This is the story of an aviator who started out in flight training prior to World War II. The narrative chronicles his experiences through the tremendous and rapid development of aviation in all its phases. It tells the story of the evolution and growth of a working pilot, in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean and Asia. After the war, the civilian use of surplus military aircraft and war-trained personnel became commonplace, setting the scene that allowed -- and at times forced -- this young pilot to mature into a seasoned aviator.
Surplus aircraft were put to civilian use in upstart airlines, both domestic and foreign. Then began the battle between the established scheduled airlines and the upstarts. It was a no-holds-barred battle for survival. The author's journey then took him through a hitch with Peruvian International Airlines to find some security and economic growth, and later a labor union battle with a major U.S. commercial airline. Meanwhile, the civil aircraft movement of military troops put him into the middle of a bidding war that threatened pure starvation as he gasped for his own economic survival.
Later, he served a tour of duty during the Korean War, which was not a war supported by dedicated politicians. Subsequently, this man was on the front lines of the Cold War and was integral in establishing the Distant Early Warning System of radar stations across the Canadian Artic. During his career, the author also gained experience with PBY amphibians and flew old warbirds that were one meager step from the junkyard.
His journey continued through the rise of corporate aviation and the conversion of military and airline aircraft to corporate use, along the way becoming a corporate pilot.
After a lengthy and illustrious career, the author retired from aviation. But far from being content to relax in retirement, he began a second career at the age of 39: he founded a boatbuilding business, creating boats with breakthrough designs and innovative engineering.
This is his compelling story.
The fabric rattled and banged as the Piper J-3 Cub climbed and dived around the towering cumulus clouds. At the controls, I weaved and dodged with sharp turns to avoid the clouds' white and blinding mist. It was a teenager's passionate, pure joy of the freedom of flight. I had found a way to defy gravity and cut myself loose from the earth.
In my boat I could leave the slavery of the land and enjoy the boundless ocean, but here I could go east or west, north or south, up or down, and the air could support me over land or sea. This was the way to go. This was freedom, with an added dimension. This could be a new life, a new career, and a way to earn a living ... if I could just put it all together.
I looked down at the little town of Fort Lauderdale, with New River flowing through its center and winding out to sea. The Coast Guard station stood next to the ocean, on the northern bank of the river's inlet. The water was clear and I could see a couple of sinuous sharks swimming along the golden shore. A mile farther south was the man-made entrance to Port Everglades, in its newness virtually deserted of ships and boats.
The river continued west into a good stretch of tropical jungle, then became a straight silver streak as it joined a canal dug through the saw grass to Lake Okeechobee. I could see our home on the riverbank, a mile west of town and about three miles from the sea. It was painted white with a green roof, and had been built by family members and friends of my dad, who had come by the dozen on "roofing day" to help. Mom and my sister plied them with sandwiches and drinks while my two bothers and I ran errands for the men. Some of the timbers were up to 8-by-14-inch pecky cypress, with rafters of 4-by-8-inch cypress. All had been cut at Dad's old sawmill west and north of town. The royal palms Dad had planted along the river were growing well and would gracefully adorn the few acres of land we owned.
I wondered what my dad would think of me getting interested in aviation as a career. He shared my predilection for boating, having operated the first boatyard in Fort Lauderdale, catering mostly to sternwheelers and barges. Aviation, I knew would not be his first choice. He had been my first passenger after I had gotten my private license that allowed me to take up passengers. When I had banked the plane in a turn, I was amused to see him trying to move to the high side to level up the plane, just like one would do in a boat.
Well, I reflected, he had been the one to point out the newspaper notice that the government would hold ground school courses at the local airport. Those in the top 10 percent of the class would receive flight training. Dad knew I wanted to learn more about navigation so I could extend my boat trips beyond the horizon with confidence. It made sense that learning to navigate an airplane would be of some advantage on the water, as well. I took the ground school course, and, to everyone's surprise -- including my own -- my test score was tied for highest in the state. Thus, I won the scholarship for free flying lessons.
Even before I acquired my private pilot license for flying, I had studied for a U.S. Coast Guard license, passed the oral, and -- having previously gained the required boating experience -- was issued an Operator's Permit for vessels up to 64 feet in length, for unlimited waters. Still a teenager in 1941, I was proud to have been granted this license. Now, combined with the knowledge I had acquired in my aviation ground schooling, I could navigate with dead reckoning. The library had a book on celestial navigation, but it was difficult to grasp a working knowledge of the concept through reading a book.
