Basic Flight Training -- Taft, California

Class 42-J was transferred to Gardner Field at Taft, California, on June 26, 1942. Our first impression there, in that early summer, was of the intense heat. Taft is at the extreme southwest corner of the San Joaquin Valley, about 120 miles north of Los Angeles. While in winter there is frequently heavy rain, in summer the area is characterized not only by intense heat, but also by clear blue skies, making it ideal for flight training. It usually does not rain at all in most areas of central and southern California from May through October. At Taft, the temperature on summer days frequently rose as high as 110 to 120 degrees F, but a relatively new technology called 'air conditioning' helped make it comfortable in the barracks and other buildings.

The training environment at Taft was much less rigid and formal than at Primary school. There was much less KP duty required of us, giving us more free time around the base. In ground school we studied Morse Code, navigation, meteorology, aircraft identification, and the principles of flight. Most of the cadets liked the officers in charge, including the commandant, Captain Gifford. Once, during our free time, I ran across an enlisted man stationed at Gardner Field named Rex Murphy, whom I had known in high school at West Frankfort, Illinois.

Since the skies were virtually cloudless at Taft all during our stay there, we resumed flying almost immediately upon arrival at Gardner Field. The basic trainer, BT-13A, was somewhat less stable than the Stearman PT-13B, which had the whimsical reputation of being able to fly and land itself (although I never heard of anyone confirming that). The most serious instability of the basic trainer showed up during the final right turn toward the landing strip. At that point, extreme care had to be exercised in the control of the aircraft. Otherwise, the combination of a right turn at slow speed and the reactionary effect of the engine torque and the propeller of the airplane could cause it to stall and go into a spin at that altitude, which was too low to permit recovery. The means of preventing this catastrophe was, first of all, to keep the speed of the airplane from reducing toward the stall speed, and second, after entering the turn, to make a very positive neutralization of the controls. The one casualty that occurred in class 42-J at Taft occurred when a cadet failed to neutralize the controls properly and spun in. The frightful part of this accident to me was that it occurred on the morning I was to make my first solo flight.

The overall scope of our flight activity at Gardner Field was substantially greater than at Primary. There was training and practice in the same acrobatics as before, as well as numerous landings and takeoffs and a great deal of night flying prior to soloing. This time I was able to solo in just under six hours. My remaining 65 hours consisted of dual and solo formation, cross-country, cross-country formation, and low altitude (100 feet) formation flying. Student pilots in the wing airplanes were supposed to watch only the lead plane, flown by the instructor, and not the ground. But since I was the low plane of the three-plane formation and thus closest to the ground, I have to admit that I cheated and watched not only the lead plane but also the ground. We also got our first introduction to communication with the tower by radio. One characteristic of the terrain of which we had to be careful, particularly at night, was the mountains which lay about four or five miles to the south of Gardner field. Because there were so many student pilots in the air at the same time, even on moonless nights, we were assigned an altitude and a zone to remain in, such as "zone 5, 2500 feet". For a little bit of fun on these night flights we would sometimes fly over the barracks on a portion of the flight pattern and, after going to low pitch of the propeller prior to landing, we would "gun" the throttle and provide a high-decibel blast of engine and propeller noise for any of our buddies who had retired early. This was in retribution for their having done the same thing to us the night before.

My closest brush with catastrophe while in pilot training came on a moonlit night when my element was scheduled for a night formation cross-country flight. There would be three planes involved, with the instructor flying with a student in the lead plane, and with the other two of us flying solo in the wing airplanes. It was a responsibility of a student pilot, when returning a plane to the parking area after a flight, to neutralize all of the trim controls, and the next student was supposed to check to see that they were indeed neutralized before starting the engine. On this occasion, the three of us started our engines and taxied to formation configuration for takeoff.

Fortunately, it was to be a loose formation. As we went down the runway for takeoff, my plane, on the left wing, started to pull to the right, so I had a hard struggle with the controls to keep it going straight down the runway. It was apparent that the rudder was not trimmed properly. It is trimmed by turning a wheel alongside the pilot until two spokes of the wheel are in a horizontal position, and that is what he checks before flying. The only problem in this case was that there were four spokes, and the two that I checked as horizontal were 90 degrees from the two that should have been horizontal. When the wheels left the runway, the plane started drifting to the right, toward the other wing plane. I turned the trim wheel 90 degrees, fortunately in the proper direction, and was able to pull to the left, away from the formation.

What to do next? I called my instructor over the radio to tell him what had happened, and right away found out that my radio receiver was not working. I was far too inexperienced a pilot to try to rejoin my formation at night without a radio. However, in the moonlight I could recognize a two-plane formation, and correctly determined that it was the remnants of mine. So I called my instructor again and told him I would return to base, and asked him to blink his landing lights twice if that was all right. He did so, and I headed for the landing pattern, which was about a mile away. On the way there, I called the tower and told them my problem, and asked them to clear the way for me to land. They did so, and there was a happy ending. When the instructor complimented me for my handling of the situation, I was one happy cadet.

