Paul McClain (2016 - 2018)
Army Air Corps B-29 Pilot
Veteran’s Flight 2015 was named “The Final Mission” because we mistakenly believed 2015 would be the last year we would have enough World War II veterans to make the flights. Some of you will remember that Army Air Corps pilot Paul McClain flew the day before his 99th birthday. About two weeks after that flight he called and said, “I’ve been thinking. I really want to fly again next year for my 100th birthday.”
After telling Paul to look at the official Veterans Flight 2015 golf shirt we gave him and reminding him we named last year’s flights “The Final Mission” because the veterans were rapidly aging out, I told him there was no way I could say “no” to his request and we would definitely do something in 2016, but it might not be as big an event as 2015. (In 2015 eleven Stearmans came to Pensacola for Veterans Flight, which was the largest number of Stearmans that had flown over Pensacola since World War II).
I don’t know how Paul arranged it, but he somehow convinced the Santa Rosa Island Authority and the Blue Angels to accommodate his wish for a true 100th birthday celebration by moving the date of the 2016 Pensacola Beach Air Show one week later on the calendar than the 2015 show. As a result of the later date, Paul was able to leave his 100th birthday astern on Monday 11 July, making him truly 100+ years old when he flew that Friday.
Paul McClain was the oldest veteran who flew with Veterans Flight – 2015, and he retained that title when he flew again in 2016 and 2017. Born 11 July 1916, in Cincinnati, Ohio, he claimed he wasn’t a good student in elementary and high school as his interests were focused on sports and the outdoors. Still in high school during the Great Depression, he worked for the Carrier Corporation installing air conditioning units in movie theatres and office buildings in the Cincinnati area.
Paul joined the Ohio National Guard’s “Horse Calvary” in 1934, shortly after his 18th birthday. War soon loomed on the horizon and his unit was federalized for active duty and garrisoned at Tullahoma, Tennessee. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, his unit was transferred to California where it patrolled coastal areas.
While in California he applied, and was selected, for the Army Air Corps aviation cadet program. He graduated from cadet training on 1 July 1943 as a fighter pilot, having received 10 hours of training in the Curtis P-40 “Warhawk” at Luke Field, Arizona. At that time his total flight experience was only 250 flight hours.
His first assignment was to the Military Air Transport Service (MATS), which had the mission of delivering aircraft from the factories where they were produced to combat areas where they were needed. His first mission was to deliver a P-51 Mustang from North American Aviation’s factory in Los Angeles to New Jersey for shipment to Europe. Never having flown a Mustang, he was given a P-51 pilot’s operating manual and taken to the airplane. He read the manual, got the airplane started, and headed for New Jersey where he safely arrived several days later.
His next assignment sent him to the Bell Aircraft factory in Niagara Falls, New York where he picked up a new P-39 “Airacobra” that he flew to Fairbanks, Alaska. He delivered the P-39 to the ferry squadron that would fly it across Alaska and the Bering Sea to Russia.
After each delivery, Paul had to pack his parachute and clothes and find his way back to Los Angeles by hitching rides on military aircraft.
Although he had been trained as fighter pilot, in early 1944 he was transferred to multi-engine aircraft. His first multi-engine assignment was to fly a Mitchell B-25 bomber to Australia. He was later assigned to “Eastern” airlines in Washington, D.C., where he flew VIP’s and classified material.
He was eventually checked out in the Curtis C-46 “Commando” transport, which was followed by a transfer to Accra in British West Africa. He was then sent to the CBI (China, Burma, India theatre) where he flew engines and other vital cargo until the Japanese surrendered and the war came to an end.
He was discharged after the war, but soon returned to the Air Force where he was assigned to MATS and the Air and Airways Communications Service (AACS) that operated and maintained critical electronic equipment in the Pacific. With AACS he flew C-54 “flight check” aircraft thorough out the Pacific. After five years with AACS he was transferred to the air weather service where he flew B-29’s in Alaska. His final assignment was to MATS headquarters at Scott AFB in Illinois before he retired from the Air Force in 1963.
Paul continued to fly after retiring from the Air Force, and in 1970 moved to Hawaii where he spent the next 10 years flying Twin Beech 18’s for an air tour company. He retired from active flying in 1980, but called me after Veterans Flight 2015 to tell me he was looking forward to another Stearman flight over Pensacola Beach in July 2016 to celebrate his 100th birthday.
On Sunday, 10 July 2016, Paul’s neighbors at the Bayshore Condominiums put together a wonderful celebration for his 100th birthday. More than 100 friends and family attended.
On behalf of Veterans Flight I was honored to present him two framed photographs taken during his 2015 flight in Bill Ross’s Army Air Corps PT-17.
Although at that time Veterans Flight did not have a Board of Directors to officially approve it, this established a tradition that Veterans Flight will similarly honor all veterans who fly with us and celebrate their 100th birthdays.
Paul flew us again in 2017 at the age of 101. As he was leaving the flight line he said he hoped to join us again for Veterans Flight 2018. He almost did, coming up just three months short.
Paul McClain died 10 April 2018 at the age of 101.