Forty-Seven Years in Aviation: A Memoir; Chapter 7: Basic Flight Training, Part 3


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

Starting the B-25’s engines was a lot easier because of our training in the T-6; but if we thought the sound of an R-1340 being fired up was music to our ears, the R-2600 produced an aeronautical symphony when all 14 cylinders got together. It was a little on the loud side, but those engines spoke power. There were two exhaust systems on our B-25s: One with “short stacks” that put out a clattering sound, the other with a collector ring that captured the exhaust from the cylinders and produced a more tolerable noise. I am still of the opinion that the rumble of a big radial engine is the way airplanes are supposed to sound, regardless of the fact that flying between two such powerplants for most of my military aviation experience probably had a lot to do with the constant ringing in my ears that continues unabated to this day.

Those of us in the B-25 program had one thing in common with our classmates who were learning to fly the T-33 jet trainer: Both airplanes had castering nosewheels, which made directional control on the ground an artful procedure that had to be experienced to appreciate and practiced to be acceptable. There were probably few students in either program who did not at least once find themselves victims of a nosewheel that had come to rest sideways or nearly so. It was very embarrassing to sit in the pilot seat while your instructor tried to undo the problem, worse if a ground crew showed up with a tow bar to get things straightened out … and even worse if you let it happen a second time.We had a leg up on our T-33 classmates because asymmetric power usually resolved the problem in the B-25 but the T-33 — whose single engine’s thrust acted only on the airplane’s centerline — was dead in the water if the nosewheel was cocked. On both airplanes, brakes applied gently and in a timely manner kept the nosewheel where you wanted it.Getting a B-25 into the air was a routine procedure. Full throttle (which produced about 44 inches of manifold pressure thanks to a gear-driven supercharger) and 2600 RPM produced most of the 1700 horsepower for which the engines were rated. At a gross weight of 28,000 pounds — the normal load for training purposes — we could be airborne in about 2400 feet of runway. At that weight the airplane was unable to leap tall buildings in a single bound but it could clear a 50-foot obstacle in another 700 feet after lift-off. I don’t recall the flap setting we used for normal takeoffs but you can bet we never tried to emulate Jimmy Doolittle’s full-flap performance from the flight deck of the USS Hornet on the way to Tokyo.The Mitchell was no skyrocket but it climbed at a respectable 1400-1500 feet per minute at 160 miles per hour. (The safe single-engine airspeed was 145 mph and Vmc was 140 … we didn’t play games in simulated engine-out training with only five miles per hour between continued flight and disaster.) The performance charts that have survived don’t contain values for the climb rate on one engine, but it was probably only about 20 percent of the two-engine performance … a reasonable figure for any twin-engine prop-driven airplane, and a very meager margin of safety.

