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Pilot offers glimpse of past

Author and WWII fighter pilot says German pilots rarely fired at ejected fliers, calling aviation a 'gentleman's war.'

September 04, 2010|By Joseph Serna, joseph.serna@latimes.com
  • Robert J. Goebel appears in an old photograph when he was 21 years old. Goebel is a former fighter pilot who shot down 11 enemy aircraft while flying his P-51 Mustang "Flying Dutchman" during World War II.
Robert J. Goebel appears in an old photograph when he was… (KENT TREPTOW, Daily…)

Unlike the mythical ship doomed to sail forever without reaching port, this Flying Dutchman is welcomed wherever it goes.

Saturday at the Lyons Air Museum at John Wayne Airport, P-51 ace Capt. Bob Goebel met local history buffs and admirers as he signed copies of his book retelling his exploits over Europe during World War II.

"It makes you feel appreciated, it's a very nice touch," Goebel said. "I don't feel particularly special, but I'm proud of what I did."

What Goebel did was down 11 German pilots in his P-51, a long-range, single-seat fighter nicknamed the Cadillac of the sky.

"I'm afraid the 51 requires a place in history," he said, sitting in front of one of the few still able to fly. "It really turned the tide of the air war with its long legs."

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Before the P-51 was in action, fighter pilots could escort bombers only to within about 100 miles of the target before they had to turn back because of fuel, leaving the massive planes unprotected during their drops.

With the P-51's external fuel tanks, they could go the distance, flying eight-hour missions at times.

With the plane and Goebel there Saturday, people said they were compelled to get a look at the past up close.

"It's the real history of the country," said Madeline Ryan of Costa Mesa. "We wouldn't be where we are today without them."

Ryan said her brother was shot down flying over Europe in a P-51. Saturday was her first time seeing the plane up close.

Huntington Beach resident Jim Toner looked as fascinated by the plane as his sons did Saturday.

"It was awesome for its time," Toner said, just finished looking at the underbelly of the engine. "It's amazing these things could survive all those missions over Germany."

If the plane didn't survive a dogfight, there was always a chance the pilot could eject and try again another day, Goebel recalled. He got shot down once too.

Though a parachuting pilot makes for an easy target, few enemies capitalized on it, he said.

"Well if you have 30,000 pilots out there, you're going to have two or three who've just had their homes bombed or had a friend killed the day before who might go after you," he said. "But that was rare. Aviation was a gentleman's war."

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