Air Force and Army Flight Training

By: Bruce Frazer


    I graduated from four military flight schools: two conducted by the Air Force and two by the Army. The first of these was fixed-wing training at Gary Air Force Base (AFB).

    Air Force Fixed-Wing Training

    We started with 126 student officers and graduated around 50 after a six-month course with Air Force flight and ground instructors.

    My civilian flight experience helped a bit at first, but not as much as I had hoped. Flight training started mornings at 4:00 a.m., and classroom work began at 1:00 p.m., yawns and all. Every other week this schedule reversed.

    I can’t imagine a better, more comprehensive course in the air or on the ground. The L-21s, with 135 horsepower, were twice as powerful as the Piper J-3s I flew as a civilian, and they had two position flaps. Although these planes were considerably smaller than regular Air Force primary trainers, the curriculum was almost identical to programs involving Air Force students. Another difference was that there were no radios in L-21s: planes in the traffic pattern were controlled with green, amber or red lights.

    When I started the program, I wore shirts with a size 14 neck and, when we finished, I needed size 14-1/2. By the time I completed three other flight schools, I needed size 15-1/2. This was because so many training aircraft maneuvered in relatively confined areas. You really had to “keep your head on a swivel” to avoid other aircraft, and my neck grew accordingly.

    “Precision” was the watchword of the program. We were graded on every maneuver and, if you were sloppy, you’d wind up with a dreaded “pink slip.” Too many of these and you’d be out of the program. When 20 or so aircraft taxied to the same ramp area, we had to make “S turns” to avoid aircraft in front of us. One time I was concentrating on zigging as the airplane ahead of me zagged, and I failed to see a fire bottle some idiot had left on the taxiway. It was the only pink slip I received.

    The Air Force knew we’d eventually have to fly at critically low speeds to operate out of very short and narrow Army landing strips or roads. So our instructors emphasized slow speed maneuvering and recovering from stalls and spins, including “over the top” spins where you reverse your direction and go into an inverted entry.

    All in all, I flew the L-21 100 hours and received an additional 25 hours “under the hood” in L-19D instrument trainers, plus 15 hours in Link trainers.

    Army Aviation Tactics Course

    The Army used a few liaison planes in World War II, mainly for adjusting artillery, but they were under-powered, madeover civilian aircraft not well suited to Army missions. Postwar planners recognized the need to operate within “the nap of the earth” (close to the surface), with aircraft that could operate from short strips. There were three main mission requirements: to adjust artillery, to evacuate wounded, and to provide rapid transportation from one position to another. Two aircraft designed to meet these requirements came into service in Korea. The first was the Cessna L-19 Bird Dog, a two-place, all metal plane with lots of power. It had a fixed-pitch climb propeller, and, although it only cruised at 90 m.p.h., it climbed fast and steeply. Coupled with its huge flaps, this gave it true short takeoff and landing (STOL) capabilities. Bird Dogs bristled with radios and had wing shackles for carrying everything from bombs to 55-gallon drums of water or fuel. Other fixed-wing aircraft introduced in the Korean War era included the 450 h.p. De Haviland L-20 “Beaver” which, despite its ungainly appearance, would carry anything if you could close the doors. The twin engine Beechcraft L-23 was used exclusively for transporting personnel, and special reconnaissance missions were flown by a few turbo prop Mohawks.

    Ours was the last L-19 fixed-wing course taught at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. All future Army fixed and rotary wing classes would be taught at Fort Rucker, Alabama. The emphasis was on flying to the exclusion of classroom work, and our instructors were either Army officers or civilians who taught us to extract maximum performance from the L-19.

    We flew out of Post Field, which was a huge grass field three quarters of a mile square. The course had a territorial aspect, in that each of us was assigned his very own four-square-mile area south and west of the field above which to practice maneuvers. These were delineated by north–south, east–west section lines, most of which were roads or fences. Each maneuvering area had an alpha-numeric designation, and each student was given a huge map 14 x 14 feet square. Woe be unto him who trespassed on another student’s area. Storing, let alone reading, these maps in the confines of a cockpit was a challenge.

    Fort Sill is the Army Artillery Center, and there are practice ranges to the north and east. There were also about 150 practice landing strips in the area, and whoever laid them out had lots of imagination. Dirt strips all, some were as short as 450 feet, and high trees grew on one or both ends of others. Some curved, some had the crest of a hill in the middle and some were one way, requiring you to land uphill and take off downhill irrespective of the wind direction. Then, too, there were many dirt roads to land on.

