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Taking flight
A passion for planes
A vintage helmet from the Korean War.

Warwick Korean War veteran Stan Essex, who served as a plane captain for F9F Panthers aboard an aircraft carrier during the Korean War, is going to be inducted into the Rhode Island Aviation Hall of Fame next week, at the 10th Annual Hall of Fame Dinner at the Scottish Rite Masonic Center in Cranston, and there is nobody involved with the RIAHOF who doesn’t think he deserves to be there.

Stan has been a volunteer with the USS Saratoga Museum Foundation from the beginning and has been the chief restorer at the museum workshop in North Kingstown. He is there most days, painstakingly restoring aircraft and the objects that relate to naval aviation in anticipation of finding a permanent home for the objects. Right now, a 38-foot model of the USS Nevada, a battleship that was purposely grounded during the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor to keep a channel clear for other ships to escape the harbor. The model is already outgrowing the workshop.

“Right now, the model is eight to 10 feet higher than the ceiling,” said Essex, which calls for a level of improvisation in its construction, something the original ship inspired as well. “There have been a number of variations in the design,” said Essex. “The problem is, the pictures we have of the ship might not be current to what it was at Pearl Harbor. The ship has undergone a lot of modifications over the years.”

Two years ago, Essex was the chief of restoration for an F9F Panther fighter plane, a plane that he was trained to repair while he served in the Navy for four years, from 1950 to 1954. He was the equivalent of a crew chief for the mechanics that maintained and repaired Panthers that were getting shot at over North and South Korea. He took the work very seriously.

“In the air, the plane belongs to you,” he recalled telling the pilots, who were very possessive of their aircraft, “but down here, on the carrier, they belong to me.”

In the infancy of carrier-based jet aircraft, people like Essex had to adjust to problems as they arose, such as installing nylon nets to catch the planes in case the tailhook missed the landing line to keep planes from smashing into each other on deck. He also recalled noticing how hard the slam that the rear end of the Panther received on landing. That jarring experience routinely raised the paint on rivets and weakened the tail assembly. He started reinforcing the spine of the fuselage, just in front of the tail section to prevent the distortion.

“When the tail got bent, even a little bit, it threw the controls out of whack,” he said. “It was somewhat like how your car drives when it is out of alignment and you are constantly compensating with controls to keep it straight. It’s not necessarily the worst thing that a pilot had to deal with, but any distraction while you are taking off or landing on a carrier is not good.”

The practice spread to Panther crews everywhere and, in spite of Essex waving it off, it would be impossible to estimate how much grief that spared pilots and the crews that greeted returning planes. Essex was the logical choice to restore a Panther to honor Red Sox slugger Ted Williams, who flew Panthers in the Korean War. Williams interrupted his fabled baseball career twice to fly Navy planes in World War II and Korea.

“Ted was quite a talent,” Essex says. “He was as good a pilot as he was a baseball player. It is an honor to be able to work on this project dedicated to his accomplishments.”

USS Saratoga Museum Foundation brought the pieces of a crashed Panther to Rhode Island where Essex directed its restoration. The plane now sits on a trailer, with its wings off, waiting for a permanent home. There are very few Panthers left and very few movies that featured them. You probably won’t find one at an air show, but you can see them in action in one film.

“Actually, the movie [‘The Bridges of Toko-Ri’] was one of the most accurate movies I’ve ever seen as far as technical details go,” said Essex. “Aside from the mushy story, it really gave you an idea of what it was really like.”

(By an odd coincidence, James Michener based the novel that provided the movie’s story on his experiences on the aircraft carrier Essex.)

Essex said he is pleased to be inducted but tends to downplay his worthiness by saying they are recognizing his volunteer work more than anything historically heroic. Many veterans would disagree, and even Essex acknowledges that it is the reaction of veterans to his work that inspires him.

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “When you see the gleam in people’s eyes when they see some of this stuff and they say, ‘Yeah, that’s it…’ I enjoy that.”

There are other Rhode Islanders, most of them deceased, who will also be inducted this year:

Thomas G. (“Tommy the Cork”) Corcoran (1900-1981) is relatively unknown today, but this Rhode Islander played a pivotal role in forming the American Volunteer Group, better known as the Flying Tigers in World War II. Political historians remember him as “Tommy the Cork,” as FDR called him, one of the architects of the New Deal. He also was a covert Cold Warrior after the war and helped establish Civil Air Transport (CAT), the Nationalist Chinese airline as “business” that was later sold to the CIA. In 1959, CAT changed its name to Air America.