In high school, mathematics had been my strong point. I had placed first in the state in math on a placement test and been exempted from final exams in my senior year. So it wasn't the math that troubled me in regard to teaching myself celestial navigation; it was the lack of the proper tools. I found it impossible to fully comprehend the concepts and methods with neither a sextant nor calculation tables to work out the problems.
Now, enjoying the serenity of the view from a few thousand feet above my hometown, I had a problem to solve. What kind of career did I wish to follow? Dad offered to send me to college, but I knew it would be a financial strain for him. He had lost his assets when the Florida boom had collapsed, and he was only slowly recovering his hard-won economic freedom. I wasn't confident that I would be able to work my way through college and keep my grades up. I enjoyed working with boats, but from my youthful perspective, it did not seem to be very satisfactory means of earning money. I knew Dad would like to see me in construction work with him. But I had done enough of that under the hot Florida summer sun to surmise that there was something better.
In those days, arguments were often settled by physical means, so I had been a member of my high school's boxing team. As we matured, the school coach was replaced by a rough ex-boxer/promoter named Kelly, who was a real slugger. Fortunately, I had been trained by a former flyweight contender for world championship, named Mullins, who really believed in boxing. Even after he was replaced, Mullins kept me under his wing and out of the training ring for six months to teach me the proper footwork and bodywork. After I graduated from high school, Kelly occasionally found gigs for me as a club fighter in the small towns along the Florida coast. When a stable mate of mine was knocked out and suffered brain damage that eventually led to his death, I had second thoughts about being a boxer. But Kelly talked me into being a "fill-in" one night when a boxer failed to show for a main event in Hollywood, Florida. He said it would be just an exhibition match. Stepping into the ring, I found my opponent to be a very tough-looking Cuban hombre. The so-called exhibition match turned into a brutal, vicious fight -- a real battle of survival. I was on the receiving end of every imaginable means of dirty, illegal abuse before I was finally able to figure out his style, at which point I knocked him through the ropes and out of the ring twice, earning a technical knockout. I realized at that time, when money enters the equation, boxing is no longer a sport, as I had considered it. When you win, you can still lose. I vowed never to fight again. I pretty well kept that promise to myself, except for two exhibition bouts. In retrospect, I realize that the experience of boxing gave me confidence to face a lot of difficult situations. But even then, I knew it would not do as a career.
Also in high school, I had spent some time on the swim team. I'd had a sound reason for joining the team originally. I was out in my rowboat one night, half a mile off shore in the ocean, when the boat filled with water and foundered. I had to swim to shore, and made it, but felt that my skills could use a bit of honing, especially as I now deemed it a survival skill. The following day, I joined the school's swim team, and was eventually made team captain. Swimming has given me a lot of pleasure over the years, and it even helped in saving a couple of lives.
But neither construction nor boxing nor swimming would offer me a career and an interesting lifestyle, with the necessary monetary returns. These skills did give me confidence in my mental and physical abilities, which I knew would be required in whatever career path I would choose.
Around this time, the war clouds in Europe were getting darker. Two very close friends and classmates of mine were about to have the draft catch them. They decided to volunteer together for the regular Army Air Corps in West Palm Beach, which had the 49th Fighter Wing, with three fighter squadrons. We knew if we waited to be drafted into the Temporary Army, there would not be as many opportunities for additional schooling available to us. My friends urged me to join them. I realized that if I were to make a career of flying, it would be necessary to get lots of training in heavy aircraft -- and in those days, only the military and the airlines had big aircraft.
I agreed to enlist with my friends. Being underage, I needed a parent's signature to OK my enlistment, but my parents were on vacation for a couple of months. Dad had always told me, "If you're going to do something, do it ... you can talk about it later." So I forged his signature on my enlistment papers. Later, when I told him what I had done, he didn't say anything about it, but it bothers me to this day that I was not able to discuss my plan with him and get his permission.
In the Army, they separated my friends and me into different fighter squadrons and set us to learning to march in our new issue uniforms. (Believe me, the clothing was not tailored to fit. But that did not hinder us from having to pick up cigarette butts along the parade ground when we were told to police the area.) Not long into my military career, I managed to get my thumb bitten by a rattlesnake while crawling through bushes on field maneuvers. I hope the flailing I gave the snake didn't kill it, as I spent only one day in the hospital on account of its bite.
