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Glen Edwards: The Diary of a Bomber Pilot, From the Invasion of North Africa to His Death in the Flying Wing

Glen Edwards: The Diary of a Bomber Pilot, From the Invasion of North Africa to His Death in the Flying Wing

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Glen Edwards: The Diary of a Bomber Pilot, From the Invasion of North Africa to His Death in the Flying Wing

248 pages
4 hours
Nov 11, 2014


In 1941, Glen Edwards learned to fly in a fabric-covered biplane. Seven years later, he died in the crash of the Northrop YB-49 Flying Wing, the Air Force’s most advanced jet warplane and forerunner of the B-2 Stealth bomber of today. As a combat pilot in North Africa and Italy during World War II, and as a test pilot during a period of astonishing innovation, Edwards was among the best of a new generation of military aviators. The isolated desert base where Edwards crashed would be named in his honor.

Throughout his military career, Glen Edwards kept a diary of what he did and what he thought. Military historian Daniel Ford situates that diary in the context of World War II, the development of flight testing as a science, and the birth of an independent U.S. Air Force. He shows how military pilots in the 1940s augmented their seat-of-the-pants bravado and precision flying skills with rigorous academic training. Conveying both the exhaustion of combat and the exhilaration of flying some of the world’s fastest, most sophisticated planes, the book traces the tragic course of Glen Edwards’s career: the near-daily bombing missions over Africa and Italy, a record-breaking cross-country flight in the weird XB-42 Mixmaster, and trial flights in the YB-49 Flying Wing—the first plane Edwards ever actively disliked. The innovative Northrop bomber, Daniel Ford concludes, just wasn’t ready for prime time. With photographs from the Air Force and the Edwards family.

"A fascinating tale and a tribute to an unassuming man who simply loved to fly." -- Air & Space / Smithsonian

Nov 11, 2014

About the author

Daniel Ford has spent a lifetime chronicling the wars of the twentieth century. He lives in Durham, New Hampshire, where he is a recreational pilot and writes for the Wall Street Journal.

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Glen Edwards - Daniel Ford


An Airfield in the Desert

‘A Darn Good Plane’

‘Not a Pretty Sight’

‘His Worries Are Eternally Over’

‘Words Can’t Describe the Suffering’

‘What More Could a Pilot Ask?’

‘Get ’Em in the Blue’

‘A Beautiful Flight’

‘Quite an Experience’

‘Beat the Books All Day’

‘The Little Beauty Will Really Mobile’

‘All Heck Broke Loose’

‘Goddamn Things Are Out of This World’

Who Killed the Flying Wing?


Copyright - About the Author

Remembering Bluie West One

An Airfield in the Desert

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE – three hundred thousand acres of sand, scrub, wind, and heat – may be the most famous military installation in the world. Virtually every warplane that has gone into service with the United States Air Force was flight-tested here, on California’s Mojave Desert. Here, too, a pilot first flew faster than Mach 1 – the speed of sound – followed by those who set world speed records up to Mach 6 and altitude records up to 300,000 feet. And it was here that the shuttle Columbia touched down, the first piloted aircraft to return from outer space.

Edwards, in short, is an icon of the space age, so familiar that neither state nor country is required to identify it.

But before his name was attached to the facility he knew as Muroc, Glen Edwards was a warm and handsome man who loved women, flying, dancing, and skiing – not necessarily in that order – and whose favorite song was To Each His Own. From a hardscrabble farm in the Great Depression, he joined the U.S. Army in 1941 and served bravely and well at the controls of an A-20 light bomber in North Africa and Italy. When World War II ended, he was a test pilot at Wright Field – the best of the best. The assignment was at least as dangerous as flying against German fighters and flak guns, but Edwards relished the work. Days are not wasted, he wrote in his diary, "if we can get ’em in the blue!"

Postwar, the United States saw itself as the free world’s bastion against an inexorably expanding Soviet Union, with nuclear weapons – and the planes to deliver them – as freedom’s shield. Aircraft designers were transforming their art into a science, as were the pilots who tested those designs, but the pace of change was too rapid for them. Every aircraft was a gamble for the company that built it, for the military service that paid for it, and for the crews who flew it.

In the end, Glen Edwards died in the crash of one of those fantastical, late-1940s aircraft, the Northrop Flying Wing bomber. This is his story.

To be sure, I am merely its co-author. The book is based on the diaries Edwards kept throughout his military career, but it didn’t seem fair to attribute the book to him, since fate cheated him of the opportunity to approve it for publication. For the same reason, I refrain from writing a dedication. I hope the book will honor him, his family, and the men who served with him in North Africa, at Wright Field, and on the high desert at Muroc.

