5 - Home of the Brave and Land of the Plenty

At Toronto, we were divided up into parcels of a size which equated to the number of available beds for the cadets at the aeronautical schools in the south-east sector of the USA, ie in Florida, Georgia and Alabama. The whole affair was known as the Arnold Scheme, named after USAAC General H H ('Hap') Arnold, a far-sighted officer who devised the plan, allowing the use of American flying schools and facilities for the training of British cadet pilots, to assist the UK effort against the Axis powers. Other schools were started in the USA for the training of British cadets only, termed British Flying Training Schools (BFTS); these were complementary to the Empire Air Training Scheme operating in Canada and Rhodesia. The schools of the Arnold Scheme were differently set up. The contract called for Britain to accept that its cadets would be subject to decisions (and possibly laws) made by the US Army, although an RAF liaison officer would provide advice in any confrontation; this is my understanding of the policy as seen, although I cannot be certain of its details. It must be remembered that the USA was not at war at the time, and this dictated the policy, especially as some of the schools would be training US cadets alongside those of Britain.

I was one of a batch of 100 cadets exactly, despatched on a train on 1 October 1941 with a destination of the School of Aeronautics at Lakeland, Florida, about 30 miles east of Tampa. We arrived next day and were each alloted a bed in a long two-storey wood-clad building which housed 50 beds on each floor. This building formed one side of a square with a similarly-sized building directly opposite. The square was grass-covered with pathways along and across. The building opposite housed, on its ground floor, offices for the few Army Air Corps supervisors, and for administrative and medical personnel, with the remaining space taken up with beds for ten cadets. The upper floor was totally occupied by 50 cadets. The curriculum was to cover ten weeks at this school. Under the US-style training, the new intake into the school was known as the 'lower classmen' for its first five weeks, after which it became the 'upper classmen' when a new intake arrived and the old upper class had departed for its next stage of training. Simple arithmetic made it obvious that, of the 100 cadets who arrived on 1 October, only 60 or fewer would remain on 4 November. And so, the fearful prospect which spoiled the fun was that 40% or more of us were going to catch a train back to Canada to become bomb-aimers or air-gunners or fitters or just 'erks'. Very few of these 'washouts' as they were termed, managed to persuade the RAF postings people at Toronto that they had been failed simply because of the limited space available at the US school and not on their ability as pilots; those who succeeded were absorbed into the Empire scheme for further pilot training. But when it was rumoured that the US authorities objected to the pilot re-treading of any cadet whom they had failed on the Arnold course, transfer to the Empire scheme was stopped, and all Arnold failures had to be re-mustered.

The flying instruction at this Primary school was provided entirely by civilian pilots (most of them being very experienced flyers) except for two or three US Army Air Corps check pilots who monitored progress at around the 10, 40 and finally 60 flying hour points; the check pilots made the decision to 'washout' those who did not satisfy their requirements.

The total course in the South East Army Air Corps Training Centre (SEAATC) comprised three stages, viz Primary, Basic and Advanced, each stage covering ten weeks at different locations. The aircraft used were the Stearman PT-17 at Primary, the Vultee BT-13 at Basic and the North American AT6-A at Advanced. The PT-17 was a biplane with a Continental 220hp power unit; at Basic the BT-13 was a monoplane with a fixed undercarriage and powered by a Pratt & Whitney 450hp engine. The AT6-A used at Advanced was a monoplane better known to the British as the North American Harvard, using a Pratt & Whitney 550hp engine. The Basic and Advanced schools were run entirely by US Army Air Corps personnel for flying and ground military training; some civilian groundschool instructors were used for meteorology and the description and workings of the engines in use.

The easy-going flying-club atmosphere of the Primary school was replaced by the US type of military discipline at the Basic (and Advanced) schools, as demonstrated in films of the US Army's West Point, the US Navy's Minneapolis or the later USAF Colorado Springs. To the British cadets many of the US military traditions seemed childish and, considering that Britain was at war, unacceptable. Their 'hazing' and 'honour' systems were such as to disgust most British personnel; the former was seen by us as persecution and the latter as a complete abnegation of honour (eg telling teacher that a colleague had done something wrong). On the other hand, I have always had a high regard for American flying training standards and never ever regretted being taught that part of the syllabus by the US system.

