Forty-Seven Years in Aviation — A Memoir: Chapter 2 — Preflight, and Primary Flight Training Part 1


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

In 1954, the typical, newly-minted, AFROTC officer tied the wedding knot and shortly thereafter began his first tour of active duty, a commitment of three years. For pilot wannabes, the tour included a full year of pilot training. Flight school assignments didn’t necessarily follow on the heels of commissioning; there was a significant delay while the paper pushers worked out the scheduling problems. Finding ourselves in the limbo that resulted, my wife Nancy and I obtained an open-ended lease on an apartment in Columbus (see sidebar at right) that was the remodeled attic of a three-story house. (“Apartment” is a stretch; it was a one-room cubbyhole with a tiny kitchen and a Murphy bed … no snide comments please). The lease permitted us to vacate on short notice, depending on when the Air Force decided to send me to flight training. Nancy was able to continue her job as a receptionist and the company for which I worked part-time through college agreed (thank you very much) to keep me on the payroll until my orders showed up.Late in November, I received a letter from the Air Reserve Records Center in Denver. I’ve edited it considerably for content and length; the people who write military orders leave out no details — they are very good at CYA. In short, it said,

“By direction of the President, each of the following named officers having volunteered for Active Military Service are relieved from the Air Reserve Records Center and ordered to Extended Active Duty and are assigned to the 3700th Pre-Flight Training Group (Officer), Lackland AFB, Texas, reporting not earlier than 0700 hours and not later than 1000 hours on 13 January 1955, for personnel processing and further assignment to the first available Pilot or Observer [in other words, Navigator] training class.”

The letter contained the usual personal information; name, rank, serial number, DOB, home address, etc. It’s interesting to note that one of the “et cetera” items was “race” — apparently the military was still hung up on skin color in 1954, although President Truman had signed an executive order six years earlier that forbade segregation in the armed forces. In the late 1950s, the Air Force ordered removal of the “race” information from our personal records … a step forward. A year or so later we were directed to re-enter that data so that, I assume, the statistics people could tell how the Air Force was doing, integration-wise … a step sideways?But I digress. As part of a herd of prospective pilots, I reported to the preflight training center at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, on the appointed date. For the next four weeks we attended lectures and presentations dealing with all facets of life in the Air Force. We were also ushered frequently into the base theater to watch a multi-reel film titled, “The Air Force Story” — not an Oscar-grade production, but a great lesson in aviation history.The most critical event was a complete flight physical; those who failed any part of the examination were out of luck as far as pilot training was concerned. My roommate at Lackland exceeded the general height limitation by a fraction of an inch; granted a retake, he resorted to jumping off a chair with his knees locked and managed to compress himself enough to qualify — that’s dedication. The probability of flying fighter aircraft equipped with ejection seats called for an additional height limitation. Considering the close quarters in a fighter cockpit, a pilot whose sitting height (which implied longer legs) exceeded the limit would likely leave the lower parts of his legs behind if he had to fire the ejection seat. Candidates who met the rest of the physical requirements but still sat too tall in the saddle would wind up in the multi-engine program for basic flight training … not a happy prospect for those who wanted to be fighter pilots.The apparatus that was used to test us for depth perception was truly a medical dinosaur, probably dating back to the 1930s if not earlier. The examinee was seated before an opening in the end of a long, square box lighted on the inside and containing two dowels set vertically on parallel tracks that ran the length of the box. The dowels were moved by strings (one in each hand) until the dowels appeared to be the same distance away. If you could line them up, you passed. Years later an old-timer shared the secret of the test: Because nearly all trainees were able to line up the sticks and because the strings were apparently never cleaned or replaced, one needed only to align the soil marks to achieve a passing score. Clever folks, those old pilots.As we exited one of our late-in-the-program meetings in the base theater, we noticed two tables set up in the lobby. (How could anyone miss them? We all had to leave through the same door.) One was attended by a representative of a local clothing company — Lauterstein by name — that offered a package of basic uniform requirements for $300 … co-incidentally (yeah, right) the exact amount of the uniform allowance we had just received. The other desk was manned by representatives of the United Services Automobile Association, a San Antonio-based insurance company whose clientele at that time was officers only. Most of us bought the uniform package and the auto insurance; the uniforms wore well and are long gone, and to this day it’s a pretty safe bet that most of us still insure our cars with USAA.Near the end of the preflight program at Lackland we were assigned to specific pilot classes, in my case 56-I. Classes were designated by the year we were expected to graduate from flight training and the alphabetical sequence for that year; there were 22 flight training classes in 1956, 56-A through 56-V. I have no idea of the scheme that was used to populate the classes, but I know that Class 56-I consisted of 381 young men (no female pilots at that time) from all over the country including ROTC graduates, Aviation Cadets, a few AF officers already on active duty, and a number of student officers from foreign countries.We were then given the opportunity to request assignment to the Primary Flight Training facility of our choice. For a number of years after WWII the Air Force outsourced its primary flight training to nine civilian contract schools spread across the southern tier of states from Florida to Arizona; the obvious concern was the good flying weather that prevailed throughout the year in those states. Class 56-I was parceled out to three facilities: Marana, Ariz.; Kinston, N.C.; and Hondo, Texas (see sidebar at right).I chose Kinston because of its proximity to home and family in Buckeye country, and my request was granted. Located 60 miles southeast of Raleigh, Kinston is in the heart of the “bright belt,” so-called because of the yellow-green leaves of the tobacco grown in that area. The countryside is populated with many small farms, each one marked with the tall barns in which tobacco is cured. By the way, “Kinston” is not a spelling error; the town was created in 1762 and named “Kingston,” to honor King George III of England. Following the Revolutionary War, the unhappy citizens showed their contempt for Great Britain and King George by removing the “g” and renaming the city “Kinston.”When my young bride and I arrived, the only decent off-base housing in Kinston was a development with the euphemistic name “Green Acres,” located several miles northwest of town and close to the airport. The selection was rather limited — you could have a three-bedroom ranch or a three-bedroom ranch — but the price was right and the owners were willing to rent for the six months we would spend in the primary-flight-training program. The turnover in Green Acres rentals must have been very high, with a new class arriving shortly after the previous class finished training and got out of town — the used-furniture business in Kinston was also booming.

