Forty-Seven Years in Aviation -- A Memoir: Chapter 4 -- Primary Flight Training Part 3
Compared to contemporary electronic magic, the term "computer" is lost on the E6B, but it did the job for us more than half a century ago. The computer side (on the left) is little more than a circular slide rule modified for aviation use. The wind side has a sliding grid and an erasable plastic screen on which the wind arrow can be drawn, providing a graphic solution of ground speed and wind drift correction. My E6B (which mysteriously wound up in my personal goods when I left Stallings) is shown here, with its leather carrying case and a string to hang the computer from a knob on the instrument panel. Keep in mind there is no floor in a T-6, just the belly skin; anything dropped -- pencils, flashlights, E6Bs, etc. -- stays dropped until you land, or until you turn the airplane upside down and catch whatever falls off the floor. The training curriculum included cross-country solo flights, all of which were intended to familiarize us with chart reading, pilotage and the art of coming up with good estimates of time and distance. To the best of my recollection, no one in our class got lost ... possibly because Mr. Cole, the chief flight instructor, briefed us that if we were ever uncertain about our position over North Carolina, we should turn to a heading of 090 and fly until we came to a large body of water, then do a 180 -- and there was the United States of America straight ahead. We also flew a solo night cross-country mission. After briefing all afternoon on the value of precise flight planning, location of check points and the limitations of the human visual system, we launched ... an in-trail stream of T-6s describing a huge triangle in the North Carolina sky. The two turning points were lighted airports, and when I reached cruise altitude (perhaps four or five thousand feet), I could see the rotating beacons of both locations. So much for the difficulty of night navigation, at least at this level of experience. But just in case any of us got disoriented and wandered off into the black of night, Serv-Air had instructors in T-6s orbiting each of the checkpoints and we were required to check in as we arrived at the turning points. The R-1340 engine put on a different face at night. The smoke that was part and parcel of every engine start obscured what was really happening at the exhaust on the lower-right side of the airplane about six feet ahead of the cockpit. But in the dark of night, as the nine cylinders tried to decide which of them would start first and in what order, bright colors and occasional bursts of flame mixed with the smoke until the engine settled into a smooth idle. On takeoff, with full-rich mixture and full power, the unburned products of combustion streamed out of the exhaust looking like the world's biggest blowtorch. (We weren't taught sophisticated cruise control-techniques, but it was possible to arrive at a reasonably economical mixture setting for cruise by watching the color of the exhaust flame while leaning the mixture. Yellow wasn't bad, but a short, light-blue flame was much better.)
I don't think there were any students in the class who had previous experience in aerobatics, but by the time we finished that part of the course most of us could have put on a decent show ... given enough altitude, of course. We learned loops, barrel rolls, slow rolls, wingovers and the occasional split-S. For me, the barrel roll was the most difficult of these maneuvers. From straight-and-level flight, the procedure was to lower the nose a bit to pick up some airspeed, start a roll to the left (or to the right, your choice) then reverse the bank and fly the airplane around a point on the horizon. The barrel roll was aptly named when compared to a slow roll, in which you roll the airplane around its longitudinal axis while maintaining the nose on a point. Each of these needed a fine touch on stick and rudder because the T-6 ran out of airspeed in a hurry and required constant changes in control displacement throughout the roll. The most common error was "dishing out" at the top by allowing the airplane to stop rolling, at which time it fell out of the sky sideways. I can still hear Ray Petty -- "Taylor, let's try that roll one more time" -- and until I caught on, "one more time" frequently turned into several additional attempts. But I figured it out eventually and for the balance of the program enjoyed solo aerobatics at every opportunity.
Primary flight training did not include formation flying -- that was reserved for basic flight training a few months later, which was much more operationally oriented. But the urge to fly close to another airplane just like the big boys led inevitably to occasional join-ups far enough from Kinston to reduce the possibility of detection by instructors ... and, for the same reason, always in radio silence. We probably never got closer than 50 feet or so from each other, but these illicit adventures had all the excitement of forbidden fruit. I would not be surprised to learn the instructors knew some of this was going on and chose to look the other way. A little knowledge can sometimes be a dangerous thing. I joined up with a classmate one day at 5000 feet over the Trent River about 30 miles southeast of Kinston. We flew together for a few minutes, then Don hand-signaled his intent to do a split-S, which involves going inverted and completing the second half of a high-speed loop; I nodded agreement and down we went. After leveling at 2500 feet or so he indicated "let's do it again," to which I replied with a vigorous head-shake -- "No way, Jose!" Don shrugged his shoulders, rolled the T-6 on its back and started down. As he got closer to the water, the shadow of the airplane shrank until it was almost the same size as the airplane itself, indicating he pulled out very close to the surface. When we got back Don admitted it was a close call; if nothing else, he found out how much altitude a T-6 requires for a split-S.
