First Tour of Duty as Flight Instructor

Air Force Days - Apr 29,2017

Reciprocating Engines: T-6, T-28 and B-25
Reese Air Force Base, Lubbock, Texas

After completing Flight Instructor School at Craig AFB, Selma, Alabama in 1952, I was assigned to Reese, which is where I had received a lot of my own training. New instructors would first be assigned to fly with students in the T-6. The students got about 40 or 50 hours more flying time in the T-6 there besides the time they got in the primary schools. I flew with students in the T-6 for about six months, then shifted over to the B-25. Later the T-6 was phased out in favor of the new T-28 which was designed as a trainer. It was very easy to fly. I think the T-6 was designed as a fighter and built in the late 1930's.

I have to tell a story about phasing out the T-6. We were told that some were being sold to a South American country. At our base, which was famous for dust storms, some of those planes had sat out in the field for months collecting fine sand throughout the fuselage. I was one of three assigned to deliver T-6's to Kelly AFB at San Antonio. It was dust storm season, and most of Texas was being plagued with fine sand. We used to joke that the first 10,000 feet was New Mexico, and all above that was Colorado. One time there was a newspaper headline: "Texas gets the dirt on New York City." These planes had been stripped to the bare minimum of radio navigation equipment, which in those days was a four-course low-frequency range receiver, a pre-world-war-2 system of aurally mixing dit-dah (A) with dah-dit (N) to get an on-course signal. Very primitive by today's standards. Anyway, I happened to get out to the runway first and was cleared for takeoff. As soon as I got off the ground, the control tower people decided the visibility was below takeoff minimums, so it was "Off I go, into the wild brown yonder..." The other two pilots went back and parked. I had to find my way to San Antonio in a blinding dust storm with that old "coffee grinder" radio. That was bad enough, but since most traffic had been grounded, there was no GCA unit in operation (radar Ground Controlled Approach). I had to find the field and make a "low visibility approach" which means a tight 360 degree overhead approach, so as not to lose sight of the field. We had been taught to open the canopy in case of some disastrous landing (for quick egress), so I did that and all that sand blew up in my eyes!

This was very good experience for me. It wasn't all bad; some fun came of it too. I sat in Base Operations waiting for a C-47 that was supposed to come and take me back to Reese, but the weather went below landing minimums, so none arrived. But while waiting, with no one having much to do, a guy caught a huge moth and put it in the container they used for delivery of flight plans up to the tower. It went up an air chute, like you sometimes see in banks. All was quiet for awhile, and then the canister came back down with a note: "Thanks, it was delicious!" I went back home the next morning in a commercial airliner, and I think the other passengers were a bit alarmed to see me coming on board wearing a parachute.

The B-25 was the first plane to bomb Tokyo early in World War II. They took off from an aircraft carrier, but had no way to land on a carrier.  They were to land or bail out over China. That bombing mission forced Japan to divert a lot of their air forces to defense of their homeland.  In the picture to the left, all the guns have been removed, so this is the way a trainer model looked.

 Part of the challenge of a flight instructor is to instill in the student an attitude that "other people have learned to do this, and so can I." The student has to be determined, but not "cocky." My supervisor (flight commander) for awhile at Reese was a tall Texan with the typical stereotype Texas drawl and attitude. One day in the group briefing prior to flight, he said to the students with strong emphasis, "Grab hold of that airplane like you owned it!"

One of the most important aspects of pilot training in the B-25 was how to deal with engine failure. Our procedure was designed to deal with the worst of circumstances, that is, slow airspeed with landing gear and flaps down. The idea was to increase power on the good engine as conditions allowed, reduce drag, then shut down the failed engine. We had a basic procedure of: 1. Maintain basic directional control at all costs, even if you have to reduce power on the good engine, 2. Increase power on the good engine enough to gain safe single engine airspeed (probably trade some altitude for speed) and maintain flight, 3. Reduce drag by raising the landing gear and flaps, 4. Shut down the engine, including to feather the propeller (more reduction of drag), 5. Land at the nearest suitable airport. Immediately after takeoff there is a period of risk when close to the ground and below safe single engine airspeed. One wants to reduce drag and attain safe single engine airspeed as quickly as possible. After that, one engine is enough to maintain safe flight unless the plane is too heavy. In all our training situations, the weight was relatively low, because all the guns had been removed. We practiced these procedures a great deal. Safe single engine airspeed is the lowest speed at which you can maintain directional control with full power on one engine.