It took the orderly room staff about a month to discover on my record that I had a pilot's license, upon which I was promptly shifted to the flight line. And what did I find on the flight line but about three P-36s and a B-18. My God, what antiques! Nothing like the modern aircraft that were in the news. With my sergeant looking on, I was able to preflight and service the fighters. We had only about four pilots in my squadron. This was a few months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Word had gone through the barracks that I had a pilot's license, and I was up for good bit of ridicule for it, some good-natured and some not. My boxing training had given me enough confidence to shrug off just about any amount of kidding or insult. One day, though, the barrack bully went too far: To get my attention while I was lying on my bunk, he slapped me across the face. His buddies broke up the ensuing scuffle a minute or two later, when they realized he wasn't faring too well.
Soon after that incident, I was called to the orderly room, because the men in charge had finally realized I also had a Coast Guard license. My instructions were to report every workday to the crash boat docks situated on the edge of the Lake Worth, which separates Palm Beach from West Palm Beach. We had several lake-type boats about 22 feet long. It was all right to run them in the water only when the conditions weren't rough. (Some 50 years later, I met up with the sergeant in charge, who told me after the war started, the base finally received a capable vessel that could cover the Bahamas and did rescue several pilots. Our unit had no such vessel when I was there.)
On a weekend R&R trip to the local swimming pool, tagging along with the Army's swim team, I had swum but a few laps when the captain asked me to join the team, which held competitive events against other military bases. At this time, being a rookie private, I was not allowed off base, but I was informed that I could have weekend passes in order to practice if I joined the team. That was an offer I couldn't refuse.
Things were looking up for me. My girlfriend, a lovely blonde named Jeanne, would drive up from Fort Lauderdale every Friday to pick me up, and she'd take me back to base on Sundays. (We did frequently swim on my weekends in Fort Lauderdale, for Jeanne had been captain of the girls' swim team in high school, while I was captain of the boys' team.) So from my perspective, army boot camp was not so tough, except for the pay. For a month's work, each of us would collect $21, minus the cost of haircuts and laundry, which amounted to about $14 in our pockets. One draftee from Alabama said it was not bad compared to what he had been paid for plowing behind a mule. I was really meeting a cross-section of Americans.
My big break came when it was announced that regular army soldiers between 17 and 22 years of age could apply for flight training. I applied and passed a few required tests. I thought it was unusual that only two out of 22 of us passed the physical for pilots, as we had all previously passed the physical required to join the army.
The commanding officer of the base requested that I be assigned to the operation of his private yacht. I was tremendously relieved when, instead, I received my orders to report to Spartan School of Aeronautics in Muskogee, Okla., the second week of December, 1941.
Military Flight Training
Off the train, check in with the training office: "Get your ass in a plane in the morning and in the classroom in the afternoon!" Such was my introduction at the Spartan School of Aeronautics.
We had first-class civilian instruction, great aircraft, good facilities and excellent food. No more wasting our time picking up cigarette butts when the "Sarge" had nothing else for us to do! The urgency of war was upon us, precipitating a jam-packed agenda, with an inspection and a two-mile run before sunrise. Hot damn! This is the way a school should be run!
The PT-19 trainer with its 175-horsepower, in-line engine was the best I had ever flown. I shared the toughest instructor with the other students that had received prior flight training. When he washed out a student that had several times the flight time I possessed, I began to wonder how I would do in the primary training. They normally washed out about a third to a half of the class. I managed to hang in there and was the second student to solo. (That earned me a cold shower from my classmates.) Our field was a piece of prairie with mud and turf, and one day I landed too close to an instructor and a student. Consequently, I ended up having to stand on top of an outhouse for an hour, waving a large white flag. Great for instilling discipline among the students!
It was a good group of dedicated students. We were restricted to the base and not allowed off, except by special permission. This policy helped minimize occasions of students fighting with the locals over girlfriends. The top five students in ground school were allowed off base on the weekends. I was one of the lucky ones and enjoyed the very nice town of Muskogee.
Ground school was taught by good, dedicated instructors. The courses on meteorology, engines, and radios were especially good and instructive.
One day while flying solo, I got lost. All that flat land looked the same. Fortunately, I saw another plane and started to follow it, hoping its pilot would lead me back to our field. I suddenly realized he was trying to follow me, both of us obviously lost. I scanned the landscape below and spotted a farmer plowing his field with a tractor. My eye moved to the unplowed section as a possible landing site, as it appeared firm. After touchdown, the plane abruptly stopped, mired in soft mud. The farmer drove over to the plane, pointed out the direction toward Muskogee, hitched up the plane to his tractor, pulled it onto firm ground, and then helped me crank up the starter for the engine. What great people we have in this country!
