Forty-Seven Years in Aviation: A Memoir; Chapter 6: Basic Flight Training, Part 2

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

Skywritings

The B-25 was one of a long line of North American Aviation's highly successful military aircraft: T-6, P-51, B-45, F-86, F-100, T-28, A-5, XB-70 and the B-1, still in operation. It's worth noting that the B-25 holds the unique distinction of being the only American military aircraft named for a specific person, General Billy Mitchell, a pioneer of U.S. military aviation, who went to the mat in courts-martial proceedings to defend his belief that the Air Force should be a separate service. He lost the court battle, but his philosophy of air power proved valid years later.

North American XB-21

North American NA-40

North American's XB-21 may have been the B-25's grandfather. Designed to compete for an Army Air Corps medium-bomber contract, the XB-21 displayed all the hallmarks of mid-1930s military aircraft design (a pregnant C-47?). It was a load-lugger and cruised at 220 mph but it failed to score well in the competition. The next generation and most likely the B-25's "father" was North American's NA-40. It represented a significant step forward in aeronautical design, with tricycle landing gear, a more efficient wing and unique twin-rudder empennage. This model competed as an attack bomber (narrow fuselage, tandem pilot seating, armed with seven machine guns) and was accepted by the Army for further evaluation. A crash-and-burn event two weeks later destroyed the only NA-40 in existence and North American gave up on the airplane, but it certainly looked like it could morph into a B-25. Despite the crash, the Army was impressed with the concept and asked North American to come up with an improved model. The result -- the NA-62 -- was based on the knowledge gained from the NA-40 project but retained little more than its general configuration. The fuselage was widened to accommodate more bombs and side-by-side seating for the pilots, the wing location was changed to mid-fuselage, the crew was increased to five, and R-2600 engines were installed. There were numerous small changes but for all intents and purposes the B-25 was born.

North American B-25

One major change that made the airplane unique among bombers was the wing construction -- and that resulted from a design error. The first nine B-25s out of the factory had wings that proceeded straight out from the fuselage with a constant dihedral ( la NA-62) but this configuration had a negative effect on lateral stability; the problem was resolved by removing the dihedral from the wing sections outboard of the engines, resulting in the distinctive "gull wing" profile and -- lucky for pilots -- an improvement in handling qualities. The B-25 prototype first flew in August 1940 and was ready to go into production shortly thereafter. The subsequent military evaluation was so favorable that no experimental or field-test models were required; the first airplanes off the production line were on their own, so to speak. All told, nearly 10,000 B-25s were built and served well in the U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps, plus the aviation complements of 22 foreign nations.

My group, Class 56-I, trained in a mixed bag of well-used B-25s: We had J, -L and N models; some all-glass up front, some had solid noses that had accommodated machine guns, but all of them were equipped with Wright R-2600 Twin Cyclone engines that produced 1700 hp. An engine-driven hydraulic system operated the wheel brakes, wing flaps, bomb-bay doors and cowl flaps; a generator on each engine produced electrical power for the airplane. The fuel system held a total of 974 gallons, enough gasoline for roughly four hours of flight; there were auxiliary-tank configurations available that nearly doubled the fuel capacity and enabled a maximum range of 2,700 miles. The Mitchell's wings spanned 67.5 feet and the airplane measured 53 feet from nose to tail. The operational weights of the airplane were out of sight compared to those of the primary trainers we had flown: The empty weight of a typical B-25 was 21,000 pounds and the maximum takeoff weight was an astounding 41,800 pounds. For student pilots who cut their eye teeth on 1700-pound Piper Cubs and T-6s that weighed 5600 pounds, the B-25 was a huge challenge. The B-25 checklist was considerably longer and more detailed than its T-6 counterpart, but certain items and procedures were similar and were destined to show up in most of the recip-powered airplanes we would fly during our Air Force careers. Some of the common preflight inspection items were flight-control locks, trim tabs, landing-gear indicators, fuel drains, pitot covers, tire condition, and so forth. Learning to fly the B-25 began with "How to Make Sure the Airplane is Ready to Fly," known more formally as the Preflight Inspection. This procedure began in the cockpit and consisted of 117 items that had to be in place, checked, looked at, opened, closed, locked, unlocked, removed, kicked (as in tires), secured, engaged, safetied, turned off or on, or stowed. Landing-gear strut extension was a critical item: too long and the tire might not fit in the wheel well on retraction; too short and the strut might bottom out on landing. A pack of regular cigarettes was a "close enough for government work" ruler to make sure the struts were OK for flight. (The zippered pocket on the left upper sleeve of a GI flight suit was probably not designed with cigarettes in mind, but the dimensions were perfect for stowing one's smokes.)
Photo courtesy of Mid-Atlantic Air Museum

Photo courtesy of Mid-Atlantic Air Museum

Pilot seat armor

The B-25s we flew at Vance were "war-wearies" and several of them had remnants of the steel armor that had been installed for crew protection in combat. This photograph shows the typical hinged armor panels that covered the pilots' backs. The normal training-flight crew complement was an IP and two students; the non-flying student was usually detailed to the bombardier's compartment in the nose to watch for other aircraft. It was the best seat in the house, with nearly unlimited visibility except to the rear; from "up front," we had a grand view of the spectacular north-central Oklahoma landscape (spectacularly flat).
Photo courtesy of Mid-Atlantic Air Museum

Photo courtesy of Mid-Atlantic Air Museum

Nose compartment crawlway, looking forward

In order to get to and from the nose compartment, it was necessary to crawl (or slide on your back, using the overhead handrails) through a tunnel below the pilot's seat. During one memorable training flight, we collided with a herd of birds that broke a couple of the glass panels in the nose, resulting in a huge rush of air throughout the airplane and a crawlway coated with blood, guts and feathers. There was no one in the nose compartment at the time, hence no injuries, but what a terrible mess for the crew chief to clean up; he may have needed a fire hose.

