Legendary flier Howie Keefe recalls military career


Howie-Keefe-06-28-2013-by-John-Stemple-224x30011 July 2013 | Lakeland, Florida, USA.  It was hot, due to air conditioning issues, inside the Hospitality Room at the Pavilion of the Florida Air Museum and equally warm outside on June 28. Nevertheless, the 50 attendees listened intensely as Howard (“Howie”) M. Keefe, Jr., related personal experiences from his military and civilian flying careers. Howie spoke previously on September 13, but Central Florida Pilots Association members wanted him to return due to his many fascinating experiences.

June 15, 1976: Howie Keefe in "Miss America" at Mojave, CA.
June 15, 1976: Howie Keefe in “Miss America” at Mojave, CA.
Photo: Sid Roberts Collection http://archives.stickandrudderphoto.com

Howie was born on August 24, 1921. Mr. Keefe began his talk by thanking his devoted wife for her assistance. He then described his childhood and early interests in flying and military aviation. Howie informed the audience that, in 1931, his aunt took him to see the film All Quiet On the Western Front. He remarked, “I was shocked by this violent and different portrayal of war. Warfare was not depicted in chivalrous or glorious terms.” Not surprisingly, the appeal of being a military man dimmed within Howie’s young mind.

Eventually the lure of flying grabbed Mr. Keefe. In the early 1930s Howie’s father took him to Curtiss-Wright Airport near Glencoe, Illinois, to see air races. Keefe stated, “After arrival, and to my shock and dismay, I saw the wreckage of an airplane dangling from power lines. It was announced that the pilot had died.” Keefe told his audience, “After this and a few other highly publicized aviation crashes and failures, I was not so keen on becoming an aviator.”

In 1940 Howie Keefe was a junior at Hamilton College in upstate New York. By that time World War II was underway. Mr. Keefe stated, “Some of my classmates left school to join the Royal Canadian Air Force. I thought them adventurous, but at the time I intended to stay in school and become a lawyer.”

Soon thereafter, there was an unexpected opportunity to fly for college credit. An individual from the War Department visited the campus and mentioned the existence of the U.S. Government’s Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) program. Howie commented, “I learned that Hamilton would award 3 semester hours of credit for taking the course. I was not happy with courses such as English Literature that required obscure concepts and thinking.

Nine years had passed since All Quiet on the Western Front. After seeing the graphic film portrayal of life as an infantry soldier, I did not want to be fighting on the ground.” Mr. Keefe remarked, “However, there was one caveat to applying for flying training: I had to have my father’s permission.” He continued, “Therefore, I wrote to my father and told him that war was coming and I did not want to be sent into the trenches. Flying was the future, I told him.” Howie pointed out that his “father never flew, but he gave me permission to take the course if I would think it over for a week. However, as soon as I received the signed form from him, I immediately went to the dean’s office to enroll.”

Mr. Keefe started his flying career in 1941. His first flying lessons were in a Piper J-3 Cub on skis while in the U.S. Government’s Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) program. Howie informed the crowd, “I had difficulty with depth perception. Flying off and onto snow covered ground did not provide much depth perception. I had trouble, but finally I realized that the ruts in the snow provided just enough shadow to enable a pilot to judge height.” Howie related an aside, “Sometime later, when flying Consolidated PBY Catalinas on smooth water, I again struggled with depth perception. Our squadron commander banned the wearing of the polarized sunglasses because they interfered during water landings.”

After the Cub, Howie began flying the Waco UPF-7 biplane during aerobatics training. He commented, “The Waco was a very nice airplane to fly. We flew maneuvers to learn the controls and how they work when the airplane is in different positions.”

In 1942, Howie graduated from Hamilton College. He had, in addition to earning an academic degree, completed the Primary Flight Course for a Private Pilot License and a secondary aerobatic course. Mr. Keefe went to Bendix Field in South Bend, Indiana, for more advanced CPT training.

Howie passed on an offer to fly for Pan-American Grace Airways because he wanted to be a Navy pilot. A week later he received a letter from the Navy Air Corps. Howie remarked, “To my surprise, I had been appointed to the rank of ‘temporary’ ensign in the U.S. Navy Reserve! My enlistment card had ‘Seaman Second Class’ printed on it. Apparently, the Navy learned that the Civilian Aviation Authority had issued me a Flight Instructor Rating. Therefore, I was told to report to the Navy Flight Instructor School at Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola.”