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The form filling, medical inspection and ID photographs were soon completed. We were given details of the course and told that we were not allowed to leave the school confines until 'open post' was declared, normally occurring on Saturdays and Sundays. Our RAF uniform was not to be worn outside the camp (the one exception being to allow us to parade through Lakeland on 11 November, Armistice Remembrance Sunday). Hence the issue of the grey suits, which were binned on the first opportunity we had to buy clothing which fitted properly. The weather was incredibly balmy, it being the optimum holiday season in that part of the States. Spirits lifted as we gorged ourselves on huge steaks, quarts of milk, any amount of bacon and eggs, and fruit galore, far removed from the rations and blacked-out gloom of the UK at war, which we had just left; because of this, perhaps a touch of the guilt crept in. Around the camp and in the air, we clothed ourselves in jock-strap or swim-suit under the US-issued lightweight coverall in the sub-tropical heat of the day, changing into RAF summer-dress uniform in the evening, ie blue shirt with uniform slacks, supported by an RAF tunic belt - and some of us wore US brown/cream two-tone shoes with this rig, rather than the regulation black ones.

At last we marched down to the flightline operations hangar. Lined up on the tarmac in line-abreast were the bright-blue fuselage, yellow-wing PT-17s, attractive-looking biplanes. We were allocated in flights of five pupils to one instructor for the course. Mine was a medium-sized, tough looking stocky chap, like a balding Al Capone somewhat, carrying a standard southern accent, a Mr Sandifer. He liked his fat cigar and, I suspect, his Budweiser.

On my first flight, belted up in the rear cockpit, I knew at once that I was in a medium that I was always going to enjoy. From my voracious reading of aviation books at home, I did not need to be told what effect an aileron, elevator or rudder had in controlling an aeroplane and I very quickly managed to get about in the air. Take-off held few terrors, but landing safely looked as if it would require some work. But the real anxiety at this time was how to avoid being washed out and sent back to Canada, a failure which your family and friends at home would soon know about and which you would have to live with for the rest of your days. The fear was at its height in the early phase, but it was to last to the very end of the 30-week course, as demonstrated by the washout of one of our flight when he was within ten hours flying time and one week of graduation.

Sandifer was a bit of a hard taskmaster. You could tell that he was confident of his ability to fly well and that he wanted to produce pupils who knew as much about flying as he did. This was demonstrated alarmingly by the time I had amassed 20 flying hours, when I found myself his sole pupil, the other four being back in Canada. I do not claim that I met Sandifer's high standards absolutely; it may well have been that he thought it would be prudent to retain one 'Limey' cadet to ensure his job security. However, he did refer to me as his star pupil and I suppose I was big-headed enough to believe him. By the time I was approaching 10 flying hours I was getting a bit apprehensive about not having gone solo. Some pupils had already done so, therefore the fear of washout built. Training was mainly confined to landings at one or other of the satellite fields at this point, and to simulated forced landings, the instructor having suddenly slammed the throttle shut to the idle stop and watched you struggle to get into a suitable field, pointing into wind, then opening the throttle when he estimated you might make it or kill yourself, if you were on your own. I breathed a sigh of relief when, 17 days after my first flight and after a 47-minute spell of unremitting take-offs and landings, Sandifer braked to a halt at the marshalling point, climbed out of the front cockpit with the engine still idling and bawled in my ear "It's all yours mister. Take off, fly around within sight of the field for twenty minutes, then come back and land." It was heaven to me as I handled the Stearman and did what I liked with it without the bulk of my instructor obstructing my vision ahead or bitching at me. From this time, I knew that I would always perform better on my own without being watched by any pilot whom I thought was my equal or superior; I suspect it is a feeling felt by many pilots.

Strict accuracy was demanded on some manœuvres, for example on spinning, forced-landing practise and on pattern flying and normal landings. Spinning was initially a violent and disorientating manœuvre but gradually its components became understood, especially when proficiency was reached, to react accurately to a request from your instructor to "Do a two-and-a-half turn spin mister". You had to check that there was no other aircraft below (heaven help you if you did not) then line up flying straight down the track of a road, pull up to the stall, before kicking the rudder into the spin; you counted the times the road came into view and at the completion of the second turn recovered by kicking full opposite rudder and stick fully forward and out you came facing in the opposite direction, fully unstalled. You had to make sure you could do it ten times out of ten, as you could not afford to make a mistake when your check by the US Army instructor took place.

