Flying Tigers

Destiny cover
Destiny: A Flying Tiger's Rendezvous With Fate

(Erik Shilling )

(For secondhand copies of this book, check the store)

I read a borrowed copy of Erik Shilling's memoir some years ago, and at the time I was mostly interested in what he had to say about the AVG Flying Tigers. So I skipped a lot of the earlier and later stuff, and I came down harder on the book than I would do today.

More recently, I really found myself caught up in Erik's account of his flight training in 1937. He has an excellent eye for detail and a good memory for anything relating to airplanes. Similarly, his description of the AVG barracks at Toungoo is more detailed than any other I've seen, as is his description of Chennault's rather sleazy sidekick, Butch Carney. And when he heads off to Cairo to pick up a new P-40E "Kittyhawk" for the AVG, I fully expected to find myself skipping, since I've read about these side trips many times before. But again, his nitty-gritty on what it's like to fly a P-40 over desert and through tropical weather is just too interesting to miss.

Destiny was privately published, which meant that it got no professional editing, and that's a shame. The book is full of typographical, spelling, and punctuation errors which could easily have been corrected. It also has quite a few mistakes that result from Erik's using 50-year-old memory in place of the published record. For example, he claims that the AVG invented the "Thach Weave" because he finds references to "weavers" accompanying a flight. This boneheaded theory was hashed out on the Usenet newsgroup rec.aviation.military fifteen years ago, when John Lundstrom tried and failed to convince Erik that the Thach Weave was an utterly different concept. (The RAF and AVG "weavers" prowled back and forth over the combat flight, to protect them from being bounced and to reinforce them if necessary. The Thach Weave was a tactic used by U.S. Navy carrier pilots when two of them met a lone Zero, to force the Japanese pilot to commit to one Wildcat while the other set up a couterattack.) It's as if Erik simply refused to do any research whatsoever before publishing his book.

Again, Erik goes into great detail (p. 94-95) to claim the honor of originating the AVG sharkface, inspired by a photo of a Messerschmitt Bf-110 that supposedly appeared in a Rangoon newspaper. He may have been the originator (Charlie Bond claims the honor also) but the plane he saw was certainly a Tomahawk IIB of RAF 112 Squadron, in a photo widely published in the fall of 1941. Indeed, Erik himself later (p. 140) meets some "friendly Aussie fighter pilots ... from the same group flying the shark-nosed P-40s we'd seen in the papers," as if the previous discussion had been written by someone else. There are many of these implausible moments.

After the AVG was disbanded, Erik signed on with CNAC, the Chinese airline, to fly cargo over the Hump of the Himalayas from India to China. Postwar, he flew for CAT, Chennault's airline that began as a humanitarian relief organization but morphed into a CIA front supporting military operations in Korea, Vietnam, and China. The book ends when he joins Swissair about 1960, and to my great sorrow ignores his later service as a spook pilot in the early days of the Vietnam War.

Destiny is long out of print, but often has secondhand copies for sale for fifty dollars or so. Definitely an item for the library of every fan of the Flying Tigers. Blue skies! — Dan Ford

Taildragger Tales

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Posted January 2016. Websites © 1997-2016 Daniel Ford; all rights reserved.