Stories from the Etchings on My Mind, Learning to Fly

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THE BEGINNING.

Living in the Mid-West in the late 20’s and 30’s, southern Illinois to be specific, our main news source was word of mouth for local news and newspapers from either Chicago or St. Louis, for regional and state news with items always a day or more old. Or we could listen, very attentively to a static filled radio powered by two 6volt car batteries. We were always behind and limited in hearing world news. We knew a war was going on in Asia, Japan had invaded China, and trouble was brewingin Europe, but to us, these were secondary concerns. The great depression was still showing its effect in our area, very few jobs were available, except through the WPA. (Works Progress Administration).

People were more concerned with “our problems” than those across the sea. We were more interested in getting rain for our farm crops and gardens, getting food put away for the coming winter and trying to pay our taxes.  Then in 1939 and early 1940 our area started seeing the affects of the “far away” war. Our country started supplying England, Russia and other allies with all kinds of war-making equipment; planes, guns, trucks, ammunition, food, clothing and more. Because of this, many factories started running around the clock filling “war orders.” Jobs started being available. When the war became “ours” in 1941, I was three years out of high school, had completed a welding course and was working in a steel factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan doing “war essential” work.  I had registered for the draft, but because of my work was given a “deferred” status. I might have been able to stay the war right there since I was deferred, was married and doing “war essential” work. But I knew I did not want to spend my life doing that work, and with so many my age either volunteering or being called up, I didn’t feel I was doing my “full share” by staying. The Army Air Corps was vigorously recruiting young men to fly the airplanes our factories were beginning to build. I had taken a couple short airplane rides, enjoyed them and thought this was a way I could make a useful contribution to the war effort. It was also a profession I could follow after the war, if I were to be lucky. When the Army Air Corps opened up the flying cadet program to “married’s”, with my wife’s blessing, I waived my draft exemption and signed up. We both felt we should do our “fair share” and I knew I wanted to fly. My wife June, had been working for the War Department at Ft. Custer, Michigan since 1941. A older friend was an instructor in the Navy’s preliminary flight training program, flying the J-3 piper cub. I told him of my plans. He suggested a flight to “see if you’re able to do it.” I enjoyed the flight and the instruction. He was impressed enough to say “go for it”, so I petitioned the draft board for immediate induction and received my call-up in mid 1943.

Order for transferred man to report to induction

After Basic training at Miami Beach, CTD (College Training Detachment) at Lebanon Tenn., preflight at Maxwell AB Alabama, I was on my way. I took all of my flight training in the South Eastern part of the country, mainly in Georgia.  The following is a compilation of experiences and things I saw and did during the time I was learning the military way of becoming a pilot. What results is the way I remember the incidents. I like to remember them as “Things I learned while learning to fly”.

PT 17s.

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My primary or first serious flying experiences as a student pilot was in the Stearman PT-17. A two-winged, two-seated, open cockpit aircraft with a single engine producing 220 horse power. This aircraft had only the very basic of instruments. A gas gauge, an oil pressure gage, an altimeter, a bankand turn indicator, a rate of climb and a magnetic compass.  All flying in this airplane was “visual”, that is by keeping track of where you were visually. We did not fly too high, perhaps up to 3,000 feet, so the ground was readily seeable. This was at Darrn Areo Tech, located just north of Albany, GA.

We cadets were divided into flights. My flight probably had 50-60 in it.  We had ground school for half the day and flight training the other half. The ground school consisted of subjects such as map reading, weather, navigation, basic flying techniques etc. During the half day devoted to flying we were assigned in groups of five students to one instructor. They seemed to have us fly some each day, most flights were less than an hour, many in the thirty to forty minute class.  During the time we were not flying we were supposed to be studying our ground school subjects. In my group, we were all new to flying, except one who had previous flight experience. Forget how much and how he got it, but he used to tell of his exploits. After we had several hours of instruction, he began telling us the instructor was going to “solo” him pretty quick. It was somewhat an honor to be soloed first. They would not solo you until you could safely take off, land, recover from spins and stalls, and of course the instructor had to feel you were
ready. Each flight was graded, and the grade sheets gone over with you. A failing flight would earn you a “pink” grade sheet. Three of these and you went before an evaluator to see if you stayed in training. I never received a pink slip in any of my training.