Instrument training for Air Force student pilots in 1955 hadn't moved very far beyond Jimmy Doolittle's pioneering work in the late 1920s. He recognized the problems of spatial disorientation and instrument interpretation and developed the methodology for "flying blind." In 1929 Doolittle configured an Army Air Corps biplane as an instrument trainer with a hood that covered the rear cockpit. On Sept. 24, he took off from Mitchell Field, flew for five minutes, used a radio signal to line up with the runway, and landed the airplane with no outside visual references. It was the first time anyone had done this. (There was a safety pilot in the front seat but he didn't touch the controls throughout the flight.) Doolittle was awarded the Harmon trophy for this astounding accomplishment.
Doolittle's IFR flight and our instrument training in 1955 had two things in common. First, the instrumentation in the back seat of his Consolidated NY-2 biplane was essentially the same as that in the back seat of a T-6; second, the apparatus he used to preclude outside references was remarkably similar to the hood in the back seat of the T-6, except for the manner in which they operated. The photo above shows Doolittle's two-piece canvas hood that was raised from each side and fastened at the top; the T-6 hood was stowed behind the back seat and was pulled forward over the student's head ... it looked something like a beach cabana. Of course, students being clever fellows, it didn't take us long to discover how to get a quick look outdoors to recover from confusion under the hood. I have used a variety of plastic and cardboard hoods, goggles, and other vision-limiting devices for training instrument students and for my own IFR practice, but none of them were as effective as the T-6 hood; it was as close as you could get to a simulation of flying in the clouds. His name notwithstanding, Doolittle did a lot. He enlisted as a cadet in the Signal Corps in 1917, earning his wings and a commission several months later. He resigned his commission in 1930 to join the Shell Oil Company as manager of their aviation department and was instrumental in the production of 115/145-octane fuel used by the high-performance airplanes that were crucial to the outcome of World War II. Doolittle was also active in air racing: He won the prestigious Bendix, Thompson, Schneider and Mackay trophies. Recalled to active duty shortly after Dec. 7, 1941 Doolittle was selected to lead the B-25 raid on Tokyo in April 1942. For his effort in this project he was awarded the Medal of Honor and promoted to Brigadier General. He served as commander of the 8th Air Force in WWII. Doolittle's many achievements and contributions to military and civil aviation were rewarded with a fourth star in 1985.
Instrument instruction in primary flight training was intended to provide nothing more than a familiarization with the basics of instrument flight: straight-and-level, climbs, descents and turns. To begin this part of the program, we spent 25 hours in the Link C3 trainer (the "Blue Box"), which was the first effective flight simulator. Earlier efforts to provide initial pilot training without the expense and risk of actual flight were rather lame. In this 1909 "simulator" for the French Antoinette airplane, the pilot sat on a half-barrel and operated the control wheels on either side: one for pitch, the other for roll. In response to the pilot's inputs, a man standing at the rear moved the "elevator" up or down to change pitch, and the fellow on the left created roll by lifting or lowering the long handle sticking out to the side. The Link C3 was capable of simultaneous movement in all three axes, and once you became accustomed to control movement and simulator response, it was much like actual flight -- except for the lack of noise. The smoothness derived from the air-operated bellows on which the trainer rested; that was because Edwin Link, inventor of the C3, was a pipe-organ builder and was therefore familiar with pneumatic machines. His trainer rested on bellows that expanded or contracted and produced the movement in response to control inputs by the student. The Link Company is still making flight simulators, but the bellows are long gone.
The Link trainer department at Stallings was rather unique: It was the first -- and perhaps the only -- of the nine contract schools with an all-female instructor staff. The original Link C3s were equipped with control wheels, but our trainers were modified with a control stick to resemble the T-6 cockpit. One of the film presentations in ground school featured personified instruments doing their thing in a T-6 panel. I don't remember all the names, but they might have been something like Albert Attitude Indicator or Harold Heading Indicator and -- the one I remember clearly -- Tommy Turn-and-Bank. Each had a cartoon face and moved about with simple animation. The film showed the instrument panel of a student who let his airplane enter a spin; after a couple of turns, Tommy Turn-and-Bank (who was jammed against the side of his instrument case) looked into the camera and said in a Mickey Mouse voice, "Let's get the hell out of this spin!" A little profanity went a long way in 1955 ... and a heavy foot on the opposite rudder is still the best way to get out of a spin.