Mr. Keefe processed into NAS Pensacola. He stated, “Our arms swelled to twice their normal size after we were given the many required shots.” Howie nearly flunked his first physical due to low blood pressure. Fortunately, he was soon able to pass. Mr. Keefe explained about life as a flight cadet, “I could not make a taut bed for inspection. Fortunately,” continued Howie, “I found a Filipino seaman who made my bed for a quarter a day.”

Naval Aircraft Factory N3N. Photo: Library of Congress
Naval Aircraft Factory N3N.
Photo: Library of Congress

The N3N presented problems for Mr. Keefe. He said, “I called them ‘Yellow Perils’ because I couldn’t get the darned things to land!” However, his instructors knew he could fly and saw that he passed.

About the comprehensive training he received Howie stated, “Navy pilots were trained not only as pilots, but also as navigators, bombardiers and gunners. Furthermore, we were proficient in both water and land operations. I learned basic aircraft carrier operations by flying from the training carrier USS Sable, which was based in Lake Michigan.” In March 1943, Keefe received his coveted gold Navy wings.

USS Sable in Lake Michigan flying off a Wildcat circa 1944. Photo: USN and USMC Museum
USS Sable in Lake Michigan flying off a Wildcat circa 1944.
Photo: USN and USMC Museum

Mr. Keefe explained that, “In exchange for a year of service as an instructor, pilots were fairly certain of being assigned to the branch of Naval aviation of their choice.” Thus, he soon found himself at Olathe Naval Air Station near Kansas City and teaching students.

During his tenure as an instructor, Howie began instructing and almost died twice. He explained, “On the first occasion, I was teaching in a Spartan [NP-1], and made a mistake with a student while airborne. We spun in and crashed. I thought my military career was over, but much to my surprise the commander congratulated me for getting rid one of the Spartans which were soon to be replaced!” Howie added, “The second near death incident was when I almost fell out of my cockpit while inverted during a loop because I had previously unfastened my seat belt and forgot to refasten it!”

NP-1 Spartan. Photo: USN
NP-1 Spartan.
Photo: USN

The human body can only stand repeated G forces for so long. After months of instructing, Mr. Keefe began ‘graying out’ occasionally when students pulled back on the stick to do their Immelmann maneuver. A loop with a slow roll to level flight on the top was the requirement. Howie confessed, “If the wings were level when the ‘gray out’ faded, I would tell the student he did well.” When the crowd’s laughter quieted, he continued, “I was an ‘old man’ by the age of 23. My wife told me I had to quit instructing, and by that time I also had a child to consider.”

PBY-5 Catalina at Fantasy of Flight. Photo: John Stemple
PBY-5 Catalina at Fantasy of Flight.
Photo: John Stemple

“I chose PBYs, said Mr. Keefe. He continued, “Many people are unaware that the war was being fought off the Florida coasts and Atlantic Seaboard. U-boats sank many ships.” Thus antisubmarine patrols became a necessity.

It was a battle of the aircrews against the sub crews. Howie stated, “German U-boats would usually dive when spotted by one of the patrol planes. Then the aircrews would drop depth charges where the submarine disappeared.” This was the common course of events.

PV-1 Ventura. Photo - USN
PV-1 Ventura.
Photo – USN

However, remarked Howie, “Once a colleague spotted a partially submerged U-boat that did not, for an unknown reason, dive after the first charges exploded in close proximity. The sub’s captain decided to fight it out and surfaced the sub.” The Kriegsmarine anti-aircraft gun crews used their rapid-fire weapons to good effect. Howie remarked, “The PV-1 [Lockheed Ventura] was shot down and the aircrew became prisoners of war.”

The war in the Pacific was obviously coming to a climax. Mr. Keefe remarked, “By 1945 PBYs were being phased out in favor of land bombers. We were expecting to be deployed prior to the invasion of Japan when the war ended. I went to work for the Chicago Tribune.”

Lockheed PV-2. Photo: NMNA
Lockheed PV-2. Photo: NMNA

Howie continued his naval service. “After the war,” he explained, “I joined VPML-54, which was a Navy Reserve patrol squadron based at nearby NAS Glenview. We had Lockheed PV-2 Harpoons, SNBs and SNJs.” Duty was pleasant, and he needed the extra money due to having a family to support. Mr. Keefe said, “It was enjoyable to fly the PV-2s down to Florida bases, and there we relished the warm weather. The squadron trained to locate Soviet Navy subs, which were utilizing snorkel devices when submerged.”