The landing exercises were held in a sort of show-jumping fashion with faults given for lack of success at the fences. There were four special events, called stages, comprising six landings per stage whereby a series of strict approach patterns had to be flown, the throttle cut to idling at a particular point on each pattern, and a landing made so as to touch down straddling a target line drawn across the field at right angles to the final approach (refer to Figure 1). The throttle was not allowed to be opened again and any trickling-on of power meant a nasty number of faults for that approach. The event was flown solo, but a panel of instructors on the ground had very sensitive ears. The target line had two lines parallel to it, one about 30 yards beyond and the other the same distance short. If you overshot into the area beyond the target line, you had to undershoot on the next landing (to demonstrate that you had corrected your approach) and so on. Straddling the target line allowed you to overshoot or undershoot it on the next touchdown, as you wished. I cannot recall the exact points system, if I ever knew it, but was made aware that a well-flown pattern, and a 'greaser' three-point touchdown were to your benefit - provided that all the touchdowns were inside the overshoot/undershoot limit lines.

As time progressed, I was becoming more confident, perhaps too confident, and an event occurred which could have ruined my aviation career. Lakeland airfield was not generally used for circuit-and-landing training but rather for take-offs and landings in transit to and from the satellite fields. It had one runway and a part perimeter track, and though intended for Primary school training activity, was also used by a few private flyers and every other day by a Lockheed airliner which dropped airmail and the occasional passenger whilst on its way between Jacksonville to the north and Miami to the south. We carried no radio in our PT-17s, so were briefed that the airliner would be on a straight-in approach to land whenever a yellow cone was hoisted on a pole at the marshalling point of the runway, and that the airliner had priority. I taxyed out for a solo aerobatic sortie, full of the joys, lined up on the runway and rolled. There was not a cloud in the sky, a really superb day. I got to about 200ft on the climb and had just started turning left when the sun disappeared and a great shadow passed overhead. I looked up for the cloud and choked when I saw the Lockheed directly above, thundering past on an overshoot. I carried on with my sortie but had no heart for it and eventually screwed up the courage to return and land. With my tail between my legs, I dragged self and parachute to the crewroom. Sandifer approached red-faced. "Better go and see the Ops Manager" said he. The Operations Manager, a civilian pilot greatly respected for his experience and gentlemanly demeanour, looked at me, saw the abject depression on my face and gave me a suitable blast. I waited for the sentence, having pleaded guilty. It was a 'boot-outable' case as far as I could see, and I wondered which train I would be catching for Toronto. Then he said "Go and fetch your parachute, son". Was he going to take me up and drop me overboard? When I returned he said "Walk with your parachute out to the 'Tee'" (a runway direction pointer on the ground at the centre of the airfield). "Then stay there and think until I call you in." I was there for about two hours sweltering in the afternoon heat, until a jeep eventually turned up and the driver said I was to walk back. As I trudged past the Ops Manager's office on my way to the crewroom, I think I detected a hint of a smile on his face when I looked in through his window. I'll bet he didn't report my misdemeanour to the US military gents or I would have been a 'gonner'.

Figure 1 - Circuit & Landing Stages and Target Lines

It was with some relief to us that our final day approached, but just prior to it, by one week and one day, Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese, and the USA was at war with the Axis powers. War or no war, however, the training régime continued with no detectable change. I was sad to leave Lakeland. Its citizens went out of their way to make us welcome and we greatly appreciated their hospitality - a friend of mine who was there visits a family at Lakeland to this day.

Before recounting my tales of training at Basic school, I will tell of an event which came to our notice at Lakeland, the result of which may be interesting. Each intake of the Arnold Scheme was given a Class code, my intake being the Class of 42D, indicating that it would be the fourth class to graduate to Wings standard in 1942. When we arrived at Lakeland, a school magazine had been produced by the pupils with a page devoted to the obituary of a cadet from a previous Class who had completely disappeared on a solo flight and had been posted missing presumed dead. Neither his aircraft nor any wreckage was found on land, and it was considered that he must have come down in the sea; the Gulf of Mexico is only about 30 miles to the west of Lakeland. It seemed like a Bermuda Triangle situation as we now know it. But why was he over the sea? The answer to that could only have been due to the prevailing weather conditions, the lack of adequate instrumentation in the rear cockpit, the absence of any radio communication equipment and the lack of instrument flying instruction up to that time.

