A friend and I swap obituaries. Well, that’s not exactly worded correctly. Rather, we swap stories about interesting, or funny, or odd obituaries we read in our local newspapers. She lives in Northern California and I in Southern California. Yesterday she sent me a snippit from her newspaper’s obituary section which was about a retired aviator, and the term “flew west” was used in it. She asked me if I had ever heard of that expression. I had not.In the old westerns cowboys often rode off “into the sunset” which might have simply have been a way to end the film but it also could have signified the end of his life. “Flew west” probably meant about the same, but I wondered when that term had first been connected to the end of a pilot’s life. I asked Google.
I have to be very careful when I Google anything. What might be expected to take a short period of time can sometimes take me on amazing trips – sometimes a wild goose chase where I don’t get the answer I was looking for but where I learn a whole bunch of really interesting things. Yesterday’s hunt was an example. And for yesterday’s efforts, here’s today’s blog about what I learned.
From the Google hits I first read this, from Wikipedia:
Flight 19 was the designation of five TBM Avenger torpedo bombers that disappeared on December 5, 1945 during a United States Navy overwater navigation training flight from Naval Air Station Fort Lauderdale, Florida. All 14 airmen on the flight were lost, as were all 13 crew members of a PBM Mariner flying boat assumed by professional investigators to have exploded in mid-air while searching for the flight. Navy investigators could not determine the cause for the loss of Flight 19 but said the aircraft may have become disoriented and ditched in rough seas after running out of fuel.
Why does Google pick it up? Because in the Wikipedia article there is this sentence: “About the same time someone in the flight said "Dammit, if we could just fly west we would get home; head west, dammit.
Fly west to safety? To home? Did the term “Fly West” predate 1945 or did it arise out of this report? I don’t know. Perhaps someone can tell me for sure.
After reading this I looked further at Google’s suggested list. On it was a website called “Great Aviation Quotes” – and there, big as life, is a poem called “Flying West.” Now reading this particular poem did not move me any closer to my quest for clarification of the term, but reading these quotes, many pertaining to World War II flying, couldn’t help but remind me of my Uncle Bert, who in 1944 flew a B-17 Bomber from the Kimbolton RAF air base north of Bedford in bombing raids over Germany. He was one of the lucky survivors, though one of the planes he piloted barely made it home. Shown below is his plane being inspected just after it crash-landed on the runway.
In this website’s collection of quotes is a poem written during that war by Sarah Churchill, Winston Churchill’s daughter. I had not heard of it before, but I can imagine it pertaining to my Uncle Bert.
by Sarah Churchill
Gleaming and proud in the morning sky
Or lying awake in bed at night
I hear them pass on their outward flight
I feel the mass of metal and guns
Delicate instruments, deadweight tons
Awkward, slow, bomb racks full
Straining away from downward pull
Straining away from home and base
And try to see the pilot's face
I imagine a boy who's just left school
On whose quick-learned skill and courage cool
Depend the lives of the men in his crew
And success of the job they have to do.
And something happens to me inside
That is deeper than grief, greater than pride
And though there is nothing I can say
I always look up as they go their way
And care and pray for every one,
And steel my heart to say,
"Thy will be done."
The culmination of my now side-tracked investigation of the term “Flying West” then reminded me of the ceiling of the American Chapel at the Madingley Cemetery in England. I went to this chapel, which is in the same general area as Kimbolton, in 1985, not knowing anything about it. The small section I was able to photograph does an injustice to the designers of that chapel ceiling; they had, with thousands of little tiles, created a gorgeous blue sky. Every kind of American airplane was in that sky, all flying toward Europe; interspersed among them and flying with them were angels, with their arms outstretched. Around the edge was wording that said, “To the men of the United States Army Air Force who from these friendly shores flew their final flight.”
I did a blog on that American Cemetery and chapel on March 30, 2009 if you want to read more about it.
It’s true, I have the gist of what “flying west” means but I’d still like to know where the term originated. I certainly learned a whole lot trying to get there! And gosh, all this is SO MUCH FUN