Because this is the story of a man whose flying career began in 1941 and ended in 1948, and because so much of the story is told in his words, I have followed the conventions of his time. Distances are reckoned in land miles, altitude in thousands of feet, and machinegun bores in inches. – Daniel Ford, Durham, New Hampshire, November 2014

En route to Los Angeles

From Medicine Hat to Los Angeles, 1925

‘A Darn Good Plane’

GLEN EDWARDS had a knack for cutting to the heart of the matter. He wrote his first diary entry on July 13, 1941: Arrived in Ontario, California, to start training as an aviation cadet – what a day. The second entry came a full month later and was even more to the point: Soloed the Stearman PT-13.

He actually trained at Chino, six miles south of Ontario and forty-five miles east of Los Angeles. More than half a century later, I followed him there. The San Gabriel mountains were gray and clear to the north, but except for the soaking California sun, the town didn’t have much going for it. Its most obvious occupation was fattening steers for the market: the stockyard smell was strong, and so were the flies. Chino airport had a low wall around it, like an old Spanish fort, with white paint flaking off the bricks.

In 1941, this was Cal Aero Academy, grooming young men for another kind of slaughter. As an aviation cadet, Edwards was neither officer nor enlisted man, but he belonged to the Army. If he earned his wings, he’d be a pilot. If he failed – and forty percent of cadets washed out – he could try again as a navigator or bombardier. And if he didn’t succeed at any of these things, he’d be a private in the Army Air Corps. In the meantime, as a member of the Class of 42-B, he earned $75 a month and was subject to military discipline. Evidently he was good at drill: he served as battalion sergeant-major, or top enlisted man.

Cal Aero itself was a hybrid, a private company whose only customer was the Army, which paid $1,700 for each cadet who made the grade, plus $18 per flying hour for the washouts. The owner was a World War I veteran named Corliss Mosley. The instructors were civilians, many of them former barnstormers. Cal Aero also had an Army detachment to provide the cadets with military training, and this detachment was commanded by Major Robert Scott, who later wrote the best-selling God Is My Co-pilot.

The Stearman PT-13 was an oldfashioned biplane of wood, metal, and fabric. It had two open cockpits, with the cadet sitting in front. For his solo on August 13, Edwards would have flown a simple rectangle, taking off into the wind, turning left when he reached an altitude of 200 feet, and left again at 500 feet. He would then have flown downwind until he was past the airfield, turned left on his base leg, and left one more time for his final approach. The idea was to lose altitude and speed until the Stearman was just above the runway at fifty-five miles per hour – stall speed. Then Edwards raised the nose, slowing it further, until the main wheels and small tailwheel gently touched the tarmac at the same moment. The Stearman then rolled straight ahead until it lost enough momentum that he could turn off the runway and taxi up to the flight line, the proudest young man in California.

From the Stearman he graduated to the Vultee BT-15, a low-wing monoplane with a greenhouse canopy and 450-horsepower engine – sleek enough to pass for the fighter plane that every cadet dreamed of flying. That mastered, Edwards left Cal Aero for advanced trained at Luke Field in Phoenix, Arizona. He graduated on February 6, 1942. Finally got those silver wings, he wrote in his diary. Mom, Harry and Jewel came out for graduation. Of much less importance, evidently, was his concurrent commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.

Nor did he write about the momentous events of that winter of 1941-1942: America’s Pacific Fleet crippled at Pearl Harbor, her Far Eastern Air Force destroyed in the Philippines, her sudden involvement in a two-front war, and her humiliating inability to strike back at Japan or Germany.

Glen Edwards was the youngest of eight children, of whom the nearest in age was Harry, who’d driven to Phoenix to see him graduate, with his wife and the boys’ mother.

Their father stayed home to tend the chickens in Lincoln, California, north of Sacramento. Born Claude Edwards in Michigan, he’d been orphaned as a boy, to be brought up by an aunt and uncle, then by older brothers in Oregon and Montana. He married Mary Briggeman and set out in a covered wagon to homestead the dry Canadian prairie outside Medicine Hat, Alberta. Here Glen Edwards was born on March 5, 1918.

In 1925, after five years of drought, Pop Edwards sold the farm at auction, put his family into two Model T Fords, and set out for California. They settled in Lynwood, now part of Los Angeles, living at first in the tents that had housed them on the three-month journey. In 1931, Pop bought twelve acres of rocks and white oaks in a hilly region north of Lincoln, where a promoter had carved a thousand-acre ranch into forty or fifty parcels. He sold them on the installment plan, with the assurance that frost never visited this thermal belt.

