He put everything out of his mind except the German machine-gun bunker as he pushed the control stick forward in his single engine fighter plane, curling toward earth at 350 miles an hour, faster and faster into the stream of red tracer bullets.
"You could see those tracers coming right up at you," said Washingtonian Spann Watson of Fourth Street SW. Watson walked on the campus at Tuskegree Institute, where he has attended classes during his pilot training days in the Army Air Corps.
He is one of several hundred black aviators here this weekend for the annual convention of the Tuskegee Airmen.
The days of flying combat missions are behind Watson now, who lives with his wife, Edna, and workes as an air traffic specialist with the Federal Aviation Administration.
Along with Watson at the reunion is a gathering of successful men - lawyers, executives, businessmen and career officers in the military.
One member of the group is Air Force Gen. Daniel "Chappie" James, commander of NORAD, North American Air Defense Command.
James flew into Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery Thursday from Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, piloting a small Air Force courier jet. He was on hand with Tuskegee Mayor Johnny Ford yesterday afternoon at a groundbreaking ceremony at the site of what will be the new black Airmen's Museum named in honor of James.
Another member of the group is Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton, a candidate for the Democratic nomination in the upcoming race for the Mayor of New York.
Sutton served as a military intelligence officer in the black unit, the 99th Fighter Squadron, headquartered in Italy during World War II.
After Sutton's return from the war, the San Antonio, Tex., native settled in New York where he became an attorney and later won a seat in the state legislature.
Spann Watson talked about what it was like in Europe and North Africa.
"Sometimes it seemed like those tracer bullets were coming right up in your eyes," he said, remembering the hazards of aerial combat and now he used to put fear out of his mind.
"You tried not to think about what would happen to you," said Watson. "You just didn't think about not coming back. If anybody was going to get shot down it was going to be somebody else, not you. You thought positive. You had to if you wanted to survive."
Watson said when he was in the air he felt as if the plane were an extension of himself.
"I used to think of the wings like a blade that I could cut at any angle I wanted," he said.
Being an officer in the Army Air Corps and a fighter pilot was a proud feeling for Watson. "You've got to remember when this was," he said, referring to the pre-integration days of the 1940s.
"Pilot training, it was the one opening back then in that iron curtain against progress for the black man," said Watson.
Sometimes white fliers would harrass the black fliers when they were off duty, according to Watson.
"But in the air you were all together," he said, explaining how dogfights with German fighter planes seemed to dissolve feelings of racial prejudice.
"When you were in a fight and you saw a friendly airplane, you didn't think about the pilot's color. It brought us together," he said of the tense moments at 20,000 feet. "And we (the black pilots) realized we had to hold up our end of the bargain."
Watson talked about the mental makeup of a fighter pilot, what it took to dive in a hail of bullets and get close enough with a P-40 fighter to deliver a 500-pound bomb that would silence an enemy artillery position.
"You had to be self-reliant and confident," he said. "You had to be almost cocky."
He said the more daring pilots were better at their jobs.
"That's something you can't teach a man," he said. "I'm talking about the will to go in there and get a job done at any cost, no matter what the odds are. You're not looking for cautious men, men who would hestitate, men who would make excuses."
Watson looked across the serene campus of shade trees and shrubbery at a building where a group of former pilots were laughing and talking about old times.
"Right now I can look in that room at those men I used to fly with, and I can tell you who the tigers are."
Curtis Robinson also of Washington, was in Watson's Italy-based unit, the 99th Fighter Squadron.
"The tension came before takeoff, when you were still on the ground," said Robinson. "Once you were airborne, you had a job to do and you did it. There wasn't time for tension up there.
"We flew loose formations. Each man was on his own. And you had to keep your eyes open."
Robinson said a pilot could not hear an approaching enemy fighter plane because of the noise of his own engine.
"We couldn't want each other either," said Robinson. "We were flying the old beat-up Flying Tigers that had already been in action in Burma. We flew those old rags, and the radios and not even work."
Robinson said an enemy plane could fly out of nowhere and get a pilot in his gun sight.
"The rate of closure was so fast," said Robinson, "You were flying 350 miles an hour and he was flying at you at 350 miles per hour. One moment he's a dot and the next moment he's very large."
Robinson and Watson were among some 3,000 spectators who gathered Friday afternoon at the runway at Tuskegee's Motor Field when the reunion weekend reached a climax. They had come to watch the aerial acrobatic performance of the Air Force's precision flying team, the Thunderbirds.
The pilots of the Thunderbirds in their sleek red jumpsuits were a sharp contrast to the memories of the old pilots.
Teen-age sweethearts held hands, and youngsters munched hot dogs and gulped down cold drinks as they waited for the jets to take off and listened to the old-timers talk about the way it used to be.