The Aviation Cadets

Nov. 1, 1990

When you can’t get enough college- trained officers to make into pilots, you take what you can get. In two world wars, the Army plucked teenage boys from high school, called them “cadets,” and tried to make them into officers and gentlemen while it taught them to fly.

The process was swift and often harsh. One World War I pilot who had been through it defined a flying cadet as “a person subject to military law who ranks just one grade lower than a German prisoner but who must remember that someday he is to be an officer and conduct himself accordingly.”

The Army Aviation Section entered that war with thousands of eager applicants and few planes with which to train them. It sent cadets to selected universities for preliminary training, then to flight schools in England and France. Many waited months to go overseas and had to build their own bases when they arrived. They entered combat with scant instruction; losses were staggering.

Between wars, pilot requirements dropped, and officers again filled most of the training slots. The Army let a few cadets enter, but the standards were so high that few qualified, and most who did washed out. Among the handful who made it through was a midwestern youngster named Charles A. Lindbergh.

By the early 1940s, however, the Army Air Corps faced another war and was again short of flyers. In June 1941, Congress created the grade of aviation cadet, and the Army launched a massive flight-training program. Within two years, its annual output would soar to more than 65,700 pilots, 16,000 bombardiers, and 15,900 navigators. In time, the cadet program would expand to train nonrated officers in such fields as communications, armament, weather, and radar.

To get that many applicants, the Army had to lower its age and education requirements. When I applied a few weeks after the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, I had just turned eighteen and was a high school senior.

Physical requirements remained high, but medical examiners tended to be lenient. When I was found to be underweight for my height, they weighed me again with my clothes on and had me slouch until I measured an acceptable five-ten. They so gave me three tries before I squeaked through the depth-perception test.

Passing the physical made us only “aviation cadet candidates.” We could await our official appointments either at home or in the Army as privates, unassigned. I thought a little Army experience would help later, so I enlisted. Three weeks after high school graduation, I was in a tent at Fort Dix, N. J., with seven other future cadets and some middle-aged draftees who still thought they had been inducted by mistake.

Life in “Movable Storage”

I soon found that unassigned privates were in a kind of movable storage. When one base became overcrowded, we were sent to another. We pulled KP and guard duty, but our only formal training was in close-order drill.

After about three months, however, we were ordered to Nashville, Tenn., for testing, classification, and appointment. The written exams were easy, but the psychomotor tests, designed to measure coordination, were not. We had to operate make-believe aircraft controls while flashing lights and loud buzzers announced our every mistake. To my surprise, I qualified for all three types of training–pilot, bombardier, and navigator. I chose pilot.

Now officially aviation cadets, we drew $75 per month, the rate of privates on flight status. Our uniform was government issue for officers, except for the cap, which had a blue band and the Air Corps winged propeller instead of the eagle.

We expected to train in the east, but the San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center (now Lackland AFB) was short of cadets, and 200 of us were sent there. As it turned out, the shortage was in bombardier, not pilot, training. It was weeks before we entered the preflight course as Class 43-F.

Preflight was a ten-week combination of enlisted basic training and Officer Candidate School, with a thin topping of West Point tradition. A handful of nonrated “tactical officers” and noncoms ran things, but upperclassmen administered most of the discipline.

With comic precision, we marched everywhere, squaring our comers at every turn. We responded to questioning with clipped, shouted answers. We were addressed as “Mister,” a term that upperclassmen could make sound like profanity. For minor infractions, we were ordered to “hit a brace,” an exaggerated attention that caused the body to quiver and produce several chins. For more serious crimes, such as being late for formation, we “walked tours” on the parade ground during what was supposed to be our free time.

The class system allowed the school to operate with a relatively small staff and, in theory, gave the upperclassmen useful training in command. In practice, it was little more than a license to bully. What worked at West Point, where the classes were divided by as much as three years, made no sense where they were only a few weeks apart. The Army realized this midway through our stay at preflight; when 43-F became the upper class, hazing was abolished.

We did inherit other senior privileges, however, including that of “open post.” After five weeks of confinement, we were allowed daytime visits to San Antonio on weekends. We made the pilgrimage to the Alamo, took in the Breckenridge Zoo, and ate in restaurants like grown-ups. Bars were off-limits to cadets, but the Gunter Hotel had a nonalcoholic Cadet Club, and the gaudy Aztec Theater showed first-run movies.

Mothers and Sisters

When we applied for cadet training, we swore we were single and would not marry during training, but some cadets broke the vow. Center officials maintained the fiction that all female visitors were mothers or sisters, and, by tacit agreement among the cadets, the wooded obstacle course was off limits to single cadets on visitors’ days.

