toward his observers, he did a slow roll, cut power, and pointed his right wing tip directly at the Chinese and Chennault. Then he accelerated into five turns at high speed at about 100 feet. He concluded by racing downwind over the runway at altitude, then rolling, diving, and landing all at once in a Split S.

The Curtiss reps didn’t know their airplane could perform like this. The Chinese were agog.

As they walked up to Alison afterward, a Chinese general turned to Chennault and said of the P-40, “We need 100 of those.” Chennault stepped to Alison and tapped the young flier on the chest.

“No. You need 100 of these,” Chennault said.

John R. Alison, the famed World War II fighter ace who died June 6, was American airpower incarnate.

As a pilot, he had few equals. He once safely landed a P-40 whose entire rudder was shot away.

As a leader, he was inspiring. When the 1st Air Commando Group invaded Burma, he flew one of the first gliders in.

As an administrator, he was a pioneer: He shaped the future of US airlines as a civilian government official in the wake of World War II.

“General John Alison is truly an American hero,” says retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, who was his friend.

Alison began his career as a second lieutenant living two doors down from a major named Carl A. Spaatz, who would later become the independent Air Force’s first Chief of Staff. In his 90s, Alison was still meeting with Air Force officials to talk about such things as squeezing more efficiency from engines and pushing for the F-22.

Alison listens intently (left, with a roll of photos) as Col. Philip Cochran briefs pilots for the Operation Thursday mission to Burma.

Along the way Alison saw an astounding amount of history.

In London, bombs straddled his hotel on the worst night of the blitz.

In Moscow, he heard the guns as German tanks rolled toward the city limits.

We Have Met

In Tehran, he was set to take the Shah on a joy ride until the US ambassador scuppered the plan. “Suppose you killed the Shah?” said the outraged envoy. Alison replied, “I really hadn’t thought of it, sir, because if I killed him, I would be dead, too.”

He watched FDR envoy Harry L. Hopkins negotiate secret Lend-Lease deals with the Soviets. He gave Ike Eisenhower advice about gliders prior to the D-Day invasion. Winston Churchill, visiting an air base, walked up to Alison so he could shake a young US airman’s hand.

“Johnny Alison was a participant and witness to history to a degree uncommon even by the standards of public personages. … His was a life that, had it been written as a novel, would have been rejected by publishers as too fantastic to be believed,” says Richard P. Hallion, Air Force historian from 1991 to 2002.

Alison in India. As co-commander of what would become the 1st Air Commando Group, he led the air invasion of Burma.

Even the first time Alison fired a shot in anger was dramatic. It was mid-July of 1942, and Alison was in China serving as deputy commander of the 75th Fighter Squadron of the China Air Task Force, the US follow-on to Chennault’s American Volunteer Group. Alison had convinced a colleague to try and catch Japanese bombers, which were hitting their field at night with impunity. Spotting enemy airplanes from below by the blue flame of their exhaust, he firewalled the throttle, turned with them, and slid toward them.

“As I began to pull up on them, I called the radio on the ground, and I said, ‘OK, watch the fireworks,’ ” Alison remembered in his Air Force oral history.

In truth, he had mixed emotions. He was about to pounce on a V formation of three bombers, and he knew each carried five men, a total of 15 people. He was about to kill them all. Alison was traveling fast at this point, so he sideslipped and cut the gas in an effort to get in firing position.

“I remember saying, ‘Lord forgive me for what I am about to do,’ ” he said. In that moment, the right Japanese wingman shot up Alison—the bomber’s top turret twin guns stitching Alison’s P-40 from nose to tail. Bullets smashed his radio and burned his left arm.

The young pilot had no time to be frightened. Veering right he fired his own guns at the wingman, who pulled straight up, spewing oil. He kicked the rudder and blew up the second wingman, and then the leader. Both fell burning to the ground. Alison’s canopy was covered with oil and he knew he had to get down. He dove toward the airfield.

At 3,000 feet his engine started backfiring and flames came from under the cowling. As Alison came toward the runway in the dark, he realized he was going too fast to skid in on his belly. But the propeller was still turning and he thought he had just enough left to make it over a hill and railroad trestle to a river beyond. As he flew past the field, colleagues thought he was a goner. Seconds later they heard the sound of impact and were sure he was dead.