Only the three youngest still lived at home: Glen, Harry, and Hazel, called Babe. The oldest boys, Art and Bill, also bought into the promise of Thermalands, settling their families on nearby tracts. The three middle children stayed in Los Angeles: George, Claude Jr., and Mary, called Girlie.

Pop Edwards and his boys cleared the land with a stump-puller and team of mules. They planted seedling orange trees, grafted good California buds to them, and grew tomatoes between the rows, to tide them over until the golden harvest came. Harry and Glen worked alongside the adults, ten or twelve hours a day when school wasn’t in session.

He never hit you with the strap, Harry said of his father. "But you always had the feeling that he might…. The only stipulation Pappy gave you was, Do your damnedest. Which they did, leveling a hill full of rocks in the middle of summer to make room for a henhouse, me hanging onto the reins, Glen hanging onto the plow."

The promise of Thermalands came true in time. When I visited the farm in 1997, Harry gave me an orange from the tree: big as a grapefruit, sweet as the sun, and so juicy it soaked my shirt while I ate it. But in 1935, before the first golden harvest came in, the temperature fell to thirteen degrees Fahrenheit and stayed there all week. We went skating on Coon Crick, Harry said, and nobody fell in. The freeze killed the branches on the orange trees, which was normal for a frost, but unfortunately it also killed the precious buds. So when growth resumed in the spring, here comes the seedling [fruit], bitter as gall.

Pop had collateral to start again, but Art and Bill lost their land and equity, as did many another Thermalander. There were two or three bunches, Harry said, whom the land promoter sent down the road without their shirts, after which he sold the tract to the next optimist.

Glen was a junior in Lincoln Union High School that winter, a teenaged bus driver in the family’s Model A Ford. (The school district paid him a few cents a day for each student he brought to school.) Lincoln was a proper western town, with lettered streets going north-south, numbered streets going east-west, for all that it had only 1,200 residents and one major employer, the Gladding MacBean tile factory. The school was a pretty building on M Street, with palm trees flanking the entrance.

Glen’s classmates called him Pee Wee, despite a growth spurt in his junior year that brought him up to his adult height of five-foot-eight. For his yearbook photo, he wore his hair slicked down, and the wary expression of a boy with seven older siblings. His hair was dark brown, his eyes blue, his ears large, and his chin pugnacious – handsome, like his father. (When the ladies looked into Pappy’s blue eyes, Harry said, they wet their britches. Evidently the same was true of his younger brother: I never had a girlfriend that didn’t fall head over heels for Glen, Harry said, without any visible rancor.) His singing voice was a pleasant baritone.

He played on the tennis team, wrote for the bi-weekly school newspaper, and won first honors among thirty-six graduates in 1936. In his valedictory he spoke of hobbies, tracing the term from an easy-gaited horse to any kind of pleasurable pastime. His own hobby, he said, was tying trout flies. After you get them tied, the next test is to see if the fish will bite them or not. If they do, your fly is all right. If they don’t, your fly is all wrong. Then you try it over again. Few eighteen-year-olds express a philosophy so well, nor follow it so faithfully for the rest of their lives.

That fall, Placer College opened its doors in Auburn, up the road toward Donner Pass and the ski fields of Truckee, and Glen enrolled as one of three members of the Class of 1938. He also learned to ski. With a two-year diploma in hand, he headed off to the University of California at Berkeley to major in chemistry. He finished a year at Berkeley, took a year off to drive east with a friend and to teach skiing for the Auburn Ski Club, then returned for his senior year. Years later, one of his Berkeley roommates wrote of him:

"He loved to ski, and sometimes at night during our study period, I would look around and he would be making believe he was skiing down a hill. Toward the end of our final year he suddenly equated skiing with flying. He would sit and make motions with his hands as though they were an aeroplane. He would zoom all around….

He loved people and the things they could do. People loved him…. I was thinking the other day that Glen was a young fellow we ought to put in front of our children and say, ‘That’s how you ought to be.’

One month after he received his bachelor’s degree from Berkeley, Edwards joined the U.S. Army as an aviation cadet.

The hope of every new pilot was to fly pursuit, as Army fighter planes were called, but Second Lieutenant Edwards was sent to Boise, Idaho, to train as a co-pilot in Boeing’s huge B-17 Flying Fortress. He called it a flying boxcar, and complained that the controls were beyond his reach. In the end, the Army sent him to Will Rogers Field in Oklahoma City, where the 47th Bombardment Group (Light) was training on a fast, twin-engine attack plane from Douglas Aircraft.

