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Ensign William Dennis "Billy" Weaver
also known as Dennis Weaver
U.S. Navy F4F Wildcat Pilot, Actor and Humanitarian
In his time, Weaver was a pilot, a veteran of World War II, a vastly popular entertainer on television and in the movies, a singer-songwriter and something of a philosopher. He later became one of the country's most eloquent spokesmen for environmental change.
His brief flying career was brought about by World War II.
Long before he claimed fame as an actor, he joined the Naval Air Corps, at 18, and entered the V-5 flight training program.
While he was stationed at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Weaver learned to fly a Piper Cub. A flight in that aircraft was just one of three nearly disastrous flights for him.
He recalled the flight in his engaging 2001 memoir, "All the World's a Stage." On a perfect, clear day, as Weaver was taking off to fly his first solo along the Flatirons, his instructor told him, "You're on your own, kid, and don't forget to spin."
But as he attempted the maneuver at 6,000 feet, the plane started spinning out of control, heading right for the brown fields below.
"Overlapping thoughts of terror raced through my mind. ... Am I going to eat it on my first solo flight? Should I bail out? Will I get washed out? Will my damn parachute work?" Weaver wrote later.
Miraculously, the plane leveled out and a wrung-out Weaver managed to take the plane back to the airport. On shaking legs, he passed the flight board to find his plane, number 23, marked with a warning, "Do not spin plane 23!"
After Weaver had pre-flight training in Oakland and primary training in Livermore, Calif., he got his wings in Corpus Christi, Texas. He was next stationed at Opa-locka Naval Air Station, near Miami, Fla., where he and his fellow pilots would stage mock dogfights to pass the time. He was making a dive on one of his buddies when he nearly ended his acting career before it ever started.
"I went screaming past him," he wrote. "I was looking to see where he was, so he wouldn't get on my tail, when suddenly something made me turn around and look straight ahead. Holy cow, there was this pink stucco house. It was about two seconds away, and I was headed right for it! You never saw anybody jerk a stick back so fast—I damned near broke it! The nose of the F-4F arched skyward as it screamed past the pink house, missing it by a whisker."
That's two miracles, but it wasn't the last one. While Weaver was still at Opa-locka, he spent another afternoon making touch-and-go landings to simulate a carrier landing. As he came down for a landing in the F-4F, the manual landing gear folded like a tent, forcing Weaver into a screaming, fiery, gearless landing in an aircraft with its fuel tank in its belly.
"It felt much like a horse when it steps in a gopher hole and crumples to its knees," he wrote. "I thought I was dead for sure. ... All I could think while my plane was skidding down the runway was, 'I've got to leave this baby as quickly as I can before I'm engulfed in flames.'"
Weaver was an ensign in the Naval Air Corps in World War II. "I flew the Grumman F4F Wildcat, but I never got overseas," he says. "I fought the battles of Baffin Bay, Alameda and Opa Locka. I had orders to go overseas but then they dropped the bomb and the war was over."
So, as the war with Japan ended, with the bombing of Hiroshima, Weaver snapped up an offer to leave the Navy. When asked about his role in the war, Weaver said, "It wasn't much, but it sure was interesting."