Bill Noyes: Getting over the Hump

September 19, 2005 

They called it the Hump, rows of mountain peaks jagged as shark teeth and just as lethal.

Time and again, transport pilots braved the forbidding Himalayas, the only way to reach China from Burma or India once the Japanese captured the twisting Burma Road.

Storms bounced planes loaded with fuel drums and ammunition like toy models. Overcast skies known as the "soup" blinded pilots.

All the while, sheer cliffs and gorges waited below, a graveyard of jungle and snow if engines sputtered or a compass failed.

Bill Noyes completed 75 missions.Noyes, a lieutenant in the 14th Combat Cargo Squadron, ferried C-46 Commandos full of supplies and even American troops from his base in Burma to gravel airstrips in China. By then, the summer of 1945, Japanese fighters had ceased to be a threat.

But the Hump's violent drafts and rotten visibility always menaced, claiming most of the 1,300 airmen and 800 planes lost crossing the ridges.

"The main things were weather and mechanical failures," said Noyes, now 83 and living at The Village at Penn State. Not only was the lumbering, stiff C-46 hard to fly, but the propellors on its twin engines sometimes went haywire.

At 18,000 feet, an hour to the nearest runway, anything less than a steady drone from the wings was trouble.

"If you got a runaway prop, you couldn't do anything with it," Noyes said. "You had to shut the engine down. In other words, it would go up to such speeds that it would probably disintegrate."

The Commando, nicknamed "Dumbo," could stay aloft on one engine, if three-man crews acted quickly enough.

"You'd try to get rid of all your cargo, just dump it out, untie it and roll it back to the door and shove it out," Noyes said.

During his months in the China-Burma-India Theater, Noyes lived in different worlds. In Burma, he slept in dusty tents, the heat so intense that pilots wore gloves while taking off to avoid burning their hands on sun-baked controls. Elephants occasionally helped load planes. Over the Himalayas, he might as well have been in the Arctic.

Only his heavy-duty flight suit prevented him from freezing in the Commando's unpressurized, uninsulated cabin. An oxygen mask kept him alive. The chill, however, wasn't all bad.

"We'd fill a canteen beforehand so we'd have cold water when we got back," Noyes said. Sometimes twice a day, he flew the two hours or so to cities such as Kunming and Cheng kung. On easy runs, a few wisps scudded across blue skies. More often, the Hump turned nasty. Then survival depended on his instrument-flying skills, the flight plan and plain luck.

Other than old maps, pilots had little to guide them over trackless mountains to airfields in Chinese valleys. Observations from returning crews served as weather reports.

Among pilots, "dead reckoning" -- navigating by airspeed, wind direction and landmarks -- became a grim pun.

"We had no navigational instruments, just a radio compass," Noyes said. "As I say, a Buick today has more navigational instruments than we had."

But good fortune followed the college student from Newburg, N.Y., throughout his service. After earning his wings in August 1944, he flew a C-46 from Fort Wayne, Ind., to Calcutta, India, without a hitch.

His first missions, bringing supplies to British troops in southern Burma, went smoothly. Never did he have to bail out or crash-land on flights over the Hump that continued even after the war's end.

Maybe he would have trekked back to safety, as some of his comrades managed to do. More likely, he wouldn't have become an Air Force Reserve lieutenant colonel and gone on to retire from the Penn State music education department.

In the apartment he shares with his wife, Maxine, he displays a wooden scale model of a Commando. It's olive green, just like the ones that took what the Hump could dish and carried him to safety.

"Aircraft then hadn't reached the sophistication they have today," Noyes said. "I look back and wonder how I did it without getting screwed up."

Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620.

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