Alison had made the river—barely. His face slammed into the gun sight, but he didn’t black out. He rolled the canopy back and stepped out onto the wing. The P-40 sank.

In the river, he swam to a raft of logs left by a lumber cutting operation. As he approached he noticed a Chinese man running over the logs to him. He reached down, took Alison’s hand, and pulled him out. Three Chinese soldiers on the bank kept their rifles trained on him until they were sure he was American.

Eventually the Chinese sent him back to his riverside quarters in a small boat. He stepped onto a dock near the hostel where he lived and started to walk up the hill. Suddenly, six Japanese bombers came in at low altitude and blew up the dock. “They weren’t after me. They intended to bomb the airdrome but their bombs were long,” said Alison.

Years later, in the late 1950s, Alison was a customer relations official at Northrop. The firm had bought several small research firms located near Boston, and he decided to visit them to see if his services were needed. At one, Alison walked in to meet the chief engineer, a Chinese emigre. After talking with Alison, the engineer discovered this visitor had been a pilot for Chennault, stationed near Hengyang. “He looked at me and said, ‘Are you John Alison?’ ” said Alison. “I said, ‘Yes, I am.’ He said, ‘We have met. … I pulled you out of the river.’ “

In China, Alison became an ace by shooting down at least six Japanese aircraft. He also destroyed others on the ground, and flew a captured Zero.

Alison was born on Nov. 21, 1912, in the small town of Micanopy, Fla., about 12 miles outside of Gainesville. The family moved to Gainesville when he was young and he attended school there, including college (their house was blocks from the University of Florida).

As a child Alison occasionally saw barnstormers flying Jennys—the iconic Curtiss biplane. But the moment he pinpointed as the beginning of his interest in flight came during high school. A friend had a brother who was an Army Air Corps lieutenant. One day, this brother decided to buzz the town in a Curtiss P-1.

Alison was sitting in study hall. “I heard that sound and said, ‘I think that’s something I would like to do,’ ” he later remembered. His parents were not keen on the idea.

When he was a bit older, his father tried reverse psychology, figuring by allowing his son to fly, Alison might get airsick and decide against a pilot career. Alison’s father traded a used car to an acquaintance for flying lessons—but the instruction only served to hook Alison for good. Eventually his parents grew reconciled to their son becoming a pilot, though neither of them ever left the ground themselves.

Exotic Assignments

After graduating from the University of Florida in 1936 with a degree in industrial engineering, Alison tried to enlist in the Navy to serve with friends, but was rejected because he was a quarter-inch shy of the height requirement. He entered the Army Air Corps instead, with an ROTC commission, and took flight training at Randolph and Kelly Fields in Texas. Classes were small and instruction haphazard. But Alison never had doubts he would earn his wings. “Not only did I want to fly, but I appeared to have an aptitude for it,” he remembered.

Langley Field was his first assignment.

Initially Alison did not get enough flying time, but the base was also the general headquarters of the Army Air Corps, and he met many men who would become famous in World War II. Besides Spaatz, 1st Lt. Curtis E. LeMay was then living at Langley, among others. “It was still a very small community where you really had an opportunity to know people, and you had no idea they were going to be the leaders in a great war,” said Alison.

Over three years at Langley, Alison honed his flight skills in hours of air-to-air combat against colleagues. He developed a reputation as an extremely skilled pilot—someone who could fly anything and get the most out of it. This led to an exotic assignment in 1941 as war loomed: assistant air attache. The Army dispatched Alison and his friend and colleague Lt. Hubert A. “Hub” Zemke overseas to advise Britain, then the Soviet Union, on the operations and maintenance of the P-40 and other US aircraft.

Alison prepares to fly a captured Japanese Zero for the first time. He found the aircraft highly maneuverable, but fragile compared to hardy US P-40 fighters.

This experience in turn led to Alison’s first drink. In the port city of Archangel in the northwestern Soviet Union, he and Harry Hopkins were feted with a sumptuous shipboard dinner. To this point, Alison was a teetotaler. But there was nothing for it: When a Soviet general offered a toast in friendship, Alison knocked back a shot of vodka. Hopkins laughed. He had been urging his aide to take a nip for days. “Well, Alison, that shows a definite lack of character,” said Hopkins.

