#5 British Flying Training School

Clewiston, Florida

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Recollections of an Aviation Writer

Here is an article from the archives explaining why you should never be distracted when you are teaching a student to fly.

Across my desk one day came a report from the National Association of Flight Instructors that sent me wandering off down memory lane.

Said the report: "The day of the frivolous, poorly trained and casually dressed flight Instructor, who did business in a worn leather jacket and oil-stained trousers, has all but come to an end in the United States and 'good riddance' say officials of the National Association of Flight Instructors."

How well I remember the first day I reported at the flight line at No.5 British Flying Training School - a former Riddle McKay peacetime flying school at Clewiston, Florida. It was March 1945, and we had just finished the 8,000 or more mile journey from an RAF Elementary Flying Training School in Worcester, England.

I bet you didn't know it was better than 8,000 miles from Britain to the USA, but then maybe you have never travelled on a military itinerary. We went by train from Worcester to London and London to Greenock, in Scotland, and then by the good ship "Queen Mary" to New York (via the Azores). Back on the train we travelled to Moncton, New Brunswick and after getting used to the sub-freezing temperatures, we boarded another train, travelling back (via New York) to the sweaty swamps of the Miami Everglades. The farther south we travelled, the heavier that extra kitbag of cold weather flying kit seemed to get. But I guess we fooled the enemy alright.

Finally, we came to rest on the edge of lake Okeechobee (on whose waters we were to be gleefully spinning our wheels before our training was completed). We all thought we had died and gone to Heaven. There were these civilian quarters, complete with restaurant and a swimming pool. The nearest we ever got to that in England was when we first joined the RAF and found that we were accommodated in the London Zoo at Regents Park!

We snuk out that night to look at the "ships" as we were to learn to call these most unseaworthy PT-13Ds (Boeing) and AT-6s (North American Harvards), and boy were they beautiful. Even the remarks of our senior cadets, who said we only got the trainers the US Army Air Corps threw out, could not dampen our enthusiasm.

Now before we get to the bit about my first glimpse of one of our new civilian instructors, I should tell you a bit about our most recent RAF (tor)mentors. Mine was the most miserable Flight Sergeant Pilot you could possibly imagine.

I don't know whether he was mad because he had been taken off ops, or mad because he would one day have to go back on ops. But he was good and upset most of the time, I can tell you. And guess who he took it out on. You guessed it.

We flew in a state of constant terror, not because we were scared of flying but because we were terrified of being thrown off the course for some minor infraction or indiscretion. This was not, I will tell you, the most encouraging introduction to the aviation business and it says much for our enthusiasms to get ourselves killed that we did not tell the RAF to stuff it's aeroplanes - sideways. Now I know where the saying "Many were called; few chosen" must have originated.

As far as our RAF captors were concerned, the situation did not improve when we arrived at No.5 BFTS in Florida. First thing the Commanding Officer did was to line us up for the usual helping of abuse we were accustomed to receiving on arrival at any new station. First he surveyed us. I was going to say he ran his eye over us, but in the first place he had two eyes, and in the second place this could not possibly convey anything of the contempt and derision that he obviously felt for us all.

Trouble was, you see, the war was entering it's final phase and they really did not need any more pilots; but they had to keep us 'on ice' so to speak, just in case our services might be required

I'll give him credit for one thing, the CO didn't mince his words. "There are 60 of you standing here today - and you think you are going to he pilots" he began. "Well forget it. There's not 20 of you going to get out of here with your wings". And he was right.

Fortunately, there were very few RAF people on the station, but they had devised this diabolical system of Flight Cadet Officers, so that it was your fellow cadets who bullied and pestered you most of the time. These follows all had to seek police protection every "wings night", when the fellows graduating got into the sauce a little.

Then came the introduction to our instructors and you have already read about them in the opening paragraph of this story. They had very worn leather jackets and very oil-stained trousers. And that's not all. They obviously led quite riotous social lives and were usually in an extremely delicate condition when they arrived at the flight line each morning.

There was certainly no likelihood of them shouting at us, even though the cotton wool in their ears must have made their own voices sound a little distant at times. No, they liked everything done real quiet and were reluctant to start the engine until the last possible moment. They didn't mind enthusiasm, but the heel-clicking types who rated so highly with our RAF administrators just were not appreciated by our new-found instructors.

Now all this may sound pretty bad up to this point, But this is where it gets better. Those guys had hearts of gold. And fly? I don't know whether the seats of their pants took over from their hung-over heads once the wheels left the ground; but those guys could FLY. And for the first time we cadets began to enjoy flying too.

Of course, these fellows didn't have to teach us any ground school and I am sure some of then had problems working out their paychecks. But they sure taught us about flying. And if they have gone out of style and the US Association of Flight Instructors is saying "good riddance" I think someone has to speak up and out for them.

Sure, they don't belong to this day of sleeky sexy airplanes with upholstered seats in vinyl-nylon splendour, but they served thelr purpose when we had a scrap on our hands and they deserve credit for that.

The would ball us out occasionally when we were ham-fisted; what good instructor doesn't. But they helped us to enjoy that wide blue yonder. Most of the time anyway.

I remember one rather dubious experience in PT-13D. I was flying straight and level with the hood down, getting some dual instrument, when the stick suddenly leapt free from my hands and all my instruments told me we were descending at an abnormal rate of knots. The rev. counter needle was going over the red line, so I popped the hood to see if I still had an instructor on board. He was there OK, hunched over the controls in a very determined fashion. The ground was there too - right in front of us and coming up fast.

'What's up?' I managed to gasp. Rather an obvious question. The sky was obviously up; and the ground was even more obviously down there. But not for long.

"Hold on" came the hollered retort. And, relieved that my instructor was at least conscious, I did just that. Well, we levelled out just above some trees, skidded off some speed with the nose high, and plonked onto a small clearing. There being very little room to stop with the "ship" in one piece, the boss executed a very boisterous ground loop, and before we had even stopped moving, began clambering out of the cockpit. "Jump" he hollered. And I did. "But what" I asked "is the trouble?"

"l dropped my -------- cigarette" came the reply. And looking over the gleaming silver fabric of that faithful old airplane, I comprehended all.