Close overhead, a flight of transient B-66Bs climbed for altitude off the runways at neighboring MacDill AFB. From the stern of the skiff, where he lounged lazily, fifty-nine-year-old, white-haired ex-M/Sgt. George Holmes watched the thundering Destroyers with a professional eye.
He could say that again.
His Retirement, leaving only officers now as USAF pilots, closed a colorful chapter of Air Force history, dating back to 1914 when, out in the Philippines, Army Cpl. Vernon L. Burge became the first enlisted flyer.
“That was back in 1921,” he told me as we putt-putted across Tampa Bay, “a couple of years after I’d enlisted as a private in the infantry. It was called the Army Air Service at that time.
“At the end of the war, though, I got out of the Navy and went to work as a mechanic for the old Franklin Auto works in Syracuse, NY. But flying was in my blood and a few months later, in the middle of 1919. I guess it was, I decided to get back into the service.”
But to a young man looking toward aviation as a career, that services – even though it was a period of serious postwar struggle for them – offered the best opportunities.
“My first assignment was out at Hazelhurst Field on Long Island, near Hempstead, working on test blocks where we were running some old water-cooled, six-cylinder German engines. From there I went down to San Antonio. There were two Kelly Fields there then – Kelly One and Kelly Two, Kelly One, where the depot is now, was a mechanic’s school. The 1st Pursuit Group was at Kelly Two, and that’s where I was assigned, in charge of the radio communication school.”
“We had an authorized strength of about 1,500 officers and 16,000 enlisted men, he recalled. “Ninety percent of the officers had to be pilots or observers, and all the flying units had to be commanded by flying officers.”
In August of 1920 the army Air Service asked for volunteers for pilot training, and Holmes stepped forward.
“For any advanced, I went back to Kelly Two. As flying cadets there we wore white arm bands and a white band around our campaign hats. For some reason or other – I can’t recall just why now – we were known a ‘twelve-and-a-halfs.’”
“He’s a lieutenant general now.” Holmes told me with a smile. “You might know him from around the Pentagon – C. S. Irvine.”
In August 1921, when he received his wings, Holmes remembers he had the choice of going back to his old rand of corporal or being discharged.
Two years later he singed up in the Army Reserve as a private, and, in 1924, a young Air Force officer by the name of Weyland – later to become Gen. O. P Weyland – gave him his written examination for a commission. He took his test for flight and pilot rating in a Jenny – they were still around – and, when the paper work got cleared away, he had a commission as a second lieutenant in the Reserve.
In 1926, Congress authorized the formation of the Army Air Corps and established the office of the Chief of the Air Corps, with Maj. Gen. Mason M. Patrick as its first chief. They also created a new sub-Cabinet post, that of Assistant Secretary of War for Air, and they loosened the purse strings with new appropriations for planes.
In 1928, the year after Lindbergh spanned the Atlantic in his single-engined Ryan monoplane, which weighed only 5,000 pounds fully loaded, Holmes put in for active duty. Called up, he was assigned to the 12th Observation Squadron at Dodd Field, on the grounds of Fort Sam Houston at San Antonio, as assistant engineering officer and assistant parachute officer.
On this hitch, Holmes stayed in uniform for thirteen months. In late 1929 he got out again. Within a year after Lindbergh’s flight, commercial aviation as booming.
Holmes had no trouble getting a job with Pan American Airways down in Cristobal, Panama, as a crew chief and mechanic, flying on their twin-engined Sikorsky S-31s. Later he went to Guatemala City for PAA ass a co-pilot, flying Ford Trimotors over the rugged Central American mountains and jungles to San Salvador and San Jose. Still later, he flew as a combination mechanic and copilot on PAA’s Consolidated Commodores, trimotored Fokkers, and Sikorsky S-43s from Miami throughout the Caribbean.
“I had to get special authority,” Holmes recalled, “to wear my wings and to fly.”
“I made the first installation of blind flying instruments on an Air Corps plane while working there,” Homes said. “The instrument itself was called a sonic altimeter and we put it on a BT-2.”
Major – later general – Joe Cannon was in charge of flying at Randolph at the time, and he promptly shipped Holmes of to Chicago to fly Ford Trimotors between the Windy City and Omaha, North Platte, Kansas City, St. Louis, and Cleveland.
After the airmail fiasco was settled – and the commercial airlines resumed flying the mails – Holmes returned, still a sergeant, to his test piloting at Randolph.
One of his students in this period was a cadet named Birchard, now a full colonel and deputy commander of the Continental Division of MATS.
With the entry of the US into World War II, and the rapid buildup of the Air Corps, Holmes, in 1942, was commissioned a captain. As a flying engineering and maintenance officer and test pilot he served throughout the war years at Luke Field in Arizona, at Randolph, Roslyn, N. M., and Kelly Field, where he was chief inspector for the Air Materiel Command, with thirty-two sub depots under his supervision. Finally, in the closing stages of the Pacific campaign, he was commanding officer of the 301st Air Depot Group, as a major, with eighty-eight officers and 1,800 enlisted men under his command. He wound up the war on Biak with the 4th Air Service Group of the AMC. In 1946, after attending the Air Inspector’s School at Orlando, Fla., and the Special Staff School, he got out of uniform once again, this time with the rank of lieutenant colonel. He was back in uniform again, though, six months later, reenlisting as a master sergeant at Kelly Field in Texas.
In 1949, Holmes – still with only six stripes – went to Brazil to spend thirty months flying members of the Joint US-Brazil Military Commission around on inspection trips.
This recital of nostalgic history had taken a couple of hours. By now we’d eased our way across Tampa Bay. Sergeant Holmes reached behind him to cut off the outboard motor.
From across the Bay, out of MacDill, a new flight of bombers – swept-wing B-52s this time – pulled themselves into the clear blue afternoon sky. Holmes, who only a moment before had denied any further interest in anything that flew, let his sharp hazel eyes follow the bombers until their silver sides blended out of sight into the haze of the horizon.
“Yeah,” he grinned. “I guess I’m too old to change.”
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