One final test for students was called an instrument test. It was not a test of flying by instrument, but rather was performed on the ground with the student blind-folded. The name of an instrument or a control somewhere in the cockpit was called out by the instructor, and the student was expected to reach out and point directly to whatever it was that was named. I apparently passed the test, because I wasn't informed otherwise.

There were cross-country flights, both day and night, with and without the instructor flying along. One of the day flights was to Porterville, Fresno, Coalinga, and back to Gardner field. Another was to Lost Hills and Tulare. A night flight in loose five-plane formation went to Coalinga and Fresno. From upstate destinations at night, the return flight to Gardner Field usually followed an easy course which very much simplified navigation. We simply followed what we called the "light line" as far south as Bakersfield, and then turned onto a course of 225 degrees (directly southwest) to Taft. The basis of the title "light line" was obvious; it was State Route 99, which even in those days was lit up by a stream of headlights of many cars in heavy traffic.

There were "buddy flights", on which two cadets flew together as pilot and co-pilot in the same airplane. We flew 15 hours in the Link trainer. which was an early version of a ground flight simulator. There were also three or four hours of "flying the beam". In the days before all of the modern technologies for guiding commercial airplanes, there was a system in which electronic beams were radiated in four different directions from major cities or other prominent geographic locations. The locations of the sources and the configuration of each beam were shown on maps used by pilots. There were techniques by which the pilot could fly along the right edge of the beams either toward or away from the beam source, giving him precise knowledge of the course he was flying. Our practice in "flying the beam" gave us a feeling of great advancement in our ability to fly an airplane. In the midst of all of this activity, I also passed the 20 and 40-hour check rides.

Our passes from the base were normally for thirty hours, but occasionally for three days and nights. I was able to do a considerable amount of sight-seeing -- again "by thumb". One trip was to Sequoia National Park, and I was so fascinated by the magnificent scenery there that I had to make a second visit. One night I slept in the back seat of the car of a couple who gave me a ride into the park and also gave me a very good tour of the park. Two different times, one of them on the Fourth of July, I attended dances there. That was a lot of fun, because there were many young people there, mostly college students from all over the country who worked in the park during the summer.

On short passes, many of the cadets hitch-hiked to a motel in Bakersfield which had a very nice restaurant/bar. The only well-known cadet in Class 42-J was Tom Harmon, who drove a 1940 Mercury convertible. Harmon was a star football player as a student at Michigan State. After the war he became a sports announcer on local Los Angeles television. He was also a movie actor for awhile. Any time that he went on pass he loaded the Mercury with as many other cadets as he could safely carry, and took them along with him. In my case, I most frequently went to Los Angeles. The Hollywood Canteen, where stars and starlets hosted the dances and meals, was a favorite source of entertainment. The USO was also another fun place to go. I went once to Earl Carroll's restaurant, which was regularly attended by the stars, and one time to the Brown Derby, one of the most famous restaurants of the day, as well as to many of the other famous spots in Hollywood.

But by far, most of my leave time in Los Angeles was spent with the Kuehnerts. I took many tours of the city with them -- to the L. A. harbor, the airplane factories at El Segundo, Venice Park, the Hollywood Bowl, Chinatown, and the Spanish section of the city. At that time, the "Arroyo Seco Speedway", later renamed the Pasadena Freeway, had just been completed. It was the first freeway built in California and probably in the country, so it was a requisite point of interest for all tourists.

As the time approached for graduation from Basic School, students were given the opportunity to express a preference for fighter training or multi-engine training in an Advanced Flight Training School, but the final decision was made by the Air Force on the basis of judgments made by the administration. In my case, I requested fighter school, but I was sent to twin-engine training at Roswell, New Mexico, instead.

Me and my BT
July, 1942

My element at Gardner --
that's me on the right

Preparing for instrument (buddy)

My Basic Flight Training pilot log
(in two parts -- click on each
part to view)

I made a new friend
while hitchhiking

The lodge at Sequoia

Henley, Stelzriede and Thomas
in front of the General Sherman Tree. -- July 5, 1942

On Moro Rock -- "That's
Mt. Whitney over there."

Me, standing over a half
mile of space on Moro Rock

Captain Gifford (on stairs), Cadet
Commandant at Gardner Field

Sweating out transfer orders
for advanced flight school--
August, 1942


Advanced Flight Training -- Roswell, New Mexico

My stay at Roswell, New Mexico, was only about five weeks long, for various reasons I will explain later. On August 24, 1942, my section of class 42-J entrained for Roswell. While the temperature at Taft sometimes reached 100 degrees F, it was almost 105 degrees the day we arrived at Roswell. We started ground school classes in the same subjects as in Primary and Basic schools, but now with emphasis on code, weather, internal combustion engines, physical training, intelligence, aircraft and naval ship identification, etc. Our flight training now was in Cessna AT-17s. Unlike Primary and Basic, flight training here consisted mostly of straight and level flying and shallow turns. The reason for this was that AT-17s had been known to pop off a wing if a steep turn was made.