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We would report to the flight line, meet our civilian instructor and learn our flying orders for the day. He’d tell us what we’d be doing. He and the first to fly would go to the aircraft. The rest would” study” until they returned. When they landed and taxied in, the next fellow would run out,  Carrying his parachute. The first cadet would get out, the next get in, and off they’d go. These planes had an open cockpit with a small windshield, this required us to wear goggles.  The student always flew from the front seat, both with the instructor and when solo. We had no interphone system, but the instructor had a tube with a funnel type deal on it through which he could talk to us. We wore cloth helmets and this tube divided and joined tubes leading to each ear pad. It was like hollering through a pipe and we could hear fairly well. We’d acknowledge instructions by nodding or waving. We had a rear view mirror through which we could see the instructor.

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One day we were out doing routine practice and he says “Potter is your seat belt fastened tight.”I checked and replied that it was. He then turns the airplane upside down, and keeps it that was for a really long time, probably a couple minutes. I learned then that my seat belt was not “good and tight” but had enough slack for me to drop about four inches out of the seat. I learned then that good and tight, really meant “good and tight.”By Oct. 2, 1944 no one had soloed in our group.

We were all getting close, but I kinda believed the experienced fellow who said he was sure he was to be first. So when we met the instructor, he said “Potter you’re first today.” So he and I get in the aircraft and off we go. I believe I made the take off, which was normal. We went up and did a spin or two, some stalls and about then he said “Let’s go to Haley field and shoot some landings.” This was a small dirt, auxiliary field a few miles to the northwest of the main field. It was completely surrounded by pecan trees. To an up-north boy, these look about like an apple tree, full and fat and some twenty feet high. So we go to this field and land. He tells me to take it around again. I did. After this landing he says to “pull up over at the edge of the field.” I taxied over, thinking he had to relieve himself. When we got to the edge and turned around, he gets out taking his parachute with him. He leaned over my cockpit and says “I want you to take off, fly the pattern and land, like we just did.” He also says “Watch me when you’re on the ground. If I wave to you I want you to come over here. Otherwise, make a total of three landings, then come pick me up.” He adds, “Think you can do it?” Of course, I had NO idea this was going to happen and before I could think of any dire consequence or of all the things that MIGHT happen, I said “sure.”

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So, off I went.  Trip one, the landing went pretty well, I didn’t bounce. Trip two went about the same. I was beginning to think, “boy what will they think back at the field.” We’d been gone longer than normal, and for ME to be the first to SOLO! So, I got it on the ground the second time, looked at him, he was smoking a cigarette and did not wave, so I lined up again and opened the throttle wide, I remember thinking “I hope he had enough gas put in for all this extra flying.” So off I went. When turning the downwind leg, the one that parallels the direction of landing, I noticed some fluffy white clouds had formed and one was right in my path. Same altitude and all. I wondered what to do, should I go around it, or should I climb or descend to miss it. I also thought if I did either of these, I might mess up my pattern, which could goof up my timing and I might not turn final just right and would goof up the landing. Since I had two good ones, I did not want to take a chance on that. I had no instrument practice so wasn’t sure I could remain straight and level through it. My other main concern, I was not real sure the engine would keep running while in the cloud. We had not flown through clouds with the instructor. But I finally decided I’d go for it. I really wanted to get the last landing in. So right through the cloud I went.  Probably wasn’t in it for more than 30 seconds, but I was so pleased that the ground was still below me when I came out. I went ahead, turned final and made my last landing, again it was pretty good. When taxing back to pick up the instructor, I thought, “oh my goodness what if he saw me fly through the cloud, and what if we weren’t supposed to etc.” The threat of being washed out was real and with you all the time.

The war was going better all the time, so would be over sometime, and the biggest need now was for infantrymen. If you washed out, you could be carrying a rifle in Europe within a couple weeks. But I put all this out of my mind as I taxied back. He came out to the plane and said something like “you did pretty well.” He gets in, I take off again and we head to the home station. When we landed there, the guys were all pretty sure something was up. So I got to tell them I had made my first solo flight, making me somewhat of a celebrity. Don’t recall how many other students in the flight had done so, but I wasn’t too far from the beginning of the group. We were required three “supervised” solo flights before being permitted to go out by yourself.  These I had accomplished. I was now qualified to fly alone. Now when we’d arrive for flying, I would fly with him some days and some days I would be assigned a plane to fly alone. He would tell me what to do, three spins, two stalls, etc. When flying alone, it came home to me that you really had to keep a good watch for other aircraft. Instead of two to watch, now there is only one. I recall one plane coming by fairly close, I could see the solo student, Aviation Cadet Parker very clearly. He had a very frightened look on his face. When he washed out a couple weeks later, I wasn’t too surprised. That made me figure if I wanted play this game and stay alive doing it, I’d best start being very vigilant.

