Teaching Turks

By: Bruce Frazer, March 3, 2009

     It was during sick call at Eighth Army (Forward) Headquarters in Seoul, Korea, in 1955 that I made one of the most fortuitous observations of my military career. Three Turkish officers who didn’t speak a word of English were in line ahead of me. Their translator was a very sharp looking American corporal from the Honor Guard. I was fascinated with his obvious fluency as he conversed back and forth with an American orderly and the Turks. It was a skill that would serve me well.

     My first assignment in Korea was with the Aviation Headquarters Detachment of the Korean Military Advisory Group (KMAG). From Pusan in the south to the demilitarized zone to the north, I flew Korean and stateside dignitaries all over South Korea in L-19s and L-20s.

     I was also an instructor and standardization pilot in these airplanes. Giving check rides to newly assigned Army pilots was always enjoyable. There were also Air Force pilots with temporary ground assignments in the area, and they had to fly four hours per month to qualify for flight pay. They were typically rated in large or high-performance aircraft, and they’d saunter into our operations shack and ask to “borrow an airplane.” Most of them understood they’d need a check ride, but others bridled. The latter types would remind us of their prowess in “real airplanes,” and generally act like petulant children. These guys could be dangerous to themselves and others.

     There were literally hundreds of landing strips the Army Corps of Engineers hurriedly laid out as “U.N.” fought up, down and sideways throughout South Korea. Most were short and narrow and made with interlocking pierced steel planks (PSP). Most of the time they had a cross wind, which put a premium on “stick and rudder skills,” meaning coordinating all the controls. Air Force aircraft that were heavier and faster than our comparatively light planes were more forgiving during takeoffs and landings. Most Air Force pilots managed to sublimate their egos and safely operate out of the short strips in a short time. Others were problematic. This was driven home because, during my tour, more Air Force pilots were killed or injured in small liaison-type aircraft than in all the high performance planes in the area.

     Partway through my tour, I was transferred to Eighth Army Headquarters as flight safety officer – a desk job. For anyone who enjoyed flying as much as I did, this was like purgatory. My commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Jim Bowen, was the finest officer I ever met. He looked like an incarnation of John Wayne. He was bright and a gentleman through and through. Within days of my receiving this dread assignment, he asked if I wanted to volunteer for a unique and challenging flying assignment. My answer was “Oh, yes, sir,” and then some!

     Our army had just given the Sixth Turkish Brigade two L-19s and an American Army pilot needed to teach six of their officers how to fly them. The assignment had a high priority, I’d be entirely on my own, and I had to complete the assignment in three months. But the biggest problem was that none of the Turks spoke English.

     I remembered the bilingual Honor Guard NCO I’d seen and heard at sick call a week or so before. I called his commanding officer, explained my high-priority assignment, and asked if this individual could be placed on temporary duty as my translator. He agreed – providing the NCO would too. And so it was I met Corporal Heinrich Bosch. He was a Jew whose family just managed to escape from Nazi Germany to Turkey, where he lived until age 11. He was educated in Turkey and then, in the late forties, moved to America. He spoke English, German and Turkish with equal facility, and, yes, he’d like very much to help with the project at hand.

     Working with Heinrich was a joy and pleasure. He was a “quick study.” After his Army service, he was awarded a Ph.D. in astrophysics and worked with the Bell Laboratories, where he specialized in deep space communications.

     My only misgiving was about the Turks themselves. American troops often had Army equipment and personal belongings stolen by Koreans called “slicky boys.” Soon after arriving in Korea, a slicky boy was caught in the Turkish compound. The Turks rammed a plumbing pipe in one ear and out the other, then hung him from the gate to their compound. This ended the Turks’ slicky boy problem, and the story was told throughout Korea.

     Both Turkish L-19s were maintained and based just outside Seoul at the K-16 airport. Heinrich and I would have to fly up to Uijongbu (A-4) to meet and instruct the Turkish officers. They would have to drive down to A-4 air strip from their base close to Panmunjum (where the peace treaty, never an armistice, was signed in 1954).

     We had an initial meeting with the six Turk officers and were left with the impression they had flown small liaison aircraft without flaps in Turkey. A couple of them spoke a little broken English, but Heinrich nevertheless translated every word they spoke to me. Between us, Heinrich and I would have to teach our charges how to speak enough English to communicate with military controllers, because English is used universally for this purpose.

