Two years ago I flew my Stearman across the country touching down at each of the eight bases that it was stationed at during the war years. The bases were strung out all the way across the country from California to Florida and up into the Carolinas. The flight netted out to about 8000 miles and I took six weeks doing it. It was great. Who says machines are cold inanimate objects without memories.
During this flight I made it a point to seek out, fly and talk with many WWII pilots who trained in the Stearman and in some cases, my own aircraft. Each had many stories to tell and I selected the best and put them together in a book, FLYING THROUGH TIME. The book tells the story of the flight and is an anthology of their flying experiences. The most enjoyable parts of the trip were the meeting of these heroes who never thought that they would ever see the cockpit of their old trainer again, flying with them and listening to their wonderful tales. Many are about training in the Stearman, the Vultee, and the T-6. One Story is from a cadet who crashed my aircraft at Mira Loma and washed out of Primary training. He was stunned when I located him and told him that the airplane still existed. He had left it in pieces on a runway in 1942. Many of the stories are about their experiences in the skies of Europe and the South Pacific. What follows is an excerpt from a days flying and listening to Col. Arthur Fiedler, who flew Mustangs with the 325 Fighter Group, the Checkertail Clan, and yes, he can still fly a Stearman quite well.
Cadet Arthur Fiedler, July 1943 Avon Park, Florida “…I cracked the main spar of the wing.” “Our treatment in primary was in complete contrast to what we had encountered to date at the preflight military bases. Well, I’d better hedge a little and say almost in complete contrast as there were still some instances of ‘chicken stuff.’
The Lodwick Aviation Academy in Avon Park, Florida was a civilian contract school in which we would get approximately 60 hours of flying time taught by civilian flight instructors and be given check rides by Army officers at 20, 40, and 60 hours. The food was good and we were housed in a two-story, brand new building that was very functional. Our days were divided into a half-day of flying and a half-day of academics.
My instructor was a Samuel Wilbur who I thought was quite ancient but later learned that he was just a few years older than we were. I was 19 at the time. In appearance he was stout; certainly not of military bearing but a fine individual. I guess I thought he was a lot older as he had fabulous stories.
Four cadets were assigned to Mr. Wilbur. The plane we flew was the PT-17, a biplane made by Stearman with two open cockpits in tandem, fabric covered and a 220 HP engine. It was a good rugged aircraft and an excellent choice for the job. The PT-17 had some interesting peculiarities not normally found in modern aircraft.
One was its communication system. Our flight helmets had small brass tubes protruding from each earpiece. When we got into the cockpit there were two rubber tubes about three feet long, which we slipped over the earpiece tubes. The instructor had a mouthpiece, shaped like a funnel, at the other end of the tubes and thus he could talk to us but we could not reply – only listen. This device was called a Gosport and was a relative of the old speaking tubes on ships. It left much to be desired. With all the engine and slipstream noise it was often quite difficult to hear what the instructor was saying. Several instructors were known to stick this funnel-like mouthpiece out into the slipstream when they became upset with the student. The result was a 90 mph airstream blast into your ears and a helmet that would balloon out. If we had not had them fastened beneath our chin, I know we would have lost many helmets. Thank goodness Sam never resorted to this practice.
There was another surprising thing about this airplane. Although the front cockpit had a fairly complete set of instruments, the rear cockpit from which the students always flew had only an altimeter, a tachometer and a combination, oil pressure/temperature gauge. Many pilots have expressed disbelief that we did not have an airspeed indicator. And when I tell them that we judged our airspeed by the sound of the air whistling through the wires that braced the two wings, they become even more skeptical. But it is true. The faster we went, the higher the pitch of the sound and conversely the slower the speed, the lower the pitch of the sound. In our first ten hours of flying that was one of the things the instructor took pains to demonstrate to us. With my musical background this was a snap for me, but I have often wondered how many tone deaf cadets washed out because they were unable to relate the sound of the wind whistling through the bracing wires to their airspeed.
Our initial flight instructions emphasized getting off and on the ground safely so that we could solo without killing ourselves. We had something between 10 and 12 hours when we were allowed to solo but I encountered a problem. Although I could take-off, fly and land the airplane very well, for some reason I had difficulty controlling the airplane directionally on the landing rollout, which could lead to a ground loop. This is where the airplane spins around and sometimes the wing on the outside of the turn contacts the ground.
After my first ground loop while flying solo, I had another ride with Sam and believe it or not – another ground loop! But this time I got a wing tip. Sam insisted that it was not my fault because the tail wheel jammed. However I was getting worried. He reassured me and said that we were going for another ride. He then explained that I was not controlling the airplane after landing because I was not using the rudder properly. He was going to demonstrate to me how this was done.
