Forty-Seven Years in Aviation: A Memoir; Chapter 7: Basic Flight Training, Part 3
The piece de resistance of instrument flying for me was the low-frequency, four-course, radio range -- some pilots swore by it, most others swore at it. Introduced as state-of-the-art in the 1930s, "flying the range" in 1955 was as much art as it was science. A rather complicated antenna array on the ground transmitted the station identifier in Morse code every 30 seconds, plus four lobes that produced constant, repetitive "A" and "N" signals. The areas where the lobes overlapped (blue in the illustration) produced a constant, steady, on-course tone ... the "beam" (right out of the movies) that provided a fairly accurate signal for aerial navigation.
The art of radio-range flying showed up in the orientation procedure, which required a reasonably good set of ears. If you were unsure of your location, the procedure called for station identification, a turn to the nearest bisector heading (the midpoint of the angle between the on-course signals ... 048 degrees in the example at right), then decrease the volume in your headset to the lowest perceptible level and fly (and sometimes, fly and fly and fly) until you were certain you were moving toward or away from the station. The "flying away from" situation was the more difficult to resolve because the signal strength became so weak you weren't really sure what was going on, and re-dos were not uncommon. The example assumes flight toward the station in a clear "A" signal area; sooner or later you would begin to hear a weak but increasing "N" followed by a merger of the two signals into an unbroken tone; you were now "on course," but which one? The next step was to turn left 90 degrees; if you flew back into a clear "A" you had just crossed the southwest leg of the range and if the signal turned into a clear "N" you were northwest of the station. At this point a 180 would return you to the appropriate course and you could proceed to the station, making wind drift corrections with heading changes to keep the signal constant. Station passage was indicated by the "cone of silence," a rapid decrease in volume followed by an increase to the former level as you passed over the antenna site. A typical instrument approach using the four-course range would have one of the legs lined up with the landing runway and timing (distance to the runway) was determined by station passage. ADF was a whole lot easier, but not nearly as much fun. Shortly before graduation, the entire class was assembled for the purpose of announcing assignments to our next duty stations. The briefing officer opened the meeting by announcing that, before the process could go any further, there was a decision to be made concerning our immediate post-training activity. We all wanted to fly, but the rules had changed; those who wanted a cockpit job guaranteed were required to add a year to the standard three-year commitment (including the year of flight training we had just completed). Those who weren't concerned about flying as their primary duty remained in their seats while those classmates who didn't want to fly a desk -- myself included -- rushed to the front of the room to sign the papers. If memory serves there were 22 classmates who committed to an additional year and as it turned out, most of us wound up in the Strategic Air Command. Flying in SAC was not as cushy as other flying jobs, but it was better than flying a desk. With that exercise out of the way, assignments were made with priority given to class standing. I was high enough on the list to choose before all the good locations were gone; and anxious as I was to get away from winter weather if possible, MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., looked good ... and my choice was honored. By mid-February 1956 we had filled all of the squares in the basic flight-training program and had achieved our goal: Air Force pilot wings. We owed much to the airplane that brought us to this point ... the following tribute appeared on the closing page of our class book:
The B-25 ... used in 1940, abused by members of Class 56-I in 1956. About 26,000 pounds of brute. On the hottest day of the year the ventilation doesn't work. On the coldest day the heater fails. On final approach the seat collapses. On a checkride the engines won't start. Impossible to taxi, a dream to fly, she bore the weight of our ignorance in the ways of flying machines for six long months. Nothing has taken the pounding, the manhandling, the abuse this airplane has. Wonderfully forgiving of our mistakes in the air, she has taken care of us as would a mother hen ... by spreading her wings, taking us in, and placing confidence in our abilities. The B-25 ... she has made pilots of us.On Thurs., Feb. 23, 1956, an unusually mild and snow-free winter day, we assembled on the Vance AFB parade ground for the Class 56-I graduation ceremony. The officers were awarded Air Force pilot wings, and the Cadets got their wings and were commissioned as 2nd Lieutenants. Now they could get married -- legally. No event in one's life as significant as this should go without a celebratory party, and the members of Class 56-I were no exception. We convened in the Officer's Club that evening for cocktails, dinner, appropriate remarks and presentation of our diplomas by the Base Commander, Col. Chester Gilger.
All of us were proud of what we had accomplished and were looking forward to putting our wings to work. I may have gone a bit "over the top," but I was one very happy new pilot. (That's Col. Gilger above me in the photo. I waited until he had gone home before I borrowed the O-Club's wings and had this photo taken):
Postscript Shortly before I finished writing this chapter, I had occasion to visit an aviation museum in Urbana, Ohio. Included in their display of several vintage military aircraft was a B-25 restored to pristine, probably better-than-new, flyable condition. Upon learning of my connection with the Mitchell and the fact that it had been 55 years since I had sat in a B-25 cockpit, the museum director gave me carte blanche to climb aboard and renew the acquaintance. My visit with the airplane was most satisfying and when I reviewed the photos taken by a friend that day, I couldn't resist closing this chapter with a photographic bridge spanning those 55 years: [Continued with Chapter 8.]