     Army fixed-wing flight instruction in L-19s was dangerous. The student sat in front where he could see all the instruments and activate the flaps. The instructor sat in back and couldn’t see the instruments in front or control the all-important flaps. The back seat control stick was a plain pipe, usually strapped to the inside of the fuselage but which fit into a receptacle that ran longitudinally along the cabin floor. The rear rudder pedals with brakes ordinarily lay flat on the cabin floor, but functioned fairly well if they were raised up. With these limitations, L-19 instructors had to fly and teach by feel – “by the seat of their pants.”

     In this case, I’d have to instruct with “chalk talks” on the ground and demonstrations in the air, one maneuver at a time.

     We needed to develop a standardized training syllabus, but first I needed to evaluate each student’s flying abilities. So after familiarizing them with the instruments, radios and flaps, I took each of them up for a “familiarization ride.” I was generally pleased with their “air work” at altitude, but their landing technique was abysmal. All in all, I realized we had a lot of work ahead of us.

     Heinrich and I worked on the syllabus out of the hearing of the Turks. We listed all the important maneuvers and procedures I could think of. We agreed I’d describe and draw one, two or three of them on a blackboard and then demonstrate them in the air. Then, with Heinrich’s considerable help, I’d critique each student separately. In cases where a student’s performance was unsatisfactory, we’d go back to the chalk board and into the air to do it all again.

     It seemed certain there were two reason their landings were initially so bad: 1) they’d never had to land on such short and narrow strips; and, 2) their crosswind landing technique was completely inappropriate for our single, one-direction strips, which almost always had a hefty wind blowing across them. On final approach, they were accustomed to crabbing into the wind, carrying the crab close to the ground, and then straightening out just before they touched down.

     One by one, I taught them to line up with the runway and maintain a straight course down final approach by lowering the windward wing and adding as much opposite rudder as necessary. Five of the six students caught on to this after just a few attempts, but the senior-most officer, a major, just didn’t get it. What bothered me most about it was that I was pretty sure it was his attitude that was the problem; he was simply resisting the crosswind technique I was teaching. I had him up on a very turbulent day with the wind about 90 degrees across the runway and, sure enough, he reverted to his old ways as we headed down. I’d had it with this guy, and I swore aloud as I wrested the controls from him and put the airplane on the ground without another word. Then I walked to our little operations shack and closeted myself.

     The building had translucent plastic covering windows that would ordinarily be glass. And through it I vaguely saw the students gathering. I regretted losing my temper with the major and sort of cringed when Heinrich came to the door and said “the Turks would like to say something to you, Lieutenant.” When I walked out the students were side by side and Heinrich said “They want me to tell you they have a saying in Turkey which is: “Where a teacher strikes you a rose will grow!”

     Some concentrated landing practice with the major under the guise of reconnoitering his unit’s intended area of operations helped him a lot, and I basically cleared the entire group to fly their airplanes at will. This ended the official aspects of the program.

     After this, the group invited Heinrich and me for dinner and to spend the night in their compound. Heinrich told me this was sort of an honor without precedent. Certainly our Turkish friends and their fellow officers made us feel that way. No modern combat unit has plush accommodations, but theirs seemed especially Spartan.

     There were lots of libations followed by a huge dinner served by cowering orderlies. Some of the officers we hadn’t met before spoke English surprisingly well, and they all made it clear I was the honored guest. After a simple meal consisting largely of lamb, I could smell the coffee well before it was served. As with each course and each serving, everybody watched me and waited until I partook before joining me. I sipped the coffee, and it was horrible; it obviously contained salt rather than sugar! I couldn’t help screwing up my face as I pushed it away, and my hosts realized there was a problem. One of the students, one of the senior-most officers, asked me what was wrong. I told him it was surprisingly salty. He asked to taste my cup and immediately spit the contents on the table. One of the orderlies had put salt in the sugar bowl. I’m sure he was beaten within an inch of his life.

     I was proud of these men and pleased Heinrich and I were able to help them. Our parting the next morning was rather sad: we felt certain we’d never see them again. Well, I was wrong on that count. A couple of weeks later en route home, I laid over in Tokyo. I stopped at a restaurant renowned for its Kobe steak – and here were all my former students. Once again and finally they thanked me for instructing them. They wouldn’t let me pay for anything.

     Heinrich had a couple of months left to serve in Korea, and he assured me the group flew their “new” airplanes without incident.

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