Forty-Seven Years in Aviation -- A Memoir: Chapter 1 -- From the Beginning through 1954

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[AVweb's reprint of Dick's memoir began with the Introduction.]

Skywritings

I was never an airport brat, never cut grass around the hangars or washed airplanes hoping to be paid with a ride in a real airplane, never actually rode in an airplane until I was a sophomore in college. My early interest in things aeronautic was satisfied by building models made of balsa wood and tissue paper and powered by rubber bands. Some of those models went down in flames because WWII was in progress at the time and destroying models of Messerschmitts and Zeros with the strike of a match just before launch from a second-floor porch was one small way to participate in the war effort -- as in, "Take that, you dirty Nazi!" My bedroom ceiling was populated with model airplanes hanging on threads thumb-tacked into the plaster. Sore thumbs from pushing straight pins into a plywood work table, fingertips coated with dried Testor's glue and the occasional slice from a single-edge razor blade were the marks of a modeler, and I had them all. Graduation from high school in June 1950 and the start of the Korean War were coincident events that made three major differences in my life. First, had I not continued to college, I would have been easy picking for the local draft board and may well have wound up slogging through rice paddies halfway around the world. Second, my decision to attend the Ohio State University required participation in the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program, which led ultimately to Air Force flight training. Third, and most important, had I not stayed at OSU for four years, I would not have met the girl I married shortly after graduation. ROTC was nothing new. The Morrill Act of 1862 established land-grant colleges and included the concept of preparing students for service in the armed forces of the United States. In return for the privileges and benefits provided by the Act, each land-grant institution was required to teach courses in military tactics, forming what became known as the ROTC. These classes were compulsory for male students for many years; but the widespread protests against U.S. participation in the Vietnam War forced a change from compulsory military training to voluntary programs. For myself and thousands of others at OSU (in 1950 the Air Force ROTC detachment at Ohio State was the largest in the country), there was no choice: Every able-bodied male student was required to undergo two years of basic military training. The classroom portion of ROTC during my freshman and sophomore years was largely forgettable. The practical side included training in close-order drill, but most of the Air Force cadets didn't take it very seriously, figuring that marching people around in the ROTC parking lot would be more important for the Army troops. There was the occasional ceremonial parade later on, but it's safe to say those demonstrations wouldn't have won any awards for precision marching. I didn't feel it bite, but the flying bug found me at some time during those first two years, probably the result of airplane rides with college friends: one flight was in a Piper Cub, the other in a Cessna 140. As it turned out, the Cub was the first airplane I flew in Air Force pilot training and the little Cessna rag-winged tail-dragger would be the vehicle for a unique civilian pilot-training experience in the future. In any event, after two years of ROTC, I knew what I wanted to do post-college and I also knew my parents wouldn't underwrite the expense of learning to fly while I was still in school, so signing on for the two-year advanced program in Air Force ROTC was a logical solution to the problem. The price was a commitment to three years of active duty after graduation, a period of time that seemed insignificant when I considered the opportunity to get a full year of flight training in one of the finest such programs in the world and be paid a decent salary for flying nearly every day. Years later I was reminiscing with one of my classmates who had entered the flight training program as an Aviation Cadet. These young men were paid next to nothing, lived in barracks, ate in mess halls, marched everywhere they went, suffered through the demerit system, and were required to remain single during flight training. I wondered aloud, "After all these years, don't you think the gulf between officers and cadets has largely disappeared?" to which my classmate replied, "Yes, but don't forget you guys were making $400 a month and officers were allowed to get married." Air Force ROTC offered several options for the two-year advanced program, only one of which -- Flight Operations -- was of interest to those of us who intended to go on to pilot training. The Flight Ops curriculum included basic aerodynamics, meteorology, aircraft engines, aerial navigation and other courses that addressed much of what we would encounter in flight training. Our instructors were active-duty Air Force officers assigned to the ROTC program; they were required to teach the curriculum, but fortunately for us they digressed often to relate personal experiences (some of which may have been true), which provided a valuable interface between the civilian environment and the real world of active duty. Advanced ROTC included a two-week summer camp conducted between our junior and senior years, the purpose of which was to continue our education in things military and provide a snapshot of life on an active Air Force Base. Along with cadets from other colleges, a number of us from Ohio State were assigned to Turner AFB (see sidebar at right) located in Albany, Georgia (pronounced "all-BENN-eh" by the locals, not "AWL-buh-nee" as in New York). We lived in barracks during summer camp, were serenaded early each morning by a scratchy, high-decibel recording of reveille broadcast throughout the cadet area, ate in mess halls and tolerated frequent inspections by the young officers who served as our mentors. But there were two events that smacked of pure Air Force, one of which was a field trip to observe a joint Army-Air Force firepower demonstration. We were loaded into a C-46 (the Curtiss Commando, big brother of the C-47) and flown to Ft. Benning, home of the airborne troops. Seated in bleachers overlooking the demonstration area along with a group of Army ROTC cadets also attending summer camp, we watched respectfully as artillery, tanks and other Army combat equipment strutted their stuff. The Army cadets cheered as their firepower destroyed the "enemy," and they directed more than a few disparaging comments our way concerning the differences in combat conditions between ground-pounders and pilots.

B-36 Peacemaker

When the Army show was finished, a B-36 appeared and dropped its entire load of bombs in a line of thunderous explosions that marched the length of the demonstration area. This rather dramatic display ("shock and awe," 1950s style) was followed by more flight demonstrations; but the pièce de résistance was a low pass over the demo area by a flight of F-84s, each of them dropping napalm that incinerated everything it touched -- including foxholes. Given the probability that a real enemy would also be capable of delivering such a sinister weapon, the Army ROTC folks got very quiet. Event Number Two was one of those unexpected things that shows up out of a clear blue sky, in this case quite literally. During one of our daily gatherings in the barracks area, a T-33 flew over at an altitude low enough to attract everyone's attention and generate a chorus of "oohs" and "aahs."

T-33 Shooting Star

The T-33 was a stretched, two-seat version of the Lockheed F-80 "Shooting Star," a combat veteran of the Korean War. Known more familiarly as the "T-Bird," the T-33 was well established in its role as a trainer and we knew some of us would get to fly it in the next year or so. Nothing more was said about it, but at the conclusion of his daily briefing the next morning, our "mother hen" lieutenant announced that the T-Bird had been flown in to provide familiarization flights for ROTC cadets and that several of us (yours truly included) had been selected for rides. This was a complete surprise; there had been no competitions, no interviews or selection processes that justified such a special reward -- and I was not about to question the selections. We were given a short briefing on the oxygen system and the ejection seat, then one at a time we were strapped into the back seat of the T-Bird and away we went. That 30-minute ride was exhilarating, to say the least. The pilot demonstrated several aerobatic maneuvers to which my stomach -- which had never been upside down in an airplane or moved that fast or pulled any Gs -- registered a mild protest. That ride was an eye-opener and a great introduction to high-performance flying but, as it turned out, I had to wait 14 years to check out in the T-33; as far as I was concerned that was a better-late-than-never event. More about the T-Bird in a later chapter. Our summer camp at Turner AFB ended with a formal parade by the entire cadet complement. There was no shortage of brass as we passed in review; some of the brass was in a band, the rest was watching us from the reviewing stand. We must have done a passable job ... they didn't tell us to go back and do it again. When the summer camp of 1953 came to an end, I was one step closer to flight training and my objectives were clear: Graduate with the OSU class of 1954, accept a commission as a "brown bar" (2nd lieutenant) in the Air Force, get married and begin my life as an aviator.

[Continued with Chapter 2.]
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