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WINGS OF HONOR... The Wings They Wore - The Wings That Carried Them to Victory

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The Wings They Wore…



Training Aircrews for WWII



The airplanes of WWII were complex machines, and required skilled, highly trained personnel. Some required only a single crewmember, a pilot, others required several crewmen: pilot, co-pilot, radio operator, bombardier, navigator, flight engineer and one or more gunners.  Each crewmember was a vital, integral part of the team.  This is the story of the training of some of those crewmembers - the pilots. 


Becoming a USAAF pilot during WWII wasn’t an easy, simple or quick procedure. To illustrate how difficult and dangerous the task was, consider that 324,647 cadets entered training between January 1941 and August 1945. 132,993 washed out or were killed during training. This attrition rate of nearly 40%, was due primarily to physical problems, accidents or inability to master the rigorous academic requirements. The training process involved several phases, and the cadet could “wash out” anywhere along the line.  


Upon making the decision to apply for Aircrew Training, a young man would go to any Aviation Cadet Examining Board and apply for examination.  If the applicant passed the mental and physical exam he would be given a letter stating he was considered mentally and physically qualified for air crew training. He would then go to his Selective Service Board and volunteer for induction. 


At the Armed Forces Induction Station, he would present the letter of qualification.  After processing, he would be sent to a selected college for a five-month course of preparatory training.  (In the early months of the war, before the college program was added, the cadets went directly to Preflight Training.) 



The five-month college course for future Aircrew members taught them the fundamentals and skills which they would later develop to a much higher level at the specialized schools.  


The course was given at more than 150 leading colleges throughout the nation, and consisted of approximately 700 concentrated hours of academic and military instruction. Students received instruction in mathematics, physics, current history, geography and English under the instructors at the institution.  


A staff of Air Force officers and enlisted men was charged with the responsibility for their military indoctrination. Under them the students received thorough schooling in the customs, courtesies and regulations of the service, as well as military drill and discipline.  


In addition, each student received approximately ten hours of dual instruction in light airplanes, during which he learned elementary flight maneuvers, landing and traffic procedure.  


For five months the future aircrew members studied and practiced. Students, in military uniform, marched in formation to and from their classes. There were a lot of text books to read – many things to learn in addition to the regular academic subjects: civil air regulations, first aid, how to give artificial respiration, proper use of the gas mask, and 280 hours of military indoctrination. At day’s end, they stood retreat as the flag was lowered.  


Mail call, chow time and relaxing following a hard day’s work may have been the most enjoyable times at the College Training Detachment. 


The five months passed quickly, and then it was time to report to the Classification Center.  



In the Classification Center would-be airmen spent from two to four weeks undergoing extensive physical and mental testing, test they had never heard of, or imagined. Developed by leading psychologists, these tests would determine with great accuracy their aptitude for aircrew training.  


Some tests were given in a classroom with hundreds of young men writing the answers to examination questions designed to show the cadet’s present mental status, as well as his potential for absorbing facts and training.  


In another area cadets would be confronted with a battery of mechanical tests which tested their physical reactions and coordination.  At the end of the tests, each cadet was classified for the job, bombardier, navigator or pilot, based on their background, training, aptitudes and preference.  


Graduates from Classification were appointed as Aviation Cadets and went immediately to pilot, bombardier, or navigator Pre-flight Schools.  



In Pre-flight, for nine weeks the Aviation Cadets received intensive training in strict discipline, military customs, courtesies and drill. He received his first introduction to courses in aircraft and naval vessel identification, studied code, navigation and meteorology, and learned about oxygen in a low-pressure chamber. The academic program included extensive studies in mathematics, physics, military law, citizenship, national policy, organization of the United States Government, the Air Corps, the Army, current events, and types of Air Forces equipment and armament. 


He learned to fire the 45 caliber pistol, and how to field-strip a Tommy gun, spent hours a day at exercise and tough commando training, ate like a horse, and emerged physically fit, and eager to fly.  


Each four and one-half weeks, a new group was sent in from the Classification Center to the Pre-Flight Pilot School and each class moved up. The upper class members would have their first actual practice in some of their training as they took charge of the new pilot students and got the new group settled. As the new group began their nine weeks' course, the upper class moved into the final phase of their training before graduating to the Primary School.  



Primary Schools of the AAF Training Command were operated by civilian contractors who provided food, housing, and flying and ground school instruction for the cadet. The cadet's military training, as at college, was taken care of by a staff of Air Corps officers, who, in addition to "keeping him on the ball," saw to it that his flying proficiency was up to standard. Then, after 65 hours in the air, and three times that many in classrooms, he was ready to go on to another step toward his coveted silver wings. 


In Primary, a civilian instructor took the four or five cadets assigned to him to the flying line, pointed to a light, highly maneuverable craft, and said: "Mister, that's an airplane; I teach you to fly that."  The planes were usually Stearman PT-13s or PT-17s, Fairchild PT-19s, PT-23s, or PT-26s or Ryan PT-22s.  


First the cadet had to learn how to don a parachute, which was an art in itself.  He then climbed into the rear cockpit and sat down to look it over.  


