RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK — A real “ace” and aviation legend from Georgia will be on hand this weekend to tell flight-sim and PC gamer “wannabes” to talk about what it was like to survive real dogfights and furballs.

Hamilton McWhorter, who shot down 12 Japanese planes in addition to two “probables”, is the keynote speaker for iEntertainment Network’s annual WarBirds convention in Pensacola, FL.

And he’s quite a catch for the iEN crowd.

His fellow pilots called him “Big Mac”, “Mac” and “One Slug” — an apparent reference to his accuracy as a gunfighter.

McWhorter flew when dogfights were up close and personal — machine guns at close range against Japanese machine guns and 20-mm cannon. He could see his opponents, twisting and cavorting across the sky in g-maneuvers bad enough to black out. No heat-seeking missiles. No gunnery based on radar.

Not that dogfights today are easy. Ask anyone who flew over Vietnam, even in the Persian Gulf where the Iraqis did fly and fight well on occasion. (“Wild Bill” Stealey, the former fighter pilot and CEO of iEN, can share a tale or two about what it’s like to fly jet fighters, too.)

But McWhorter dates to an earlier era, the combat that has made iEN’s aerial combat games so popular around the world.

Men and women, boys and girls can “suit up” at their keyboard, log in and match aerial maneuvers and gunnery skills — deflection shots and flak-filled bombing runs — over the Internet. They want to experience something like McWhorter and his cohorts did in rolling back Axis tyranny.

He can spin some tales, too.

Zeroes in his sights

McWhorter, who turns 82 in February, was born in Athens, GA, and attended both the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Georgia before joining the Navy six months ahead of Pearl Harbor. He wanted to fly fighters and became a “Naval Aviator” on Jan. 22, 1942 in the dark days after Japan’s imperial navy transformed warfare forever with its daring — yet sneak — attack using more than 300 aircraft from six aircraft carriers. The days of battleship domination were over; aircraft ruled the seas. And McWhorter was in the midst of that fighting until war’s end.

Long before heads-up displays and “fly by wire”, McWhorter was manhandling the big “Hellcat” fighter off heaving carrier decks in the Pacific. In fact, according to “Stars & Bars”, which is a history of American fighter aces, he became the first pilot to score five “kills” in a Hellcat — the Navy’s tough answer to the vaunted Japanese Zero which was remarkably agile and nimble in one-on-one dogfights.

But McWhorter had a gift for flying and dogfighting. A picture of McWhorter in “Stars & Bars” shows a smiling young man decked in leather cap and gloves, 10 Japanese flags painted on his Hellcat. He ended the war with 12.

His first kill came on Oct. 5, 1943 — a Zeke (or Zero) — over Wake Island, that lonely outpost the Japanese stormed shortly after Pearl Harbor despite defiant and heroic resistance by a handful of US Marines and Marine Wildcat fighter pilots. McWhorter also clamed a Zeke as a “probable” that day.

McWhorter went on to shoot down five more Zeroes.Remarkably, twice he shot down two in one day. His first double came over the Japanese base of Rabaul (known as the Japanese Gibraltar) on Nov. 11, 1943. He also claimed a probable in that furball.

When the war ended, McWhorter stayed in the Navy and was part of the fleet’s transition to jet fighters and the modern combat age. He didn’t retire until 1968. Fittingly, “Big Mac” was inducted into the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame in 1989.

McWhorter’s appearance and the iEN convention coincide with the release of “War Birds III, Fighter Pilot Academy,” which is now hitting game stores. (The convention will be held this year at the Clarion Suites Resort in Pensacola, where the players will also have the opportunity to visit the National Museum of Naval Aviation to see real versions of the aircraft WarBird players fly online on the Internet.)

I wonder if McWhorter will try his hand at the joystick, trying once again to “nail” a twisting, turning Zeke.

That would be something to see.

WarBirds Convention:


Rick Smith is managing editor of Local Tech Wire.