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Flier lands in hall of fame



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Major General Richard Bodycombe (USAF-Ret.) in the cockpit of the Yankee Air Museum B-17G. photo by Brad Lindberg.
April 15, 2010
At age 87, Dick Bodycombe's past is catching up with him.

A career pilot and retired two-star general, Bodycombe will be inducted this weekend into the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame in Kalamazoo.

"I'm overwhelmed," he said. "People started this process a few years back, but it didn't go anywhere. I thought, that's the way things go."

Bodycombe graduated from Grosse Pointe (South) High School in 1940.

A few years later, at age 21, he was commander and oldest crewman of a B-24 Liberator four-engine bomber based in southern Italy during World War II.

The 13th mission ended being shot down.

"That was a bad day," Bodycombe said. "Everything went wrong."

German flack cut short Bodycombe's run on a railroad yard in Yugoslavia.

"After we started taking hits, engine No. 1 was gone," Bodycombe said. "We dropped behind the formation. Then we got into weather. Dropping 300 feet per minute. I couldn't keep it flying."

He descended into clouds over Yugoslavia.

"The windshield iced up," he said. "Ice formed on the wings. I asked my co-pilot, 'You want to fly it?' He said, 'No.' I held onto it for about 15 minutes, then came out of the clouds at around 17,000 feet. We could see again. Then we crash-landed on a little strip in Yugoslavia."

Bodycombe retired as a major general in the Air Force Reserves.

Along the way, he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal and the Purple Heart.

After the war, he flew in the Berlin Airlift, helped found the United States Air Force Academy and commanded the Air Force Reserve. 

In civilian life, Bodycombe was chief pilot of Ford Motor Co.

Upon retirement, he continued flying as a member of the Yankee Air Museum in Belleville. Until a few years ago, he piloted the organization's B-17G "Yankee Lady."

"In my view, the hallmark of true heroism is humility face-to-face with accomplishments," said Bob Hynes, museum spokesman and a Grosse Pointe Farms resident. "Dick Bodycombe is the genuine article, a real hero. I've never heard an unkind word about him, nor from him, for that matter. He's a pilot and a gentleman."

In 2001, Bodycombe, who lives in Ann Arbor, took high school classmate and WWII bombardier Bruce Bockstanz, now deceased, on a B-17 cruise up the Grosse Pointe coastline. They circled their alma mater and the Grosse Pointe War Memorial en route to a simulated bomb run over the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club complete with open bomb bay doors.

Bodycombe has good things to say about the Tuskegee Airmen, the all-black group of fighter pilots who escorted bombers on missions over Europe. The airmen flew P-51 Mustangs with distinctive red tails.

"We went to the Vienna area seven or eight times and had the Tuskegees with us every time," Bodycombe said. "We saw German fighters, but they never attacked us. They wouldn't come up. They'd see those red tails."

Bodycombe began his flying career by chance.

On Labor Day, 1942, he and fellow members of the University of Michigan freshman baseball team went to the old federal building on Fort Street in Detroit to enlist in the Marines.

"A couple buddies in the car with me were singing "The Halls of Montezuma,'" Bodycombe said.

It was a hot day. The line to sign up was long and slow. Bodycombe stepped out for fresh air.

"I went downstairs," he said. "A recruiting sergeant from the Army Air Corps said, 'You want to be a pilot?' He took me upstairs and bam."

The hall of fame is located on the main campus of the Kalamazoo Air Zoo, formerly the Kalamazoo Aviation History Museum.

The museum has a Spanish version of a WWII German Messerschmitt ME-109 fighter, the kind Bodycombe spend the war avoiding.

"I never had to see one up close and I'm glad I didn't," he said.

The enshrinement ceremony is 6 p.m. Saturday, April 17. Tickets cost $60 and include dinner and an Air Zoo wristband package the entire day. For more information, contact Dani Nicholl at (269) 350-2811. The Kalamazoo Air Zoo is located at 6151 Portage Road in Kalamazoo. For more information visit the Air Zoo website airzoo.org or Yankee Air Museum website yankeeairmuseum.org.

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