The other wayward student was still circling, but a third plane had joined him, carrying an instructor pilot who returned to base and reported me as being on the ground. I took off from the farmer's field and got back to our airfield, the other student following me. (He never identified himself until 40 years later, when I encountered him at a pilot's reunion.) Upon landing on base, I was told to report to the base commander, who had trucks with a maintenance crew running around the countryside looking for a downed plane. A very unhappy lieutenant he was. As I stood at attention, he spoke of my getting lost and landing on a farm -- those weren't terribly serious offenses, but taking off again without permission could have gotten me washed out! He told me he would convince the board to consider the matter. I had to think fast. "Sir," I told him, "the field was dangerous with soft spots. The other lost student would have been more endangered by landing than by my taking off and leading him back to this field." I never heard anymore about it, but it scared the hell out of me at the time.
The next few days brought lessons on spin-and-recovery tactics. "That wasn't right, mister, are you really afraid to work the controls?" the instructor shouted. "Do you think the damn wings will come off? You shouldn't be a pilot if you are a coward!" Another spin, and -- partially in anger -- I really threw the plane into a negative "G" recovery that stretched his seat belt until his 200 pounds was all but hanging in the prop wash. His comment then was, "There is nothing more I can teach you." The following day he put me up for a final ride with the chief check pilot. I had only 40 hours instead of the required 60, and I was the first in the class to be scheduled for a final check.
The check pilot thought I was a little rough and abrupt, so he flew the plane while I lightly touched the stick. He told me I was doing great and passed me. The school and I thought I was finished with primary training, until, unfortunately, Washington sent a wire that I would need to fly a full 60 hours or more, not 40. All of the other students in the class had completed their full 60 hours by then.
The weather brought in a blizzard, and I was in the only plane flying -- in an open cockpit, staying next to the field because of the restricted visibility. Sheepskin clothes, a leather helmet and goggles, and 10 pounds of fur-lined boots did not keep this Florida boy from freezing. Upon landing, I would have to unwrap my leather-gloved fingers of one hand from the joystick with the other hand.
My instructor was the epitome of what an instructor should be: skilled, savvy, and tough. The SSA was a very good school, graced with a great group of instructors. I think what made flying easy for me was my experience sailing, combined with a hearty measure of self-discipline, plus being in prime physical condition.
Rubbing shoulders every day with the other men was imbuing me with a lot of added maturity. We had corporals, sergeants, and all other ranks as students, a very serious group of regular army soldiers. The pressure was on, and we sincerely empathized with those who were unable to master the course and were relegated to other positions in the army.
Upon completing our training, our class of about 50 students was loaded onto a train and departed for Basic Flight Training at Brady, Texas, with very little fanfare.
A long train ride and a bumpy trip in hard-riding army trucks brought us to the center of Texas, where we found a windblown base, army-type barracks, and a grass field among the sagebrush and tumbleweed. We began unloading our baggage and were told to "fall in" while the dust descended upon us. After too long a stretch, a lieutenant called us to attention and read us the riot act to let us know who was boss. Next, he ordered us to do some useless close-order drill, while our luggage collected Texas dust in the hot sun. After a sleepless night, it was not exactly a welcome sign for us -- and we hadn't even been assigned to barracks.
In the mess hall, the food and the setting were far different from those at the Spartan School of Aeronautics, and not for the better. Usually, we had stew meat that was said to be goat. (I have since eaten goat dishes, but nothing as bad as this.) We were introduced to the owner of the contract school, who was dressed like a Texas businessman: big hat, big boots, big sunglasses, big belt buckle, and a skinny string tie. Enough said.
We flew BT-13s and were introduced into acrobatics, night flying, and cross-country flying, with mediocre instructors. For night landings, they had a pickup truck parked on the approach end of the field with mounted floodlights pointing down the field, with a generator for power. One student managed to wipe off, with his landing gear, some of the floodlights. After that, the truck driver no longer sat in the cab during student exercises. He was a smart man!
We were introduced to instrument flying, with the instructor in the front cockpit and the student in the rear cockpit, with a cloth hood over it so he couldn't see out. One windy day, the instructor told the student to put the aircraft in a spin at high altitude and pull it out at 5,000 feet. In spite of the student and instructor's efforts, the plane kept spinning. The instructor bailed out at 3,000 feet, leaving the student unaware that he was the sole occupant in a spinning aircraft. When the plane reached 1,000 feet, the student thought it was low enough and uncovered the hood to find himself alone. Just as he stood up to bail out, the plane stopped spinning. He flew it back to the airport. The instructor was dragged by chute over rough ground, cacti, and a barbed-wire fence, and was given three days off to recover.