On my next flight, we went to an auxiliary field and Sam told me he would land the airplane without touching the control stick and use only the rudders to control it. As we got about 50 feet off the ground, he
suddenly raised both hands in the air while the aircraft continued descending until it slammed into the ground and rebounded at least 50 feet. As it stalled, a wing would drop, Sam would kick a rudder to bring it up, we would slam into the ground and bounce back up again. And so it continued across the entire field, hit, bounce, hit, bounce, until finally it bounced no more. What I was supposed to observe was that as the wing would fall, Sam would bring it up by kicking the opposite rudder, but frankly I was so frightened that the only thought in my mind was that we were about to die. I think that this was the most frightening experience I had going through training and the purpose of his lesson was entirely lost on me. Actually my problem was not how to bring up the wing, but rather how to keep the airplane on a straight course after landing. Following this demonstration, Sam had me make a couple of solo landings, which for some reason turned out OK but I was still convinced I should resign. On my next flight I was still apprehensive and had the granddaddy of all ground loops – I not only had a wing tip drag but I cracked the main spar of the wing. That was it. I told Sam I was going to resign. When we got back to the home field, he took me to the head of the military flight group, a Captain Chaffee. He was very pleasant, as contrasted with the rumors, and wanted to know what my problem was. I explained and added it was ridiculous for me to break up all these airplanes; I just wasn’t able to handle them. He calmly replied that he thought he could correct the problem. He told me to sit in a swivel chair facing the front of his office which was one huge window overlooking the flight line. “Now extend your arm straight out toward the horizon and watch how your hand moves along the horizon when I swivel the chair,” he said. And sure enough when he moved the chair I could easily detect the slightest movement of my hand along the horizon, “I know exactly what you are doing wrong. When you land you’re looking at the ground directly in front of the airplane and not looking out at the horizon. Next time, after you land I want you to look ahead at the horizon and as soon as you see the engine cylinders move either right or left along the horizon just like your hand does in this chair, kick the hell out of the opposite rudder.”
And he gave the chair another turn saying; “It will be just like you see your hand moving along the horizon now.” Instantly it was like a light had turned on in my brain and I knew that this was precisely what I had been doing. In my efforts to level off at exactly the right height to make a smooth landing, I had failed to watch where the nose of the airplane was going. He then told me to take the airplane that was parked outside, his personal aircraft, and make three take-offs and landings while he watched me. Imbued with confidence, I immediately thanked him, saluted and dashed out to the airplane. I was elated when I made the landings without the slightest problem by following his instructions to “kick the hell out of the opposite rudder,” if I saw the nose start to move across the horizon. This lesson was exceedingly valuable as several months later in Advanced Flying School we were forced to land on a runway with a very strong crosswind. Although I landed without difficulty, fully a third of the other cadets ground looped. I am certain that if not for the efforts of both he and Sam, I would not have been a pilot.
After soloing we began cross-country navigation flights and by now I was convinced I was one hot pilot. We students used to shoot the bull and I learned one could perform a barrel roll by pushing the control stick to one side or the other, so on my next solo flight I had to try it. My problem was that when I got on my back and the nose started to drop toward the ground, I pulled back on the stick to move the nose back up to the horizon. That was what I did when flying right side up.
Unfortunately I was not hot enough to realize that when upside down, the controls are reversed and cause the airplane to react exactly the opposite as when it is right side up. As a result I did what later I would know as a split-s which is a half loop toward the ground from the upside-down position. It’s a fatal thing if you don’t have enough altitude to complete this maneuver. Later I learned that when you are on your back and the nose starts to drop, you push the stick forward – not back – to bring the nose up to the horizon again. Ah well, ignorance is bliss and I survived.
Towards the latter part of Primary, we concentrated on acrobatics and learned all the basic maneuvers, which I enjoyed immensely. I recall many times going up and practicing one specific maneuver such as snap rolls for an entire hour. Of all the aircraft I flew, none did a better snap roll than the PT-17. High-performance aircraft usually did a snap roll when one did not want to do one – in a high-speed stall during combat. Otherwise they did not perform them nearly as well as the PT-17.
After completion of our 60-hour flight check, the survivors of 43-G learned that our destination for Basic flying training was Cochran Field, Macon, Georgia. Sixty-three percent of our class had washed out. We knew that a lot had failed but had not realized that the washout rate had been so high. We regretted only that a lot of fine lads had fallen by the wayside.”
I wander back out onto the ramp at the old Mira Loma Flight Academy, my explorations satisfied. 41-806 sits gleaming in the low sun. I can almost imagine the rows of identical trainers that she once sat amongst in the morning light with their cadets and instructors climbing into the aircraft. But there is a cadet waiting in the tie down area next to the Stearman. He is the kid that had trouble keeping this airplane straight on the runway a lifetime ago. The kid that broke the spar on one of these airplanes. But they had confidence in him and he did all right.
And later when they gave him a Mustang, nine Germans never made it back to their bases. He walks to the cockpit, peers in, and gives me a mischievous smile.
“Good morning Art. Are you ready for your ride?” Arthur Fiedler, the terror of the Avon Beach, Florida ground loop, is going up in his old nemesis.