Although it took 47 years, a World War II bomber pilot from Nebraska finally got to thank a fighter pilot from Towson for saving his life in the sky over Germany.
It was March 21, 1945, and smoke from the massive bomb bursts plumed skyward from the German city of Plauen as an armada of B-17 Flying Fortresses turned for home in Britain.
Suddenly, at more than 500 miles an hour, a twin-engine German ME262, the world's first jet fighter, zoomed through the formation with machine guns blazing, blasting one B-17 out of the sky. Lt. Richard L. Roberts, in the pilot's seat of another B-17, could only watch helplessly. But hot behind the German jet, in a steep dive, was 20-year-old Lt. John A. Kirk of Towson, flying "Small Boy Here," a propeller-driven P-51 Mustang. He loosed a desperate burst of 50-caliber machine gun fire.
"My wings didn't fall off, so I kept diving and fired again. One bullet caught his right engine; it started smoking," recalled Mr. Kirk, now 68.
"It slowed him down and I started to gain. He turned right and I fired again. I could see the sparks when the lead hit the aluminum. The pilot bailed out, and I flew right past him as I followed the plane down, taking pictures [with gun cameras] until it hit the ground."
Mr. Roberts told the former fighter pilot in a phone call arranged by The Sun: "I sure did appreciate it, John. I didn't know it was you at the time, and I didn't get a chance to thank you, but I sure will now -- for knocking that guy off us."
"You're sure welcome. He won't bother you any more," replied Mr. Kirk, who was one of only a handful of World War II fighter pilots to shoot down a German jet in aerial combat.
The Luftwaffe fighters, which changed aviation history, had been in service for only a few months, and most of those destroyed were caught on the ground.
The two have never met face-to-face, and Mr. Roberts, who now lives in Chadron, Neb., discovered the Towson pilot's identity almost half a century later while reading an article about Mr. Kirk in a magazine dedicated to an interest they share -- radio-controlled model planes.
Mr. Roberts, a combat veteran at 21, was in a B-17 called "Day's Pay," flying his eighth bombing mission. About 1,100 B-17s, escorted by 700 to 800 fighters, flew a daylight raid on a jet-engine parts plant at Plauen, southwest of Leipzig near the Czech border.
"We were still in formation, coming back, when the jet dove in from the rear. He didn't fire on us, then I noticed the Mustang chasing him," he said. "We held those jets in awe because they were so fast. Even tracking them was hard, and there was a psychological thing because they had no propellers. Then my co-pilot said you got him."
Mr. Kirk recalled: "I was zigzagging about 26,000 feet, about 2,000 feet above you. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the jet fire and hit a bomber and I dove down toward him." In level flight, Mr. Kirk said, the jet could reach 520 mph while his Mustang could reach only 400. "But straight down, I was as fast as he was, and we both reached terminal velocity -- 520," he said.
Mr. Kirk said he had seen the German jets twice before but never chased them because it was impossible to catch up. But this time, the Luftwaffe pilot played into his hands. "He made a mistake and turned, and I shot him. If he'd gone straight, I couldn't have caught him," Mr. Kirk said.
Mr. Kirk went on to a career at Bethlehem Steel, while Mr. Roberts held a variety of posts with the Federal Aviation &L; Administration.
Later, both men became active in radio-controlled model airplane flying and it was their mutual hobby that brought them together.
Mr. Roberts read an article in Scale R/C Modeler magazine in January about Mr. Kirk's dogfight with the jet fighter.
"When I read it, I said it sounds like it could have been the same plane, so I got my old wartime diary and there it was: 'One jet attacked our rear but didn't fire. A P-51 shot him down a short while later, also ran another one off.' "