14: The Army Air Corps Primary Flight Training

Union City, Tennessee
July-August, 1943

Upon leaving the train, we heard a trumpet playing a jazz version of reveille. It was a clear signal that we were no longer in the strict military atmosphere of Maxwell Field. A great sense of relief came over everyone. We boarded busses, anxious to see our new environment.
As we approached the camp, we saw airplanes flying. Our bus was buzzing with excitement and anticipation. When we got off, everyone began pointing to airplanes doing various acrobatics above us. “I can’t wait to get up there,” said the cadet next to me. All that I could think of was that it all looked pretty scary. I may have been the only unhappy cadet in the entire place.
It became immediately clear that the Union City Primary Flight School was being run by civilians, who had little, if any, interest in military discipline. We were there to learn to fly; the rest of the time, we were on our own. As a consequence, there were two major lines of activity: (1) Flying and (2) Extra-curricular.

Extra-curricular

Somehow, six of us cadets, who lived in the same building, began to sing together. We were able to develop three-part harmonies for a wide range of songs- from religious to current ballads. We were good enough to be asked to perform on Saturday nights at the Officers’ Club. For those performances, we developed a repertoire of slightly off-color songs, including our versions of some popular hits.

One early Sunday morning, a lady appeared at the camp. Somehow, she had heard of our choral group, and she said that her church badly needed a choir right now. Would we be willing to help out? Of course, we would. There was no time to lose. Transportation was provided; we raced into town and ran up the church steps. Choir robes were dropped over our heads, somebody handed us hymnals, and the organ began playing. We walked in, singing “Holy, Holy, Holy”. We were led to the choir area and after we sat down, we had a chance to look at the congregation. To our surprise, we recognized many of the men and some of the ladies. They had attended our previous night’s performance at the Officers’ Club. Together, we and the congregation had gone from “down and dirty” to “sacred contemplation”.

After the service, we were the guests of various families that had volunteered to be hosts. Bob Simpson and I were taken to the farm of the Hugh Adkins family. There we had a wonderful home-cooked dinner. We spent the day with this warm family. Mr. Adkins was a farmer who had been helped greatly by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). He explained the ways in which this governmental agency had improved the lives and finances of the people in that area.

We only had that one afternoon with the Adkins family. However, I have stayed in touch with them thereafter. We exchanged letters all during the war. Mrs. Adkins wrote to my folks about our day together. After the war, we continued to write at least at Christmas time. In 1960s, Mr. and Mrs. Adkins and a daughter named Barbara visited our family in Montclair, New Jersey. As I write this in March 2000, Mr. Adkins has died, but I continue to hear from Mrs. Adkins.

The Adkins had three young children, including a boy named Stockton. Many years later, I watched Stockton Adkins on TV, when he was the quarterback for the University of Tennessee football team. The star halfback was Johnny Majors, who went on to become the very successful coach of the football team.

One night, while in town, I met a very nice local girl named Marjorie Deviney. We had one or two dates, nothing more. However, after leaving Union City, I did receive a number of letters from her, culminating in a request that I name her as my life insurance beneficiary. When I did not respond, that was the end of the correspondence.

My Career As A Pilot

Our airplanes were Fairchild PT-19s. This was a newer plane than the Stearman PT-17s that were used for training elsewhere. The Stearman was a bi-wing plane, looking like the wooden World War I aircraft we saw in the movies. The Fairchild was a single-wing plane. It was silver in color and looked sleek. Its third wheel was in front, while the Stearman’s was in the rear. We were proud to be in PT-19s.

That was the positive side. The negative was that the PT-19 had flaps, while the PT-17 did not. As we learned, flaps are useful, but they can also be very dangerous. To me, they represented one more problem on top of so many others.

I had several basic handicaps to becoming a successful pilot. (1) All my life, I had been terrified of heights; (2) I was easily prone to motion sickness, often getting carsick as a child; (3) I could not tell left from right. This last handicap first became apparent to me in the Army. It has stayed with me throughout my life- as have the other two difficulties.

In our pre-flight classes, they taught us three very simple rules: (1) No maneuvers below 1,500 feet; (2) Climb to 2,500 feet before doing any spins; and (3) Always use the flaps when landing.

My instructor was a very nice, but highly motivated, man. He was determined to make me the first cadet in our squadron to solo. He sat in front of me and since our two sets of controls were wired together, I could follow his actions by feeling the movement of the joystick and the foot pedals. On our first flight, he put the plane through a series of rolls, loops and spins that scared the Hell out of me. I saw the earth and sky rotate until I had no idea of what was “up” and what was “down”. That first day, I knew that I was doomed.