Preflight academics included refresher courses in physics (twenty-four hours) and math (twenty hours) and classes in map reading (eighteen hours), aircraft recognition (thirty hours), and code (forty-eight hours). Gaps in the schedule were filled with more code classes, though most cadets never found a use for that skill.

We also had daily physical and military training. The former included a choreographed routine of side-straddle hops called the “Randolph Shuffle.” The latter involved everything from squad drill to formal wing parades.

As officer trainees, we supposedly were exempt from menial tasks, but when the mess hall was shorthanded, some of us were tapped for KP. When one cadet protested this inappropriate use of future officers, a tactical officer told him he had been chosen for additional training in mess management and sent him off with the rest of the KPs.

We also stood guard duty, carrying World War I rifles and no ammunition. Although the center had nothing to interest a saboteur, the Army took guard duty seriously, as I discovered one rainy night when a shadowy figure approached my post.

“Halt!” I ordered. “Who goes there?”

“An officer of the post,” the shadow replied.

“Throw down your ID, sir, and step back.”

He obeyed. I examined his credentials, discovered he was a full colonel, and returned his soggy wallet with a trembling hand.

“Mister,” said the colonel. “Why did you call me ‘sir’ before you identified me as an officer? Do you ‘sir’ every Nazi spy who comes by?”

He took my name, and I fully expected to be charged with something. It never happened, but I had been conditioned to believe that an officer of any rank held the power of life and death over a mere cadet.

A few weeks later, another incident changed that perspective. Two of us were serving as cadet officers of the day. When the phone rang on the other cadet’s desk, he made me answer it. Later, he explained that he didn’t know how to use a phone. He also confessed that his GI boots were the first shoes he had ever worn. I spent the night teaching him to use the phone. When I realized that both of us would be second lieutenants a few months later, some of the mystique of officer status faded.

In December of 1942, however, our commissions still seemed far away. After preflight, Class 43-F fanned out to primary flight schools throughout the southwest. With 185 others, I went to Victory Field at Vernon, Tex. There was a permanent party of fifteen officers, but the civilian contractor, Hunter Flying Service, provided ground and flight instructors. The school had neat single-story dorms and a cafeteria-style mess. In contrast with preflight, it had the atmosphere of a small college campus.

Meet Mr. Belton

On the flight line, however, the mood was anything but collegiate. In groups of five, we met our flight instructors. Some were said to be kindly father figures, but most had the temperament of mule skinners and vocabularies to match.

Our Mr. Belton walked us around our trainer with the traditional words, “Gentlemen, this is an airplane,” then added, “Hang around it long enough and it will kill you.”

I could believe him. A low-winged, two-place monoplane, the Fairchild PT-19A had a 175-horsepower in-line engine and the look of a small fighter. The student rode in the front seat. Behind him, the instructor had dual controls and a one-way speaking tube. The cadet couldn’t talk back, but a mirror over the forward cockpit kept his face visible to the instructor.

On my first ride, I was sloppy at the controls. Mr. Belton swore. I made a face, and he racked my knees with the joystick and took over. He threw us into a spin, pulled out within what seemed like inches of the ground, and said: “You’ve got it. Take us home.”

Fortunately, the airplane was well-trimmed and already headed for the field; otherwise I could not have found it. I had blacked out during the maneuver and lost all sense of direction.

My lessons continued in the same pattern, my best efforts provoking a litany of profanity from Mr. Belton. Then, with no warning, he had me land at an auxiliary field and climbed out. “Take it around once,” he said, “and see if you can land it in one piece.”

I took off well enough, and halfway around the traffic pattern I began to think I could fly. Wrong. As I lined up for landing, I knew I was too far from the field. I pulled back on the stick but didn’t think to add power, and the plane fell even faster. It lurched as the wheels hit a fence and tore off. It slid onto the field on its belly and came to rest. Mr. Belton rushed up. When he found me unhurt, he made an entry in the plane’s logbook: “Five minutes solo, one landing.”

“Do you call that a landing?” I asked.

“You walked away from it,” he said. “You’ll do better tomorrow.”

He was right. After a cursory physical and a lecture from one of the officers, I made my second solo without incident. Thereafter: I sometimes came in too high or too , but I never again landed short.

Though my landings improved, my aerobatic work was a thorn in Mr. Belton’s flesh. My loops were flat, my spins were ragged, and my Immelmanns were a mockery of the pilot for which they were named. I learned eventually to tune out the carping tone and listen only to the instructions. I still blacked out in some maneuvers. I managed to control the problem by easing off on the stick. It did not occur to me that I might not be able to do so in a hotter plane.