Alison was awed by the stoic Soviet approach to big tasks. He saw prisoners build a 5,000-foot runway entirely out of timber at a boggy site in Archangel. But he tired of the secrecy and fear which permeated dealings with Soviet counterparts. They would accept US P-40s but in return provided no information about how the airplanes would be used or the status of their air force. The experience informed his attitudes toward the USSR and the Cold War later in his career. “We went there as friends, and they were sitting on the other side of the table as adversaries,” Alison said.

The Air Commandos

He sent back letters to the US begging for a spot in a fighter squadron. After a pleasant interlude in sunny Iran, prepping A-20s and other aircraft for Soviet delivery, he got his wish. Then-Captain Alison received a telegram from Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, ordering him to the China-Burma-India theater for service in the new 75th Fighter Squadron of the 23rd Fighter Group, which had taken on the AVG Flying Tigers nickname.

Alison spent a year in China, from mid-1942 to early 1943. He rose to squadron commander and became an ace, shooting down six Japanese aircraft and destroying one on the ground, with several additional probable kills. He earned the Distinguished Service Cross and the Silver Star while flying from primitive air strips with little logistical support against a numerically superior enemy.

Lack of medical facilities for his men bothered him greatly, though. They had no doctor to tend to wounds or sickness. At one point, their Chinese cook fed them a meal cooked in inedible tung oil, incapacitating them for more than a day. “People remember how formidable America is after it is armed, but for almost two years, there were a lot of young Americans that were out there on the edges of that war holding on with their teeth, and thousands of them died because they didn’t have the proper equipment or the proper training,” Alison said. Memory of that unpreparedness was a major reason why, after the war, he became a founding father of the Air Force Association.

In China, Alison learned the value of planning and shrewd leadership. Chennault established a network of informants in his area of operations, providing US fliers with invaluable early warning of Japanese air movements. Chennault also drilled his pilots in the proper use of the fast, heavily armed P-40: Dive from altitude through enemy formations, hit, and run.

Alison flew a captured Zero, and found it a beautiful flying machine, with terrific maneuverability. But compared to US fighters, the Zero was fragile. “One of the very important things in aerial warfare is that you would like to be decisive once you get in a position to shoot your weapons,” Alison said. “The P-40 with its six .50-caliber machine guns was a decisive weapon.”

In May 1943, Alison was recalled to the United States. Arnold had a job for him: Organize and lead one of the most innovative air operations of the war. With a fellow lieutenant colonel named Philip G. Cochran (the model for the character Flip Corkin in the comic strip “Terry and the Pirates”), Alison co-commanded Operation Thursday, the airborne invasion of Burma.

Major General Alison (l) with then-Col. Gerald Johnson at Biggs AFB, Tex. Alison served in the Reserve after his time on active duty.

Alison and Cochran molded some 500 people and an assortment of more than 300 aircraft into Project 9, later known as the 1st Air Commando Group, which supported British Maj. Gen. Orde C. Wingate’s “Chindit” guerrillas. Flying L-5 light ambulance aircraft, the air commandos delivered mail and supplies to deep-penetration troops while evacuating the sick and wounded. The group was the first to employ the military’s new helicopters in operational situations, pioneered the use of rockets on P-51s, and used depth charges to attack enemy troops beneath jungle canopy.

On March 5, 1944, Alison and Cochran’s unit dispatched C-47s, towing gliders, from their base in India to a spot code-named “Broadway”—150 miles inside Burma. The gliders were packed with assault troops, mules, bulldozers, and other crucial equipment. Operation Thursday was on.

Alison was the pilot of a lead glider. The problem was, he’d never flown a glider. At least, he’d never flown a loaded glider; he had three drops in an empty one the night before. As he descended on the landing site, his copilot kept reading off the airspeed as 80 mph. Alison just could not get the aircraft to go any slower; he was supposed to be at 60 as he approached the ground.

