‘The General’ is still flying high
November 24, 2008 · Updated 6:10 PM
Veteran gained passion for flying from his service
By Nancy Hilliard
Mercer Island Reporter
“Please, God, help me through this,” was Guy Townsend’s prayer as he dodged Japanese fighters on his tail in World War II, or landed a piper cub on the dime of a Navy aircraft carrier, or performed daring maneuvers to sell the XB-47 to an Air Force general.
“I guess God answered my prayers and many others,” says Townsend, who has earned the Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with oak leaf cluster, Air Force and Army Commendation Medals, Distinguished Unit Citation Emblem (Army) and Presidential Unit Citation (Navy), among other distinctions.
The retired Air Force Brigadier General logged more than 8,000 hours flying the majority of airplanes in the U.S. military service — 5,000 in experimental flight testing. He had a 30-year career with the military and 16 years with The Boeing Company.
Even now at 87, Townsend takes an occasional spin in his Cristan Eagle, visits the Museum of Flight to see his 40-some contributed models, travels by air and cheers on the Blue Angels as they dive and roll over the Island each summer.
He lives comfortably at Covenant Shores with wife, Ann, and stays abreast of aviation through the Society of Experimental Testing Pilots, hence the “SETP” on his license plate. He can tell you all about today’s V22 Osprey, the space shuttles and the 787 Dreamliner. But these descriptions pale in comparison to his favorites.
“Airplanes are not inanimate objects,” he says. “They have personalities just like people. The role of experimental test pilots is to identify what has to be fixed and work with the engineers to find that fix.”
He clucks about his “babies,” which he either flew in service from 1941 to 1970 or helped test as program manager for Boeing from 1970-86.
“Take the F-86, my favorite of all time. You put it on and it fits perfectly. Above 15,000 feet, you are unlimited to do anything you want. Its spin recovery is remarkable. You just grab your ears and go.”
“The Blackbird SR-71 could fly from Florida to California in 45 minutes and was never touched by the enemy. It was the first stealth airplane that was difficult to see on radar — even when we flew it over Hanoi at noon every day!”
During World War II, Townsend flew 450 combat hours in B-17s and B-29s in the Pacific Theater of Operations. In addition, he flew the B-47 Stratojet, B-50 Super Fortress, B-52 Stratofortress and the 367-80 prototype of the KC-135 Stratotanker. He also tested the B-36, B-45, B-46, B-48 and B-51 aircraft.
“The workhorse of them all is the B52 that has been flown by three generations from 1952 to 2003,” said the “General,” as he’s called by his buddies. But he said the B47 bomber was “more fun — the forerunner of today’s planes. It was the Stratojet with the swept wing and podded engine that made aviation history. Its revolutionary design was the prototype for every large jet aircraft today.”
The worst aircraft he ever flew was the rubber plane that — once a compressor inflated — “flew like a loose cub. It was ultra light all right, but was unstable as all getout.”
Townsend contends that today’s high-tech electronic controls enable airplanes with undesirable personalities to get airborne. “They can even fly a barn door, but it won’t be very efficient,” says the flyboy.
Townsend breathes differently when he describes the thrill of flying and how WWII pilots and other cr