At last his time with the navy ended. Howie explained, “My last Navy flight, in March 1950, was almost my last. A U.S. Air Force B-25 Mitchell cut into the landing pattern, came within 10 feet of the SNB I was flying, and landed ahead. The bomber crew was detained by the Shore Patrol upon landing. I don’t know what happened to them after that.”

Aeronautics reentered Mr. Keefe’s life. “In 1960,” Howie said, “I was working as the marketing director for the Chicago Tribune and teaching marketing at Northwestern University. I developed the first aviation atlas and started a business.”

Soon Howie again took wing: “I began flying a Piper Comanche 250 and Cessna 172.” Mr. Keefe stated, “At age 46 I bought a surplus SNJ-5 for $2,500. I flew the SNJ to Reno in 1967 and saw the Civil Air Patrol Condor Squadron, equipped with AT-6s, from Van Nuys present a demonstration race.” It was an impressive sight. Mr. Keefe exclaimed, “I began air racing in the AT-6 class the next year!”

June 15, 1976: "Miss America" at the Mojave Air Races.
June 15, 1976: “Miss America” at the Mojave Air Races.
Photo: Sid Roberts Collection http://archives.stickandrudderphoto.com

Howie located a surplus North American P-51 Mustang in 1968 at the Santa Monica airport and bought it for $25,000. He soloed the classic fighter in 1969 after Bob Hoover had given me a checkout in the plane the previous week.”

Mr. Keefe modified the aircraft and named her “Miss America.” Howie elaborated, “I flew the Mustang to victory in air races at Reno, Nevada, Cape May, New Jersey, and Miami, Florida. I also set a speed record in May 1972, of 6 hours and 21 minutes, flying from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. During the flight the aircraft averaged an airspeed of 412 miles per hour.” Mr. Keefe added, “I also set the record for the most consecutive number of unlimited pylon races.”

Somewhat regrettably, Howie “sold ‘Miss America’ in 1981 for a price of $195, 000.” It was the end of a remarkable partnership and era.

June 15, 1976: "Miss America" at the Mojave Air Races.
June 15, 1976: “Miss America” at the Mojave Air Races.
Photo: Sid Roberts Collection http://archives.stickandrudderphoto.com

For those who were aviation aficionados during the 1960s or 1970s, whether young or old, the memories of Howie Keefe and his sexy “Miss America” are unforgettable.

To meet and hear Mr. Keefe relate his life story was a privilege. As the words left Howie’s lips, many audience members mentally drifted back into time. Once again the powerful roar of a Merlin engine was audible and a sleek, red, white and blue P-51 came charging past. For an hour all were young again.

June 30, 1978: "Miss America" at the Dayton International Airshow.
June 30, 1978: “Miss America” at the Dayton International Airshow.
Photo: Glenn E. Chatfield



(Note: In 2001 Mr. Keefe wrote Galloping on Wings With the P-51 Mustang, and Aviation Supplies and Academics, Inc., republished the popular book in 2007.)

The author (John T. Stemple) thanks the Central Florida Pilots Association and Howie Keefe and his dedicated wife for their cooperation. 

John also expresses his appreciation to Glenn Chatfield and Chris Luvara of Stick and Rudder Photo for granting photo usage.

Sources and Suggested Readings

Aviation Supplies and Academics, Inc.


Beechcraft SNB Kansan




Central Florida Pilots Association


Civilian Pilot Training Program


Homer Hickman, Jr., Torpedo Junction: U-boat War off America’s East Coast, 1942, New York: Dell, 1989.

Howie Keefe, Galloping On Wings With the P-51 Mustang, Newcastle, WA: Aviation Supplies and Academics, 2007.

Immelmann aerobatic maneuver


Lockheed Ventura/Harpoon


North American B-25 Mitchell


North American P-51D Mustang


North American SNJ


Piper J-3 Cub


USS Sable


Vultee SNV Vibrator


One Response to Legendary flier Howie Keefe recalls military career

  1.  Dorrie Keefe says:

    Dear Mr. Stemple;
    I can hear my father’s voice as I read through your article. Thank you for capturing the wonderful sharing of his lecture on June 28, 2013:) I have cc’d the link to my family. I had received it in an email from Dad just the other day. We are all so grateful to those of you who hold him in high regard and will carry on speaking of his escapades and courageousness.
    Love and Light, Dorrie Keefe