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Shilling in P-40C

Erik Shilling in the cockpit of a restored P-40C at Planes of Fame, Chino CA (photo by Tom Cleaver)

Erik Shilling, off on his last flight

By Tom Cleaver

Eriksen E. Shilling, member of the American Volunteer Group - the legendary "Flying Tigers" - who flew the unit's first combat mission of the war has died. Mr. Shilling passed away in his sleep on Monday, March 18, 2002, from the complications of cancer.

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave permission for Claire Chennault to recruit American military pilots to serve in China in April 1941, 1st Lieutenent Erik Shilling of the U.S. Army Air Corps was one of the first to sign up. Eventually, 109 pilots and 150 mechanics assembled in San Francisco on July 7, 1941 and boarded the Dutch liner "Jagersfontein," bound for Rangoon. [In fact, the AVGs went over on several ships, over the course of several months -- DF] In Hawaii, they learned Japan had taken control of French Indochina. Fearing Japanese interception, they sailed to Singapore, then on to Rangoon, Burma by early August.

During training at Toungoo, north of Rangoon, Shilling created what would become the renowned insignia of the American Volunteer Group, the fierce tigermouth painted on the noses of their P-40s. As he later recalled, "It's always been said that the tiger mouth came about after we saw a picture of a P-40 being flown by 112 Squadron in North Africa. That's not true. I was looking through a British magazine one day and saw a photo of a Messerschmitt-110 with a shark face on it. They were the 'Haifisch Gruppe.' I thought it looked perfect for our squadron insignia." Shilling chalked a sharkmouth on his P-40 to see how it might look; when he asked Chennault for permission to use it as a squadron marking, Chennault saw it as the group marking. Shilling ended up chalking the sharkmouth on all of the P-40s before they were painted. "That's why there were no two of them with the same shape of mouth," he remembered.

The first six months of America's participation in the Second World War offered little news but disaster piled atop disaster. In all the gloom, one bright spot appeared in the skies over Rangoon, Burma at Christmas, 1941: a small band of outnumbered volunteer fighter pilots were fighting against terrific odds in the defense of The Burma Road, the lifeline to China. The pilots were American, and they were winning....

In later years, many would believe the unit fought in China against the Japanese for years before the attack on Pearl Harbor. In fact, the first operational mission of the A.V.G. was not flown until December 10, 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The flight, a photo reconnaissance mission from Rangoon to Bangkok, was was flown by Shilling. Prior to the outbreak of war, Shilling - who had been involved in the development of aerial reconaissance with the U.S. Army Air Corps priot to joining the A.V.G. - modified his P-40 with a 20-inch Fairchild camera in the baggage compartment behind the cockpit. Shilling flew the mission accompanied by the Group Intelligence Officer, Allen Christman, and future ace Ed Rector. Leaving Rangoon, they refueled at Mingaladon, then went on to Tavoy on the border and topped off so as to have fuel to make the round trip to Bangkok and back to Rangoon. Twenty minutes after they left Tavoy, the Japanese ... struck the base. Evading the Japanese, the three Americans flew on to Bangkok, where Shilling climbed up to 26,000 feet and proceeded to photograph the docks and surrounding airfields. He rejoined his escort and returned to Bangkok without further incident. The photos revealed over 90 Japanese aircraft....

Shilling's adventures were far from over. Shortly thereafter, while flight testing a Curtiss-Wright CW-21, he suffered engine failure and [crashed in] the mountains southwest of Kunming, china. He was the first European the people in that region had ever seen; they took him at first for a Japanese. Shilling's luck held when a Chinese patrol happened along before his captors could demonstrate what they had in mind for the Japanese enemy, and he returned to the AVG in one piece.

During the next 25 years, Erik Shilling would be intimately involved with America's wars in Asia. After first flying with the AVG, he joined Civil Air Transport and went on to perform one hundred crossings of "The Hump" - the supply route from the Chinese capitol in Chungking over the Himalayas to India. He participated in the Chinese Civil War after World War II, until the Communist victory in 1949.

In 1949, Civil Air Transport became involved with the then-new Central Intelligence Agency. The airline's pilots knew China intimately; for the C.I.A., the communist victory on the mainland did not mean the end. Between 1951 and the end of the Korean War in 1953, Shilling flew several resupply missions into Communist China, including one daylight mission in a C-54, flown from Clark AFB in the Philippines into the mountains west of Chungking - 500 miles inside the country - then out across eastern China to Kadena air base on Okinawa.

In March, 1954 Shilling became involved in the attempt to supply French forces at Dienbienphu by air. Shilling and his comrades flew unescorted daylight missions to drop supplies in flights that involved diving the heavily-loaded airplane into the valley, levelling off at low altitude to make the drop, then climbing back out, all the while under fire from the surrounding hills.

In 1958, the struggle that became the American war in Southeast Asia began. Shilling flew in the unknown war in Laos until 1967, which made him the last member of the Flying Tigers to fly combat missions. He left Laos in 1967 and joined his old comrades in Flying Tigers Airline, from which he finally retired in 1979.

During the past thirty years, Erik Shilling was well-known in Southern California aviation circles, where his yellow Starduster-Too with its AVG insignia of the Flying Tiger drew attention wherever he flew. Many younger pilots benefitted from his years of experience when he became a flight instructor specializing in aerobatics. Shilling travelled the country in later years, speaking of his experiences, and wrote an autobiography, "Destiny: A Flying Tiger Remembers."

Mr. Shilling is survived by his wife Ilse, his son Eric and grandson Matthew, and daughter Ingrid Hand, and her children Brandon and Larissa. A private memorial service is pending.

[The source of much of Tom Cleaver's information was Erik Shilling himself, and Erik unfortunately was one of the least reliable historians I have ever met. We clashed often on the newsgroup rec.aviation.military during the 1990s, and he so irritated me by ending his arguments with "Ford is not a pilot, so what does he know?" that I drove to a grass airstrip on the seacoast and became a certificated pilot, one of the great adventures of my life. We eventually reconciled and kept up a more-or-less friendly email correspondence for the rest of his life. -- Daniel Ford.]

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