Corcoran was born in Pawtucket and was valedictorian of his class at Brown University and received his law degree from Harvard. Before the war with Japan, Roosevelt believed the best way to slow down Japanese conquest was to arm the Chinese. Corcoran did it covertly. He persuaded Roosevelt to quietly approve funding the Flying Tigers and Corcoran had Walt Disney design an emblem for the planes. His relatively silent relevance to aviation came after he was on the cover of Time magazine in 1938, for being one of the most influential members of FDR’s administration.

The late LCDR Robert (“Bob”) McCollough, USN (Ret) posted a record of more than 50 years in military and commercial aviation. He flew F4F Wildcats off carriers in the Pacific and received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with Silver Star. He stayed in the Navy after the war, flying a number of aircraft, including the F6F Hellcat, F8F Bearcat, and F4U Corsair. In 1953, he was stationed at Quonset. His family rented a small home in East Greenwich and fell in love with the town.

After a few years out-of-state, McCollough returned to East Greenwich in 1957 and became the Head Flight Test Officer for O&R at Quonset until his retirement in 1964.

After the Navy, he got two degrees from URI and taught in North Kingstown for more than 25 years. He played oboe, English horn and bassoon in various orchestras. He flew charter and scheduled flights for Newport. He picked up and delivered planes throughout the U.S. and Latin America. At the time of his death, Bob McCollough had a total of 7,680 hours of flight time, approximately 4,000 of them for the Navy.

Retired Executive Editor and Senior Vice President of the Providence Journal Joel Rawson “has had a lifelong love affair with flight.” Rawson’s first plane ride was a present for his 12th birthday, and five years later he soloed in a Piper Cub. He entered the Army in 1967 as a 2nd Lieutenant out of the University of Maine. He became an ARDF, or Airborne Radio Direction Finding, pilot, flying for the ultra-secret Army Security Agency. According to the RIHOF bio, “His Vietnam combat flying experience was so secret that most people have never heard of his airplane or its mission.”

He was an original member of the Richmond Flying Club in the 1970s, and was also a founding member of Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Chapter 1363.

Over the years he has flown dozens of youngsters in the EAA Young Eagles program.

In 1982, the Journal won a prestigious Polk Award for a series on commuter airline safety. The reporting always reflected intelligent sourcing and knowledge of aircraft operations.

Recipient of the Navy Cross, Philadelphia-born John “Jack” Greenwell, lived in Rhode Island for the better part of his life. He came to Newport for Navy basic training in January of 1941.

He was assigned to the new Naval Air Station at Quonset in 1942. At flight school in North Carolina, he played baseball with fellow trainees Ted Williams and Johnny Pesky and nine other major leaguers on the “Cloudbusters.”

He was commissioned in 1944, and served aboard the USS Yorktown, the USS Lexington, and the USS Leyte. He was awarded numerous medals and citations in addition to the Navy Cross, to include the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Heart and five Air Medals “for extraordinary heroism in operations against the enemy” in the East China Sea and his “airmanship and devotion to duty.” He settled in Rumford after he resigned from active duty in 1949 and rejoined the Naval Reserve in 1951. He continued flying as a reservist until 1965, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Commander.

Richard Foote is perhaps best known for developing the first standardized prescription warning label system, which is now the industry standard.

Foote’s business career followed his service as a Naval Aviator and test pilot during World War II. Dick Foote was also instrumental in the development of the first “anti-blackout” or “pressure suit” credited with saving the lives of many World War II fighter pilots.

Born in Providence, Foote flew gliders at the age of 9 and received his commercial pilot’s license in 1937. On Dec. 7, 1941, his ship was en route to Hawaii. Foote made an aerial depth-charge attack on a suspected enemy submarine. Foote was assigned to Alaska, where he flew combat air patrols. He personally instructed Charles Lindbergh in the Corsair. In 1943, he was an experimental pilot and tested early pressure suits and rode the original “human centrifuge” to test effects of G forces and flew the first jet fighter built in America.

After the war, he started a forms and label business called Automatic Business Products. In 1956, Foote developed a standardized prescription warning label. He participated in air shows and races and formed Warplanes International Airshows.

He died at 89 in 2009.

LCDR Paul G. Farley was born in Woonsocket and survived the sinking of the Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor. He flew torpedo strikes in the Pacific after that and was described as a “brilliant combat pilot” and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was a Navy Reserve pilot after the war and retired in 1954.

The Scottish Rite Center is at 2115 Broad St. in Cranston. Cocktails are at 6 p.m. with dinner and program to follow on Nov. 17. Tickets for patrons are $125 per person and include a private reception. Others are $55 per person or $100 per couple. Seating will be reserved only for patrons or complete tables, which cost $375. Visit www.riahof.org for more details.


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