In war and peace, aviation cadets served their nation nobly, enthusiastically and with honor. Although the various aviation cadet programs varied greatly in size and scope over the roughly forty-eight years of their existence, each major effort came when time was short, facilities limited and combat imminent. Each one, produced the required number of trained personnel to meet the country’s needs, sometimes as if by magic. Far more important, the successive classes of aviation cadets provided not only combat heroes but astute leaders for the future. In the crucial period from 1935 to 1975, a very large percentage of Air Force general officers began their careers as aviation cadets. With the gradual reduction in force size and the introduction of the Air Force Academy, the high percentage of former aviation cadets flag officers inevitably declined, but their effect is still felt in strategy, tactics and tradition.
No matter the time period, all of the aviation cadet programs had some essential characteristics in common. First and almost certainly the most important, they attracted people who really wanted to fly and were hungry for an upward career path. For a many of the volunteers, becoming an aviation cadet was not an opportunity for personal success—it was the opportunity. Second, the aviation cadet programs were frequently done in concert with an able sector of the civilian flying population. Third, most of those who participated in the programs vastly enjoyed the experience, despite the danger, discomfort and hard work that was implicit in it.
One curious aspect of the various programs was the uniform manner in which the volunteers responded. No matter the era, nor where they were located, the cadets reacted in similar ways. They generally disliked the academics, drill, rations, quarters and the hazing of underclassmen, but these feelings were more than offset by the intense camaraderie felt on the flight line. Bursting with health and energy, they looked forward to the weekends when they literally embraced the local communities. There the young ladies had high regard for them as the subsequent thousands of marriages and children proved. But more than any other factor, they liked the aviation cadet program because they loved flying and the opportunities it offered them to serve the nation—and themselves.
The Early Days: Finding the Way
Despite the fact that aerial warfare had progressed rapidly in Europe from the outbreak of “the Great War,” the inherent conservatism and tight budgets of the U.S. Army kept its air component to a minimum. Much was learned from the valiant if unsuccessful efforts of the 1st Aero Squadron in the 1916 Mexican Punitive Expedition, and the Congress at last authorized more than $13 million to the Air Service in August of that year. Yet when Congress declared war on Germany on 6 April 1917, the Army had three flying training schools, about 125 aircraft, none suitable for combat, and 96 rated officers.
On May 26, 1917, France’s Premier Alexandre Ribot, aware of America’s vast production potential if not of its aerial impotence, called for an American flying corps of 5,000 aircraft, 4,000 pilots and 50,000 mechanics to be placed in France by 1918.
Thus challenged by a valiant ally, President Woodrow Wilson two months later signed into law the largest Congressional appropriation in history–$640 million for aeronautics. This began a huge production effort and the creation of the training programs the vast new “flying corps” would require.
The Air Service’s first pilot and future Chief of the Air Corps, Benjamin D. Foulois, went to Canada with a group to examine the flying training system already in place at universities there. These, especially the School of Military Aeronautics (SMA) at the University of Toronto, were used as models for the Air Service to follow. Major Howard Bingham was tasked to create a similar American system and by 21 May 1917, SMAs were opened at the Universities of California, Cornell, Illinois, Ohio State, Texas and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Less than two months later, similar programs began at Princeton University and the Georgia Institute of Technology. Bingham even adopted the Canadian term “flying cadets” for the pilot candidates, who had to be under 25 years of age, have two years of college and be “athletic, honest and reliable.”
The response was overwhelming. Almost 40,000 applied for the program, with 22,500 passing the very tough physical examination that became an enduring characteristic of the aviation cadet programs.
The Canadian system called for an initial eight weeks of ground training followed by six to eight weeks of flight instruction in a primary training school. Overtime, the instruction at American SMA’s became more sophisticated, and grew eventually to twenty weeks duration. Emphasis was placed on military training, as well as on aerodynamics, aircraft rigging and maintenance, engines, gunnery operation and even the still developing theories on combat tactics.
A simultaneous effort was made to create flying schools, with twenty-four more built, most in weather-friendly areas. The flying cadets received from 40 to 50 hours in aircraft such as the Curtiss JN-4 or Standard J-1. Initially, flying training was taught in stages but by 1918, the American schools followed the methods established by Major Robert Smith-Barry at the Royal Flying Corps School of Special Flying in Gosport, England.
Smith-Barry’s instructors used a one-way speaking tube connected to the student pilot’s ears (the “Gosport.) The low-time instructor pilots were often ill-trained themselves, and thus understandably nervous about their job. The combination of one-way communication and instructor apprehension spawned a sinister side effect that persisted for years, bullying students while instructing them.
Those who survived the training (the accident rate was high) and passed their pilot qualifications test received commissions as second lieutenants and were rated as either a Reserve Military Aviator or Junior Military Aviator.
With their new wings, the pilots then received an additional forty hours of specialized training to qualify for pursuit, bombardment or observation work. The ace syndrome was already widespread, and most pilots sought assignment to pursuit squadrons.
It had been planned from the start to give advanced training in France and in July, 1917, a decision was made to begin pilot training in Great Britain, France and Italy. Ultimately, the American and foreign schools graduated about 8,700 and 1,600 students, respectively. Foreign students, especially Canadians, were also trained in American schools.
The Inter-war Years: Lean Times but Stellar Products
The growth spurt of the U.S. Army Air Service from April 1917 to November 1918 was amazing. Although promises to “darken the skies with aircraft” were not fulfilled, the Air Service, American Expeditionary Force, fought for seven months at the front. At war’s end, there were 740 American aircraft at the front. Had the war lasted another year, the Army Air Service would have deployed thousands of planes, many of indigenous design.
