Articles, Interviews & Stories
ERIK SHILLING: A FORMER FLYING TIGER LOOKS
ON THE AMERICAN VOLUNTEER GROUP
PHOTOGRAPHS BY LANI MUCHE
Recently, thanks to The Air Museum Planes of Fame in Chino, CA, a former member of the famed Flying Tigers got a chance to once more take to the air in P-40. Erik Shilling, former member of the American Volunteer Group (AVG), The Flying Tigers, is a lively, outspoken man whose flying career has spanned almost 50 years. During that time he flew with the Army Air Corps, the AVG, China National Aviation Corporation, private airlines and the U.S. government. His flying experiences have ranged from dropping agents in Mainland China during the Korean War and supplying the beleaguered French garrison at Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam, to building and flying his own Formula One Air Racer in the races at Reno in 1969, in which he placed fourth. This was the first time in almost 60 years, however, that he has flown in a P-40. A friendly outspoken man, he is most happy to talk about his years with the Flying Tigers, especially in light of all the misinformation which has circulated about that famous group.
The Flying Tigers did not see action until after America's entry into the war. One of their first engagements was against a Japanese flight attempting to bomb their main base at Kun Ming, China. The AVG intercepted the flight about 75 miles from the city and inflicted heavy losses on the enemy. This was the last time that the Japanese attempted to bomb the city during the war.
What made the Flying Tigers such an effective force? Shilling feels that it was Chenault, "...not because we were such hot rod pilots. It was Chenault's training, his tactics and his superior knowledge of the Japanese pilots and planes that gave us the edge." The AVG racked up an impressive 70:1 kill ratio with 296 confirmed victories. "No other outfit has ever come close."
Over the years there has been some controversy over the number of kills awarded to the Tigers but each victory was confirmed by the Chinese government. "The reason they were so careful to confirm each claim is that we were being paid a bonus for each plane shot down."
Shilling's view concerning the merits of the P-40 vs the Zero leaves no doubt as to which he considers the superior aircraft. "If you look up maneuverable in Webster's Dictionary, by all criteria the P-40 was more maneuverable." The aircraft, actually a model H81-A2 similar to the P-40B, had originally been set up for British machine guns. They were shipped to China without armament and U.S. 30 cal. guns were installed by the AVG crews. "The P-40 was faster (354 mph with combat load vs a little over 300 for the Zero), the roll rate at 240-280 mph was 3 times faster and the aircraft could outdive the Zero." In talking with Saburo Sakai, he was told that the Japanese pilots didn't like to dive the airplane at much over 350 mph. Apparently at anything much over that the control surfaces would stiffen and the skin on the wings would wrinkle, causing, as Sakai put it 'the pilot much concern'. "I many times dove to 480 mph. We didn't have any reservations about taking the plane to its red line." Shilling did admit that the Zero had a much smaller turning radius but "we didn't dogfight with them. Why should we when we had the speed advantage?" The AVG used hit-and-run tactics which worked very well, as the numbers show. "We attacked whenever we had the speed advantage. If we got into trouble we would simply dive away."
While the pilots always tried to keep each other in sight, that wasn't always possible. A pilot had to be able to react to whatever situation he found himself in. "We tried to fly in sections but that usually didn't work because we were so outnumbered."
The P-40, like any other fighter aircraft, did have its share of maintenance problems, but these were due primarily to the lack of spare parts, particularly tires and spark plugs, which were hard to obtain. The P-40 was hard on spark plugs and would foul them at low power settings. The only way to clear them was to raise power. "During escort and ferry missions when we were forced to go slow, the plugs would foul. To clear them we would drop the gear so that we used a higher power setting."
Lacking radar to warn them of approaching aircraft, the squadron used a number of watching posts manned by the Chinese to help them locate enemy aircraft. These posts, set up on a pre-set grid position, would radio the location and the number of enemy planes, if possible. If they were unable to see the aircraft, they would then simply report light, medium or heavy engine noise. Though primitive, the system did work and gave the pilots at least a rough intercept vector.
The system was also used in reverse to help locate downed pilots, a fact that became very crucial to Shilling when he went down on a remote mountain top early in his tour. "The area was so far removed that they had never seen a caucasian before. They knew I wasn't Chinese and here I come down in a plane with guns on it. They assumed I was Japanese." In this instance, the famed "Blood Chit" wasn't any help because no one in the village could read. Luckily, personnel from the listening station came and got him before anything could happen. "I was quite concerned because they were getting increasingly belligerent." At the time of that particular incident, the squadron's planes were still unmarked as there had not yet been time to apply the Chinese National Insignia nor even plane numbers. "The plane number was in whitewash water color and if you flew through rain even that would come off."
Many people wonder where the idea for the shark mouth marking came from. Shilling was actually the first one to apply the mouth after he got the idea from seeing a picture of a German aircraft with that marking. His aircraft was unique in having the only painting with a blue outline - the others were outlined in black. "I just used what paint was available at the time. The blue came from the Chinese crew that was painting the Chinese rondel. The red came from the guy that was painting the Hell's Angel girl and I used the paint from that."
Shilling also feels that the Flying Tigers name probably came from an incident in the bar at the Silver Grill in Rangoon. A UP article with the by-line McGrath and a 23 December 1941, Rangoon dateline relates a conversation in the bar in which a recent air engagement was being discussed by a number of correspondents. The AVG had just downed a number of planes and someone remarked that "those bastards fought like tigers." An unnamed woman, reported to be from Life Magazine, is said to have replied, "Yeah, Flying Tigers", and the name stuck.
The famous AVG emblem which shows a winged tiger leaping from a tilted V was designed by the Walt Disney Studios, many stories say by Walt Disney himself. Shilling has been unable to document this as the original records are missing from the Disney Archives. The studio sent the emblem to the squadron as decals which they then applied to the planes.
Fifty years after they made aviation history, it was finally revealed that the AVG was a U.S. government sponsored covert operation, financed through Lend-Lease. In 1991 the Flying Tigers were given veteran's status, a Presidential Unit Citation, and all medals and awards due to them.
As has been stated, Erik Shilling's flying career did not end with the AVG and he is in fact still active in general aviation today. He is an intelligent, knowledgeable, charming and outspoken gentleman who is willing to share his experiences and discuss aviation with anyone who is interested. When queried about his plans for the future, Shilling wasn't sure but, whatever he decides, you can be sure it will be interesting.
Former "Flying Tigers" Dick
Rossi (l) and Erik Shilling (r) in front
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