Nothing held my instructor back. Over the next weeks, he had me do some basic maneuvers, including taking off and landing. He also showed me how to use the flaps when landing, which meant that I had to remember to give the airplane extra power, otherwise the airplane would crash. When I had the minimum requirement of eight hours in the air, he had no qualms about my ability. He got out of the plane and said, “You’re ready to solo. Just remember that if you have any problems, let go of the controls. The airplane will fly itself.” With those words of comfort, I taxied the PT-19 to the end of the field, turned the plane around, gave it the gun, and then the airplane and I went rolling down the field. The nose wheel lifted off the ground as we gained speed, and I could feel that the plane wanted to fly. I pulled back on the joystick and we lifted off. I was flying!

Of course, my only task was to fly around the field one time and then land. That I did successfully. My instructor had met his goal. I taxied back to him and he said that I was a “natural born pilot”- words I never wanted to hear. In each of the following days, he would give me more complex assignments, and each proved to be an adventure unto itself.

One of my tasks was to find a straight road and fly directly above it, waving my wings, but not changing my altitude. I flew out of our field and did find such a road. I lined myself up above it and began to wave my wings. The problem I encountered was that as I raised my right wing, I lost airspeed, the plane began to stagger and, being afraid of “stalling out” and crashing, I gave the engine a bit more power. As I lowered the right wing and raised the left wing, the nose dropped and now we were going too fast. I cut back slightly on the power, but as the left wing raised, the plane began to stagger again, so I added power. This time, we sort of “swooped” down as I raised the right wing, which then went up much faster and higher. Again, fearful of a stall, I gave the engine more power. Down the wing came and up went the other one, even higher. I “corrected” again and in short course, the airplane was swaying like a leaf caught in a windstorm. I had lost complete control. “Yikes!” I shouted- and remembering my instructor’s words, I pulled my hands and feet off the controls. He was right, slowly the airplane righted itself and then we were flying smoothly again. I did not try that maneuver again.

Another day, I was sent up to do spins. This was a fairly easy maneuver. You would fly upward until you reached 2,500 feet. Then you would find a farmhouse to focus on. You would pull the stick back into your stomach and kick full right rudder. Over the plane would go, into a spin. If you had judged correctly, you were spinning right down toward that farmhouse. (I always wondered what those farmers thought about this practice.) You would then count three full turns and come out of the spin. This would leave with you plenty of altitude, so that there was no danger of crashing. And so I did the procedure: going up to 2,500 feet, finding a farmhouse, pulling the stick back, and kicking full right rudder. Over the plane went and we were in a spin, centering right on that farmhouse. I counted: one spin, two spins, three spins, four spins…She wasn’t coming out of it! I was going to crash! In horror, I let go of the stick and lifted my feet, thinking of jumping out. Of course, the airplane then came out of the spin very nicely. It was clear to me that I was not the master of this ship. Clearly, I had a severe limit in my ability to follow simple directions.

There was a special technique in returning to the main airfield. For safety, all landings had to be made into the wind. The technique involved picturing the airspace above the field as a square, coming in to that square at an angle, and flying around one leg of the square, before landing into the wind. Of course, this meant that you had to keep track of the wind’s direction. For this purpose, there was a huge “windsock” on the field, which moved as the wind shifted. All that you had to do was to watch the windsock in order to know how to approach the airfield’s airspace. My instructor sent me up to practice landings, which included leaving the immediate airspace and then returning to the field. I took off nicely, flew a distance away and then returned toward the airfield. To my amazement, there were airplanes in my way! Planes were diving or pulling upward abruptly to get out of my way. Of course, what had happened was that the wind had shifted and I had not looked at the windsock, so that I was coming in wrong. This just did not occur to me and so I landed my plane, waving to my instructor as he stood at the end of the field with his hands on hips. I landed right in front of a line of about five airplanes that were getting ready to take off. It was a beautiful landing. I was proud of myself and taxied back to my instructor, again cutting off those five planes. When I reached him, he said, with a very serious face, “They want to see you in the control tower.” Those were the last words he ever said to me. In fact, I never saw him again.

I reported to the control tower and was told that I would given a check-ride the next day. My fate as a pilot would be determined by the check pilot.

That next day, I got into an airplane with the check pilot. Right after we took off, he said, “OK, give me a spin.” For safety, this required that we climb to 2,500 feet (Rule #2, above), but I forgot about that part. I immediately pulled the stick back and kicked full right rudder. He grabbed the controls away from me, thus saving our lives. “Take me down,” he said. I brought the plane around and began to descend, forgetting to use the flaps (Rule #3). “OK,” he said, immediately, “I’ll take it from here.” When we landed, he said, “Son, you may have a career in the Air Corps, but it won’t be as a pilot!” I had washed out. I tried to look disappointed, knowing that he would expect that reaction. However, it was really one of the happiest moments of my life.

