Forty-Seven Years in Aviation: A Memoir; Chapter 5: Basic Flight Training, Part 1
Westward ho! Late in August we set out for Oklahoma in our Nash Rambler station wagon (unique among contemporary automobiles in 1955 for its lack of a front fender cutout -- not pretty, but it worked). When we arrived in Enid, we encountered a much different housing situation than the ubiquitous, three-bedroom ranches in Kinston, N.C. Most of the bachelor officers lived in BOQs, the Aviation Cadets were of course relegated to their barracks and the rest of us found housing in various parts of the city. Nancy and I (that's her waving from the front porch) rented a small home on Enid's east side; not a dream house, but the price was right and the owner agreed to a six-month lease. (A bouquet at this point to the considerate landlords in all the flight-training base communities who recognized the needs of short-term Air Force flight students). About three months later, Nancy became ill with what the doctor diagnosed as intestinal flu. You were wrong, doc ... the "flu" was actually our daughter Julie, the first of our three children.
Should you ever go to downtown Enid, drive three miles south on Van Buren Street and there's Vance Air Force Base on your right. The sign that welcomed us aboard has been replaced long since, but in 1955 this is what greeted us every work day for the next six months (Work? You call flying Uncle Sam's airplanes and getting paid for it work? No way; it was sheer pleasure). The fine print inside the white arrow on the sign reads ...
In addition to a new sign, Vance changed significantly over the years to accommodate the high-performance aircraft and support services of a modern, military, flight-training facility. The original layout (left) was typical 1940 Army Air Corps design, with three runways that virtually eliminated (or produced for practice) crosswind takeoffs and landings for those brown-shoe aviators. As the airfield was upgraded, the three original runways became taxiways (why waste perfectly good concrete?) visible in this aerial photograph taken by a classmate in 1955 (right). Two new north-south runways were up and running well before Class 56-I arrived on the scene; each of them was 6000 feet long, more than adequate for operating B-25s. Both of these runways were lengthened to 9000 feet when Vance became an all-jet pilot-training facility, about 1972. A radical change occurred in 1995 when Vance transitioned to the Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training program, in which all students trained initially in the T-6 Texan II (a single-engine turboprop), then in the T-38 (a single-engine jet) for fighter and bomber pilots or in the T-1A (a twin-engine jet) for transport, tanker or large recon aircraft pilots. Joint training for U.S. Navy and Marine Corps pilots began in 1996. Class 56-I was divided and assigned to a pair of Pilot Training Squadrons, part of the 3575th Pilot Training Wing. After completing the in-processing procedure, we were issued flying gear -- no crash helmets this time, but the throat mikes showed up again -- and briefed on what to expect in basic flight training. Classroom subjects focused on B-25 systems and procedures at the outset, then shifted to an emphasis on instrument flying, radio navigation and communication, more weather studies and -- among other ground school subjects -- a short course in celestial navigation. Early in "Star Studies 101" the instructor turned out the lights and presented us with projected images of the constellations generally used by navigators. White lines connected the prominent stars that formed images in free-thinking minds; for example, Orion -- the great hunter whose image in the sky is also known as the Southern Cross -- was fairly easy to recognize if you could think outside the box, so to speak. We dutifully memorized the names and configurations of a number of these starry figures, depending heavily on the white lines. The final examination included a section in which we were asked to identify several significant constellations, but -- big surprise -- there were no white lines ... just a black, night-sky scene with stars and stars and stars. (See Celestial Navigation, above at right.) We also learned the rudiments of Samuel F. B. Morse's famous dot-and-dash code (decoding 10 words per minute -- both visual and aural -- was required to get a passing grade); the content of that course might have been a candidate for "information most likely to never be used again." We were taught a memory-jogging system and I can still recall (slowly) some of the combinations of dots and dashes that define the alphabet ... but if I had to save my life today with a coded message other than S-O-S, I'd be a dead man. We were treated to another short course that was extremely interesting not only because of the subject matter, but also in the way it was presented. Atomic bombs were a hot topic (pun intended) in the mid-'50s and the Air Force wanted flight crews to have a basic knowledge of how these devices worked and how they would be delivered, so the academic curriculum included a briefing that covered the principles and applications of nuclear weapons. The security classification of this subject was high enough (Top Secret) to warrant a locked classroom guarded by a couple of armed Air Police troops. We lined up in the hall outside the classroom and were required to provide our last names and first initial to the APs, who checked us against their lists before we were admitted. One of our group who couldn't resist poking a little fun at the system gave his name as "Kruschev, N." and walked right in while the AP was trying to find that name. Makes a person wonder ... were those APs a bit light on current events? Soon after we checked in, instructor assignments were announced. The briefing room arrangement was the same as in primary training: one instructor at a table with three or four students. Our instructor pilots (IPs) were all Air Force officers, most of them 1st lieutenants and recent graduates of the Air Force Basic Instructor School. Once again alphabetical order prevailed and I was assigned to Lt. Bill Reynolds, a fine man, a good pilot and a patient instructor. Some IPs were shouters, some thought they could teach flying by berating their students continuously, but not Bill; I don't recall a single display of that kind of counter-productive behavior throughout the six-month flight training program. I lost track of Bill after graduation, but the quality of his instruction provided a solid foundation over the years as I progressed through a variety of large, recip-powered airplanes. [Continued with Chapter 6.]