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An icon’s solo flight to heaven

21st October 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Fr. Jerome LeDoux
Contributing Columnist

As a lad of 7, Claude Platte was fascinated by airplanes flying from and around Meacham Airport in North Fort Worth. One special day, a very loud airplane engine drew his rapt attention to a plane flying so low that the pilot was clearly visible, even waved at him. From that moment on, Claude knew he would be a pilot someday. He believed he could fly.

In 1942, at the age of 12, I stood in my backyard in Lake Charles, Louisiana, gazing at the sky where airplanes frequently flew in and out of the big Chennault Air Force Base. A formation of fighter planes appeared from the east at about 30,000 feet. With stunning speed, the lead plane began a power dive in my direction, quickly followed by the other planes.

Immediately, my 12-year-old ey­es picked out loud-red paint on the cowling of the huge, 2,000 horsepower radial engines, outlining the stumpy build of P-47 Thunder­bolts. The powerful planes bottomed out their power dive at a few thousand feet, zooming with dizzy speed to the south and leaving the roaring, whining sound of their engines miles behind them.

Only after getting to know Clau­de Platte and the story of the Tuskegee airmen and their patented Red Tails did I realize that my sighting of red cowlings and red tails so many decades ago indicated that I was seeing planes flown by the formidable Tuskegee airmen. The privilege of viewing that incident made me feel bonded to Claude and his fellow airmen.

The heaviest, most powerful and one of the fastest propeller-driven planes ever, Thunderbolts were the third type of plane flown in combat by the Red Tails. First came the Bell P-39 Airacobra, a relatively low-performance aircraft with a top speed of 376 mph. Next came the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, a considerable improvement over the P-39.

Finally, the Tuskegee Airmen inherited the famed North American P-51 Mustang, the best all-around performer of their time. While his graduate students were busy acclimating themselves to such fabulous flying machines, Captain Claude Robert Platte, Jr. was most diligent in his task of churning out new fledgling pilots eager to find their niche in history.

In his meek, unassuming manner, Claude was a perfect fit for the command of Jesus in Luke 17:10, “When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’” Thus, Claude never wanted to talk about his days as flight instructor in the legendary halls of Tuskegee Institute.

How could such a mild, meek man inspire the tigers that roared out of his flight classes?

Claude was likewise a good fit for the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:5, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.” Indeed, they will inherit the skies and the heavens!

Without his wife Erma to steer, steady and encourage him, Claude would never have begun, let alone finish, a talk on his historical role in aeronautical history. He could never bring himself to believe that people actually wanted to know about the things he had done.

He was a real-life national hero, a legend, an icon to everyone, but never in his own mind.

A very close-knit couple since they decided to become one in 1978, Claude and Erma did everything together. That proved to be more adventurous for Erma, especially in later years when she was struggling to shield Claude from foods injurious to his health. That was no problem at home, though he recently ate two peach cobblers of which only one was his.

But eating away from home was a challenge, because all the women fell in love with Claude and tried to feed him everything – until Erma made her appearance, of course. He would then back away from the food and try to dissemble that he had any intentions to eat.

Erma often observed ruefully that Claude always ate heartily but never gained an ounce.

No one could believe it when Claude left us quietly Friday, September 27 at 10 p.m. He was talking to Jesus, his Fli­ght In­struc­tor, when Jesus in­­­formed him, “My dear bro­ther Claude, it is now time for you to do your solo flight to my heavenly Father. But let not your heart be troubled. You must solo to the kingdom, but I will be your copilot.”

Claude responded, “Yes, Jesus. You have been so good to me. Take my hand, precious Lord. Through the dark, through the night, lead me on to the light; lead me home.”

At the Friday evening wake, it was quite evident that Claude had no enemies, but that he indeed had a host of friends and unabashed admirers. His rousing homegoing Mass confirmed this plus the fact that, as in Jesus, meekness and toughness are quite compatible.

As Claude’s body was being lifted from the hearse in DFW National Cemetery, a trio of T-6 trainers – that Claude used to teach his students – with cowlings and tails painted red flew over us streaming white smoke and thrilling the three score crowd of well-wishers.

A truck-mounted bell tolled, followed by taps, then three blasts by three marine riflemen.

This article originally published in the October 21, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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