Courage and coordination are just two of many qualifying attributes for commanding a World War II B-17 Flying Fortress and B-25 Mitchell. To reach that level requires successful training in flimsy Piper Cubs, PT-17 Stearmans, and shake-your-teeth-out Vultee BT-13s.
But to live when you should have died requires intervention from a higher power.
James Hutchins recalls that day.
"I was scheduled to fly solo in a BT-13 so I could practice three-turn spins."
During three-turn spins, the pilot stalls the airplane and goes full right rudder, which forces the trainer into a lethal spin. He spins three times and then slams the pedal full left rudder to pull out of the deadly gyrations.
Hutchins continues, "I hated three-turn spins. It was a perilous maneuver, so I just flew straight and level for about an hour, figuring nobody would know except me and God, and I figured God wouldn’t tell on me."
The PT-13 had failed to start early that morning.
"I had to unbuckle my seat belt and shed my parachute to find a mechanic," Hutchins recalled. "I found one, he did his thing, and I got airborne. Had I practiced the three-turn spins, I would have been thrown all over the cockpit and could not have recovered from the spins. My loved ones would have received a very sad telegram."
The reason: After the mechanic finished his repairs, Hutchins took off into the wild blue yonder, forgetting to buckle his seat belt or strap on his parachute.
Drafted at age 18
The Snellville High School graduate worked at the Sears warehouse in Atlanta for 30 cents an hour before being drafted at the age of 18 in 1943.
He said, "A buddy and I were inducted at Fort McPherson, and both of us wanted the Army Air Corps. We got it."
After basic training in Gulfport, Miss., Hutchins was assigned to a four-month college training detachment at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.
"I was in class 44K, which meant I’d graduate in November, K, of course, meaning the 11th month, and 44 meaning 1944. But by then, pilots were plentiful, so we were delayed until January of 1945."
Piloting took place at Uvalde and San Antonio, Texas.
Hutchins said, "I trained on the twin-engine Beechcraft AT-10 Wichita before reporting to Sebring, Fla., for B-17 instruction. I fell in love with the B-17."
Love or not, the B-17 wasn’t slated for much activity as the war in Europe came to a successful halt. Hutchins cross-trained on the B-25 Mitchell before instructing Brazilian pilots on the same aircraft, but the Pacific War was far from over.
"I was chosen for B-29 training," he said. "I’m sure that meant the upcoming invasion of Japan."
Two atomic bombs most likely saved his life, and millions more.
"Well, the war was over," he said. "Boys needed a ride home."
Those rides were on C-47s and even B-17 bombers. "I flew boys home. That was a very rewarding experience."
After the war, Hutchins applied at Eastern Airlines.
‘Too many pilots’
"Of course, I wanted to fly," he said. "But too many pilots were coming home. I was offered a ground crew, but that wasn’t what I wanted, so college looked good."
College was the University of Georgia and a degree in chemistry.
"My only job offer was in New Jersey, and that didn’t look good."
Next stop: the Mercer University College of Pharmacy.
"We lived in Lawrenceville at the time, but moved to Covington after I graduated so I could open my store, Hutchins Pharmacy, in 1952."
James Hutchins kept the doors open for 56 years and retired at the age of 80 in 2005.
He said, "You know, I’ve had a good life and would most likely still be working, but the church (First Baptist Church of Covington) was taking a trip to Greece. I wanted to go, so I sold the pharmacy and went to Greece."
Asked about his activities since retirement, Hutchins smiled and replied, "Absolutely nothing."
But that ain’t absolutely true.
James and Beth Hutchins stay busy playing bridge and traveling. James was recently awarded his 60-year pin from the Kiwanis Club, proudly exhibits his hand-built wooden model cars, and masterfully creates pens as a hobby.
This journalist received as a gift an exquisite pen made of Bethlehem Olive with the Christian fish symbol as the pocket clip.
Oh, I forgot to mention — during this phase of doing "absolutely nothing," Hutchins reconstructed a 1928 Ford Model A Roadster from the ground up.
Just thinking about his "absolutely nothing" makes me tired.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at email@example.com or aveteransstory.us.