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As time went on, I did more solo flying. One afternoon, while flying by myself, they changed the landing direction. You always landed into the wind, and we were landing on the sod (grass) portion of the airfield. By landing on grass, your tires will slip a bit if you’re not perfectly lined up. Landing on a hard surface, the tires will grab and the plane had a tendency to ground loop more readily. Since we had no radios, they had a large wooden arrow, perhaps 10-12 feet long and 4 feet wide or so.  They would point this in the direction of landing. This afternoon while out by myself, they changed the landing direction to land towards the east. This required you to come in from the west, let down over the main road, pass over the hangers, then the parking apron with all the planes on it, then land on the sod. I came in for my first attempt, but was too high. By the time I was low enough to land I was too far down the field. I pulled up and went around and tried a second time. I believe I did this either five or six times. I was apprehensive about getting too close to the hanger roof, and not experienced enough to increase my descent slope to hit the sod near where I should. On one of the tries, I saw my flight in marching formation, ready to return to the barracks and have supper and here I was still trying to get down. I wondered if I’d run out of gas or run out of daylight first. So on the sixth or so try I thought I’ll just skim the hanger and put her down, one way or the other. That time I made it. I was quite relieved, really glad I made it. I took quite a bit of ribbing from the flight for that.AT-6 I flew the AT-6 Texan with its 600 HP engine during the second phase of flying. This brought us into the variable props, adjustable carburetor, radios, flaps and retractable gear. It also had us taking off and landing on hard surface much of the time. We were continually cautioned about landing straight so you wouldn’t “ground loop.”

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Nothing too unusual happened except the thrill of my first night flight, and my first night landings using only the runway lights, all done while solo. I don’t recall ever having an instructor along for a night flight. We had been briefed that we would see “a lot of fire” coming out the side of the engine after dark. It was the exhaust coming from the collector ring that collected the exhaust from all cylinders and exhausted it in one stream. We took off just before dark, while this was still not visible, went out to an assigned holding area and altitude to await darkness. We were stacked four deep in four different areas. After dark, they’d call the bottom ship in, he would make his required night landings and finish up. I was on top of my stack, so got to wait until it was good and dark to be called in. I remember the thrill of seeing the lights of Macon, Georgia and the surrounding area come on. Also saw the streak of flame they told us about. When my turn to make landings came, nothing much happened. I made one or two with the floodlights, some with the airplane lights, and then a couple they called “blackout.”  Just the lights on the sides of the runway. They were bright enough to show the sides of the strip, but not bright enough to show the pavement where we were landing. I did OK, no problems.

B-25s

My advanced flying was at Turner Field, Albany Georgia. Here we flew the Mitchell, B-25 with two 1700HP engines. This was a full blown actual usable bomber aircraft. Many B-25s were in both theaters of operation. This aircraft was known for being noisy. It did not have a collector system for the exhaust, only short exhaust ports which really made a loud popping noise. I would be half deaf for a day or more following a flight. Ear protection was not provided nor used, only headsets. My flying here went smooth, I seemed to always do well.

After I graduated in May 1945, I was sent to Waco Texas to the B-25 instructor’s school. Afterward I returned to Turner where I flew as an instructor in the B-25. One flight I had the student make a simulated engine out landing. You’d pull the throttle all the way to idle, leaving the propeller turning, to simulate having that engine inoperative. To keep the airplane straight, you had to put in a lot of rudder trim to compensate for the drag of the “dead” engine. We landed all right, went to the end of the runway and were going to make another take off. I had to relieve myself,  so climbed out of the plane and did so. I told the student to “run the check list” while I was on the ground. I climbed back into the seat, asked if he’d “run the checklist” (do all the required items prior to taking off).  He replied that he had, so off we went using both engines. As we picked up speed, the aircraft wanted to veer to the side. I looked down and the rudder trim was still all the way into the side of the formerly dead engine. There was a knurled knob, about three inches across and an inch or so high that controlled this. So as we rolled I reached down and returned the trim to the zero (neutral) position and we continued the take off. I asked the student what happened and he says something like “I guess I missed it.” Yes, indeed. That taught me right then, not to completely trust anyone on things like that. So from then on out, I’d always try to check the “critical” items myself. Some check list items weren’t that important, most were.

It was at Turner AFB that for I instructed French Cadets in B-25’s for several months. These cadets had finished much of their training and we emphasized formation and instrument flying. They spoke little English, I knew no French. But, using sign language and pidgen English, we got along.  It was an enjoyable experience. For this, I was awarded an “honorary commission” and pilot wings in the French Airforce and was kissed on both cheeks by the French General who made the presentation. Another first!  Orders assigning me overseas soon came, my period of flying “training” aircraft was over.

Francis H. Potter

Col. USAF Ret.

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