In 1952, I married a college sweetheart who joined ROTC and became an Air Force officer after graduation. After qualifying for pilot training, he started flight lessons in the Piper Cub, then graduated to a retired fighter plane, the Mustang. After that he learned to fly the famous B-17 bomber.
Training began at Gilbert Field in Bartow, Florida, where a class of twenty fresh young lieutenants had their first experience as pilots.
The little J3 Piper Cubs had tandem seats in the cockpit with dual controls, one set for the student and the other for the flight instructor. The plane was easy to pull out of spins and stalls because of its lightness. If the engine couldn’t be restarted, the plane continued to glide downward to a landing in the hands of a skilled pilot.
Despite the safety of the aircraft, one or two of each class of twenty fledgling pilots crashed due to pilot error, generally caused by panic. It was easy to get scared during training stalls, dives, and other death-defying maneuvers.
In 1954, the young lieutenants who survived the first phase of training packed off to West Palm Beach, Florida, where they learned to fly P-51 Mustangs, the fighter planes that shot down German Messerschmidts and Jap Zeroes in World War II. While flying Mustangs wasn’t for the faint of heart, fewer young pilots crashed because were more skilled aviators by this time.
Their flight instructors were old warriors from dogfights over Germany and Japan a few years earlier. By the mid-1950s, many were family men who missed the adrenaline rush of their youth. When they soloed for leisure or practice, some pulled forbidden acrobatic stunts when they could avoid identification. Since air-to-ground communications were still primitive in those days, former aces sometimes buzzed the tower, then climbed into the clouds before anyone could catch the ID on their fuselage. Or they did tight barrel rolls for friends on the ground away from the eyes of tale-tellers.
The last phase of training prepared pilots for the airplanes they would fly for the rest of their enlistment. My husband flew a former B-17 bomber—the Flying Fortress. During WW II, formations of twenty-five or more bombers flew missions over the Pacific, Japan and Europe. The B-17 stood as high as a two-story building and had a wingspan the length of three city school buses.
Enemy fighter planes had to inflict serious harm on a B-17 to bring it down. Even when one suffered extensive damage, it could usually limp home. As the war advanced, the Flying Fortress became even more impervious to enemy fire because Air Force strategists found a way to protect formations. They assigned P-51 Mustangs (“Red Tails”) to drive off enemy fighter planes. Called “Little Friends,” one squadron of Mustangs was flown by African-American pilots known as the Tuskeegee Airmen, whose story is told in the film “Red Tails.”
With a flight range of almost 2000 miles, B-17s were retired from their bombing missions after the war and served as transport planes, carrying servicemen and cargo to U.S. military bases around the globe.