There was no fancy communication system between the cadet and the instructor. Gosport tubes, which were rubber tubes through which the instructor could talk, provided one-way communications. There was no way for the cadet to talk back.   


The flight training began slowly, but accelerated to a rapid pace;  thirty minutes the first day, then an hour, then longer, and after from eight to twelve hours of dual instruction, the cadet could get into the airplane, take off, circle the field, make an approach, and land -- by himself. He learned about "stages", and traffic patterns. He would take the plane up and bring if down countless times.  


Then he would receive hours of instruction in acrobatic maneuvers, map reading and cross-country flying.  Finally he was ready to go up alone and do chandelles, lazy-eights, loops, slow rolls, snap rolls and spins.  After a flight in the airplane, demonstrating to a “check pilot” that his performance was satisfactory commensurate with his level of training, the cadet was ready to go to Basic School 


A considerable number of all who entered the Primary Flying Schools never realized the dream of earning their “wings,” since they "washed-out" for lack of "inherent flying ability." Thousands, however, did make the grade.



In Primary the cadet learned to get off the ground, back down again, to fly straight and level. 


The cadet goes to Basic and finds the cockpit of a BT-13 looks like the Grand Canyon full of alarm clocks. Soon, however, these instruments and the two-way radios became old familiar friends. In 70 hours of Basic he flies formations, learns maneuvers and the accurate precision flying of the airplane.  


By this time also, he has learned that there is such a thing as "flaps," and has learned how to use them. With his hair standing on end he perceives there are times to use flaps and times not to use flaps.  


At Basic he makes his first sundown trek to the flight line, and, after many anxious moments, and by the light of the moon (if he is lucky) he shoves his plane up toward the constellations and realizes he is making his first night flight.  He makes night landings, starting on a floodlighted field and ending in semi-darkness.  


In Ground School, the cadet rehearses sending and receiving radio code and using blinker signals. He draws weather maps, interprets weather reports, studies cloud formations and "fronts," and learns how to plot a course on the Sectional Chart and use a plotter and hand-held mechanical computer.  


Link Trainer practice is emphasized and to supplement it, he takes cross-country navigation flights and "team" instrument rides in which one student, with a hood pulled over the cockpit, actually flies blind while a classmate in the front seat keeps his eyes alert for passing aircraft.  


After that comes instrument training, and more night flights.  His time is taken up concentrating on navigation problems to prepare him for cross-country flights. 


He is quite busy getting a firm hand on his tricky BT…. getting ready for the final check-ride before moving on to Advanced Flying School.   


In addition to more difficult flying technique, the cadet experiences an even harder military routine, his memory, constantly being polished up on matters of military discipline. 


At the conclusion of Basic, the cadet is classified on the basis of his own preference and recommendations of his instructors as either a fighter pilot or for bomber training. If the former, he will go to a Single-Engine Advanced Training School. If he shows more aptitude for larger craft, he will go to Advanced Twin-Engine School.  



At the Advanced Single-Engine School the cadet becomes one of the Eagle's brood. He is strictly on his own. Soon he will be in a single-seater that moves like lightning and deals death the some way.He gets many hours flying the trim AT-6, driven by a 600-horsepower engine. He flies ground level and high altitudemissions, using oxygen, learns about dead reckoning, morenavigation and the thrill of combat tactics 


And, most important of all, it is at advanced school that the young pilot learns to shoot. He fires hundreds of rounds on the skeet range learning the rudiments of lead and deflection shooting. He spends many hours in a Link Trainer specially fitted with BB guns,firing at a moving target which speeds on a circular track. Toward the conclusion of his course he goes to a remote range where he spends two weeks shooting with cameras mounted on his airplane, and with actual Machine Gun bullets.  


On his return from each mission the films which he has taken in dogfights with his fellow cadets are analyzed, and the cadet can seewhether he was hitting or missing, and why. 


The cadet's biggest day in advanced training comes when he climbs into the cockpit of a P-40 or P-39 and takes off.When he comes down he is ready and fit for his wings which he receives as he graduates, an Air Forces officer, from advanced school.  


Like the aviation cadet in single engine schools, the eaglet in twin-engine advanced training reports to his field as a good pilot and leaves a first string team member for the Army Air Forces. His first task is to master the intricacies of flying a plane equipped with two sources of power.  


Because the bomber is essentially a long-range weapon, there is greater concentration on practice missions, navigation and instrument flying. The pilot learns to find his way despite storms, fog, wind or strange terrain.The radio beam becomes another old friend. He spends long hours in the classroom analyzing confidential reports from combat theaters in every part of the world.  



On graduating from Twin-Engine Advanced School, the young officer, proudly wearing his newly-acquired wings, reports to Transition School, where for nine weeks he learns to fly the bomber which he will shortly use in action.  


The Flying Fortress, the Liberator, the B-25, or the B-26 becomes as familiar to him as his family's front porch at home. He learns to land and fly with one or more of his engines inoperative.He spends scores of hours on long distance navigation missions, flying his bomber through every type of weather to fields a thousand miles away from his home station. He continuously absorbs knowledge about his plane from instructors who have just returned from flying it in combat theaters.