Assume that a cloud layer of up to eight or nine tenths cover existed. The rear cockpit of the PT-17 had no airspeed indicator fitted (to ensure that the pupil learned to fly by feel of the controls, wind in the wires, position of struts aligned with the horizon, and engine RPM) and there was no artificial horizon. Penetration of cloud of any significance was, therefore, deliberate suicide and was forbidden. My view is that this student poked his nose up through a hole in the cloud and buzzed around the cloud tops, simulating low flying perhaps, but then couldn't find a hole through which to descend. In other words he was trapped above cloud and could do nothing about it but fly aimlessly seeking a partial cloud clearance, or bale out. This would account for the general surmise that he ended up over the sea, ran out of fuel and ditched, or baled out.

The story seemed to have ended when some months later we of Class 42D were in our final phase of the complete course, a magazine produced by our Arnold Scheme HQ told that some small amount of PT-17 wreckage, plus the numbered undercarriage, had been washed ashore on the Gulf coast; everyone's surmise seemed to have been confirmed. Until I met one of my Lakeland colleagues in London after the war and over a drink he asked if I remembered the mystery surrounding that student's accident. I said I did, and he then said "Well, I have heard that the pilot concerned walked out of a German prisoner-of-war camp when it was overrun by the Allies in 1945". It was known that in 1942 U-boats had been allowed to refuel somewhere on the Gulf coast by German sympathisers, to permit them to attack Allied convoys sailing along the US eastern seaboard. This student might therefore have found the hole in the cloud he sought, but over the sea, descended and spotted a submarine which then shot him down, or he ditched or baled out alongside, and was taken prisoner - the submarine being a U-boat. Germany could not report the missing pilot as a prisoner-of-war, otherwise it would have confirmed the illicit refuelling and put the German sympathisers at risk at that time. I would have liked to have had these events verified; I am sure I am seldom believed when I relate what I know of the story.

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On 16 December 1941, with the USA now at war, we left Lakeland by train and were pitched into the rigorous vicissitudes of US military life at Cochran Field, Macon, Georgia, some 300 miles to the north. We sensed a considerable change from the country-club atmosphere of Lakeland as soon as we stepped from the Army buses which had brought us from Macon railway station. We could see the hangars and the airfield at the southern end of the large parade-ground square from our disembarkation point at the northern end, which was bordered and dominated by the administration block - where resided a tyrant whose name became synonymous with all we detested of the disciplinary methods of the US style of military training, and of West Point in particular, since that was where Lieutenant Knight (the aforementioned tyrant) sprang from. Behind the administration block were a number of barrack-blocks, wooden-clad, two-storeyed structures reminiscent of the forts of Custer's 7th

Cavalry in Indian-country. We were allotted to these, where we would suffer until Advanced training afforded us a reprieve. Posted on a notice-board therein was a timetable of what was known euphemistically as 'processing', which would commence on the following day. Processing was a régime designed to break you mentally and physically; it occupied the whole of one half of each day, the other half fortunately being reserved for flying. The processing timetable was made up of periods of drill (US Army style) of 25 minutes, dressed in different varieties of uniform and flying clothing. There was no rest during each 25-minute period, at the end of which a bell would sound, whereupon you were required to run to your barrack-block, change into the next variety of uniform and run back to your alloted place in your squad before the sounding of the next bell some seven minutes later, and so on. If you were unlucky enough to arrive a millisecond (even a nanosecond) late, you collected a number of 'demerits', each representing one hour of marching up and down the stoop of a punishment area, usually with a full pack on your back.

Even the half-day given to flying training was marred by the needless adherance to the Army 'bull'. For example, at this time of year the sub-tropical heat of the day was tempered by the freezing mornings when we paraded for the march from the Admin block to the flightline, so we all turned up in our RAF flying suits (Sidcots) designed for the icy conditions when flying over Europe in non-heated RAF aircraft; light US-issue coveralls were worn when the sun got up. When flying finished at lunchtime, we marched back carrying our Sidcots, which were too hot to wear with the temperature then in the eighties. But Knight espied us from his lair in the Admin block and issued an order to us not to wear the Sidcots in future. When we complained bitterly to our RAF liaison officer, he managed to get the order rescinded but Knight demanded that if we wore the Sidcots to march down in the morning, we would be required to wear them on the march back also.