On one occasion in the heat of summer I was drilling the students on this, and we were at 9,000 feet altitude to get up where the air was pleasantly cool. Suddenly we had simultaneous runaway propeller (failure of the propeller governor) and failure of the feathering circuit. What that amounted to was to have a "wall" of drag out there that we could not get rid of. Being unable to feather the propeller, there was no way to maintain level flight, but our high altitude saved us from having to make a crash landing. We were close enough to the field to be able to land on the runway. The "tense" part of this was that it had to be correct the first time! 

In one class I had a student who was having a very difficult time learning the single engine procedure. We drilled over and over again, and he just couldn't "keep his cool" in that situation. However, one day when we entered the (rectangular) landing traffic pattern for the end of the flight, turned onto the downwind leg and lowered the landing gear, the left engine abruptly lost all power. (In winter time with a cold engine, it was common to get severe backfires when starting the engine. This tended to damage the carburetor.) So there we had the situation where we had to do all the steps quickly and in proper order. I told the student, "Now you get to do a real one!" In this situation, he had to raise the landing gear to make it to the final approach. He rose to the occasion, and I let him make the real single engine landing. We all congratulated him, and he had no more trouble after that! 

 The nearest point I ever came to disaster in a B-25 was one day while lots of planes were practicing landings. To practice for possible failure of landing flaps, every student had to make a few "no flap" landings. So one time we were on final approach with no flaps and the plane ahead of us was doing the same. I had not thought of this ahead of time, but the plane ahead was making a very shallow approach, and we did the same. What this did was make very strong wing-tip vortices, and we got caught in that from the plane ahead. Suddenly at only about 100 feet above the ground our right wing dropped to almost vertical. I applied full throttle on the right engine and slightly less on the left, along with full left rudder. To get out of the vortex, I had to pull up, but "up" in this case meant a sharp right turn. I yelled at the student to help me on this, but I don't think he did anything. It was an extremely hazardous situation. I got the wings level just as we roared close over the heads of two more B-25s waiting for takeoff. For several days thereafter I had a sore left knee joint. 

 Enough of the scary times - We had some very good times in the B-25 too. One of our regular navigation training flights was called "day-night," meaning that we went somewhere in the afternoon, landed, ate supper and came back at night. The students would practice map reading, use radio aids, and do inflight computation of wind direction and speed. One time I arranged for two "solo" planes (two students and one "crew chief," no instructor in each plane) and myself with two students to make a flight of three planes to Kansas City. Some of the students were from Kansas City, and a meeting with families was planned. After takeoff we joined up in a three-plane formation and headed toward Kansas City, but as soon as we got on course I had one plane make two 360-degree turns, and one to make one 360-degree turn so as to spread all of us out where we couldn't see each other. This way, the students had to practice their navigation. When we got about 20 minutes from the destination, the two lead planes did 360-turns such that we all joined up again in formation. With families out there on the concrete apron (parking area) to watch, we made a 360-degree overhead approach and landed one, two, three. This made parents and girl-friends proud of their loved ones. As 9 or 10 guests, we were taken to supper at a nice restaurant and then flew back to our home base. 

Each student got a weekend navigation flight, and I made some landings at Albert Whitted Airport in St. Petersburg (my home town), Florida. It was quite a trick, because the longest runway was 3300 feet (quite short for a B-25), with a seawall at one end and a smoke stack near the other. The first time I went in there, the Coast Guard people told me they came out to watch, because "the last guy who tried that broke the landing gear." I have to admit that I did some practice short field landings before going there.  These weekend flights were always with an instructor, two students and a crew chief. The picture above shows me with my my father, my brother and his three children.

