In the recently released Casemate book titled Surprised at Being Alive, Robert F. Curtis provides accounts of his diverse military helicopter flying. Readers are introduced to Vietnam-era U.S. Army flying training and subsequently to his service in Vietnam with ‘C’ Company, 159th Aviation Battalion, 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile) at Phu Bai, Republic of Vietnam. Additionally, one learns of Curtis’ post-war flying with the Kentucky Army National Guard, and later service as a U.S. Marine Corps aviator, operating sometimes from USS Nassau, and exchange pilot with the Royal Navy’s Commando Helicopter Force (846 Naval Air Squadron) at Royal Navy Air Station Yeovilton from 1983 to 1985.
In the prologue the author states that “flying is far closer to being a religion than being a job” and that “comfort comes through prayer, singing, and the promise of better things to come.” He cites Ecclesiastes 1:9 and relates to the verse by explaining (page 11) that, “Whatever happens to your aircraft, someone has seen it before.” Within the book Curtis summarizes the experience of being an aviator by confessing that “the purpose is to do something most people cannot, be it getting to heaven or being respected by your brother pilots.”
Having accumulated in excess of 5,000 hours of “mishap free” flying in a wide range of aircraft, Robert Curtis tells much about the intricacies and difficulties of piloting a variety of rotary-wing machines during peacetime and wartime. Included are personal accounts of his time in the Boeing CH-47C and CH-47F Chinook, Boeing CH-46E Sea Knight, Bell UH-1H Iroquois (aka Huey), Bell OH-58A Kiowa, Beechcraft U-8 Seminole, and Westland Sea King MK IV Commando.
Mr. Curtis’ initial flight training is interesting as he describes the experiences and travails of learning to pilot the Hiller OH-23 Raven, and Bell TH-13 and OH-13E Sioux. Afterward, Robert Curtis transports readers through the highlights of 980 hours of combat flight time as the Aircraft Commander of a Chinook in the skies of Vietnam and Laos. Absorbing is his description of hitching a ride to Da Nang with a very competent and expereinced Air America pilot who was at least age 70 and provided Mr. Curtis with his oft repeated post-flight statement and summation: “Cheated death again. Luck and superstition, that’s all it is.”
Somewhat unique are the chapters describing Curtis’ posting to the Royal Navy. Few aviators have the opportunity to change militaries, even if only temporarily. Robert Curtis joined a ‘Junglies’ unit that supported the Royal Marines and flew from HMS Fearless, HMS Illustrious, and HMS Hermes, as well as bases in Norway, Egypt, Morocco, Gibraltar, Scotland, and Cyprus. One flight (described on page 253) was termed as an “all colonial” aircrew by the British because he was an American aircraft commander flying with an Australian copilot and a Kenyan crewman! Mr. Curtis also describes an unexpected and enjoyable 1985 ‘dogfight’ with a Supermarine Spitfire over Cornwall, England.
Curtis quite appropriately dedicates Surprised at Being Alive to the maintenance men who kept the birds airworthy and crewmen who flew with and trusted him to bring them back to base safely, and the wives and families to those who were killed on operations. Rarely do the aforementioned receive their due, and Robert Curtis should be commended for acknowledging them.
Surprised at Being Alive provides a worthwhile journey into history and one man’s multifaceted service. The work is recommended reading for all aviation aficionados.
20th Century Aviation Magazine/Military Aviation Magazine and this reviewer (John Stemple) thank Casemate publishers for supplying a copy of Mr. Curtis’ book for the purposes of review.