Brady was a very small town, with a single line of wooden buildings around a town square and a couple of drought-resistant, dusty trees, with hitching posts lining the dirt square. There was a movie in town every Saturday night. I attended one night to find the hitching rail lined with horses and the small wooden theater divided into two groups by a big aisle. The town's cowboys sat on the left side, the local Indians on the right. When an Indian who was surrounding the wagon train was shot off his horse in the movie, the cowboys in the theater would cheer and yell. When a settler was shot with an arrow, the Indians would whoop it up!
Near the end of our course, everyone was getting edgy, and one night in the barracks, I got into a brawl. After being backed up against a large table, I laid back on it and rolled over the edge, but an upended chair caught my ribcage. When I could hardly breathe, I realized I must have damaged some ribs. But my final check ride was scheduled for the following morning, and I was afraid that if I went to see a doctor, I would be grounded and washed back to the next class.
The next day, I took the check ride, and all went well -- albeit painfully -- until I was told to put the plane into a spin. The pullout and the increase in Gs nearly made me pass out. I did pass the test, without anyone the wiser. Afterward, I checked in with the doctor, who discovered several cracked ribs and taped me up like a mummy. He didn't ground me when I told him I had already completed the flight course.
Then out of the blue came a revision to our requirements. Although we were acting on the premise that we would need to be able to send and receive Morse code at a rate of eight words per minute, the standard was raised, with very little warning, to 12. The test was just a couple of days off when we received the news. It had been difficult to me to get to eight and I was unable to get up to speed before the test. I was washed back to the next class. That's how I -- with about a quarter of the class of 42F -- became part of the class of 42G. For five weeks we studied Morse code. I found relief from the tedium in being able to run and jog every day in the undulating countryside. The spring rains had brought forth unbelievable flowers, and there was new growth on the sagebrush and tumbleweeds on the rolling countryside.
Each member of the class was given the choice of undergoing single-engine or multiengine advance training. Many students wanted the glamorous job of being fighter pilots, and those were sent to San Antonio. This left plenty of opportunities for those of us who wanted to go to Lubbock, a multiengine advance-training base. I had been thinking of pursuing a career in the airline industry after the war and I knew that would require proficiency in multiengine planes. The few who washed out of the program were offered training as glider pilots or navigators. We never felt these people were in any way inferior to us. It was tough training, and the percentage of washouts was great in primary training, with the rate declining in the basic and advanced training that followed. These experiences taught me that individuals might be excellent in one type of skill and aptitude, and very poor in another. Later in my life, I acted on this lesson; rather than terminate an employee whose performance was not satisfactory, I frequently found it would pay to shift him to another position in which he could excel, and this course of action often kept everyone well and happy.
On the first of summer, we arrived at Lubbock, a clean and compact city of brick buildings and paved streets. The C.O. of the base welcomed us warmly and showed us the AT-6s, AT-17s, and AT-9s in which we would be flying.
At this time, the war was not going well for the U.S. The Japanese had captured and overrun a large part of the Pacific area, as well as Indonesia and Singapore. At the base, everything was run orderly and efficiently, but there was a palpable air of urgency. We were all treated with respect. Here, we met another class of cadets who came from the colleges and would be graduating as second lieutenants. Our class, composed of enlisted personnel and mostly younger than the others, would graduate as staff sergeants, despite the fact that both classes would receive the same training on the ground and in the air. By graduation time, our group was told our grades were better, both in the air and on the ground. Those of us who had come from Brady had a very serious demeanor, had served in the regular army, and knew what we were fighting for -- and we had the discipline to go with it.
Everything here went smoothly, and some of our group met and romanced some local girls. To get into flying school, we had signed papers swearing that we would not get married for four years. But after having their wings pinned on and their salaries boosted, a few fellows tied the knot with their sweethearts. They were never disciplined for doing so.
My parents had fretted a bit about my flying, so I had told them I was going to an aviation school, but I didn't, at the beginning, mention my aspiration of becoming a pilot. When I finally did so, Mother wrote to me that I "should not fly too high or too fast" -- the proverbial instructions all mothers give to their sons who fly. I was told that upon hearing the news, my father really stuck out his chest.
Also on the home front, my blond girlfriend, Jeanne, had graduated from school and taken a legal job. She had moved from Fort Lauderdale to Miami with her family.
[Continued with Chapter 2.]
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Michael Kussatz, of Olathe, KS, captures the essence of grass roots aviation with this image of a Luscombe just waiting to go flying at a grass strip in Kansas. Click through to see our other submissions.