    We always overflew strips on which we planned to land and established touchdown and go-around points before we started our approaches. These could be clumps of grass or trees – anything we could recognize obliquely on our approach. Occasionally we’d mentally establish our go-around point ahead of the spot where we intended to lan

    A lot of time was spent practicing takeoffs and landings over rope barriers simulating solid obstructions. For the takeoff part of the drill, we started a respectable distance from the barrier, but it always required a steep climb over the rope. We moved closer and closer to the barrier as we developed proficiency. Ultimately, we’d get to within about 100 feet of a 25-foot barrier and lock our brakes as we revved to full power and raised the tail about a foot off the ground. Then we’d release the brakes and simultaneously pull back on the stick so we were literally “hanging on the prop.” The angle of climb was about 50 degrees, and, as soon as we cleared the rope, we’d push the stick full forward and pick up flying speed.

    L-19s have extra-large control surfaces: huge flaps extend to 60 degrees and they definitely slow you on approaches. But the Army taught a short field approach technique that did and does run counter to conventional wisdom. Alaskan bush pilots use the technique when they need to make extra-short landings. It is described by Loni Habersetzer, who teaches bush pilots how to land on hazardous terrain. As he says in the April/May 2008 issue of Air & Space magazine: “Instead of gliding [the pilot flew] a power-on approach, slowing to the verge of a stall, and used the throttle to control the rate of descent and the elevator to control pitch and thus airspeed.” By flying “behind the power curve,” Habersetzer explains, a pilot can land on the exact spot he wants.

    The Wichita Mountain Wildlife Refuge provided special challenges. As federal property, its use was shared between the Army, the public, and not a few bison and longhorn cattle. It was here we practiced landings and takeoffs on paved roads. This required us to note the location of cars and animals: where they were and where they would be before we landed or took off.

    I have a bittersweet recollection of one such landing. Our instructor, First Lieutenant Jack Avant, rode with one student and had another three follow in other aircraft. We’d fly to a location and he’d get out and observe our near misses. One of us let him out in the middle of a triangle formed by the juncture of three of the Wildlife Refuge roads. Each side of the triangle was about 500 feet long, and each of the three roads leading to the triangle had a stop sign. Lieutenant Avant instructed us to make touch and go landings on one side of the roads.

    We could make three-point or (two) wheel landings. You touched down faster with wheel landings, but I preferred them because they gave me better directional control. Anyway, on one of my approaches, there were no animals in the area and the only cars had yet to reach the stop sign at the end of the road leading to the triangle where I wanted to make my touch and go. Well, I was carrying a bit too much speed and I decided to make a full stop landing because an embankment and the stop sign were looming too close for comfort. I chopped the throttle and stood on the brakes but nevertheless went through the sign and confronted a very surprised driver head on. I barely managed to make a taxiing U turn and head back to pick up Lieutenant Avant. All he said when he got in was “take me to [such and such] a strip.”

    A cliche seems in order: the silence was deafening for a long time. Finally, the good lieutenant posed this question: “How do you like turning corners in the L-19 Lieutenant Frazer?” I can’t remember my answer, but I’m sure it was contrite.

    The Air Force gave me excellent basic fixed-wing training, but the Army taught me to get the most out of its aircraft. This difference was equally true with respect to my Air Force and Army training in helicopters following a year-long assignment at Fort Carson.

     Air Force Helicopter Training

    My basic helicopter training was again at Gary AFB with Air Force instructors. And again, the air and ground school curricula were excellent, with the single exception I’ll soon explain.

    We trained in Bell H-13s, which were used principally for medical evacuations. These were the helicopters used throughout the “MASH” sitcom, but they really did earn their stripes in Korea. No fewer than 95 percent of wounded who were loaded into their litter pods lived to tell about it.

     H-13s in that era were quite a bit more demanding to fly than those in use today. There were at least two reasons for this: 1) the “cyclic,” which controlled the direction of flight, had irreversible, metal-to-metal couplings instead of servals for control linkages; and, 2) there was no automatic cam to add or reduce power as you raised or lowered the collective control. The cyclic was quite unstable and you couldn’t let go of it even to scratch your nose, and the “collective” had a twist grip like a motorcycle; you’d twist it to the right to add power and to the left to reduce power as you simultaneously raised or lowered the collective to increase or decrease lift.