We were fortunate, however, in escaping the worst effects of the traditional 'hazing' during our service under the US Army. The Oxford English Dictionary's definition of the word quotes 'bullying' and 'persecution'; it is therefore incredible that the US military not only allow it in their cadet training schools, but advocate it. Our grapevine had it that the RAF cadets of Class 42A, being the first of the British intakes into the system, had an upper class of US cadets to contend with throughout. Class 42A contained some ex-Army personnel who had experienced the German blitz on the retreat of the British Expeditionary Force to Dunkirk in 1940 and who had subsequently remustered to the RAF. They had arrived at the school tired from their long train journey from Toronto and were relaxing on their beds in the lower classmen block. Shortly, a few US cadets (newly upper classmen) arrived and attempted to 'haze' the ex-Dunkirk veterans by ordering them to "Take a brace, mister" - at which the victim was supposed to adopt a ridiculously exaggerated position of attention. The perpetrators, needless to say, quickly found themselves fully clothed under a cold shower in the ablution area! Other forms of this childish bullying were attempted While eating in the mess hall, for example, an order might be put to a lower classman to "Eat a square meal", requiring the victim to spoon his food into his mouth by means of vertical and horizontal movements only, whilst sitting in an exaggerated position of attention. No British cadet, as far as I know, ever dared to visit this sort of humiliating treatment on any British lower classmen, so it rapidly disappeared from the training menu wherever British cadets served.

The aircraft used for Basic training, the Vultee BT-13, was an over-stable monoplane which might be thought too easy and simple for a training aircraft. It was safe enough though, and a confidence-builder in terms of instrument flying, formation flying and night flying; it did not seem to be capable of any death-threatening tantrums, and certainly none occurred at Macon in my time. It had one primary instrument which many pilots would say was indispensable, but this was the first time we had used it - we had managed without it for 60 flying hours on the Stearman PT-17 - the airspeed indicator (ASI). We would never again fly an aircraft without one, except on the occasional semi-emergency when it became unserviceable, of which I can boast four incidents. Perhaps our Primary training stood us in good stead in teaching us to be instinctively aware of the feel of an aircraft, rather than having too slavish an acceptance of control via the flight instruments alone. (The early de Havilland Vampire Mk 1 was a case in point. It could readily be g-stalled, or made to break away in a pull-away turn. A modification to compensate for this was introduced whereby weights were inserted in the elevator control run to increase the stick force per g.)

Perhaps the most dodgy situation during Basic training was, believe it or not, approach and landing whenever the grassed area of the field was unsuitable for taxying, take-off or landing following heavy rain, when the going became too soft. In this case the broad runway was used exclusively, but it joined the large parking apron by one lead-in strip only; there was no perimeter track. At one side of the runway, lengthwise, was a black-painted strip about the width of one-and-a-half BT-13 wingspans. The black strip was used solely for taxying out to the end of the runway for take-off or by those taxying back to the apron after landing, depending on the runway direction in use, as broadcast on the radio by the air traffic controller in the tower. The snag with this arrangement was that the duration of each training sortie was restricted to one hour, with four periods per morning and four per afternoon, with a short break between each period. To keep strictly to time therefore, the 'off' became a mad scramble to reach the runway lead-in strip as close to the front of the pack as possible; we are talking about 40 to 50 aeroplanes in the pack. The 'off' was announced by the control tower broadcasting "This is a take-off period", which lasted for five minutes and was then followed by a landing period of five minutes, and so on. You can guess what is coming; 40 or 50 aircraft were going to be hovering over the defined entry point on the downwind leg exactly 55 minutes after the take-off mêlée already described, trying to position themselves on their starting blocks when the gun went off to announce "This is a landing period". If you survived the hurdle of getting on to the downwind leg, you were likely to be edged out during the turn to the crosswind leg (a square traffic pattern was used) by aircraft which carried instructors, who showed their muscle by cutting inside solo pupils, thus gaining a place ahead in the queue for finals and an earlier cup of coffee with a longer break between sorties. It was normal to have up to half-a-dozen aircraft on finals, controlled only by an instructor parked in an aircraft by the runway threshold, with hand-held mike and binoculars, calling which number (as displayed on the aircraft) may land and which had to overshoot and go round again, the ratio being one to land per four to overshoot in most cases. This is not an exaggeration. It should be noted that Macon airfield had, in fact, two runways, crossing each other at about the centre of the field - but the effect was that whichever runway was in use, the description above applied as though there was only a single runway, taxying not being allowed on the out-of-use runway. A perimeter track would have made operations much easier.

