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Two Thirds P-38 Lightening
Last Flight
by William Presler

It seems Jimmy has slipped the surly bonds of earth one last time.


I always called him Uncle Jim, but in my mind he was either Jimmy, because my Grandmother called him that, or Jim & Mitzi (with an ampersand not a full “and”) because where there was one of them, the other wouldn’t be far behind.


That “slipping the surly bonds” thing isn’t some poetic turn of phrase that I came up with. It comes from a famous poem about aviation called “High Flight.” Every aviator knows it, many by heart.


It touches me and my soul, this poem, because I too am a pilot. Mostly because of Jimmy I suppose. When I was a kid, he regaled me with stories of what it was like to fly. To learn to fly. To take off. To be able to navigate across these United States with a map and a compass and a good bit of derring-do and, perhaps, a bit of intelligence. Everyone knew Jimmy was smart. I was just a kid in KY who just sort of got through high school classes, sometimes barely. But he always encouraged me.


I learned a few other things from Jim & Mitzi. Just being around them was so interesting and exotic. Dark dark dark coffee with something called chicory in it, made like a chemist would make it. Later the introduction to the nicer side of New Orleans. Mitzi gave me my first kiwi. The fruit, not a person from Down Under. But it was all so interesting and far more cultured than my whereabouts at that time.


When I was in my twenties, perhaps still in college or maybe just out of it, he offered again to give me some books on learning to fly. I accepted gladly and then sat down to soak them all in. The symbologies and terminologies and equations galore… and I said to myself, “wow…this looks hard.”


Later, the gentle tick tock sound of my own mortality started to become more audible to my ears and I realized that if I was going to learn to fly, I would have to get started, and so I did and never stopped and I’m still learning. I’m on a flight now as I write this, to Denver where tomorrow I will begin training on a new type of plane. I’ve flown lots of different types of planes, in different places and countries and I’ve gotten to do some cool things. I own an aviation business or two and get to do all sorts of fun stuff. Like build a plane.  Then fly a plane that I had built. But that’s not the same. What I did was hard. But what he did was impossible.


He built his first P-38 when he was 14, of balsa wood. He always loved that plane. Always. He always wanted to fly. Always. He joined the military to fly. But he was color blind, and he could not be a military aviator, at all. He thought this meant he could never be a pilot. But Jimmy was in love with how flight could work. He loved the art of it. Like a master musician loves the way math and music fall in line once you reach a certain understanding. He had that understanding. I don’t. As he believed he couldn’t be a pilot, he pursued a career in aviation, at a level of understanding that is hard to even comprehend, for me at least.


At 65, or thereabouts, retired from a long tenure as Professor of Aeronautical Engineering, he finally learned to fly. Somehow he was talking to someone about how he had always wanted to be a pilot but couldn’t do it because he was color blind. They informed him, that though it may be true that you can’t be a military aviator without color vision, it really didn’t matter at all for civilian or general aviation when it’s “not for commercial purposes.”


So he learned to fly. In his 60’s. That’s hard at any age. Then he got his instrument rating. Which is many times more difficult. He said that one hour of instrument instruction was for him like digging a ditch for eight hours straight. Or so it felt. I’m not sure if he had experienced digging ditches for 8 hours. I didn’t think to ask…


In the midst of all this, he decided he wanted to build a plane. He wanted to build a replica of a P-38, this famed and celebrated “War Bird” that he loved so much. His friends of the aviator ilk…and he had so many…(Jim & Mitzi were loved by people in the world of flying and especially in the “Meyers Aircraft Owner’s Association” literally all over the country)…they tried to talk him out of it. To build something from a kit (like I did) is what they said he should do. He wanted none of it.


Anyway, the great minds at Lockheed, later to be called Lockheed Martin, said that it couldn’t be done by an individual. It was not possible. That’s what they said about it. The builders of the “Lockheed P-38 Lightening” said it could not be done. So I don’t need to say a lot more I suppose about how what he did, literally, was thought to be impossible. Jimmy, apparently, didn’t care. So he built a plane that wasn’t possible to build. Two Thirds scale. The world's only TTP38.


He made a few modifications, like creating a little seat behind his seat where Mitz could sit. The original plane only sported a pilot, no passengers. But if Jim went somewhere, there would be an “& Mitzi.” Adorable.


Anyway, as one pilot to another, much later I asked him about it. He had just finished some major modifications. I asked him about building it of course, but really, how do you fly something so complicated when there is no “Pilot Operating Handbook” or POH, no “Operating Limits” clearly placarded. No Checklists nor Procedures. No nothing. Except his clear and penetrating insight into the very nature of flight itself.  I don’t know what else to say…somehow…he could just see it. All of it. Laid out in front of him, like a Master Chess Player sees the board as it is and dozens of moves out with permutations and complications. Or the way a great baseball hitter can see the seams on the ball as it barrels towards him at 90 miles per hour. I don’t know how to tell you this, but he could just see it. I know this. I saw it in his eyes.


About the building of it, he said that he just worked on it and kept working on it. He said that he had decided he would keep at it until he came to an equation or problem that he couldn’t figure out. Apparently that never happened. For 25 plus years, he worked on it. Calculations, building…things that teams of engineers and technicians and assemblers would have done. He did it. It isn’t really possible to describe it. At least I don’t know how. I’ve looked over some of the drawings, the photos, the work itself. The rigging he built. His first drafts in wood that he would later cut in metal. It’s too much. How one person did this, even with Mitzi’s ever patient help, I do not know.


He said he would dedicate 25 years to building it, and if he was lucky, he would live long enough to fly it.


So he flew it…his dream…his opus, master work, or whatever you want to say. Not everyone gets to fly, few have a passion for airplanes and flight and flying and the underlying symmetry of mathematics and physics and the sheer beauty of it all…not the way that Jimmy did. Only a handful of people accomplish that which the world says is not possible. And he did it without fanfare or interest in fame. Literally every magazine in the world of aviation would have given anything to have that story. The Experimental Aircraft Association would have his story enshrined in the halls of Oshkosh, by gosh. But Jimmy just wanted to build his plane. That’s all. Because he loved it.


I’m glad for him, and for me, for the passion he had and shared and fostered. And that Jim & Mitzi got to have such an amazing adventure together.


And so he has slipped the surly bonds one last time. I suspect Mitzi won’t be too far behind. She never was. They were always so lovely together.


And if they do one last thing together, I would like to think it will be to put out their hands and touch the face of God, in High Flight. Forever, or just one last time.


Blue skies, Uncle Jim. Blue skies.

Jim & Mitzi O'Hara and their P-38 Lightening

High Flight

By John Gillespie Magee Jr.


Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

of sun-split clouds,—and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung

High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,

I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung

My eager craft through footless halls of air ....


Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue

I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace

Where never lark nor ever eagle flew—

And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

I wrote the words above when I heard that my great uncle Jimmy was passing away. Before I knew that I was named in his will and that in many ways he had left the airplane in my care. Later I would learn much more. And I'm still learning as we explore what to do next. As many of you know, it's nearly impossible to insure aircraft like these, because it simply isn't replaceable. So the next job we are doing is the best insurance policy you can take out--making sure the engines, gear and systems work flawlessly. And we will upgrade systems while we are at it--we are an avionics and restoration shop after all. So that's what we do.


Hope you'll follow along!!

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