    Helicopters also require control inputs different than those needed in fixed-wing aircraft. For one thing, torque effect is to the right in a helicopter, requiring left pedal when you add power and right pedal when you reduce it. This is just the reverse in fixed-wing. Also, when you land a helicopter you push the cyclic control forward, again just the reverse of fixed-wing.

    There is a universal tendency for student helicopter pilots to over-control. So much so that instructional facilities have “hover pad,”areas so students can acclimate to these differences just a few feet off the ground in hover modes before they fly at higher altitudes. Instructors use a step–by–step system: they control the cyclic and rudder pedals, thus the direction of flight, and the student controls the up and down movements with the collective. Then the student takes over all the controls and humiliates himself because, inevitably, he finds keeping the crazy machine in one place is, well, next to impossible.

    It takes awhile for fixed-wing pilots to master these differences, but they eventually become automatic. Still, transitioning back and forth between helicopters and fixed-wing took some getting used to.

    H-13s are single engine aircraft, and sometimes the engines fail. So our Air Force instructors demonstrated autorotations, which, with practice, allow for smooth emergency landings. It was evident to me our instructors hadn’t themselves practiced these maneuvers. There are different kinds of autorotations which they explained in detail. They demonstrated power recoveries and let us practice a couple of these, but they did not let us touch down from full flare autorotations, wherein you slow the forward air speed to walking speed and then touch down.

    I finished this course in 45 hours and, like most of my classmates, I realized I still had a lot to learn about these birds.

    Army Aviation Helicopter Tactics Course

    This course was at Fort Rucker, Alabama, and it was wonderful from beginning to end. Our instructors were all Army, and, as in the Army L-19 tactics course, the objective was to teach students how to get the most out of the aircraft, which were all H-13s. Many of the instructors were combat veterans; all of them were supremely competent. They taught us maneuvers we’d need in combat, and our confidence grew quickly.

    We started at hover pads, where we practiced hovering autorotations right to the ground. These are a bit tricky. From the usual hover altitude of about 5 feet, we’d chop the power all the way off, hold the collective control stationary, and let the aircraft free fall to within about a foot of the ground. Then we’d pull the collective all the way up to our armpits and softly settle to the ground. We realized that if we pulled prematurely, the ground would come up and smite us: there was no second chance.

    Then we practiced a sort of hybrid autorotation from altitude. We’d slow to 45 m.p.h., level the skids and carry that airspeed and attitude all the way down until we slid along the ground on our skids. This was sort of a compromise between the Air Force technique and the full flare touchdowns I would do routinely years later as a Bell Helicopter demonstration pilot.

    We learned to fly with litter pods on both sides of the fuselage. No problem. But then they asked us to split into pairs, with one student flying and the other in a litter pod. I lost the toss and my close friend Bill French hefted me up and away in the left pod. Ugh.

    Permit me a digression: Bill French and I were classmates through all four flight schools. Then we were stationed together at Fort Carson. I always thought Bill was on the wild side, and he proved it by leading a flight of three L-19s under the Royal Gorge Bridge, the highest suspension bridge in the world. It was never done before and has certainly never been done since. Unfortunately for Bill and his compatriots, a sightseeing train on the valley floor had just discharged an Air Force Lieutenant General and his family. Bill was court-martialed and taken off flight status for six months. I never found out what happened to the two pilots who followed behind him.

    The tactics course taught me how to land uphill, downhill and sideways. And, through artificial curtailment of power, how to land and take off at high altitudes.

    I had always enjoyed flying at night; so much so that I’d seize upon any opportunity to do so. But flying a helicopter without instruments at night was challenging. The bubble on most Bell helicopters was a very efficient reflector of light, and this invited vertigo. Our instructors cautioned us about this, and there were no associated problems in our class.

    I finished this course with a lot more confidence than I had after completing Air Force primary, but I flew fixed-wing aircraft much more than helicopters until I started flying for Bell Helicopter years later.

    I flew a year in Korea as an instructor pilot for Eighth Army (forward) but never heard a shot fired in anger. I came close to flying helicopters in Vietnam, but my age and circumstances kept me from doing so. At one time during the ‘Nam war, it was said seven out of ten Army helicopter pilots were killed or wounded. Friends and classmates were among them.

    Anyone who wants to know what Army helicopter pilots went through in Vietnam should read Robert Manson’s excellent true story, Chickenhawk. He was one of the survivors, and it’s an amazing read.

    – end –

    Return to main page