I was advised that I was being re-assigned to training as a navigator, but that I would first be going to gunnery school. It was with a mixed sense of sadness and relief that I shipped out of Union City.

Just about this time, my folks advised me that they had attended a graduation ceremony at Montclair State Teachers College at which I had received the BA degree cum laude. Taking all of those simple two-unit courses had paid off. I was now a 19 year-old college graduate. While this was only six months after I had left MSTC, it had little relevance.

Chapter 15
The Army Air Corps Gunnery School
Panama City, Florida
November-December, 1943

Gunnery school involved learning all about the fifty-caliber machine gun: How to shoot it, how to take care of it, and incredibly, how too take it apart and put it together blindfolded. When I first learned that the blindfold test was a requirement for passing, I honestly thought that I would flunk and that the infantry would be my next stop. However, another cadet, named Sheehan, and I figured out a way to memorize the steps. We made up a song involving the critical steps, sung to the tune of “Mother”. It went, “E is for electrical connections, G is for…(etc.) Put them all together, they spell EGLOFSHIC, the word that means those wings of mine.” Somehow, it worked.

Upon passing gunnery school, you were awarded Gunner’s Wings, which were worn on your uniform. For those of us who would be going on to navigation school, this meant that if we flunked out there, we would be aerial gunners. It also meant that we would be enlisted men rather than officers- a significant difference.

How to Shoot

1. Aerial combat

Of course, we were supposed to learn how to shoot down enemy fighters who would be attacking our bombers. It turned out that this was a very simple procedure, called “1-2-3”. It worked as follows: The enemy fighter would fly parallel to your bomber at a distance of 200 yards. You would point your gun at him, hold it still and count “1-2-3”. You noted the distance that he had now moved ahead of where you were pointing. Then you aimed at the same distance ahead of him and supposedly shot him down.

We were taken up in make-believe bombers, so that we could practice “1-2-3”. A fighter plane would tow a large white square target, flying 200 yards parallel to our ship. We would shoot at the target. The tips of our bullets were coated with colored paint, so that, after we landed, our instructors could see how well we did. I remember that none of us did well. The target always remained almost totally white. Sometimes the tow rope was cut by our bullets and the target floated to the ground. Among the cadets, we considered this a victory. And every now and then, the tow plane was hit by one of bullets, even though it was far, far ahead of the target. All in all, it was not a very satisfactory performance, leaving us very concerned as to how we would do in actual combat.

However, we need not have worried about passing the “1-2-3” test. As it turned out, during our third week at Panama City, bomber crew veterans who had completed their combat tour came to the camp. They told us that “1-2-3” did not work; that the enemy fighter planes never flew parallel to the bombers; and that the bomber crews had learned a new technique which did work. Unfortunately for us, we were advised that since we were already advanced in our training, we could not learn this new technique, but that we had to learn “1-2-3”. However, since “1-2-3” did not work, we would not have to take a flight gunnery test. This absurd logic made it easier for us to get our gunner’s wings. It also meant that we had better succeed in navigation school, since we certainly were not trained gunners.

2. Markmanship

You sat in a turret with two machine guns, just like one in a bomber. About 100 yards in front there was a ditch, in which a jeep rode, with a large white target on top. We would be judged on how many hits we could get on the target. I got into the turret and began saying, “I-2-3”, when, to my amazement, the target stopped directly in front of me. The jeep had broken down. This was my golden opportunity. I pulled the triggers on the two machine guns. We had been told never to fire more than 15-second bursts, otherwise the machine gun barrels would begin to melt because of the heat of the bullets. This did not stop me. I kept those guns firing, watching my bullets flying into the target. As the barrels began to melt and curve downward, I just raised them, so that the bullets continued to fly. People were banging on my turret, trying to get me to stop. No way- I kept firing until the entire magazine of 50-caliber bullets was empty. As a result, I had the most hits on the target and was named “Gunner of the Week”. Those were the rules.

3. Skeet Shooting

For a poor boy from Newark, New Jersey, the idea of shooting skeet was far beyond the economic horizon. This was a rich man’s sport. Yet, here we were, going out to the skeet range, where the shot guns awaited us. We were suddenly in touch with the “Upper Class”, a very heady feeling. Of course, it turned out that this was not an easy sport. First of all, upon being fired, the shot gun had a kick like a mule. If you didn’t hold it tight to your shoulder, it could cause great pain on coming back. If you did hold it tightly, the kick could knock you over, especially if you were not standing properly. Second, the skeet, or clay pigeon, was a circular object made of clay that flew in arc- not at all easy to hit. Whenever you were ready to shoot, you shouted “Pull!” and then the clay pigeon would appear, sometimes from the right, sometimes from the left, sometimes high, sometimes low. You had just a few seconds to shoot before the clay pigeon was out of sight.

