Incredible encounters sometimes come with little forewarning. One such event happened more than 40 years ago, yet I still often remember it well to this day. While early in my professional engineering career with General Electric, I was also pursuing my personal aviation aspirations. Like most student pilots, training in tiny two-seat aircraft, I had dreams of flying contemporary jets. In a most fortunate twist of fate, I was not only able to live that dream, but I did so with an amazing WWII aviation hero.
In the late 1970’s I managed to book a seat aboard a corporate jet on a day trip between Schenectady and our gas turbine facility in Greenville, South Carolina. One crisp fall morning I excitedly arrived at Schenectady County Airport, where I coincidentally was doing my pilot training.
I approached the captain, explaining I was a student pilot and requested permission to visit the flight deck during our flight. To my astonishment, the captain, who I soon discovered was GE’s Chief Corporate pilot, Captain James J. Farrell, invited me to ride in the cockpit jump seat for the entire flight. I recovered quickly from my momentary incredulity to immediately accept this most gracious offer.
As we strapped in aboard the sleek seven-passenger Dassault Falcon twin-engine jet, the first officer handed me a communication headset. Once plugged into the aircraft intercom system, I could directly communicate with both pilots, plus was privy to all live communications between our flight and ground controllers. My jump seat was located between and just behind the two pilots directly on the aircraft centerline. From this location all cockpit instrumentation and center console controls were clearly visible, not to mention a spectacular forward window view. I felt I had become the third crew member.
Following an impressive take-off and routine communications from ground controllers, the autopilot was engaged for the remaining climb and cruise portion of the outbound two-hour flight. As the flight deck workload lessened, both pilots took time to explain and demonstrate some of the aircraft’s avionics. I imagined life just couldn’t get any better than this. But it did.
At one point, the first officer began explaining exactly who our captain was.
During World War II, then a young Lieutenant James “Boss” Farrell was the aircraft commander of a twin engine B-26 Marauder bomber. He said that Farrell’s plane flew more operational missions than any other aircraft in the entire war, including D-Day support. Farrell nicknamed his aircraft “Flak Bait” because of its tendency to attract more than its share of German antiaircraft fire, which extensively damaged the airplane over its many missions. Later, I learned the name originated from a family dog Farrell’s brother called “Flea Bait.”
The B-26 was a notoriously challenging aircraft to fly, yet Farrell mastered it brilliantly. Other trainees at MacDill AFB in Tampa were not so fortunate, leading airmen to quip “one a day in Tampa Bay.” On multiple occasions during his staggering 72 combat missions, Farrell managed to safely land a heavily damaged “Flak Bait” on only one engine only to again return to the fray. In recognition of his courageous service, Farrell earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, four Bronze Air Medals, a Purple Heart, and multiple other distinguished decorations.
In honor of “Flak Bait’s” 200+ combat missions and 400+ air/ground crew members, the aircraft nose section was displayed at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
As if the privilege of flying in the cockpit of a corporate jet was not enough, I was astounded to be in the presence of a humble, great American hero who so graciously afforded me the privilege of flying alongside. So moving was my four-hour roundtrip flight experience that day, I included a full account of the episode in my book “PrivileGEd – Experiences From My Unusual Career with One of America’s Most Iconic Companies.”
No words can possibly express my gratitude to Captain Farrell, both for his service to our country and for allowing me to fly with him. I salute him and continue to thank him by remembering and sharing this story.
Fast forward to December 2020 when, literally out of the blue, I received an email from Thomas Farrell. Tom explained he is the son of Captain James Farrell and wanted to thank me for recognizing his dad in my book. Apparently, Tom found a reference to my book while doing internet research on his dad.
It was as if a voice from that remarkable flight so many years ago had reached out to me once again. Following Tom’s email, I phoned him and we had a superb conversation. Tom shared the following excerpt from a personal letter to his dad, from former GE Chairman and CEO Reginald Jones:
“I shall never forget our many many hours in the air – particularly one day in Cincinnati when a small plane came on the runway just as you were coming in for a landing. You put on full power and just pulled our plane for some altitude in a split second. Your reflexes were remarkable!!! As we covered together a few thousand miles, you were always such a cheerful and helpful companion. I treasured our many hours together and always looked forward to being in your capable hands….We will be thinking of you often.
Given that only a handful of B-26 bombers remain, the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy museum annex at Dulles has decided to completely restore “Flak Bait.” Tom has invited me to attend the rededication ceremony, when the refurbishment is completed. I look forward to this event and meeting Tom in person to build upon our new friendship. It seems a most fitting and honorable postscript to this tale.
Michael A. Davi resides in Niskayuna and is a member of the town Historical Committee. He wishes to acknowledge Thomas J. Farrell for sharing information and photos used in this article.