Monday, August 22, 2016

Blackie - A Biography of Captain Harold F. Blackburn by William F. Cass
While the author would be the last writer to minimize the contributions made by fighter and bomber pilots in World War II, the fact remains that those two categories have almost been over-published. Blackie's wartime journeys highlight the contributions made by two largely ignored types of pilots: those flying transport and photo-reconnaissance aircraft. Without the support of the latter two types of aviators, the former pilots would have been hard-pressed to achieve as much as they did.
As with any good drama, Blackie is the protagonist facing many antagonists: a broken family, conflict over what he wants to do with his life, the Army Air Corps which initially rejected his flight training application, the Great Depression into which an unemployed Blackie was thrust, and military bureaucracy which thwarted his attempts to go on active duty during World War II. Other forces shaping Blackie's life, beyond his intense flying experiences in World War II, include Lady Luck who fatally abandoned so many of his pilot friends, his employer Trans World Airlines which was its own worst enemy, and what is today's Federal Aviation Administration with its rules on airline pilot retirement age. Trans World Airlines forms a major, frequently self-destructive character in this book and is the source of deep frustration for Blackie, who is grateful for being hired by the company during the Great Depression and simultaneously repelled by its corporate waste and board room intrigue...

Captain Harold F. Blackburn,
A Pioneering, Twentieth Century Pilot
In Peace and War

William F. Cass

It was intriguing to me for the author to set the tone of this book as if it were fiction. Blackie, of course, is the main character, but Cass looks at other people in his life as if they were major or minor characters and even casts some as antagonists...

In fact, the book really starts with the Introduction, one you might call a synopsis of the book, but what you will immediately note is the style of writing Cass uses. It's personable, humanistic, friendly... Cass even notes that he came to look upon his main character as a relative, "something between a young grandfather and an older uncle." He explains that the book research and writing became somewhat addictive. I detected, even, some hero-worship of our main character. And, like many of us, the result in the author's writing comes across in a true desire to share this man's story.
For those who enjoy memoirs and biographies, you should note that not only is the book full of history, but it feels like you are reading the story as if Cass is sitting, bragging about this man who he knew... It's highly recommended!

With the first chapter providing the personal background of Blackie, noting that Blackie's parents would move around--his father looked for places to find a better financial future, but he also had a pioneering spirit. During that time, Blackie graduated from Mitchell High School in June 1919 but almost immediately contracted rheumatic fever... Fighting through these health issues and other matters delayed his entry to college in 1920.

At that point, I was pleasantly surprised to learn of his musical interests! He had put together a small dance band, which became very popular, called Blackie's Bunch.

Then he found a home at the National Guard Armory in Mitchell, having joined the National Guard, where he began his early military activities. And then began college at Colorado AandM and also joining the Army ROTC...

Merging his education with his music career he was moving from dance group to another, soon becoming part of a professional band called The Silver State Serenaders. He was playing during the time of jazz, the Charleston, flappers, and "speakeasies, etc. But Blackie was a strong proponent of the new music...

As a young musician, Blackie was playing in what could easily be described as one of the most significant periods in American music - an era when the Jazz Age was rapidly gathering momentum in mainstream America...Blackie was a strong proponent of the new music that was frequently met with disapproval, especially by young musicians' elders because it was easily associated with "alarming" trends, i.e., availability of alcohol at speakeasies, "flappers" dancing the Charleston, loose morals, etc. Blackie was playing in a geographic part of the country that was still far from universal electrification, thus the availability of phonograph players in many rural homes...

Once Blackie had enough money to consider his options, "the sky" was back in his mind.
He was soon taking flying lessons and learned that war surplus Jennies were on sale...

And went back to playing in order to get the money to buy his own plane!

I must admit that I was enjoying all the information about bands at that time, but that is such a minor part of the book itself...

It was in 1930 when Blackie's focused was on military aviation. He resigned from the Coast Guard in order to enlist in the Army. But it was also the time that the depression was deepening.  He was an Aviation Cadet but the training required soon resulted in the need for the use of private training academies for the pilots needed for war time. Blackie, because of his background, training and overall record went to fly Bombers after he'd graduated.
All cadets could ask for what specialization they hoped for after graduation, but it was the commanding officer who made final decisions. Thus, the youngest, most aggressive pilots typically went to pursuit squadrons while older pilots noted for attention to detail and possessing superior navigation skills and determination went to bombers. Blackie, fitting the latter to a tee, was destined for the heavy brigades long before he was even asked for his own opinion on future assignments.

Destined for a life in the sky, his time with TWA and so much more awaited, including photo reconnaissance which sounded so intriguing... This is a massive book of 460 pages plus, and includes both a bibliography and extensive index for easy reference of the book. It is certainly a possible library addition for those in aviation and is bound to be a must-read for many war historians as well as private corporation pilots. 

I was sorry to see that Blackie's career ended on a note of sorrow, as mine did. It is hard to accept that with the professional credentials of this man, that he was faced with mandated retirement, again as I was...It's hard to understand why America's employers throw away their effective, efficient long-term employees... I found, as the author did, that I came to empathize with as well as admire this American pilot simply called...Blackie...


Hal Blackburn and His Orchestra had a diverse repertoire that numbered nearly 150 different pieces of music...There were two other songs which may have been indicative of what was starting to become an obsession: Beyond the Clouds and I'll Fly to Hawaii...

William F. Cass is retired from a career in advertising and public relations where a number of his clients participated in civil and military aviation markets. He was educated at Washington College with a B.A. in Economics and at Syracuse University from which he received an M.B.A. in Marketing. He is a former commercial pilot and has been a student of aviation history since childhood. Those experiences were of particular value in two of his previous aviation book projects: The Last Flight of Liberator 41-1133 and Alaska’s Father Goose, the biography of Alaskan naval aviator, bush pilot, and airline captain, Gerald “Bud” Bodding.
Bill’s wife, the former Sarah Mumford, is a graduate of Washington College and the University of Maryland. She is a retired American history teacher. They reside in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and have two grown children and several grandchildren. Among his interests are: all matters aeronautical, fishing, writing, golf, duck hunting, fine woodworking, and travel.

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