An extra fear crept in to the flying training as the halfway mark approached - our first stab at night flying. We did not know what to expect. I do not believe that many pilots can truthfully claim that they like night flying; it is not for nothing that the well-known aviators' maxim states 'Only birds and fools fly, and birds don't fly at night!'. (The word 'fools' is often substituted by another, and of course we now know that a lot of birds do fly at night.) We had all been well-instructed in instrument flying before being let loose in an aircraft at night, so we felt confident enough about maintaining control at night once airborne. It was the apprehen- sion when landing at night which was the hairy bit. You must have wings level and flare at the correct height above the runway threshold to make a decent landing at any time; in daylight you can see if you meet these conditions. If the flight conditons are such that you cannot be absolutely certain of them, eg no horizon, or no certainty of your height over the threshold when you flare (on a very dark night with little illumination to guide you) some guesswork is needed. If your guess makes you flare too high above the runway, you drop like a stone at the aircraft stall point at an increasing vertical velocity - which the undercarriage oleos do not like. Flaring too low, on the other hand, simply means flying straight into the ground at the particular rate of descent you have adopted, which also displeases the afore-mentioned oleos. But thanks be, the difference in night flying at Macon in the well-lit USofA as opposed to that in say the UK at war, was similar to a Liverpool v Arsenal evening soccer match under full floodlighting, to such a match after the complete electrical failure of the lighting, including that of the stands and terracing. Our first night sorties therefore, were flown in the comfort of a completely floodlit runway with the added bonus of aircraft landing lights. It was, as they say, a dawdle. As we gained experience, the airfield floodlighting was extinguished, leaving the aircraft landing lights as our only aid to illumination when landing. But at the back of my mind the thought of night flying in the UK, clothed in its virtual total darkness under the blackout, made me hope and strive for a day-fighter posting when training ended!

To complete the flying curriculum at Basic, I have said something already to the effect that instrument flying a BT-13 was no problem. The aircraft was as steady as you could wish and it was easy enough to maintain the desired manœuvre when under the hood - a device which was used to blot out the external view through the canopy during practise instrument flying There was no indication of aircraft attitude (such as that given by an an artificial horizon) however, and attitude had to be obtained from a turn-and-slip indicator used with cross-reference to the airspeed indicator, the altimeter, and a rate-of-climb/descent indicator. This led to a chant sung by all the instructors incessantly as you battled with the instrument indications, of "Needle, ball and airspeed; needle, ball and airspeed" until you got sick of the sound of it. (Needle and ball was the US term for the RAF's 'turn-and-slip' instrument.) This ditty will be written for ever on the minds of all those British cadets who suffered it.

As for formation flying, I have always regarded this as one of my strong points (and my later experience will support this, I feel). The BT-13 could be held as steady as a rock on the lead aircraft in any manœuvre conducted at Basic training. At this stage, of course, we were restricted to gentle flying in the mode; there was no line-astern or formation on an aircraft which was already formating on another. In fact, only two aircraft comprised any close formation element at Basic.

And so our time at Basic Training School ended in the enjoyment of the half of it which dealt with flying aeroplanes. As to the other half, the military ground training, I will leave it to you to judge whether or not it was good for us. Perhaps Lt Knight was right to see how much of the 'bull' we could take. But was there not something odd about his sneaking around the barrack-blocks in our absence, inspecting our beds to determine, by use of a protractor, if our bedding was made up with blanket corners at 45 degrees, plus or minus a minute limit, and that the blankets were pulled taut enough over the bed to make a nickel coin (five cents) bounce off the top blanket by a particular distance when dropped from a point exactly horizontal to his nose while he stood at attention? That was why I was not sorry to see the back of the place.

Finally, we waited anxiously to hear which of the two Advanced Training Schools would be our next and last destination under General Arnold. It was understood but not written anywhere as far as I was aware, that those cadets who had shown a flair for formation flying, aerobatics, and displayed personal characteristics appropriate to a fighter pilot, would go to Craig Field, Selma in Alabama to complete their training, whilst those with a bent for steadiness and solidity would be sent for bomber-type training at Dothan, also in Alabama. I was overjoyed to learn that I was to go to Selma.