Obviously there were no acrobatics such as we had in Primary and Basic, nor was there any soloing. The instructor sat in the co-pilot seat of the two-seater, normally for about 12 hours of instruction before a student was checked out to fly with another student. During this amount of time I managed to complete about 1.5 hours of instrument flying. This was performed by closing the student pilot in so he couldn't see outside the airplane, and having him fly totally by instrument, performing maneuvers as directed by the instructor, who could watch out for other airplanes or other dangerous conditions. I was able to pass the test without any particular problems.

But in the first twelve hours, I had flown under five different instructors, and of course none of them had flown enough time with me to feel that he could recommend me to be checked out to fly with other students. So I had to go for a check-flight with the squadron commander, a captain. The check-ride consisted of a series of touch-and-go takeoffs and landings, which went well for over an hour, and the captain commented, "You did fairly well, but you could do a lot better. But I am willing to ride with you all the rest of the afternoon if you wish." We made several more rounds, but the captain was still not overly impressed. So we parked the airplane and sat and talked for about an hour, and it became obvious what his decision was going to be -- that my career as a pilot had come to an end, because of "insufficient progress for the amount of instruction time received."

I was scheduled to go before the "wash-out board" the following week. This board consisted of two colonels, two majors, and two captains. There were reports presented on my status from the medical department, the ground school, personnel department, physical training, and all the rest of the departments, including the squadron commander. Then they asked me what I would like to do if my piloting career was ended. They told me that since I had a college degree I could be a weather officer, an engineering officer, an intelligence officer, or that I could have any number of other jobs where I wouldn't even have to go into combat. I told them I would like to be trained as a navigator; that was my original intention, and the folks back home expected me to come home with wings. They sent me outside of the room for about ten minutes, and when they called me back in they told me they would go along with my wishes and send me back to Santa Ana to attend ground school in preparation for navigation training.

There were actually other reasons in addition to "insufficient progress" that caused the wash-out. One was a loss of interest on my part in flying only level and in very gentle turns. But I had also developed a fear of the airplane. One evening an inspector had somehow dropped a lighted flare down through the flare chute, and it caught the fabric-covered plane on fire. In just over two minutes by the clock, the AT-17 was reduced almost to ashes. That wasn't a pleasant thing to hear about. So those are the reasons my stay at Roswell lasted only about five weeks.

While awaiting transfer orders back to Santa Ana, I was given a three-day pass, and decided to see as much of the American southwest as possible - by thumb, of course. So I first set out for Carlsbad Caverns National Park, and walked both down into it and up from the caverns. For several days, it felt like my legs were made of lead. But it was well worth it. For years I had heard of the beautiful stalactites and stalagmites and beautifully colored rock formations, and it was even more spectacular than I had imagined.

From Carlsbad, I caught a ride to El Paso, Texas, with a salesman. This gentleman was a true Texan. According to him, everything in Texas was bigger, better, and prettier than in any other state. He attempted to verify this to me by showing me several points of historical or geographic interest. Two of my three days were spent in El Paso, which at the time was a rather dirty little town. One of the days was spent across the Rio Grande in Juarez, Mexico, which from memory seemed much like the Tijuana of today. While there, I saw the only bull fights I ever want to see. After two of the three fights I left in disgust, because the toreadors and matadors had every protection while the bulls had none. I felt ashamed for finding myself hoping the bulls would cause some injury to the humans, after all the cruelty imposed upon the bulls. The trip back to Roswell took me through Las Cruces, New Mexico, and past White Sands. If it weren't for the terrible summer heat, the beautiful white sand made it appear almost like a winter snow scene. It was a surprise, traveling through the Mescalero Indian Reservation, to find that it could be that beautiful in the southern part of Arizona, with the mountains and evergreen trees.

Company Street at Roswell, from
my barracks. There was a little
drill even in advanced.
September, 1942

We marched to ground school
classes with a band 'n everything

There's nothing like a little fun in the mud!

Mr. and Mrs. Sanders, from Wichita,
Kansas, gave me a ride to Carlsbad.
September, 1942

Carlsbad National Park,
New Mexico

The hole -- entrance to Carlsbad

El Capitan Mountain, near El Paso,
the highest peak in Texas

It isn't snow -- White
Sands National Monument
New Mexico

Rio Grande River below
Albuquerque, New Mexico

Indians in Gallup, New Mexico



[ Home ] | [ Journals and Photos ] | [ Site Index ] | [ Site Search ] | [ Leave Message ]