The A-20 is a darn good plane – best in west, Edwards wrote on March 20, 1942. (The next diary entry, on April 2, is equally to the point: First date with Maureen, a swell gal.) In a letter home, he boasted that these planes are just as good as any pursuit as a good deal of our flying has been done at the altitude of about ten feet. One must rise to avoid such obstacles as haystacks, fence posts, snakes, gophers, angleworms, and the likes of that.

There were eighteen pilots in his squadron, the 86th, commanded by Captain Richard Horner, and there were four squadrons in the group, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Terrell.

In July, they flew to Greensboro, North Carolina, for maneuvers that lasted most of the summer. Then they set out for the war. The ground echelon traveled by sea, but the planes would fly the North Atlantic under their own power. This was an extraordinary challenge for what amounted to a twin-engine fighter, with no co-pilot or navigator on board.

The odyssey began at Westover Army Air Field in Chicopee, Massachusetts. Each A-20 carried an extra 200-gallon fuel tank in its bomb bay, which if the pilot flew at his thriftiest speed gave it a range of 2,300 miles, or enough to fly the longest leg of the journey and still return to the take-off field. Knowing that he was making a momentous flight, Edwards began to record his days in detail, a practice he’d follow for the rest of his life:

September 30, 1942, Presque Isle, Maine - Today we finally left Westover. To put it mildly, confusion reigned supreme all morning: operational reports to go in, ships to load, etc., with the climax coming at high noon when we discovered that Dave Bensley hadn’t packed an article. At the time we descended upon him, he was busily engaged writing those last letters. Things flew in that room for about five minutes, and when Dave finally looked up the room was bare of all items – safely packed in various bags.

We finally left at 4 p.m. and got here about 6:30. The A-20s don’t fly so good at 170 mph, and it gets darn tiresome flying that slow. Bensley got left behind. Blew a tire.

October 1, Presque Isle - Got up this morning and got briefed on our next leg, got set to take off, then decided to wait for better weather. Result: here we sit and still raining and Bensley didn’t pull in yet. These north woods are darn pretty. Lots of quaking aspen and they are all colors. Sure would like to take a gun and go see what I could find.

October 2, Presque Isle - Got up bright and early this morning expecting to take off but no soap – bad weather. So we fooled around most of the day till Bensley arrived, then went to town and ate a steak. Quite a town, about 1,500 people. After eating went to a horse opera [cowboy film]. By golly the joint had shiplap floors with wood chairs for seats – real oldtimer. People seem to be pretty nice and claim good hunting hereabouts. If we don’t leave tomorrow, will sure find out.

October 3, Goose Bay, Labrador - The trip up here was most tiresome: three and a half hours of sitting there. Arrived here this evening to find not much of anything. We have a big room for the officers with double-deck bunks, no springs, three wash basins, one shower, and one toilet. Of course there are only 100 or 150 officers so things are not at all crowded! There is no PX, no show, no recreation, no town – merely an Army post in the wilds of Labrador. The country we flew over, Nova Scotia and Labrador, is full of lakes and virgin woods. Should be full of game.

We caught up with the 97th Squadron. They’ve been here for four days and look kind of wild-eyed.

October 4, Goose Bay - The 97th took off this morning and just now came back. Found bad weather at BW-1. Reckon they are one tired bunch of boys.

The round-trip distance from Labrador to Bluie West One, on the west coast of Greenland, was 1,900 miles. The 97th Squadron pilots had flown eleven hours without relief. Next morning, the men of the 86th Squadron got up at 3:30 a.m. to try the venture for themselves, only to be told that BW-1 was still snowbound. And so it went for a week, before the two squadrons were able to move on.

October 13, BW-1, Greenland - Had another alert to leave this morning and believe it or not got off. Took off at 11 a.m. and proceeded merrily on our way. About 1hr:15min out we ran through a few clouds which was altogether uncalled for as we could have gone either over or under them. Anyhow, when we came out Fulford failed to appear and as yet hasn’t returned to Goose so we fear he’s down.

Flew over about 500 miles of water which was a novel experience, but flew above the overcast most of the way so didn’t see much of it. Spotted a few icebergs floating lazily along, but nothing else appeared.

Arrived here about 4 p.m. and circled the field for about an hour before we finally got in to land. There were about forty ships all trying to land on the one lonely runway. Finally made it in, though, and were plenty tired.

At Bluie West One, Edwards waited even longer for a break in the weather, meanwhile nursing a cold, reading novels, and trying to set up a fishing expedition. The rest of the 47th Bomb Group caught up with them, and Fulford was reported safe after a crash landing on the coast of Labrador.

Since they were heading for Britain, they naturally assumed that they would be based there, fighting over France and the Low Countries. In

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