Saturday, June 29, 2019 - by Dr. C. Wayne Shearer
(Editor’s Note: Dr. Wayne Shearer, 94, is a retired optometrist and retired colonel from the U.S. Air Force Reserve now living in Hixson. In his early 90s, he decided to sit down and write from memory and a few records he still possesses his recollections of going through Army Air Corps pilot training at several bases in the United States during World War II. A lifelong writer, he wanted to pen them as he remembered them happening at the time. He also recreates now-lost letters as best as he recalls writing them and references newspaper articles he collected at the time and still possesses.
This is the 19th in a series of regular excerpts from his as yet unpublished book, “Under This Arch.”)
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Setting: Grider Field in Pine Bluff, Ark.
January 8, 1944:
We arrived on January 7 around 3 p.m. per our orders, which had been handed to each of us to be responsible to use when reporting into Grider Field. We were loaded into what appeared to be used school buses repainted a grayish color with the Grider Field name printed on them. We were a tired, disheveled bunch of cadets because it’s hard to get much sleep overnight in a day coach full of smoke and cinders.
As our buses bounced along, we began to see beautiful blue and yellow low wing training planes in the air and knew we were close to Grider Field. We felt like we were in heaven seeing real military planes that we would be flying.
The buses were waved into the small base by civilian guards and drove to a colonial style administration building at one end of a quadrangle. Each of us stepped off the bus and were met by two second lieutenants and one first lieutenant, whom we reported to as “Aviation Cadet Claude W. Shearer, serial number 1416 0000 reporting as ordered, sir,” and saluted. He handed back to me my mimeographed orders after marking off my name on his list.
Around the rest of the quadrangle were one-story, red-roofed barracks with columned porches running the full length. We had been told that Grider Field was more like a country club, and these quarters are the best we’ve had with two men per room sharing a bath between two rooms. Our main interest is to get close to those PT-19As on the flight line, which takes place tomorrow.
Before being assigned our quarters, we stood “at ease” in the quadrangle and in a short briefing were told that Grider is a civilian contract flying field with all civilian flight instructors. Everything is under the direct supervision of the Army Air Force. The only Army officers on the field are the commandant of cadets, the adjutant and several Army pilots who supervise training. The first lieutenant then said you will be given flying equipment tomorrow and have your introductory flight soon. Last, he assigned us alphabetically to our rooms with our barracks bags; we then formed up and marched to the cadet mess hall. We were hungry and the food, served by pleasant middle-aged ladies, was good.
January 9, 1944:
Today (Sunday) we marched to the supply building for our flight equipment. We were issued helmets, goggles, heavy sheep fur- lined leather pants with suspenders, leather jacket, leather gloves, boots and a khaki wool neck scarf. All of us were thrilled and, back in our quarters before lunch, couldn’t resist looking at ourselves in the mirror dressed as real Army Air Corps pilots to be. These heavy leather flying clothes should keep us warm flying in an open cockpit plane during these cold winter months. Our helmets had small, L-shaped metal tubes protruding outward and down from the ear pads. This was for the instructors to talk to us cadets in a one-way communication through two rubber hoses attached to the ear pad tubes. These hoses go from the cadet helmet to the instructor’s cockpit in the rear. He will speak to us from his end that looks like a medical stethoscope. We will be able to hear him clearly in the airplane. The upperclass cadets told us that we’ll get an earful frequently through the gosport!
This afternoon we received our books for ground school classes with such courses from Preflight School as theory of flight, aircraft identification, and weather. From looking at the increased number of Army technical manuals on aircraft engines, aircraft operating systems, navigation, maps and charts, we’ll be spending more classroom course time on them. One week we will have morning academics, then fly in the afternoon. The next week vice versa.
Tomorrow we’ll march to the flight line and meet our instructor whom we’ll be assigned to in alphabetical order in groups of 4 or 5 cadets per instructor. He will discuss the correct way to wear the equipment.
At the evening meal, several of us overheard one of the upperclassmen saying that today a cadet who landed ahead of him had his plane slowly flip over its nose as he touched down, and it ended upside down. The cadet climbed out of his upside down plane unhurt. He told his instructor and others crowded around that for some reason he landed with his feet on the brake pedals. Don’t know if he’ll be washed out or not, but that’s the talk.
January 10, 1944:
This morning (Monday) we dressed into our flight equipment and our squadron marched to the flight operations building. To meet our civilian flight instructor, four of us in alphabetical order were assigned to a nice appearing civilian flight instructor. He is about 10 years older than we cadets are. After the introductions, he remarked: “The Air Corps is robbing the cradle with you cadets.” Well, we four cadets are still teenagers and only shave once a week, so to him we look and are young.
He checked out our heavy leather equipment to make sure we are wearing it properly to stay warm. We walked around this beautiful blue and yellow low wing Fairchild PT-19A, which is powered by an inverted 6-cylinder Ranger engine. This airplane is larger than the Piper Clubs and Aeronicas we got 10 hours of flying time at C.T.D.
