Flying solo — often for thousands of miles at a time, and with no autopilot — was bad enough.
But the worst part, Neill MacKay said, was knowing that if his plane went down, he was completely on his own.
There would be no rescue.
“I might be flying at night 600 miles out over the Atlantic,” he said, “and I knew ‘If I’m down, I’m fish bait.’ It was just me and the airplane and the ocean.”
Or if not the ocean, then the wilds of Africa or some other godforsaken place.
For such occasions, should one arise, MacKay had been issued a .45-caliber pistol to protect himself. But it was small comfort.
“This big .45 on my hip … I didn’t even know how to cock (it),” MacKay laughed. “Thank heaven I never had to use it. I probably would’ve shot my foot off.”
When you were a ferry pilot, those kinds of concerns were just part of the job, he said.
Assigned to become one of the Army Air Corps’ first ferry pilots during World War II — delivering war planes, one at a time, to American forces or their allies all over the world — MacKay knew going in it wouldn’t be easy.
“It was really dangerous flying in those days,” MacKay told the Tulsa World.
“It would’ve been a bit different if we’d had a good radio system. We had radio, but not very good. And in the places we were going, we were flying virgin routes and there was nobody to talk to (by radio).”
Consequently, if something went wrong, there was no one to help.
“No communications. ... Nobody to call.”
The roughneck life
For MacKay, a retired Air Force colonel and former U.S. air attaché to Chile, World War II helped him make a change in career direction.
Right out of high school, he had gone to work as a roughneck in the oilfields of Corpus Christi, Texas, where he grew up.
“It was a horrible job,” he said, but he stuck with it for several years.
MacKay could see the war coming, even though the U.S. had not entered it yet. At age 23, he decided to join the Air Corps and become a pilot.
Lacking the two years of college required to enter flight school, he took a three-day equivalency exam given once a year. Of the 125 who took it with him, he was one of only three who passed, he said.
Beginning flight school in June 1941, MacKay would discover on his first flight, which lasted just about an hour, that he had a knack for it.
As a youth, MacKay had been an avid sailboat racer, and apparently it had preconditioned him for flying, he said.
On his final approach of that first flight “I saw we were drifting a little bit,” and was able to correct for it.
His instructor was impressed.
MacKay said his sailboat background would continue to help him as he developed as a pilot.
When MacKay graduated in January 1942 as a second lieutenant, the U.S. had entered the war just over a month earlier.
That timing would help determine his course.
With so many other young airmen already sent overseas to fight, there was a pressing need to ferry aircraft.
MacKay drew the assignment.
Following brief training, he was sent to Morrison Field in West Palm Beach, Florida, home of the recently formed Air Corps Ferrying Command.
Maps and compasses
MacKay’s first mission would set the pattern for what he could expect.
He recalled the exchange: “The commander called me in and he said, ‘I want you to ferry an airplane.’”
“Where to, sir?” MacKay replied.
“Panama? Where’s that? I haven’t been out of Texas.”
“That’s all right. I’ll give you some maps.”
That’s how it would go with most of MacKay’s ferrying flights: no navigational aids, just maps, to guide him, and no prior experience with the plane.
In fact, for most of his flights, he was handed the plane’s instruction manual just before take-off.
Even if it was a plane he’d never heard of, he said, “It was always ‘Oh, you can read the book.’”
But while none of this was ideal, MacKay was game.
For that first mission — on which, unlike most future ones, he had a co-pilot — everything went well.
There was some controversy, though. Flying an LB-40, a predecessor of the B-24 bomber, MacKay decided after crossing into the Canal Zone to “have some fun” with three P-40 fighters that greeted them.
He took off and left them, he said.
“The base commander there chewed me out so badly,” MacKay added, “I haven’t forgotten it to this day. ‘You could’ve been shot down.’ It was a lesson I remembered for the rest of my life.”
An assignment that followed in late June 1942 would be an even greater test — to ferry an A-20 light bomber, to Abadan, Iran.
From there, he was told, the Russians would take it to use in their fight with the Germans.
“This one was solo,” MacKay said. “No navigational aids. Just me and the airplane and a compass and hoping I’d find the airstrip.”