Kinston Air Base (the “Air Base” designation was applied to flight training facilities operated by civilian contractors) was built by the Navy in 1944 as an auxiliary to the Cherry Point Marine Corps airfield 55 miles to the southeast. Naval Aviation Cadets (“Navcads”) went through basic flight training at Kinston until the Navy closed it late in 1945 … war over, no more pilots needed, base closed.The Cold War generated an increase in Air Force pilot training and Kinston Air Base (later renamed “Stallings Air Base” in honor of two local airmen killed in WWII) was reopened in October 1950 as a contract training facility. The 3308th Pilot Training Group was the military overseer and the Serv-Air Aviation Corporation supplied ground and flight training. The first class began in October 1951 and by the time the base was closed six years later more than 4000 Air Force pilots had been trained. Serv-Air bowed out of the contract flight training business with the best safety record of the nine primary schools. (To the best of my knowledge and memory, Class 56-I suffered zero mishaps).We spent the first couple of days at Stallings jumping through the in-processing hoops, attending orientation sessions and other mundane but necessary activities. One of the most significant events for all of us was receipt of the order requiring that “the following named officers, who are assigned to a course of instruction for qualification as pilots, are required to participate frequently and regularly in flight as crew members” (emphasis added). That order, the emphasized language of which is probably still in use, meant we were qualified to receive flight pay in recognition of the risk involved. Those words added $100 to a second lieutenant’s base pay, a 38-percent increase. Sorry ’bout that, Cadets; you’ll be exposed to the same risk, but you’ll have to wait a year for the big bucks.Then we met our flight instructors. These were the men who would determine whether we would continue in the flight training program and, as a result, they were held in near-royal esteem. In the briefing room, each instructor held court at a table to which four students were assigned; I will be forever grateful for the alphabetical position of “Taylor” that put me at the table ruled by Mr. Raymond Petty. Not only did he do a superb job teaching us to fly, he taught us a song that was the ultimate student’s call for help when everything had gone wrong in the air. I have forgotten most of the words but I will never forget the closing line: “Mayday, Mayday, Mr. Petty; send instructions please!”

Attrition is inevitable in any flight training program. Latent physical problems caught up with a few students and, of course, there were some who failed to pass checkrides. A few students quit of their own accord; the official term was “self-initiated elimination” (SIE; see sidebar at right) and it carried an undeserved stigma for those classmates who realized they simply weren’t cut out for flying and had the good sense to leave the program voluntarily.

It was my good fortune to remain with Ray Petty to the end of the course. Mr. Petty’s excellent instruction and sound advice served us well in our careers as military and civilian aviators … thank you, Ray.The primary flight training schedule was a mix of flying and classroom instruction; one week we would fly in the morning and attend classes in the afternoon, and the routine would be reversed the following week. The academic part of the program turned out to be serendipitous because the subject matter was nearly identical to the aerodynamics, meteorology, navigation, etc., that we had covered in advanced ROTC courses. Nevertheless, it was a good review and strengthened the foundations of our aviation knowledge … most of us went through that part of the program like hot knives through butter.

[Continued with Chapter 3.]

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