Train­ing Day

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Technically Speaking -

THE U.S. ARMY AIR CORPS was a force of 21,000 air­men with 1,800 air­craft when Gen­eral Hap Arnold be­came its chief in 1938. By the end of World War II, Arnold com­manded 2.3 mil­lion peo­ple and over­saw 79,000 air­planes. In his mem­oir, Arnold re­called that the ex­pan­sion be­gan with a meet­ing at the White House on Septem­ber 28, 1938. “Air­planes—now—and lots of them,” Arnold quoted the com­man­der-in-chief, and he im­me­di­ately be­gan to obey the order, tap­ping prominent avi­a­tion lead­ers to cre­ate what would be­come the Civil­ian Pi­lot Train­ing Pro­gram. By the time the pro­gram ended in 1944, it had trained 435,165 pi­lots. Among them were Se­na­tor John Glenn and the na­tion’s top ace, Richard Bong.

Three- quar­ters of the civil­ian pi­lots were trained in Wil­liam T. Piper’s J-3 Cub. It could be pow­ered by any num­ber of engine types, rang­ing from 40 to 90 horse­power and pro­pel­ling the bright yel­low Cub to the blis­ter­ing speed of al­most 90 mph. Its gen­er­ous wing area and a weight of less than 800 pounds gave it the char­ac­ter­is­tics of a pow­ered glider, and it landed at less than 40 mph.

For mil­i­tary pi­lots dur­ing the 1930s and ’40s, the pri­mary trainer was the Stear­man bi­plane, and the PT-17 was the most nu­mer­ous of the more than 10,000 built by the Boe­ing Stear­man com­pany. It sported a se­ri­ous ra­dial engine mak­ing more than 200 horse­power to haul its nearly one-ton empty weight around the sky.

Roscoe Brown was one of the many thou­sands who made a first flight in a Stear­man. A mem­ber of the Tuskegee Air­men, a group of black pi­lots trained at Alabama’s Tuskegee In­sti­tute for mil­i­tary ser­vice, Brown’s World War II ex­pe­ri­ence was not typ­i­cal, but his progress

through mil­i­tary train­ers was. Of the Stear­man, he re­calls, “It was the first time you re­ally got the feel­ing of fly­ing. You would fly in the back, the in­struc­tor would fly in the front. It had fixed land­ing gear and the gear was nar­row, so you had to be care­ful not to ground-loop when you landed it, which helped to build up your skill.”

Stear­mans, like all good train­ers, were sta­ble and for­giv­ing, even of the wildest mis­takes. P- 51 pi­lot Hess Bomberger re­mem­bered a class­mate who was not prop­erly belted in and, dur­ing neg­a­tive Gs, floated out of his seat. He ended up astride the aft fuse­lage, where he punched two holes through the fab­ric

( for hand­holds. The in­struc­tor even­tu­ally landed safely, a mi­nor mir­a­cle con­sid­er­ing how much weight on the aft end the pi­lot rep­re­sented.

Brown went from PT-17S to the “clunky” (his word) Vul­tee BT-13 for ba­sic train­ing, then on to the North Amer­i­can AT-6 for ad­vanced work. Of the train­ers, it’s the AT-6 Texan he’s fond­est of. “We used it for gun­nery, and it was def­i­nitely a much bet­ter plane,” he says. “It was closer to what you were ac­tu­ally us­ing in com­bat, a good for­ma­tion plane. Like a racer, with re­tractable gear.” &

Multi- engine pi­lots branched off to fly the twin-engine Cessna Bob­cat or the Beech Kansan, which were also used to train flight crew such as nav­i­ga­tors and bom­bardiers.

Although pro­duc­tion ini­tially lagged be­hind the de­mand for train­ers, man­u­fac­tur­ers quickly caught up. Piper built al­most 20,000 J-3 Cubs, and North Amer­i­can cranked out more than 15,000 AT-6S and their Navy coun­ter­parts, SNJS. Train­ers may lack the glam­our of com­bat air­craft, but these high num­bers cou­pled with the af­fec­tion pi­lots feel for their first air­planes have en­sured that thou­sands of World War II train­ers are still fly­ing to­day.

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