It was a grueling flight: about 65 hours and 12 stops to refuel. And with no autopilot system, MacKay had to hold the wheel the entire time in the air.
One stop — tiny Ascension Island in the middle of the Atlantic — would’ve been especially easy to miss, leaving him lost at sea.
But MacKay pulled it off, along with the rest of his stops, making a successful delivery to Iran.
Not for all the money in the world
“I realized when I was assigned to these missions they were not safe. But I didn’t realize how dangerous,” MacKay said of his time as a ferry pilot.
The problem of communications can’t be overstated, he said. “It’s hard for anyone today to grasp just how primitive communications were,” he said.
Later, after MacKay was no longer ferrying, Morrison Field even resorted to pigeons.
“Nobody knows that,” he said, laughing. “But it’s true. We had an officer called a ‘pigeoneer’ who kept a flock of pigeons. When they ferried a plane, they’d put a pigeon in it.”
If the plane went down, the pigeon — which wore a tag denoting the plane and time of departure — would return to the base, he said.
“That way,” MacKay added, “we’d know something had happened and could send out searchers.”
But at the time he was ferrying, the pigeons hadn’t been introduced yet, so MacKay didn’t even have that to fall back on.
Summing up the experience of ferrying planes, he said, “If I was asked to do it today, I wouldn’t do it for all the money in the world.”
After a while, MacKay was made operations officer at Morrison, and instead of ferrying planes he tested them as they arrived from the factory.
“If everything worked, I’d sign off on it,” he said.
Between his ferrying and testing, MacKay would pilot almost 50 different planes — bombers, fighters, transports, just about every kind imaginable — over a six-year period.
Later in the war, MacKay was transferred to Europe to serve with Air Transport Command in France. During the Battle of the Bulge he would be commander of an air base near Marseilles that helped supply the front.
“I never did get in combat, thank goodness,” he said.
Among other highlights of his flying days, MacKay, during different stints in Palm Beach, was a personal pilot to two commanding generals, Edward H. Alexander and Haywood Hansell, flying each around his Caribbean command area.
From there, after the war, his posts would include executive officer to Under Secretary of the Air Force Roswell Gilpatric; air attaché to Chile, working out of the U.S. Embassy in Santiago; and chief of plans and programs for the U.S. Nuclear Detection System.
MacKay retired from the Air Force in 1964. After “23 years, six months and a day,” the time was right, he said, to call it a career.
Grit and God
The walls of MacKay’s study are a Who’s Who of faces and aircraft.
Included among the people are images of his late son, Jeff MacKay, a career actor who had a recurring role on Magnum P.I. There are also photos of Robert Redford (MacKay’s cousin), Jimmy Stewart (a close family friend) and statesmen and dignitaries whom he had the opportunity to meet through his career.
MacKay went on to have some entertainment experience of his own.
It was at the invitation of his friend Harold Stuart, who founded KVOO television, that MacKay moved to Tulsa after retiring from the military. He served as KVOO chief executive officer for eight years.
MacKay has collected a few honors as well. Most recently, in 2011, Tulsa Air & Space Museum named him a “Hometown Hero.”
But perhaps the accomplishment he’s most proud of is his education.
While in the Air Force, taking advantage of an opportunity to have his education paid for, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees, the latter a master’s in business administration.
He completed each in two years, taking more than 20 hours a semester.
It took “grit” to manage it, MacKay said.
But by that time in his life, he had accumulated more than a little.
The war, for one, had “matured me tremendously. You can’t imagine how much.”
And don’t discount the importance, he added, of that old job back in the oilfields. Roughnecking prepared MacKay for just about everything life could throw at him.
That included the war, where he discovered he “was much more prepared than the guys right out of high school who had no experience in tough living. (Roughnecking) helped me to make tough decisions, including in the air in difficult circumstances.”
But more than grit, MacKay ultimately credits God for his success.
There’s no way he could have survived his aerial adventures without divine intervention, he said.
“In all of my experiences,” MacKay said, “I know that God was my pilot. I was the co-pilot. I know that he took care of me.”