Just Ask Talley

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After a couple years editing IFR magazine, I sometimes think I'm at least familiar with most kinds of flying backgrounds. The details of each story are rich with differences, but the general themes are familiar. Then something comes in to remind me how little I know. This one came in the old-school, snail-mail way:

"I am a very elderly lady who is still enough in love with planes to subscribe to five aviation publications. My experience with the round gauges dates back to WWII and my first job with the late Braniff Airways, giving Link training to young officers just graduated from Aviation Cadets.

"Their instrument training was divided into three sections. The first was simply how to stay right-side-up on instruments. The second was the art of hanging on to the old four-course radio range. And the third dealt with orientations, one being a "close-in" procedure that took 15 or 20 minutes to get their C-47s established on final, if I remember correctly. I like to imagine what LAX would look like on a busy evening nowadays if inbound traffic depended on that "close-in" to get to their terminals!"

— Talley Kingston

What followed was a letter exchange that revealed one 89-year-old woman's experience of instrument training and life among the pilots of the Air Transport Command. Here are highlights from that conversation.

What was the Air Transport Command?

After Pearl Harbor, plans that had been in-the-making during rumors of war were put into effect (in 1942, I believe), creating the Air Transport Command (ATC), which was a forerunner to the Military Air Transport Service (MATS). Along with new C-47s being churned out by the Douglas factory, about half the equipment of the major airlines was commandeered to take up hugely expanded cargo operations. These converted planes were properly termed C-49s.

A coat of olive drab and Army registration numbers were slapped on them; and their pilots, while retaining civilian status, wore Army Air Force (AAF) uniforms with their own triple wings and bronze "Kitty Hawk Commemorative" wings. Under the auspices of the Airlines War Training Institute, they also gave Transition Training in the Douglas transports to the Second Lieutenants newly commissioned by the AAF.

The workhorse of transports was the C-47/DC-3, a plane designed to carry 21 passengers. Their size, though imposing at the time, was certainly limited, and meant the need for hundreds and hundreds of them, and for training pilots, pilots, pilots to fly them!

What was Braniff's role?

Braniff Airways had a contract with the government to give instrument ratings ("cards," the military called them) to pilots who had just won their silver wings, mostly youngsters in their early 20s. In Braniff's row of cramped, little, airline offices in Brownsville, Texas, (then known by the call sign JI) milled three groups: the fellows still on passenger operations, called "The Line Pilots"; the ATC crews, dubbed "The Cargo Captains"; and the Lieutenants, known as "The Kids."

The Link was for instrument training, but Braniff also gave transition training in the Douglas transports. Besides flying with their airline-pilot instructors, the Kids were given ground school by classroom teachers and simulator time in the Link.

Those cargo captains were a colorful and diverse bunch. The oldest, "Pappy," was so deaf from years of open-cockpit flying you had to shout to make yourself heard in a conversation with him. Yet the Kids said he could turn down the da-dits so low they couldn't make out the signal, and still fly the right-hand edge of the beam like it was a concrete highway.

The youngest was Captain Bill, a rakish, girl-crazy, 27-year-old. At a time when silk and nylon were going to make parachutes and the local girls were stuck with hideous rayon hosiery, he brought back nylon stockings from south of the border "to bait traps."

Unfortunately, Bill had learned some red-hot Spanish obscenities in his travels. He was at the controls going into Managua in a blinding rainstorm. The windshield wipers were about as effective as they would have been driving through a modern-day carwash. In order to see where he was going, he stuck his head out the C-47's side window only to have his hat blow off. He emitted the most blistering obscenity in the Spanish language (meaningless when translated). "$#@!," he cursed. "There goes my Goddamn hat!"—and dog it if he didn't go and key the mic.

As for the Kids, generally the school would get twin-engine graduates, but the class I started with had been recommended for single-engine pursuit, meaning fighter planes. When they were sent to fly cargo, they were outraged; they were devastated. ATC was derided as meaning "Allergic to Combat." Some of them threatened to turn in their wings. They formed a Frustrated Fighter Pilots Club, to which I was invited as honorary member, and I joined them on some happy evenings across the border on those beautiful patios in Matamoros. Texas was dry, but Mexico was not, and mixed drinks cost a quarter. The Border was a different place in those days.

What was your role at ATC?

I worked for the ATC from May 1943 until Braniff's contract with the Army was terminated in October 1943 and the school was closed. My position was as a Link instructor. In January 1942 I enrolled in Dallas Aviation School for six months to get the license, but the need for instructors was so great that I was hired a month early, in June, and continued my training with BNF in Dallas.

We Link instructors had no status. Only a few had done any flying. But I must admit that I was something of an expert. After all, I had logged 40 hours in a Luscombe equipped with gyro instruments—all two of them—flying with an instructor working on his own instrument rating. This fellow liked to give dual with a little illegal penetration of deep overcast around the busy airspace of Dallas. The Kids thought that was pretty cool, and if I told them one thing about instrument procedures and their crabby, old, flight instructor told them another, they firmly believed me, not the 12,000-hour airline captain.

What else was going on besides instrument training?

Some of the captains, who served as their flight instructors, might also fly cargo to meet the needs of the Air Transport Command. Braniff had several such ATC runs. But the primary run from Brownsville was what was commonly known as "the Banana Run," to Panama. The restrictions we lived under at that time were those of total war, like nothing imaginable since. No one was sure we could win that war. All the hatches were battened down, and people who had no reason to know things like why we were going to Panama weren't being told. We seldom even bothered to ask.