He told us he gets the same respect as a commissioned A.A.F. officer. He said, “You are to listen to me at all times and it is my job to teach you how to fly the military way. Further, if you don’t have the correct ability to become a pilot, I’ll not hesitate to send you up for an Elimination ride with one of the Army pilots here at Grider Field.” I think he’s going to be fair to us in a business-like manner.
As he was giving us a walk-around look at the PT-19, one of the Army check pilots appeared with a 1st lieutenant with Anti-Aircraft branch insignia on the Army coat lapel telling our instructor that he will be an additional student.
After the close-up look of the airplane, our instructor demonstrated how to carry a parachute and how to fasten the straps on the chest and legs and, saying each of you will have an introductory flight tomorrow. That parachute will be my “life preserver” and I intend to treat it with care.
It was time for lunch and our flight formed up and marched to the cadet dining hall. We enthusiastically conversed about our newly assigned instructors, the airplanes, the flight operations building, the flight line, etc. One of the upperclassman told us that until we soloed, the goggles were to hang around our neck, instead of on the leather helmet, unless we were in the cockpit.
After lunch, we returned to quarters for more animated conversation concerning the morning activities. Then the call was made to assemble and march to the classrooms to meet our academic instructors. Each one seems to be well qualified to teach us cadets. By mid-afternoon, after each instructor had, briefly, outlined his course material and expectations, we returned to our rooms.
During the evening meal, all the talk was centered upon our flight instructors and looking forward to tomorrow. We were told by our cadet officers not to leave when we’re finished eating, but to wait for a demonstration. Shortly, three of the check pilot lieutenants arrived carrying two parachutes. The 1st lieutenant discussed the importance of not letting the parachute get wet and to be careful with it from the moment you check it out until you turn it in. He said, “I’m going to demonstrate to you the only lesson you’ll ever receive if you need to bail out of an airplane.” He buckled the seat pack chute on himself and climbed upon the table. He stood on the table, put his right hand on the large ring on the left-hand side of his chest, saying, “When you jump, push away from the plane so the tail won’t hit you.” Suddenly, he pulled the ring and jumped off the table with the white silk parachute flowing out behind him on the table and on the floor. And now I know how to parachute out of a plane!
January 11, 1944:
After breakfast, our flight happily marched to the flight operations stage house to obtain a parachute and to gather around our flight instructor. We walked to our assigned plane on the flight line, neatly parked wing tip to wing tip with the other airplanes. This yellow-and-blue training plane has large white stars in blue circles in insignias on the wings. We did a careful walk around inspection to determine that the aileron, elevator, rudder, and parking tabs had been removed so that they are properly moveable by the rudder and stick controls. He repeated the warning to never get in front of the plane when the propeller is turning.
Our instructor had one of our cadets climb upon the left-hand side wing and get into the front cockpit showing him how to connect the gosport to his helmet. He looked at me saying, “You’ll be next for the orientation flight, so get the engine crank from the compartment on the left-hand side of the fusilage.” He said the next cadet to fly with him always cranks the engine. After you solo, a fellow cadet will crank for you. I climbed on the wing placing the two-handed crank into a hole in left side of the engine and started cranking. The engine started and I replaced the crank in its compartment.
Soon they returned and it was my time. The other cadet, John, climbed out of the cockpit and I stepped up on the left wing, carefully seating myself. My instructor in the rear cockpit watched me as I hooked the gosport connections to my helmet. He said, “Can you hear me?” I nodded yes. He then said, “Is your seatbelt fastened tight?” And then came a few more instructions: “Move the stick and rudder pedals to make sure they’re moving,” “Are toe brakes on top of rudder pedals set?” “Gas selector valve on fullest tank?” “Use wobble pump to get dial pressure of 5!” Is throttle back with slight crack?” “Is Mag switch on left Magneto?” I nodded yes. Joe cranked the engine and I held the stick back into my lap. Joe held up two fingers as the engine was running and I signaled back that I had switched to both Mags with the engine then running smoother.
He sent his other students to the stage house to wait 30 minutes until returning to the flight line. As we sat with the engine idling, he told me what the ailerons, elevator and rudder did in controlling the plane. He showed me how to raise and lower the wing flaps and that the flaps slowed the plane down upon landing. We taxied in S-turns for visibility rather than straight ahead. We then parked at a 45-degree angle at the end of the runway ready to take off into the wind and one final check of both magnetos of this 175-horsepower Ranger engine. This is a more powerful plane than the C.T.D. Piper Cub.
We soon were in the air above the runway and banking right to stay in the right-hand flight pattern, then a left banking turn leaving the pattern climbing. We climbed to 3,000 feet. He pointed out the two auxiliary fields, the Arkansas River, and other landmarks to know to prevent being lost. I was so excited I may not remember them all at first. We did some climbing turns and the stall series (right, left, and straight ahead). I did a sloppy, skidding turn or two and back to the field. My first PT-19 flight was for 34 minutes on January 11, 1944. I’m anxious for tomorrow to do it again!
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To see the previous entry in this series, read here.
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Dr. Shearer can be contacted at email@example.com.