John Clayton's In the City: Third crash landing was the charm
There's an old aviation proverb that says, 'Any landing you can walk away from is a good one,' and having reached the age of 88, Col. Colin Chauret has walked away from thousands.
Three were more interesting than the others.
There was the one in England when his Lockheed T-33 trainer flamed out and he bellied down in a field, burst through some hedgerows and came to rest just yards from a cemetery.
'It woulda been real handy if we hadn't a made it,' he dead-panned.
Then there was the time at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma when his F-100D Super Sabre blew a tire on takeoff.
And then there was the one that matters the most for those of us who are gathered here today. Back on Sept. 6, 1949, Colin Chauret was going through pilot training with the 95th Fighter Squadron out of Grenier Field. At about 2:15 that afternoon, he was 8,000 feet above Lake Winnipesaukee, zipping along in his F-51 fighter at about 300 mph.
'Once we were trained, we could go up there and engage in simulated air-to-air combat,' he said, 'so I was up in that area looking for someone to tangle with. I came upon two other planes, so we were going to go at it, but when I put my throttle full forward, my engine blew and this big flame shot out.
'I told the other planes I was bailing out, and I rolled the plane,' he added. 'We had no ejection seat to get us out, so you had to jettison the canopy with a handle, undo your seat belt and then kind of slide out sideways.'
Remember that jettisoned canopy for later.
'I tried to bail, but the slipstream kept me pinned in the cockpit,' Chauret told The Manchester Evening Leader's Paul Tracy. 'I even flipped the plane over on its back and tried to fall out. No luck again.'
However, as Chauret began to lose air speed, the engine flames subsided. He radioed ahead to Grenier - Glow Worm Squadron, call no. 345 - and reported that he was going to try to make it back to the base.
'I had those other two planes escorting me,' he said, 'so I lined up on the runway and put the landing gear down, and that's when the prop seized. Folks on the ground said the flame was twice the length of the aircraft, but luckily, I was only going about 170 miles an hour, so I rolled it again, slipped out, watched the tail go by and hit the ripcord.
'I was only about 500 feet up, so I was on the ground right away,' he added. 'I was OK, but I hit so hard that every shoe string on my boots broke.'
He folded up his parachute and watched his plane burn between Grenier Field and the old Manchester Motordrome, then he caught a ride back to the base in an ambulance.
Oh, he did mangle his finger in a car door later that night - 'We had a big party on the base that night with a dance band,' he said - but in spite of his penchant for crashing, he still managed to survive his 31-year career in the military.
Now, more than 60 years later, he says he's as good as new, and so is the canopy from the F-51 that he jettisoned back in 1949. On that fateful day, Mildred Lowther was hanging laundry at her 18 Hale St. home in Exeter. She was startled when she heard rustling in an elm just a few feet away, and then the canopy came to rest near her feet.
It became a neighborhood curiosity for the Lowthers - their kids even used it one winter as a sled - but a man named Jay Berry knew he was on to something special when he recently came across it in the Lowther's garage. He enlisted the aid of his Internet-savvy dad, and within hours, Shaun Berry had made contact with one Col. Colin Chauret (USAF-Ret.) in San Antonio, Texas.
Come Saturday, Col. Chauret will be reunited with that canopy - courtesy of the Lowthers - and it's all part of a day-long celebration at the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire. It starts at 10:30 a.m. when the New Hampshire Aviation Historical Society will dedicate the new Slusser Aviation Learning Center. If you stick around until 12:15, you'll get to hear Col. Chauret tell his tale.
He's also coming to honor the memory of his best friend at Grenier Field, Capt. Elmer Kramer of the 95th Fighter Group. At the time of a deadly 1949 crash near the bombing range in New Boston, Kramer was piloting Chauret's F-51 Mustang.
'I was supposed to be leading that training run,' Chauret said.
'I had to go tell his wife that he had been killed in my plane on my mission. She was holding a five-week-old baby girl at the time.'
That baby was Kay (Kramer) Allensworth. On Saturday, Colin Chauret will see her for the first time in more than six decades.
To learn more about the weekend festivities - including Sunday's 'Canopy From Heaven' service at nearby Bethany Chapel - call the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire at 669-4820.