From POW to Blue Angel:
The Story of Commander Dusty Rhodes
by Jim Armstrong

 

The first practice flight in the New F9F Panthers 27 July 1949.
(L to R) LT R.L. Longworth, LTJG E.R. Roth, LCDR 'Dusty' Rhodes and LT G.W. Hoskins

"Shaping the Diamond Barrel Roll"

When the team got back to Jax there was a message waiting for them from Admiral Wagner at Pensacola. He wanted them to report to his office for a meeting before the air show scheduled for the July Fourth weekend. Could they come early and see him on Thursday? Clarke sent off an affirmative reply, and Dusty joined him and Chuck and Billy on the half-hour flight Wednesday afternoon. Jack would follow later in the SNJ.

Entering the admiral's office Thursday morning, they were surprised to find him flanked by "the two Jimmys"--Captain Jimmy Flatley and Captain Jimmy Thach, legendary among naval aviators for their leadership and tactical innovations in World War II.

Something was up.

Salutes and greetings were exchanged, and after a few pleasantries Admiral Wagner got down to business.

"Clarke," he said, "what is the basic fighter formation?"

"Four planes in two two-plane elements, Sir," Clarke answered.

Dusty saw Captain Thach and Captain Flatley break into broad smiles. Admiral Wagner glanced at them and absorbed the message.

Addressing Bob Clarke again, he said, "I want you to work out a four-plane routine and come back in a month and show it to me."

"Aye, aye, Sir!" said Clarke.

As they left NATC headquarters, they agreed that somebody must have pointed out to Admiral Wagner that it would be more realistic for the Blue Angels to be demonstrating the standard four-plane tactical division than the older three-plane vee. Maybe Jimmy Flatley himself had brought it to the admiral's attention. Early in the war Jimmy Thach had worked out the two or four-plane defensive maneuver that was soon called the Thach Weave, but it

was Flatley who'd done more than anyone else to popularize it among Naval aviators.

Clarke had insisted that Dusty attend the meeting even though he wasn't scheduled to fly in the weekend air show. As the next leader, he ought to be in on important developments. But since he had other business to attend to at Jax on Friday, he flew back Thursday evening, taking with him a copy of the Gosport News, the base newspaper, where he read that the Blue Angels had given over 60 performances in their first year for over a million spectators and traveled "over 35,000 miles to do so." The numbers were impressive, but Dusty wasn't surprised. The combined total flying time of all the team members would be another impressive statistic, if anyone cared to check it out.

With no air shows scheduled for the rest of July, the team continued almost daily practice sessions, trying some new four-plane maneuvers along with the ones already in their repertoire. When the mock-Zero SNJ flown by Jack Thelen made its attack, Clarke and Knight would bracket it in the scissoring Thach Weave tactic, and then Dusty would swoop down to join Billy May as the SNJ was repeatedly caught between the two two-plane elements. After the Zero was dispatched, Dusty would continue as part of a four-plane formation as the team experimented with various loops and echelon rolls. Usually the fourth plane flew off the wing of the number two or three man, in a fingertip formation, roughly in the positions of the fingernails of the extended fingers of either the left or right hand.

Jack sometimes flew a Bearcat instead of the SNJ, and when he and Dusty were in the air while Clarke was practicing with the three-plane vee, one of them would fly into the "slot" directly behind and below Clarke, where they discovered they had a better vantage point for seeing what was going on. No one else had such a view of the formation.

During breaks between sessions, the pilots in the vee began asking the slot men for critiques. It was a great help to have their own impressions confirmed, or to hear about some little quirk they'd never noticed. Dusty and Jack had the same thing to say about the formation barrel roll. It was certainly safer than the formation roll, but from the slot it looked a little loose. Reports from observers on the ground were positive, and Clarke was hoping they'd be ready to use it in an August show at Jax, before showing it off at Cleveland in September.

Dusty wondered aloud why they shouldn't keep a plane in the slot for the barrel roll.

The slot man could help everybody stay tighter and smoother, and besides, they were supposed to be adding four-plane maneuvers, weren't they? Jack seconded Dusty's idea.

"Let's try it," said Clarke, and up they went. Dusty flew the slot, and on the second try the maneuver was as smooth as a Ramos Fizz on a hot day. Everybody knew it before Dusty told them. Jack, watching from above in his Bearcat, confirmed it.

"You guys were as tight as a kite," he said.

The diamond barrel roll was born.

"Dusty in His Eighties"

 

Commander Raleigh E. Rhodes (USN Retired) at NAS Jacksonville O Club October 27, 2006.

As an aging combat veteran, Dusty Rhodes--Commander Raleigh E. Rhodes (USN Retired)--still looks and acts like the fighter pilot he once was. His broad chest and well- muscled arms, toned through a lifetime of swimming and daily workouts, suggest the control he exercised over powerful fighter planes, and his steady gaze signals readiness to meet a challenge.

At five feet, eight inches and a lifetime steady weight of 155 pounds, Dusty always fit comfortably into even a cramped cockpit. He stands more often forward, on the balls of his feet, than on his heels, and hiking behind him once on a rocky zigzag trail around Pinecrest Lake, I noticed how lean and muscular his calves still are. Until a couple of years ago, when arterial placque accumulation in his legs began giving him problems, he took a vigorous walk of several miles at least once a day and played nine or eighteen holes of golf, without a cart, a couple of times a week. Now the pain that sharply limits his walking frustrates him.

Looking at photographs of Dusty from his youth through his aviator years to the present day, you see the same expression of steady alertness and readiness to respond--to a question, an invitation, a joke. His smile comes easily, and he loves playful banter or a

funny story. You sense his self-confidence and his respectful openness to whatever you

have to offer. He seems naturally courteous, even chivalrous, and you can understand why so many men readily trusted him as a leader and granted him their loyalty.

Dusty's blond hair and eyebrows are lighter and thinner than they once were, and the lines of concentration on his tanned face a little deeper. He has always been good-looking, even strikingly handsome, and it's easy to imagine how positively women have always responded to him. But he's reticent on the subject, in a gentlemanly way. I mentioned to him once that biographies and autobiographies of fighter pilots usually give the impression that their off-duty activities focused chiefly on women and drinking. Was that true?

He took the question seriously, thoughtfully. "Well, yeah," he said. "I suppose that's true." But he offered no personal examples as confirmation, and from his manner you

might have thought I'd asked him who he liked in the World Series. Maybe he confesses

his off-duty exploits more readily when he's among other former fighter pilots. Only long acquaintance might confirm the suspicion that his behavior has ever been less than prudent.


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