Old and Bold Pilots

Founder Story by Kip Cooper reprinted from The San Diego Union Newspaper, published Monday, January 29, 1979.


There are pilots who are old and there are pilots who are bold, but there are no pilots who are both old and bold.

This is the Navy way of saying careful pilots live to a ripe old age.

Retired Navy Cmdr. Carlton Palmer of San Carlos is living proof that there are exceptions to every rule.

Palmer was one of the pioneers in naval aviation, having made the first landing in a military-type plane on the Navy’s first aircraft carrier: the Langley, commissioned in March 1922 following its conversion from the collier Jupiter.

He has made dead-stick landings in treetops, cornfields, and tidal flats.

He flew off battleships before the days of catapults, after helping construct a 51-foot runway atop a gun turret.

Palmer, who will celebrate his 89th birthday Feb. 11, said in an interview that fewer than 10 of the early naval aviators of his era are still alive.

Still hale and hearty, with a firm handshake and a steady voice, Palmer has suffered a hearing loss as a result of open-cockpit dive-bombing.

He says his memory is fading, but he speaks with accuracy and affection of the old days of aviation.

Palmer became interested in flying while serving on the old auxiliary cruiser Dixie during the Mexican revolution.

“We were stationed about 10 miles from the mouth of the Tampico River to stop gunrunners trying to get arms to Pancho Villa,” Palmer recalled.

“No one on our ship had liberty and the water was covered with oil, so there was no fishing (a favorite pastime of sailors in that day).

“Then our ice machine broke down, our frozen meat and vegetables spoiled and we were down to eating our limited canned goods.”

“We got mail once a month. Then a Mexican schooner came by loaded with watermelons and we bought all of them and we lived on watermelons for a week.”

Palmer said about that time, the Navy was asking for aviation volunteers.

“So, I said to myself it would be fun to fly an airplane. And it couldn’t be any worse than this.”

Palmer was sent to Pensacola, Fla., for flight training, becoming naval aviator No. 116, although he had begun training months earlier than some aviators with lower numbers.

That happened, said Palmer, because the Yale University Class of 1916 wanted to get into aviation. That class was trained by the Royal Flying Corps in Canada in about a month, graduating before the aviators then training in Florida.

Palmer said he made 23 of the first 99 landings on the Langley, using training-type planes. In the winter of 1921, he made the first landing on the Langley.

“You may have a little trouble with the Navy on that,” Palmer said, “because they don’t want to admit that. But it’s true.” (The Navy lists the first landing as occurring in 1922.)

“We built the arresting gear on the Langley ourselves and we practiced landings on the Langley while it was anchored in Chesapeake Bay.

“We made the landings while the ship was anchored because there was an economy wave at the time and the Navy didn’t want to burn the oil to take the Langley out to sea.”

Palmer stayed on the Langley two years and then went aboard the Saratoga, which traveled through the then-new Panama Canal and came to San Diego.

There was a lot of opposition from senior officers in the Navy to the air arm in those days and battleships were the admirals’ favorite warship, Palmer recalled.

During one exercise about 400 miles off Hawaii in the pioneer days of naval aviation, Palmer said a non-aviation admiral insisted that the pilots speed up their takeoff intervals from 15 seconds to eight seconds.

“You can understand that when we got down to eight-second intervals each plane was taking off in the slipstream of the one ahead,” Palmer said.

He said a young pilot behind him was blown into the ocean by the slipstream from Palmer’s plane and drowned despite the efforts of another pilot who dived 60 feet from the deck of the ship into the water, swimming underwater after the rapidly sinking plane.

The second man in the two-seat VE-7 plane was rescued by the other pilot.

Palmer said that after World War I, “we brought back three British airplanes on the battleship Texas and long before the days of catapults we build a 51-foot platform over the No. 2 gun turret, the highest from the water.

“We flew off the platforms all winter under our own power and no one was injured.

“We had radios and we would spot for the battleships; but we couldn’t land on the Texas, so we landed on tidal flats in Cuba.

“We lived in an old Spanish battery that had no water, toilets, or electricity.”

Palmer said the plan was to land the planes on the mud flats, bring a motorboat from the Texas to shore and then have sailors lift the places into the boats, where they would be taken to the Texas and hoisted back aboard.

The first attempt to land on the mudflats was a disaster, Palmer recalls. His commanding officer, a Lt. Cmdr. Eddie McDonnell, was piloting the plane and Palmer was riding the back seat.

McDonnell hit the top of a tree and spun off into the brush about 6 feet high.

“We carried an axe in each plane in those days and McDonnell yelled for me to get an axe and chop him out of there.”

After they dragged the plane back to the mudflats, he said, McDonnell took off and hit the top of another tree. The plane nosedived into the ground, knocking McDonnell out and throwing Palmer about 50 feet through the air into the brush.

“I wasn’t hurt, but McDonnell was unconscious and bleeding. And the plane was a total wreck.”

After sailors cleared away much of the brush, planes landed on the flats without further incident.

Palmer said the Navy was lenient with its pilots after World War I, allowing them to use their airplanes to take sightseeing and hunting and fishing trips.

One Saturday, Palmer flew to an island in the James River of the Capt. John Smith – Pocahontas legend to fish, and was returning to his base in Virginia when his engine conked out.

He made a dead-stick landing in a cornfield. Just as the plane was coming to a halt, the engine started up again so he took off.

“That was a bad mistake because the engine quit again over a heavily wooded area and I had no alternative but to land.

“I hit the top of a great big tree. The plane spun around 180 degrees and then drifted down through the trees and hit the ground. The airplane was a complete wreck but I didn’t have a scratch.”

Palmer has been married 64 years to Marie Bailey, great-granddaughter of the man who owned Bailey’s Corner, then a 1,000-acre farmland and now the site of a huge apartment complex in Virginia near Washington, D.C., that bears his name.