The upper turret compartment was the terminus of the preflight inspection routine (the turrets were removed when the airplanes were modified for flight training). Located between the flight deck and the bomb bay, the turret compartment contained pressure gages for the hydraulic system, the emergency air brakes, crew oxygen pressure and several components of the fuel-transfer system. One of the last items in this area was removal of the safety clip that locked the bomb-bay doors open. Making sure the clip was in place was Item #1 on the exterior checklist because the bomb doors opened or closed in just two or three seconds and could cause serious injury if there was any pressure in the hydraulic system and someone inadvertently moved the bomb-bay door switch. With the clip removed the doors were "hot," and were not to be closed until all ground personnel were clear of the airplane. Every airplane has its secrets. I recall preflighting a B-25 for a solo (i.e., two student pilots) cross-country flight to somewhere south of Oklahoma ... during the winter we didn't plan trips in any other direction. While we were shivering through the nosewheel checklist, a crew chief ducked into the wheel well and asked if we would like to RON ("remain over night") a couple of extra days in the sunny south. Our answer was predictable, whereupon the crew chief pointed out an inconspicuous, flush-mounted valve that could be opened or closed with a 50-cent piece. In the open position, the valve relieved all pressure in the hydraulic system; the chief explained that we could open the valve after shutting down the engines and, in his words as I remember them, "There's not one mechanic in a hundred who knows where that valve is or what it does ... your airplane will be grounded, and by the time they figure it out, you'll be ready to come home." Not wanting to screw up our careers with such a deception, we elected to play it straight. But in light of the winter weather in Oklahoma, it was very tempting.

Winter 1955 at Vance Air Force Base

Speaking of which, the winter of 1955-56 in Enid was not for sissies; in addition to many foggy, below-minimums days, we were beset with super-cold temperatures and heavy snow. Adding insult to injury, there were more than a few times when we finished the cockpit portion of the preflight inspection, climbed out of the airplane and were greeted by a frigid blast from the airplane in the row ahead as its crew started their engines ... wind chill in spades.

Now that the airplane is preflighted and ready for engine start, I digress to provide a brief review of an event in which the B-25 played a leading role. Whenever people with an interest in the B-25 get together, someone will inevitably mention what was probably the most significant event in the airplane's service to the country during World War II: the air raid on Japan in April 1942. Just two weeks after the tragedy at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt requested his Joint Chiefs of Staff to arrange a retaliatory bombing raid on Japan as soon as possible to boost American morale and demonstrate the vulnerability of the Japanese homeland. Air Corps General Hap Arnold was enthusiastic about the proposed mission and directed Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle to select an airplane and organize a suitable group of airmen. The plan called for launching the B-25s from the flight deck of the USS Hornet, the Navy's newest carrier. The mission requirements were staggering: Limited by the Hornet's 800-foot long flight deck, the bombers could use no more than half that distance for takeoff (in consideration of 16 airplanes packed together on the deck) and fly 2400 nautical miles with a 2000-pound bomb load. The very-long-range requirement was imposed so the crews could reach friendly territory in China following the raid. Doolittle considered several medium bombers before choosing the B-25 and the flight crews were selected from a Coastal Patrol squadron in Pendleton, Oreg., the first US Army Air Corps unit to be equipped with the brand-new bombers. Sixteen B-25s were modified for the mission -- installation of auxiliary fuel tanks and removal of the tail gunner position, among other changes -- then on to Eglin Field in Florida for training in ultra-short takeoffs. The unorthodox procedure involved full power, full flaps and full up-elevator as soon as the brakes were released ... the resulting nose-high attitude enabled the airplanes to become airborne just a few knots above stall speed. By the time this training was completed the pilots were able to take off in about 400 feet. Keep in mind the normal takeoff distance for a B-25 at 31,000 pounds was about 3300 feet at sea level with zero wind. When the airplanes were launched, the Hornet was steaming into a 40-knot gale, a significant performance enhancer that shortened dramatically the distance between brake release and lift-off. In addition to a strong, direct headwind, the launch officer used the pitching deck to the pilots' advantage: He signaled "brake release" when the Hornet's bow bottomed out; this provided a bit of downhill for the first part of the takeoff run and a mild "ski jump" effect as the bow rose.

B-25s stacked on the flight deck of the USS Hornet

The B-25s were loaded and strapped down on the Hornet's flight deck in Alameda, Calif., on April 1, 1942, and the carrier headed west the next day.

A B-25 on its way to Tokyo

The plan was to launch the airplanes about 400 nautical miles east of Tokyo, but on April 18, 10 hours and 170 miles early, a Japanese picket ship was spotted and sunk immediately. Concerned that the picket may have sent a warning message to Japan (it had), the decision was made to launch immediately; with Doolittle at the controls, the first B-25 was on its way at 8:00 a.m. after a takeoff roll of 487 feet. The raid was conducted in broad daylight with no interference from Japanese aircraft or ground fire. All the crews bombed their targets and headed for their planned destinations in China. One crew landed safely in Russia, where the crew was interned for more than a year, but bad weather, darkness and fuel exhaustion resulted in crash landings or inflight abandonment of the remaining 15 aircraft. From a tactical standpoint, the raid was something less than a success, but it was a strategic home run; it put the Empire of Japan on notice that we could -- and would -- bring the war to their shores. In his after-action report Doolittle said, in part:
"The psychological results ... would be the recalling of combat equipment from other theaters for home defense thus effecting relief in those theaters, the development of a fear complex in Japan, improved relationships with our Allies, and a favorable reaction on the American people."
... and our beloved B-25 was the star of the show. [Continued with Chapter 7.]

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