U.S.M.C. F4F Wildcat, F6F Hellcat & F4U Corsair Pilot
Retired Marine Captain Burrel Sumner may not be physically able to fly with us in this year’s air show, but he will be with us in spirit. I met Captain Sumner in May 2011, when I had the honor of flying him in my Stearman during the second day of the Centennial of Naval Aviation Air Show at NAS Pensacola.
Burrel Sumner was raised in Liberty County, Florida, a rural area west of Tallahassee. He was one of nine brothers. After graduating from high school he was offered a basketball scholarship, but the lingering effects of the Great Depression convinced him to enlist in the Marine Corps in 1939. After completing boot camp at the Marines’ luxurious resort at Parris Island, South Carolina, he was sent to Quantico, Virginia where he trained to be a crane operator.
While stationed at Quantico he was assigned as the personal driver for Colonel (later General) Roy S. Geiger, who was Marine aviator #5. This assignment led to his first airplane flight with Major Frances Evans, who was Marine aviator #4. Although Burrel had known from the 10th grade that he wanted to fly, he also knew that he couldn’t be a military pilot without two years of college education.
Things changed after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The Marine Corps asked if he wanted to go to flight school. When he said he couldn’t go to flight school because he didn’t have a college education, the Marine Corps’ response was, “What part of we need pilots didn’t you understand?”
Burrel was selected for the first class of enlisted pilots. In 1942 this group, later renowned as the “Flying Master Sergeants,” was sent to the University of Georgia for initial academic training. After successfully completing flight training he received his wings as a Naval Aviation Pilot at NAS Pensacola in April 1943.
During World War II he flew Marine fighter aircraft including the F4F Wildcat, the F6F Hellcat and the F4U Corsair, which was his favorite. Assigned to squadron VMF-422 on Midway, he piloted Corsairs on bomb runs against Japanese forces in the Marshall Islands. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross and three Air Medals, all for bravery in combat in the Pacific. He remained on active duty in the Marine Corps after the war, eventually retiring as a Captain with more than 7,100 flight hours in Marine Corps fixed wing aircraft.
The first day of the Centennial of Naval Aviation Air Show, Tuesday 10 May 2011, was flown under low clouds that threatened to ground all but the legacy airplanes. Fortunately, a strong cold front blew through Pensacola that night and Wednesday morning was clear blue sky with a strong north wind.
On Wednesday former Navy pilot Jerry Hedrick and I were scheduled to fly two World War II veterans, Capt. Sumner and well known Pensacola historian and Army veteran John Appleyard, in our Stearmans. The day before we had flown the show at 300 feet, but we decided this was too high for the crowd to get a good view so Wednesday’s show would be flown at 150 feet.
Because of the strong wind we loaded Capt. Sumner and John Appleyard into the Stearmans before rolling them out of the Navy hangar. Once cleared for takeoff the Stearmans rolled less than 75 feet before they were in the air.
Jerry is a great formation pilot and quickly tucked in on my wing as we climbed out. The show line was south of the seawall at a pavilion east of NAS Sherman Field, so we were in front of the crowd after only a few minutes flight.
The strong north wind required a large crab angle to fly parallel to the crowd line and we were kicked around severely by the low level turbulence that always accompanies a strong cold front. I was glad Capt. Sumner was securely strapped in as he kept leaning over the side of the cockpit, waving furiously to the crowd while grinning ear-to-ear.
After three passes along the show line we returned to Sherman Field and landed. After taxiing to the ramp and shutting down, I got out of the rear cockpit and stood on the wing walk to help Capt. Sumner remove his cloth helmet and get unstrapped.
Knowing he understood nothing I had done caused the rough flight, I jokingly said, “Captain, I apologize for the rough ride.” Still grinning ear-to-ear, he looked at me and said, “Son, nobody was shooting at us -- this was a great flight.”
Left: Captain Burrel Sumner talks with Stearman pilot Jerry Hedrick after his flight during the Centennial of Naval Aviation Air Show.
Captain Sumner - Thank you for being with us in spirit last year. Hope you’re up for flying in July.