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Guiding planes back to carriers

After graduating in 1938 from Nichols School, Richard E. "Rit" Moot decided that the family business of lawyering was not for him. He instead wanted to prepare for what would be one of history's bloodiest chapters.

Adolf Hitler's war machine, in little more than a year, would be unleashed upon Europe, and Moot had it in his head that he wanted to defend democracy, even though America would not enter the war until the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor.

So at age 18, Moot set his sights on joining the Royal Canadian Air Force. Canada had entered the war after Germany invaded Poland in September 1939.

"I had worked one summer in a gold mine 400 miles north of Toronto, and some of the guys there were planning on joining the Canadian Air Force. That was the fastest way to get into combat in World War II," the 92-year-old veter-san explained.

But his father, Welles V. Moot, a senior partner at one of the city's most respected law firms -- Moot, Sprague, Marcy, Carr & Gulick, which had been founded by Welles' father, Adelbert -- persuaded his son to join the U.S. Navy.

"He told me the Navy had better airplanes," Rit Moot recalled, adding with a bit of pride that "Navy aircraft carrier pilots were by far the most glamorous in the military."

Taking his dad's advice, Moot had to wait until a spot opened up at the Navy's aviator school in Pensacola, Fla. Not one to waste time, he attended Harvard University until he got the call from the Navy.

Soon enough, he was a Navy pilot flying above the Atlantic Ocean off Cape May, N.J., in search of German submarines.

"That turned out to be awful boring. I managed to get myself transferred to Landing Signal School so I could get into the Pacific Theater," he said.

His job as a landing signal officer was anything but boring.

"One of the requirements was you had to be a pilot and to qualify with landing on an aircraft carrier," Moot said. "The signal officer stood at the very stern of the ship on a platform that stuck out over the side, 40 or 50 feet above the water.

"You'd have a flag in each hand, and you'd indicate to the pilot if he was too high or too low, too fast or too slow, using the flags. The most important signal was to cut the throttle at the right time as they landed."

Because landings had to be precise in order for the plane's landing hook to catch the 12 cables on the ship's deck, wave-offs were not uncommon, Moot explained.

Aircraft carriers frequently launched full airstrikes, which meant flights before dawn, at noon and in the late afternoon, involving 70 to 80 warplanes.

That made Moot a very busy man. Among the most challenging situations he faced was guiding in planes that had run into problems during their missions and were late in returning, often after nightfall.

"That was bad news. The planes would be low on gasoline, and most of the pilots never had landed on carriers after dark," he said.

And, of course, it was hard to see the landing signal officer.

"The naval landing signal officer was dressed in a regular khaki flight suit, which could not be seen at night very well. So I developed a new flight suit that had fluorescent stripes on the arms and the legs and body of the signal officer," Moot said.

"The pilot would see the landing signal officer after dark just as if it were daylight out. This was accomplished by illuminating the fluorescent stripes with ultraviolet light."

Moot's attire resulted in fewer wave-offs and crashes.

"Fewer wave-offs -- that was important because planes arriving after dark were usually very low on fuel," he said.

Moot's ingenuity made him popular among pilots.

"They were very enthusiastic about the 'Moot Suit,' " he said.

For a short while, the Moot Suit became standard dress for landing signal officers, but it was soon replaced with electronic gear inside the aircraft that guided the planes onto the landing deck.

Moot's most dangerous day at work occurred while he was trying to guide planes onto the deck of the USS Intrepid and an enemy pilot set his sights on him.

"I was trying to land our planes, and then I see this Japanese kamikaze coming right at me. I could see the gun muzzles in his wings and yellow flashes," Moot recalled.

"I thought, 'That sucker is shooting bullets right at me.' He missed, but he crashed his plane through the flight deck 100 feet away from me. It started a huge fire in the hangar deck."

Was he afraid?

"You had no time for that," Moot said.

After leaving the military, he returned to Harvard and later graduated from the University of Virginia Law School, at last ready to enter the family business.

His experiences in World War II, he explained, "had given me enough excitement; and besides, the war was over."

As a trial lawyer, Moot says, he had plenty of challenging times, from prosecuting criminals with the U.S. Attorney's Office to civil litigation, including a major lawsuit involving Bethlehem Steel for canceling non-union employees' health insurance.

Moot also delved into politics, running for mayor in the 1969 Republican primary.

But none of his professional experiences, he says, ever compared to the rush of adrenaline he experienced on the edge of the carrier's flight deck.

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>Richard E. 'Rit' Moot, 92

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Buffalo

Branch: Navy

Rank: Lieutenant commander

War zones: Atlantic and Pacific

Years of service: 1938-45

Most prominent honors: Bronze Star, various battle ribbons

Specialty: Aviator and landing signal officer