I remember hearing somebody eagerly querying one of the captains who had just come back from a trip on a plane equipped with radar: What was the new secret gismo like? The captain said he had no idea what it was like. When civilian pilots made up the crew, there was a cover put over it. "You mean you didn't peek?" "No way!" he said. "I kept hands off the goddamn thing."

I assume those Central American runs were to take cargo to Panama for shipment on to Africa and thence to Europe (weather and submarines in the North Atlantic made for extremely dangerous crossings), but this is pure conjecture on my part. Crews tended to keep their mouths shut. Only once I did hear otherwise. One night I traveled south from Dallas to the Rio Grande Valley on a plane that was loaded to the gills with massive bags of silver dollars from the U.S. Treasury. The pilots joked that we were paving the Pan American Highway with it.

What was the hardest thing about flying the Link?

The Link Trainer
Click for Larger Version

The hardest thing for the newbie to master was, hands down, the aural radio-range. A pilot had to keep the signal extra-low to pick up minute volume changes that let him know whether he was headed in or out from the station, yet stay on top of what the Morse code signals were telling him about his orientation procedure. At the same time he would have to manage the plane flying the gauges.

As a rule, the kids were quite sharp considering their scant 200 hours in the air. Still, our supervisors emphasized to us that in Europe more pilots were dying in weather than in combat, so the quality of instrument training we gave couldn't have been more important. The young AAF pilots had no more than four hours of instrument flying in advanced training, and so the first work was with basic instruments. We went on to having them fly patterns, and then beams we stamped at random on a paper chart, working up to the three orientation procedures. Advanced work consisted of direction finding and approaches flown on so-called "dashes," taken by the planes' primitive loop antennas from the ground.

The training program was a set three months, but the last class to come in stayed and stayed. The intense pressure had slackened off. Rumor was that military pilots were no longer needed to the extent originally expected (which meant not as many as expected were getting killed).

As far as their time in the Link was concerned, from my records it seems to have been 15 hours. But when the kids that weren't being transferred became more like residents in that small town, the school devised new blocks of Link to keep them current.

The Trainer was mounted on bellows and could be freely flown 360 degrees right or left, and be tilted for climb or descent. Some of the instruments were actual aircraft instruments. Others, of course, had to be simulated. There was a wind drift mechanism crank at the base of the trainer that affected the ground track, which was recorded on a chart on the instructor's desk by means of a device known as the recorder, or "Crab."

The student controlled the Link itself and the instructor nagged him by radio. When he was ready for radio navigation, we sent the signals for him to fly with a pair of toggles in the drawer of the instructor's desk. Most of the navigation problems dealt with the aural four-course radio range, informally known as "the da-dits," although there was a brief introduction to the use of direction-finding.

ADF was experimental then. Few pilots had actually flown it, and few planes were equipped with more than the simple loop antenna. Our DF work was with something known as QDMs, down at jungle stations that had been established by Pan Am. The direction-finding station transmitted bearings to the plane in a variety of "Q-signals" to keep any and all information out of enemy hands.

What other flying did you do?

As far as my other flying is concerned, whenever I had the $5 it took, I rented an ancient 40-horse Air Knocker and flew around the Rio Grande Valley at 200-300 feet, playing among the little puff-ball clouds forming out of the night mist. A no-no, of course, and of course I knew better. Whenever I made a trip on the C-47s, the captains gave me a chance to "fly" from the co-pilot's seat, while keeping a close watch on me out of one eye. That big, heavy thing was no breeze to fly. Not for me, anyway.

What happened when the job at ATC ended?

The training jobs ended when the airline's contract with the government ended. What happened next for the people involved depended on what they were trained for. One or two of the instructors went up to Dallas and worked in the Link Department. I believe the ATC/BNF men continued the job they had been doing minus the instructing. The Kids were sent all over the world on their missions.

I went home for Christmas, got bored in a hurry, and took a job instructing at an Air Force base. There I met my husband and became a camp follower until the war was over. During the '50s and '60s, I operated a Link of my own, doing the training and proficiency checks for a group of three Supplemental Air Carriers flying the Pacific.

For a while, I assumed -- without enough knowledge to think about it -- that the low-freq. procedures I taught had come down off Mt. Sinai, whole and entire. It wasn't until later it dawned on me that the very captains I knew at BNF had been telling me better, and probably had created some of them themselves out of the whole cloth. One of them had described how in bad weather they would hug the ground along Lake Shore Boulevard in Chicago until they came to the big flashing Wrigley's sign and turn into the field from there. Some sort of radio range approach must have developed from that.

Have you done any aviation-related activities recently?

I worked in weather observation at the local airport until it went automated five or six years ago. The man who operated the station was someone I knew through a local organization. He was minus an observer and he asked me if I'd be interested. He said, "The NOAA test is very memory-intensive. How is your memory?"

I said, "Fine, except for the Alzheimer's." So he hired me, and I loved it. The field closed at eight o'clock, and I worked the 2:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. shift. So I'd be all alone out there for a couple of hours, able to wander around kicking tires on the corporate jets and looking up at the stars. I was in heaven, and I was being paid for it!