The glider was going too fast because it was overloaded. It hit the ground and blasted through underbrush before rolling to a stop, right where he was supposed to land. “It had to be luck. … It really was a very demanding flight,” said Alison years later.

Of the 37 gliders that landed at Broadway, only three weren’t busted up in some manner after landing. But most of the cargo made it intact and the force quickly scraped out a real runway. Within days C-47s had delivered more than 9,000 of Wingate’s troops deep behind enemy lines. From there, they would bog down Japanese forces, helping head off a feared Japanese invasion of India.

Alison’s last World War II assignment was operations officer for Fifth Air Force, which was running bombing raids against the Japanese in the Philippines and Japan itself. His commander was Maj. Gen. Ennis C. Whitehead, the sort of tough chief prone to calling up and asking where the 90th Bomb Group was, or how many 500-pound bombs were stockpiled in-theater, when he already knew the answer.

Alison quickly learned the answers and earned Whitehead’s trust. At one staff meeting, Whitehead laid into his bomber commander because the latter could not get his aircraft off the airdrome fast enough. “One man in this theater can do it,” growled Whitehead. He meant Alison.

Always an Airpower Advocate

Alison got up, saluted, and went straight to the tower. He stayed for two days, working on ways to speed up runway traffic. When he was done, bomber missions were getting off in 12 minutes. On the morning of the third day, the tower phone rang. “This is General Whitehead. You can come down now,” said the voice on the other end of the line.

One day Alison began to field curious reports from crew members running missions over Japan. They involved a tremendous explosion, with smoke and flames at 50,000 feet. He called Whitehead to report all hell had broken loose at a spot near Hiroshima.

“Johnny, they have just dropped the atom bomb,” said Whitehead.

Alison (r) receives the Distinguished Service Medal presented by Gen. Bruce Holloway (l), SAC commander in chief, at Alison’s retirement ceremony in 1971. Alison retired as a special assistant to Lt. Gen. Paul Carlton (center), 15th Air Force commander. (SAF photo by TSgt. Joe Ramirez)

After the war Alison left the active duty Air Force. He would have preferred to have stayed in but his then-wife did not like the life. For a while he tried to help organize an airline. Then in 1947, he got a call from W. Averell Harriman.

Harriman, the secretary of commerce, was looking for an assistant secretary for aeronautics, and Washington Post publisher Philip L. Graham—whom Alison had met when both were University of Florida students—had suggested him for the job.

Alison served almost two years in the post. He pushed airlines away from reliance on military surplus toward new aircraft designs better suited to civilian needs. He also found time to campaign in Florida for President Harry S. Truman in the 1948 election. Subsequently he joined the Northrop Corp., from which he retired in 1984 as a vice president. He served in the Air Force Reserve through much of his post-active duty career, rising to the rank of major general, and flew as often as opportunity presented.

Even in retirement, he remained concerned about Air Force issues. Consider the experience of Mark J. Lewis, chief scientist of the Air Force from 2004 to 2008. One day during his tenure, Lewis received an inquiry asking if Alison could meet him to discuss advanced propulsion issues. Of course he could, replied Lewis—the honor would be all his.

On the day of the meeting, Lewis got a call saying Alison would be a little late. Alison was already at the Pentagon, and a wheelchair was reserved to push him down the building’s long corridors (Alison was past 90 at this point). But Alison was having none of it. He was going to walk to Lewis’ office.

Lewis was not just humoring a respected elder, either. Some of Alison’s thoughts were passed along to Air Force and Army scientists and labs for further work. After he returned to a teaching position at the University of Maryland, Lewis had Alison visit and address a class of freshmen who were considering a major in aerospace technology. Afterward, some students told Lewis it was the highlight of their year.

Alison, shown here in 1987, was AFA National President and Board Chairman.

More recently, Lewis saw Alison at an Air Force Association banquet. The famous pilot was seated at a table. Medal of Honor recipients were lined up to shake his hand.

“We are at once enriched by having known him, and impoverished by his passing,” says Hallion. “But if his presence is missed, his life will always be celebrated and treasured as a life particularly well-lived.”

Peter Grier, a Washington, D.C., editor for the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and a contributing editor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “CyberPatriot Nation,” appeared in July.