Pilot training called for split-second decision-making

Viewing a personal photo album, veteran pilot William Salo remembers Second World War flying moments.
Viewing a personal photo album, veteran pilot William Salo remembers Second World War flying moments. (SALO_PHOTO_XUETING_E)

If William Salo had miscalculated that day in the winter of 1945, it might have meant death for him and his fellow student navigator.

“It was like in a fog. I lost sight of the ground. The plane kept on dropping, but he didn’t say anything,” Salo said.

As the qualified pilot of a twin-engine Anson training aircraft, Salo was responding to the directions of his navigator. As student airmen, they found themselves in a fog bank and Salo kept waiting for the observer-in-training to give him directions through the fog.

“By this time I looked at my altimetre,” Salo said. “I got 50 feet above the ground and I was still sinking… It was too close to the ground.”

Now 92, and remembering some of his experiences as a student pilot during the Second World War in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, William Salo recalled that he went against his navigator’s guidance, throttled up and manoeuvred the aircraft higher into the sky. It ensured their safety. Salo graduated as a pilot officer in 1945, but the war had ended.

The fog incident isn’t the only life-and-death story Salo recalled from his three-year training career from 1942 to 1945. He remembered his first solo night flight in January 1944, over Vulcan, Alta.

“I was in a tremendous windstorm. The airplane was jumping up and down, 50 feet up and down. I felt like I was on the back of a horse,” he said. “And they asked me to do the circuit.”

When he finally prepared for landing, he suddenly realized he couldn’t see the runway.

“There should have been 20 lights on each side of the runway,” he said. “But … there were only four lights left on the runway. The lights on the other side were completely out.”

The runway lights set up 70 years ago were made out of little pots with fires in them. Either the wind had blown most of them out, or the pilot who landed before him had blown them out. Sall chose to fly to the left of the burning pots and landed safely.

“You don’t have the time to think. It’s reaction,” he said. “You gotta know yourself very well because people that are frightened to death, generally speaking, don’t make very good pilots. You can’t be afraid of death. You gotta look [death] right in the eye and say ‘So what?’”