During his military career, Santa Ynez resident Jim Kunkle flew more than his fair share of aircraft: the Bell P-39 Airacobra, Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, and the famed North American P-51 Mustang. He stayed on after WWII to fly the nation’s first military jets: Lockheed’s P-80 Shooting Star, Bell P-59 Airajet, and Republic F-84 Thunderjet. But his all-time favorite was Lockheed’s P-38 Lightning.
“It’s my favorite aircraft of everything I ever flew in the Air Force. It was a magnificent airplane in combat. It could do almost anything that was required of it,” Kunkle said.
That aircraft, and Kunkle, will join other veterans and storied aircraft Oct. 6 and 7 at Central Coast AirFest. Visitors are invited to inspect the planes, see many of them in flight, and meet and greet veteran pilots including Kunkle, Rear Admiral H. Denny Wisely (retired), and U.S. Navy Capt. (retired) Charlie Plumb.
“We’re all happy to talk to people. With fighter pilots, it’s not getting them to talk that’s a challenge; it’s trying to shut them up,” Kunkle said.
And it’s no wonder. They have plenty of stories to tell.
“It was a long time ago, and it was a very brief period of my life. I’ve had what I’d call a wonderful life, and I’ve enjoyed many, many years of flying thanks to the Air Force. They taught me to fly and paid for all my gasoline. It was just an experience, a great adventure,” Kunkle said.
Now 95, the recipient of the Air Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Croix de Guerre, Purple Heart and Distinguished Service Cross still flies any of the family’s six aircraft housed at Santa Ynez Airport.
“I fly whatever I can get my hands on,” Kunkle said.
His son, James W. Kunkle, and his grandson, Chris Kunkle, have also been bitten by the bug.
“He gets around on his own. He still flies. He’s doing his own thing in Santa Ynez. He’s a very impressive guy,” Chris said.
Jim was a senior at Beverly Hills High School when the war started in 1939. He was too young to sign up without his mother’s permission, “and she wasn’t about to give it,” he said. So, he did the next best thing a flight-crazy kid could do: signed up for the California Air National Guard.
He spent a year at the airstrip in Griffith Park before the Guard was called to active duty, and when the age limit for pilots was dropped from 21 to 18, Jim was on board.
“I signed up with about 500,000 other kids who wanted to fly,” he quipped.
Ten months later, and 100 hours of flight time under his belt, he as off to England.
“We got our practice the hard way,” Jim said.
Throughout the war, Jim flew regularly into Santa Maria Army Air Field, initially built to train B-25 bomber pilots, but ultimately a top training spot for P-38 fighters headed for war.
On Sept. 16, 1944, over Aachen, Germany, he learned the P-38’s chief limitation.
“I learned it couldn’t take on a bunch of Germans and last very long,” he recalled.
His 401st Fighter Group was providing cover to two squadrons when he noticed German aircraft coming up behind their formations. A dogfight ensued, Jim was shot down, and his parachute set him down between enemy lines. Infantry recovered him, and after 16 weeks of treatment and recovery from severe burns, he was back in the cockpit.
“I never felt nervous flying,” Jim said.
Today, he hangs out with Navy pilots and Air Force friends, and dreams of flying the P-38 again.
“I don't want a ride. If I can’t fly it, I’ll stay out of it. I like to fly the way I like to fly,” he said.
And he doesn’t need hand holding.