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The Flying Greek

Short Flights

 

Cathy with Col. Pisanos, USAF (ret) in 2009.

My husband, Al and I had the rare opportunity to attend a special gathering of World War II fighter pilots who were combat Aces in August 2009. We met William Hardy, U. S. Navy Ace; Clarence 'Bud' Anderson, USAF triple Ace; Fredrick 'Boots' Blessee, Korean War Ace; and The Flying Greek, Col. Steve Pisanos, who flew for the RAF and the U.S. Army Air Corps as a WWII flying ace with ten aerial victories.

Pisanos was encouraged to write a book about his life by the late Col. Frances 'Gabby' Gabreski, America's top European ace, and Maj. Don Gentile, another high scoring European ace, who lived in Piqua, Ohio.

His is a great story of a Greek immigrant who dreamed of coming to America to fly because one of his friends in Greece told him that the U.S. had more airplanes than there were stars in the sky! He dreamed of flying since he was a young boy. His father told him that there was no future in flying.

Pisanos was born in Metaxourgeio,

Athens, Greece and was the son of a railroad engineer. He was fascinated as a young boy by the sight of a Greek biplane maneuvering over his head in Kolonos and became obsessed by the wish to become a flyer.

"Someday father you will be proud of me," he told his father. In 1938, at the age of eighteen, before graduating high school, Pisanos registered as a sailor aboard a merchant ship hoping to get to America. He soon discovered that working aboard a merchant ship shoveling coal was a difficult and hard job.

After leaving Greece, the ship went to Algeria to pick up a load of iron and from there it continued across the Atlantic for Baltimore. After asking one of his fellow crew members about their destination and heard they were heading toward an American city just a couple of hours away from New York, he was very happy.

The ship anchored outside of Baltimore, too far to swim and Pisanos agonized as to how he might get ashore. A small boat came out to the ship and a man boarded carrying newspapers. Pisanos had one dollar and stopped the man pointed to the dollar, to himself and to the shore. The man accepted to take him to the Baltimore shore.

In the book, The Flying Greek, Pisanos describes his feelings, "I wanted to face the earth and kiss this land of opportunity!"

He made his way to the train station, spent his last dollar buying a ticket to New York City and as he wandered the streets of the city he heard two men speaking Greek. He told them his story and they quickly helped him find a job and a place to live.

He saved every penny he earned for flying and English lessons and eventually earned his civilian pilot license. Because he lacked American citizenship he couldn't join the U.S. Army Air Corps, but he learned through a friend that a Royal Air Force (RAF) representative was at New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel recruiting pilots, so he went there and submitted his credentials.

The recruiters seemed eager to relax their standards because Britain was fighting for her very existence against Germany. He was sent to one of America's most prestigious flying schools in Glendale, California; the California Polaris Flight Academy.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Lockheed P-38s started arriving at Grand Central Air Terminal and air traffic became too busy for flight training. Polaris Flight Academy moved to War Eagle Field in Lancaster, Calif., where the Mira Loma prison now operates. Yes, that prison used to be the premier RAF training field during WWII.

"Our new lifestyle in the desert was entirely different from the one we had at Grand Central," Pisanos writes. "We were flying in wide open spaces, doing acrobatics and low-level flying without any complaints from the townspeople. Some of us even chased coyotes while on solo flights."

The first basic trainer aircraft Squadron 16 checked out was the Vultee BT-13, a two-seat tandem, enclosed cockpit, low-wing monoplane with a Pratt & Whitney R-985, 450 horsepower radial engine. Pisanos said he loved this aircraft. It was great for aerobatics, but was extremely noisy. It was often called the "Vultee Vibrator."

Eventually Class 16 completed their training and were sent to Canada and journeyed by ship to Glasgow and then by train to London, England. Officer training and more flight school ensued and he was thrilled to fly the powerful Hawker Hurricane. Later he transitioned to the P-51 Mustang and Spitfire. He flew with the 71 Eagle Squadron RAF. His fellow pilots began to call him the Flying Greek and he has been known by that name ever since.

While flying a mission over Holland he heard that the U.S. had entered the war and American military units wanted to integrate Eagle Squadron civilian pilots into the U.S. Army Air Forces. He was concerned because he still lacked citizenship.

On March 3, 1943 the American Embassy in London contacted Pisanos and asked if he would like to become an American citizen. He was speechless, but finally said, "It would be a pleasure and great honor." Pisanos was the first of six foreign nationals to raise his right hand and take the oath of citizenship. He was the first person in history to become a naturalized citizen outside of the U.S. continental limits. Famed newsmen Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Andy Rooney were all present at the ceremony.

After WWII ended, Pisanos returned to a hero's welcome in New York and thought perhaps it was time to settle down. He took a civilian pilot job with TWA airlines, but that didn't last long. He joined the newly formed U.S. Air Force, attended the USAF Flight Performance School (now called the USAF Test Pilot School) graduated with class #45D, flew everything from the P-80 Shooting Star to the F-4E Phantom and F-102 Delta Dagger, flew in Vietnam and retired from the USAF as a Colonel in 1973, after thirty years and service in three wars.

His parents came to America after the war to visit and he took his mother flying, his father refused, but he was proud of his son.

What a great story of immigration to America with a desire to love his newly found home. Pisanos passed away in June of last year at the age of 96. He lived in Rancho Bernardo, San Diego.

See you on our next flight!

 
 

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