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I moved to Selma in late February 1942. It lies approximately 50 miles to the west of the State capital of Alabama - Montgomery. The accent on training at Selma now shifted to flying, which pleased most of us, although I detected apprehension on the faces of some cadets when we heard that fatal accidents had occurred a month or two before our arrival.

The flying training took on an operational aspect with most sorties having procedural or tactical lessons to learn. Instrument flying was more exacting and required high accuracy at set flight patterns. Formation flying was now done in what US pilots termed three-ship and two-ship formation (refer to Figure 2 and 3).

 

 

Figure 2 - Two Ship Formation

Three-ship consisted of Vic (V) or echelon port or starboard by three aircraft, but I cannot recall that we flew a three-ship line astern, and with hindsight it was probably because the instructor, who always flew in the lead aircraft of the formation, would not be able to observe the inexperienced No 2 and No 3, a dangerous situation for him, to which I can testify from my own later experience as an instructor at a fighter Operational Conversion Unit. The 'two-ship' formation (in USAAC parlance) was a tactical one of four aircraft comprising two sections of two aircraft per section. It was virtually identical to the RAF's low-level battle formation as flown in the early jet age 1950s and 1960s. In the two-ship, the No 2 of each section flew a stepped-back echelon on his leader at about 50yd spacing; the No 2 section-leader stepped back on the opposite side to the lead section's No 2 at about 100yd, with his own No 2 stepped back on the opposite side to the No 2 of the lead section. It is a very flexible formation allowing hard turns to be made in manœuvring, and was probably a precursor of the USAAC's 'finger-four' formation used in wartime operations.

Cross-country flying was done in loose Vic formation of three or four aircraft and over longer distances than hitherto. Night flying, however, was the régime to cause nervous flutters. On the syllabus was night formation flying which we cadets considered to be impossible; you cannot formate on an aeroplane you cannot see, we thought! But it was possible, as we found, with sufficient illumination of the aircraft formated on coming from its navigation lights and the engine exhaust glow on the silvery bare aluminium skin of the AT-6A, and from the general illumination from a normally cloudless sky and the brilliantly lit- up towns and highways of Alabama. It remained in the mind however, could it be done in the UK at war on a dirty moonless night? A touch of this came on one of the three night- formation cross-country sorties we had to fly to complete our night programme. The route was from Selma to Montgomery, an easterly track for 50 nautical miles (nm), then a turn to port on to roughly north for 90nm to Birmingham, then returning whence we came. 

Figure 3 - Vic, Echelon and Line-Astern Formations

Cruising altitude was to be about 10,000ft. There were no navigation aids (other than pilot/contact navigation) on the Selma-Montgomery legs. On the Montgomery-Birmingham legs a series of six visual beacons were spaced at intervals of about 15nm along the track (for civil aviation use mainly) each of which flashed a letter of the Morse code, so that all that was required was to have a handy piece of paper with the letters of the beacon code series written out in the correct order, and to overfly each beacon, from which could be seen the next one. Thus the whole cross-country was a piece of cake navigationally, provided that the visibility was good enough.

The outbound part of the flight to Birmingham and the return to Montgomery passed uneventfully. We turned to starboard to the west over a well-lit Montgomery and settled on our heading for Selma. I checked our position on track to ensure that the instructor knew what he was about navigationally, a practice I was to adopt throughout my flying career. In this case the highway from Selma and the River Alabama were the only notable and detectable ground features, all else being lost in darkness. I was on the port side of the formation (the No 3 in Vic). Suddenly we entered what seemed a large patch of cumulus cloud. There was no radio call heard by me from the instructor to close up the formation prior to entering the cloud nor any sign of a heading change by him to avoid it. He just ploughed straight on. I had no time to close up on the leader and now could not see the other two aircraft; so I had to turn away to port to avoid a possible collision and I quickly found myself alone within the cloud. Additionally, my radio had completely failed at or just before the event so I was now in a threatened position if I could not find the airfield at Selma before my fuel ran out. Fortunately, I had timed my deviation from the original heading and now turned back, presumably behind the other two aircraft, to regain track for Selma, then commenced a descent to try to pinpoint myself once I had come below the cloudbase. (I had discarded the idea of a return to Montgomery because of the complexity of barging in to its well-used civilian airfield, with no radio to request a priority landing.) Luckily, when I was down to about five miles from Selma, the rain let up, visibility improved and I spotted the airfield at the two o'clock position or so.