Landings were straightforward in every respect: We learned to land with full flaps, no flaps, with one engine inoperative, and the occasional unplanned hard landing for those who pulled the throttles to idle a bit too soon.The short-field landing procedure pushed the envelope to produce the shortest possible ground roll after touchdown. I couldn’t come up with the official procedure, but an Oklahoma born-and-bred classmate whose memory is better than most elephants’ recalled that we approached the runway 300 feet above the ground at 110 mph with the gear down and half flaps. When the runway threshold disappeared under the nose we would pull off the power, extend full flaps, dump the nose and — as only a real Okie would say — “swoop on in.” If you did everything right, the ground roll would be in the neighborhood of 1400 feet.The complexity and size of the B-25 made the route to solo flight considerably longer than in primary flight training. We were turned loose in the airplane after some 30 or 40 hours of dual. Solo in the B-25 was defined as two student pilots flying as a crew, augmented on the first solo flight by a mechanic who was on board in case a serious mechanical problem showed up. Some of these young, inexperienced, ground-crew folks must have been very apprehensive when they were told to go flying with two student pilots on their own for the first time. Just before they taxied away from the ramp, one of our classmates with a twisted sense of humor turned around and asked the crew chief if he had brought extra underwear for all three crewmembers. His next question, “Are you ready to go with us?” elicited nothing but a blank stare.Crew resource management (CRM) has evolved into a major part of formal flight training in both military and civilian applications. The objective is to make the best use of the talent, experience and knowledge of all crewmembers, with the expectation of achieving safer, more efficient flight operations. Some pilots-in-command were CRM practitioners without portfolio long before it became a popular concept — those outstanding individuals were few and far between but were able to make the most of each crewmember’s contribution to the success of the mission.It wasn’t always that way. Most copilots endured virtual isolation in the cockpits of two-pilot aircraft, doing what they were told and little else and knowing that even a hint of disagreement with the captain would bring down the wrath of the guy in the left seat.It wasn’t that way in Air Force basic flight training in 1956, either, but there were good reasons for no CRM. First, all of our flight training in the B-25 started from scratch and was conducted by an instructor pilot who was not to be challenged. Second, when we achieved “solo” status (in other words, two student pilots flying together), neither of us was working from a profound reservoir of knowledge or experience … there was very little in the way of crew resources to manage. Nevertheless we flew safely as student pairs on local and cross-country flights while we improved our proficiency in takeoffs, landings, and night operations.Cross-country navigation training was intended to give us some hands-on experience operating a military airplane in the national airspace system … it was also an opportunity to “get out of Dodge” for a few days. These were usually group projects, with two or three airplanes bound for the same destination (party time). I remember three such trips: Denver, Colo.; Laredo, Texas; and West Palm Beach, Fla. — the latter a very popular destination, as we got into serious winter weather in Oklahoma.These trips were usually shepherded by an instructor or two who didn’t mind the occasional break in their routine. One objective of this relatively-long-range navigation exercise was learning to apply the admonition found on a sign in just about every briefing room in the Air Force, to wit: Plan Your Flight and Fly Your Plan. We studied the wind and weather then consulted the airplane performance charts to come up with a plan (on the appropriate Air Force form, of course) to track our progress from takeoff to landing, including ETAs for a number of checkpoints along the way. The routine was to swap seats every once in a while with one student at the controls, the other in the nose compartment recording ATAs and using his flight plan to come up with an ETA for the next checkpoint. It was not uncommon for an IP to calculate his own ETA then make a bet with the non-flying student with regard to the next checkpoint … the stakes a case of beer or a few dollars. Students never won this bet because — as we discovered at the end of the trip — the IP would ease off a bit on the throttles or add an inch or two of manifold pressure, knowing the student up front wouldn’t notice the change in airspeed. The IP’s manipulated estimates were always correct … but this trick worked only once per student.A significant part of our flight time in basic training was devoted to improving our skills in instrument flying. We spent 30 hours or so building on the IFR basics we learned in the T-6, most of it in simulated conditions. The “hood” in the B-25 was a set of gray fiberboard panels set up on the left side of the cockpit so the student couldn’t see outside but left the instructor with a limited field of vision to watch for other traffic. It apparently worked … we had no midair collisions.

Once we were familiar with the B-25’s characteristics on the gauges we moved up to radio navigation. Use of the automatic direction finder (ADF) was still a viable IFR procedure in 1955 and we learned en route navigation as well as instrument approaches using the ADF for guidance. The cockpit indication was a compass rose on the instrument panel with a pointer that got its signals from a rotating loop antenna on the belly of the airplane and indicated the direction to the ADF station.The next rung on the difficulty ladder was the RDF (Radio Direction Finder) procedure to be used in case the ADF indicator failed … now you needed to rotate the loop with a left-right switch until the loop presented itself perpendicularly to the radio transmitter on the ground and the signal in your headset went to zero … known as an “aural null.” And if that weren’t difficult enough the instructors could pull one more plug: They would simulate a loop-motor failure, meaning you had to find the aural null by turning the airplane and include it in your calculations to fly to the station. About the time you had it all figured out the IP would simulate an engine failure … fun and games.

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):

PostscriptShortly 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.]

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