John Bailey was only 21 when he hopped into the cockpit of a P40 Kittyhawk to fly his first mission against the Japanese over Papua New Guinea in 1943.
As his body was filled with the roar of propellers, Mr Bailey searched out his targets ahead of US lines, rolling his aircraft at low levels to dive bomb and strafe with deadly machine gun fire.
Now living in Mandurah in Western Australia, Mr Bailey travelled to Wangaratta Airport to mark the launch of Classic Air Adventures on Sunday, which will offer adventure flights on vintage planes to the community.
Mr Bailey seized the chance to ride in a P40 for the first time since 1944, and thanked Classic Air Adventures owner Doug Hamilton for his generosity. Kittyhawks were built to last, complete with machine guns carrying armour-piercing and incendiary ammunition.
And they jammed rarely during Mr Bailey’s time fighting in the Pacific Ocean theatre.
“The P40 Kittyhawk was, I reckon, one of the best fighters in the campaign,” he said. “Spitfires didn’t behave so well, they could seldom put their full squadron in the air, but we always could.”
All up, Mr Bailey flew 102 sorties against the enemy, 75 of which were with the Royal Australian Air Force’s No. 75 Squadron.
He had joined the RAAF when it was was sending Australian pilots to fly bombers in England, but a few days after he got his wings the Japanese hit Pearl Harbour, which changed Australia’s trajectory in the war.
Mr Bailey initially spent six weeks trying to find the wreck of the HMAS Sydney,which had been sunk by the German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran off the Western Australia coast.
He was trained to fly Buffalo and Boomerang fighters, but these were phased out as they could not compete with the Japanese Mitsubishi Zero fighters. Mr Bailey was then stationed in Mildura, where he learnt to fly Kittyhawks.
Upon travelling to Papua New Guinea he met his superior, Jack “Kongo” Kinninmont, who was to have a profound influence on the young Mr Bailey.
“Kongo said, ‘all pilots mess together – irrespective of rank’,” he said.
“He was a wonderful man, a really terrific leader. His policy was ‘it doesn’t matter what your rank is: we fly together, fight together and sometimes, we have to die together’.”