I then had the problem of getting landing clearance from the tower. I could not assume that they were aware of my circumstances and I dared not enter the traffic pattern for fear of collision with other aircraft already in the circuit, even though I could not see any. So I dived directly at the control tower and used my landing lights to Morse-code the message 'no R/T', then pulled up when about 500ft above the recognised pattern height. This I did three times to ensure they had got the message, then I joined the pattern and landed, although I saw no responding green light from the tower (runway controllers were not generally on duty, as far as I was aware, except under the hair-raising runway approaches at Macon, already described). Oddly, I was not de-briefed by anyone or required to file a report after landing and the whole matter was apparently put down to a radio failure. I do not know to this day whether or not the formation leader was aware that he had led his flock into an accident- threatening situation, or if he had made any R/T call to close up the formation or to order a heading change to remain clear of the cloud, or even to advise Selma tower that I was adrift with an unserviceable radio. My opinion of him was such that, from then on, I felt a preference to lead any formation of which I was part when flying from A to B, and to trust few others to do it as I would wish.

Our training at Advanced School was now within three weeks of ending and for this final period we would be based at the then USAAC test-flight centre at Eglin Field in Florida, near Pensacola, where we would do nothing but fire the single machine gun mounted above the instrument panel in the AT-6A's cockpit and discharging 0.50-inch calibre shells through the propellor arc at a flag towed by another aircraft for air-to-air deflection shooting, and at a surface target for air-to-ground firing. A brilliantly enjoyable ending to the whole course.

But I must end the story of this phase with another anecdote of the military ground training which may be as amusing to you as it was to me - except for its rather nasty ending. At both Macon and Selma, the end of the day's work was always signified by a massive parade of all the cadets on the base, to 'beat the retreat'. The Americans love to march in large square blocks of men (some 7 x 7, or was it 8 x 8 in our case?). Four such blocks marched off from the Administration Building at Selma one evening, to the parade square to face up to the flag 'Old Glory'. The culmination of the parade was the lowering of 'Old Glory' to the tune 'Taps', played by the base's large brass band, and since 'Old Glory' is held in such high esteem in the USA, two men are required to handle the lowering to ensure that no part of the flag touches the ground. Also, the ceremony must be conducted in such a way that the flag begins its descent exactly on the first note of 'Taps' and the rate of lowering is so judged by the rope- handler that the flag is in the hands of the catcher exactly upon the final note. No problem there, you may say. But Murphy's law applied on this occasion - the flag got stuck half-way down No amount of tugging and twisting by the two British cadets involved could free it apparently, as the tune slowly but surely approached the final coda. Suddenly, with about two bars of music remaining, the flag repented and hurtled at speed through the arms of the horrified catcher and landed in a heap on the ground. Although the men were from our own number, a muffled gasp of amusement could just be heard from our end of the parade. I regret that as a result of this breach of the US conduct rules, both the rope handler and the flag catcher were on their way back to Toronto a day or so later.

On 24 April 1942 we marched up to the airfield church and were presented with our Graduation Diploma signed by General Stratemeyer, and had our US Army Air Corps wings pinned on to our RAF tunics to signify our coming-of-age in aviation. Next day we wandered one after another, into the office of the RAF Liaison Officer who handed out our RAF wings - the prize we all had awaited for nearly a year. We wore both sets of wings on the way back to Canada on 27 April 1942. Of the 644 Aviation Cadets who had set out on 1 October 1941, only 342 returned so adorned.

We were held in a Canadian transit camp at Moncton, New Brunswick, until a suitable ship became available to join a convoy and brave the U-boat infested North Atlantic. The ship was the twin of the 'Duchess' class vessel which had failed us on the Clyde on that September day in 1941. This time its sister did not, and regular Catalina and then Spitfire convoy patrols assured us of a welcome to Blighty to spite the Hun. After a short spell of leave, we gathered together again at a reception centre in the Bath Hill Court Hotel in Bournemouth, where we were held for a month to hear of our next posting.

 

Copyright Ó William C. Wood 1997.