After completing several Link trainer lessons, we started flying under the hood in the T-6. Fortunately the instrument panel in the Link was somewhat similar to the T-6 back-seat panel, which eased the transition: I began instrument training like a house on fire, but after several hours in the airplane it all came unglued ... nothing was going right. ("Mayday, mayday, Mr. Petty.") Ray sent me to a friend of his in the Link department who spotted the problem right away: I was over-controlling in turns and losing the coordination of roll and yaw that is fundamental to instrument flying. He (a part-time male instructor) solved the problem in one lesson with a simple technique: Control the turn needle with the stick and make the ball behave with rudder pressure. It was like having my personal physician send me to a specialist, and it was smooth sailing under the hood from that point on. Radio navigation wasn't included in our instrument-flying curriculum, but one day when I was hard at work under the hood, Mr. Petty said, "Push the hood back and take a look on the ground just behind the right wing." And there, recognizable instantly because of its distinctive "witch's hat" shape, was a VOR transmitter, at that time the cutting edge of aerial radio navigation. Of course we had nothing on board to receive the signal or display the information it had to offer -- that would be developed in basic flight training, still several months away -- but it was a glimpse of the future.
In mid-August our training was interrupted by a visit from two nasty ladies named Connie and Diane. These two hurricanes didn't fit the description of a perfect storm, but they managed to beat up the North Carolina coastline and the Kinston area with high winds and heavy rains. In a somewhat unusual display of storm tracks, Connie headed straight for Kinston (red star) for several days then veered off to the north; Diane followed a similar path five days later but continued to the northwest and hit Kinston right between the eyes: Several days before Connie arrived, Mr. Petty re-arranged a routine training mission so we could see what the beach-dwellers were doing to prepare for the hurricane. Most of them had retreated to higher ground but some, well aware of the damage that might be done to their properties, hired earthmoving equipment to pile up sand in front of their homes. This seemed a rather desperate move in light of the fact that hurricane-strength wind and the predicted eight-foot storm surge would reconfigure the beach despite the homeowners' best efforts. When it became apparent that these two storms were going to do some serious damage in the Kinston area, the ServAir people put their disaster procedures into effect. Instructors flew the T6s (which belonged to the Air Force) to safe-haven airports farther inland, and the PA-18s (owned by the contractor, ServAir) were moved into hangars and stacked close together with their tails in the air. This was a good way to protect the Cubs ... unless the wind dislodged the hangar roof and dumped it onto the airplanes, a distinct possibility. Connie brushed the North Carolina coast with 100-knot winds and Kinston experienced several days of 40-50 knot winds with occasional gusts near 100 knots. Rainfall was frequently horizontal and the wind picked up lots of sand -- not good news for things such as automobile finishes. To protect our almost-new car from being sandblasted, I parked it in the lee of the house and moved it whenever the wind direction changed. Following the suggestions of the local radio station, we stocked up on canned foods, filled the bathtub with water, and stayed well clear of the windows. (This was our first hurricane ... the locals were not quite so concerned.) With no airplanes to fly and academic pursuits finished, those of us who lived in Green Acres resorted to hurricane parties to pass the time ... what else is a bunch of 20-somethings to do? As it turned out, there was no damage to the house, the electricity didn't miss a lick and the car survived unscathed.
When the airplanes came home, we filled the remaining squares in the training schedule, passed our final checkrides, and celebrated our achievement with a hangar party. (Pettys on the right, Taylors on the left, boisterous classmates in the background.)
Receiving orders for Basic Flight Training was one of the final events at Stallings Air Base. Those of you who are familiar with the abbreviations and truncated phrases used in Air Force orders in the 1950s may fast-forward to the next chapter; if not, this is a good opportunity for a short lesson in military language. Here, in its original typewritten form, is the opening paragraph of my orders to Vance Air Force Base for multi-engine flight training: And here's the translation:
The following named officers, grade indicated, scheduled to graduate with primary pilot training class 56-I, are released from their assignment to the 3308th Pilot Training Group at this station and are assigned to the organization indicated. Report to the commander thereat not earlier than 8 a.m. and not later than noon 1Sep55, for entry into basic pilot training multi-engine course number 122100. Duration of this course is approximately 24 weeks. Days delay en route authorized as leave. [In other words, we could use some of the travel time for leave.] Travel pay is authorized, with six days of travel time authorized. If a personally owned vehicle is not used, travel time will be the time of the carrier used. Students have been granted final clearance for access to classified defense information up to and including secret; investigation and clearance has been recorded in unit personnel records in accordance with Air Force Regulation 205-6. Advance payment and maximum partial payments are authorized. This is a permanent change of station and permanent change of assignment.If you are able to translate the rest of this order, you're a better man than I am, Gunga Din. I figured what I didn't know about all that gobbledygook would probably not hurt me. With plenty of time to travel from Kinston to Enid, we used several days of leave to visit with our families in Ohio and then off to Oklahoma, the land of farmers, ranchers, oil wells, Vance AFB, and the second half of pilot training. [Continued with Chapter 5.]