Actually, the first time I landed there was in a T-6 at night, before I became a flight instructor or had much experience. I was expecting to land at Tampa. At that time there were no runway lights, but the Coast Guard people told me by radio that they could use the headlights of a jeep to light the end of the runway, so that worked out fine. That segment of my flight from Houston was from Jacksonville to Tampa and I was solo. Without my noticing it, the directional gyro had precessed quite a bit, so that I had wandered out over the Gulf for a ways - a stern warning to improve my cross-check! 

A popular destination for those day-night flights was Lowery AFB at Denver, Colorado (this was before the USAF Academy was built). What I often did was have the students fly first to Colorado Springs and a little beyond, meaning that we could just fly around Pike's Peak and take a look at that. It was just a short distance from there to Lowery which was on the south edge of Denver. 

The most spectacular scenery we had was on returning from a weekend cross-country flight to some base in the Los Angeles area. This was probably in 1955. To arrange for some map-reading exercise, I had the students fly to some point further north in California, and from there to some town in north Texas such that it just "happened" to take us over the main part of the Grand Canyon. We had about 20 minutes flying time about 500 feet below the rim of the Canyon. Now that's sight-seeing! I would not go deeper into the Canyon, because I wanted to be able to get out if we had an engine failure. Now such a flight would be in violation of the Grand Canyon National Park Special Flight Rules which require plenty of altitude above the canyon. 

 I made a total of three trips to Davis-Monthan AFB at Tucson, Arizona to "ferry" aircraft to long-term storage in what we called the bone yard. That was two B-25s and (much later) one T-33. The first trip in a B-25 was extremely interesting for two reasons. First was that after walking around outside the airplane for a few minutes, a metal zipper on my flight suit burned my leg. That was my first experience of summer in Arizona. The second was more memorable: To take the airplane to the storage place, we were escorted by a "Follow Me" truck out onto a main roadway where we taxied along with cars sharing the road practically under our wing! After we parked we were cautioned to stay clear of the other aircraft wheel wells because of rattlesnakes. 

Sometimes boredom would be relieved by humor. One night while returning from a day-night cross-country with students, we were approaching an Air Force Base at an altitude only about 2,000 feet above the landing traffic pattern. We could see the flashing red lights of emergency vehicles, so we tuned in to the control tower frequency to see if we could learn what was going on. There was a KC-97 tanker plane experiencing an unsafe nosegear light. The pilot, who identified the aircraft as a kilo coca 97 (International phonetic alphabet of those days) said he was going to bump the nose gear on the runway to see if would hold. When the tower officer asked what he was going to do if that failed, the pilot said, "I plan to cry a lot."

When we got the T-28 aircraft, I was quite pleased to fly a really new aircraft.  Up until then the only thing I ever flew was quite old. The plane was very easy to fly, and maybe that's  not such a good idea for flight training.  Here I'm shown (dark flying suit) with my T-28 students.

I'll never forget my first ride in a T-28.  I didn't know my way around the cockpit yet, and I had to get in the back seat and make a hooded instrument takeoff. The difficulty was that the first instrument I found for heading was the Radio Magnetic Indicator (RMI), an instrument I had never seen before. But that works backward compared to the normal gyro-stabilized compass. With the RMI, the aircraft turns around the instrument instead of having a heading indicator that turns clockwise for a right turn. The instructor had to take over and make the takeoff!

A T-28 in formation flight.  This training was prior to flying in the B-25.

 I was assigned to take one group of students all the way through the basic program - T-28s and B-25s. 

All these T-28 in-flight pictures were taken on the same flight by my student in the front seat. When I asked for a few minutes for practice, he held the camera up over his head and shot to the rear as I was making a cross under. In those days we didn't have flight helmets or ejection seats.

This is the group (called a flight) of instructors to which I was assigned.  I'm in the back row.  Shortly before being transferred to Korea, I was named "Flight Instructor of the Quarter."  I considered that a great honor, because there were about 200 instructors. I was stationed there for a little more than three years.

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