Personal War

Indeed, I never thought about flying anything beyond the PT-19. My , goal now was to finish primary. Pearl Harbor and the Nazi menace were abstractions. Mr. Belton had become the enemy. And I beat him. In ten weeks, I had survived one crash, logged ninety-two flying hours, and passed my final check ride.

Of our original 186 cadets, 133 of us graduated. Mr. Belton treated his surviving students to a steak dinner. Our personal war being over, he invited us to call him Ed. As we left, he shook my hand and said, “You’re a good pilot. You’ll do fine.”

This time, he was wrong. For basic flight instruction, we moved back to an Army base at Enid, Okla. Our trainer was the low-winged BT-15 with a 450-horsepower radial engine. It had an enclosed cockpit, a two-way radio, and a tendency to shake under power, a quirk that led it the nickname “Vultee Vibrator.”

Our instructors were all officers. Mine had flown for an airline before he was commissioned as a service pilot. He was soft-spoken and patient. I learned quickly and became first in my class to solo.

But things soon fell apart. My instructor took leave, and I was passed to a succession of substitutes. Within a week, I was so confused that I couldn’t do anything right. I was taken off solo and then given an elimination ride. My air work wasn’t bad, but I consistently came in high for my landing and sometimes dropped the plane as much as fifty feet.

I made an appearance before the washout board. If I had been less timid, I might have asked to be washed back a class and given another chance, but I had no fight left. I had accomplished my earlier goal of completing primary, my blackouts were getting harder to control, and I worried about my depth perception. It seemed better to quit before I got into serious trouble.

I was sent back to San Antonio, where I joined hundreds of other washed-out cadets waiting for a crack at another type of school. I chose bomb training because it was shorter and I wanted to get into combat while there was some war left. I already had been through preflight, and so I went directly to the bombardier school at Midland AAF, Tex., with Class 43-13.

Our trainer was the Beech AT-II, a twin-engine transport fitted with a bomb bay and plexiglass nose. We flew with two cadets per plane, one bombing while the other photographed his strikes. Between flights, we practiced on ground simulators and took classes in bombing theory and basic navigation.

We were scored by “circular error,” the average distance our bomb strikes measured from the target. My early scores were terrible. Though I improved steadily, my CE remained poor. A few days before graduation, I was called before Lt. Col. John D. Ryan, then our director of training, who later became Air Force Chief of Staff.

To War at Last

This time, I was not too shy to speak up. When Colonel Ryan questioned my poor average, I cited my steady improvement. He said he would consider the point, and I left not knowing whether I would be graduated or washed out again. I found out on graduation day, when I was called up to receive my wings.

I was still nineteen when I was assigned to a B-24 crew and sent to combat training with the 464th Bomb Group at Pocatello, Idaho. In early 1944, we joined the 15th Air Force in Italy. We were required to fly fifty missions, but some tougher targets were given double credit, so we completed our tour with thirty-seven missions after barely seven months overseas.

Back in the US, I asked to return to pilot training, but they weren’t taking washouts. I served briefly as a bombardier instructor at Albuquerque, N. M., then entered navigator training at Hondo, Tex. As a student officer, I was exempt from the Mickey Mouse routines of cadet life. It was just as well. The course itself was demanding enough. My dead reckoning was OK, but my celestial navigation was less than spectacular.

We were slated to become bombardier-navigators on the new B-29 Superforts then flying in the Pacific, but we never made it. Two weeks before graduation, the AAF dropped two atomic bombs and ended the war. By then, we had finished ground school and had two more training missions to fly. We were told we could complete the course only if we agreed to serve another six years after graduation. The alternative was to hang around until we were eligible for release. After spending a fortune on the war, it seemed the Army suddenly had become too cheap to lay on the few additional missions to give us dual ratings and put us in the Reserve. Most of us chose to get out, and we were still waiting for release when our class graduated without us.

Five years later, the Korean War broke out, and the newly formed Air Force again was short of aircrews. I volunteered for recall and applied to start navigation training again. At twenty-seven, I was considered too old. But I was informed that, even without further training, I now qualified as a bombardier-navigator on B-26s. Fortunately for me and probably for the Air Force, my term of service ended before I was sent back to combat.

Like the war itself, my cadet experience is something I wouldn’t have missed but wouldn’t want to repeat. I did take another crack at pilot training, however. In my early fifties, I bought flying lessons and earned my private license, only to confirm what the Army had discovered thirty years earlier. I was a lousy pilot.

Bruce D. Callander joined Air Force Times in 1952, becoming Editor in 1972. His most recent article for AIR FORCE Magazine, “The Way It Was,” appeared in the September 1990 issue.