Keeping in mind that every time I called “Pull!”, the damn gun would try to break my shoulder, I approached the subject very gingerly. The likelihood of my even seeing the target before it got out of range, much less hitting it, was extremely small. Was there any way out? Yes, there was. A call had just gone out for volunteers for the skeet house. I literally jumped from the firing line.

The skeet house was a shack standing high on long wooden legs, about 50 yards from the firing line. Forgetting my fear of heights, I climbed the ladder leading to the shack and pulled myself in. Inside I found four other guys, two skeet machines and boxes of clay pigeons. The skeet machines were metal slings that shot clay pigeons through open slits in the shack wall. I watched as one guy placed a clay pigeon on the sling arm. When we heard “Pull” from below, another guy pulled a lever and the clay pigeon took off. The actual direction of flight was determined by where the clay pigeon was place on the sling arm. In order to keep things moving smoothly, the two skeet machines were used alternately, one being loaded, while the other was working. There really was no resting time. This was work.

There were several other slits in the shack wall, through which one could see where the pigeons were flying. Since I was new, I just looked through one of these as the work went on. I could see the firing line and the arc of the clay pigeons as they flew beyond the cadets below. Suddenly, instead of flying away from the firing line, one of the clay pigeons curved slightly in toward the shooters. Evidently, it had been placed too close to the fulcrum of the sling. “Oops,” I shouted, “That could have gone right into the firing line!”

The cadets stopped working. One said to another, “Where did you place that one?” The second cadet pointed to a spot on the sling arm. “Put it even closer inside,” the first one said, and turned to me, he continued, “Tell us where this one goes.” Meanwhile, from below, we could hear cries of “Pull! Pull!”

The next clay pigeon was placed very carefully and the lever was pulled. I watched as the pigeon flew in a lovely arc, going from the shack, out into the open and then turning in toward the firing line. The cadets below scattered as it came flying in, with much shouting. “That was right on,” I said. Without another word, the second sling was set the same way, the skeet was on its way. “A bit too high,” I said. An adjustment was made and the two skeet machines were suddenly much busier than they had been all day. Clay pigeons were erupting from the shack like arcing missiles. Down below, instructors and cadets were running back. “We need a longer arc, they’re pulling back,” I called. My new companions were clearly master skeet machine operators- the clay pigeons flew higher into the sky and reached further down below.

Then we heard a new sound- a rattling against the shack’s walls. Quickly it became more than just a mere rattling, it seemed to be hailing on a clear day. I looked out and saw a group of cadets firing their shot guns, not at the clay pigeons, but at our shack!. “They’re shooting at us!” I yelled. “Those bastards!” our leader yelled. “We’ll show them!”

And now clay pigeons were streaking downward in rapid order. At the same time, the entire skeet school opened fire on our shack. The building was vibrating as shot gun blasts reached us. This was war!

I pulled away from the open slit for a second and then peeked back. A small number of men were scurrying toward us, ducking through the falling wall of clay pigeons. They were headed for our ladder! “They’re gonna climb up here!” I shouted. “You kick’em down!” our leader commanded. I waited at the open door for the first invader to appear, my right leg pulled back. Somebody was in for a long, painful fall, or at least a smashed face.

Then we heard whistles blowing and the gunfire stopped. I looked down. No one was coming up the ladder. “Hold it!” I yelled, “Officers!” Sure enough, some officers had arrived and had taken command of the situation. The flow of clay pigeons stopped. “We’d better get down there,” our leader said, and we all climbed down the ladder.

No one asked any questions. No remarks were made. It was as though nothing had happened. We were assembled into our ranks and we marched back to camp. As we marched, I felt a surge of excitement. I was a battle-worn soldier, a hero.

Graduation

Six weeks after we arrived at Panama City, we were each handed aerial gunner’s wings. There was no ceremony- rightfully so, since we certainly were not equipped for aerial combat. However, we had survived and we had learned to take a machine gun apart and put it together blindfolded. I did ask when it was that we would be doing something like that in combat. Stupid question. I should have known better.

We were on our way to navigation school at Selman Field, Monroe, Louisiana.

© Steven E. Schanes 2001
April 6, 2000

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Published in: on July 13, 2006 at 2:49 pm  Comments Off on 14: The Army Air Corps Primary Flight Training  
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