The November 11, 1918 Armistice set in train a series of reductions in funding, personnel and aircraft. The Air Service bottomed out from 1923 to 1926 with 880 officers, 8,000 enlisted. The numbers would improve only marginally until World War II became incontrovertibly imminent. A great number of reserve officers were initially available, peaking at about 7,000 in 1926, but declining to 1,000 by 1938. The decline stemmed from the high fatal accident rate and resignations.
To offset the losses, only a small aviation cadet program was required. By 1922, the only training bases were Brooks Field (primary) and Kelly Field (advanced.).Brooks was supplemented from 1927 to 1931 by March Field. A new era began when Randolph Field opened on June 20, 1930. This beautiful base, the fabled “West Point of the Air” consolidated training efforts. Brooks, Kelly and Randolph collectively became the Air Corps Training Center.
As there were many applicants, all eager to fly, the program standards for the flying cadets were extraordinarily rigorous from the entrance exams to the flight line. An estimated 90% of applicants failed the physical or the entrance exams. Although the daily schedule varied over the years, it was generally intense from Reveille at 5:45 a.m till lights out at 10:00 p.m. Flying, academics, physical training and drill alternated in a relentless sequence, and underclassmen often were subjected to the officially prohibited hazing. The average student soloed in ten hours, but was continuously monitored by instructors for any failure in technique or discipline. Wash-outs were frequent, for either a perceived lack of flying ability or a failure to meet military standards. It was peculiar to this era that students were counseled not to be ashamed about washing out—the standards were so high, that only the most gifted could be expected to meet them. In later years, washing out almost always imparted a sense of failure.
Funds were so limited that graduating classes were often fewer than 200, and prior to 1939, never more than 246. In the dark period from 1922 to 1931, an average of only 139 pilots per year graduated. Between 1919 and 1926, some 1,494 flying cadets entered primary flying school, but only 415 graduated. Charles Lindbergh, arguably the most famous flying cadet graduate, recalls that of his 1925 class of 107, only 17 made the grade. Things did not improve with time. Some 4,640 students entered training between 1932 and 1939 and of these slightly more than fifty percent washed out. And all too often a newly graduated 2nd Lieutenant pilot would be immediately placed in the reserves without ever seeing active duty.
The interwar years saw changes in equipment from World War I surplus Jennies, S.E.5as and de Havilland DH-4s to specialized trainers such as the Consolidated PT-1 and PT-3. Modern training aircraft such as the Seversky BT-8 (notorious for ground-looping) and the demanding but still tractable North American BT-9 came in the mid-1930s. When war loomed, a whole host of new trainers became available, ranging from the classic Stearman PT-17 through the Vultee BT-13 and the dean of all war-time trainers, the North American AT-6.
Despite the rigorous training, the rewards for these inter-war aviation cadets were great—a chance to fly and by 1939, with the nation still locked in a depression, a very welcome regular monthly pay of $127.50. The rewards were greater for the Air Corps, for this era’s flying cadet system produced such luminaries as James Doolittle, Hugh Elmendorf, Muir Fairchild, Harold Lee George, Barney Giles, Benjamin Giles, Frank Hunter, Clarence Irvine, George Kenney, Curtis LeMay, John “Killer” Kane, Neal Kearby, Archie J. Old, Thomas Power, Elwood Quesada, Edward Rawlings, Ennis Whitehead and K.B. Wolfe. There were many more at every level, all of vital importance to the service.
And although the inter-war training program was small, it kept the aviation cadet tradition alive, ready for a transition to the coming unprecedented requirements.
World War II: Flying Cadets become Aviation Cadets
Despite the fact that war had been raging in China and Spain since 1937 and notwithstanding Germany’s threats, the United States remained resolutely frugal, unwilling to budget for an adequate air force. In 1939, the U.S. Army Air Corps had 2,722 officers on active duty, with 23, 779 enlisted personnel. But change would come rapidly, with the forecast size of the Air Corps being raised to 24 groups on 1 July 1939. This called for annual pilot training classes of 1,200—six times the average size of past classes. On 31 March, 1941, the goal grew to 84 groups, 30,000 pilots per year and 100 training bases, numbers clearly beyond the capacity of the Air Corps to handle. Complicating the task was the fact that to graduate 30,000 pilots, you had to enter 60,000 into training, and to get 60,000 candidates, you had to have 300,000 applicants.
On 3 June 1941, the Army Aviation Cadet Act created the grade of “aviation cadet” instead of “flying cadet.” War was becoming every more imminent. When the seminal and uncannily accurate document AWPD/1 was accepted in August, 1941, the number of pilots required per year was estimated to be 85,236. Along with this vast number of pilots, there were complementary requirements for navigators, bombardiers, gunners, radio operators, mechanics and all the other skills necessary for a fighting air force. The number of applications now required to enter the system grew to several million.
It was immediately apparent that aviation cadet qualifications must be lowered to have a sufficient number enter training, and in the years to come, these qualifications would be adjusted according to the perceived need of the service. Among the first restrictions to go was the requirement for college experience, opening the field to hundreds of thousands of candidates who would otherwise have been excluded.
Three general classes of aviation cadets were sought. They were “aviation cadet (pilot and bombardier), aviation cadet (navigator, non-pilot, flying) and aviation cadet (ground duty, as meteorologist and engineer.)”
The size of the programs grew steadily to staggering numbers. When war began in December, 1941, there were 16,733 cadets in flying training. One year later this had grown to 89,973, peaking at 109,000 two years later. By 1944, the number declined to 38, 796—and washed out cadets had to worry about going to the infantry.
Aviation Cadet Examining Boards around the country gave candidates a three part classification test in addition to the rigorous physical exam. These were intended to determine whether the candidate would be best suited as pilot, navigator or bombardier. In lieu of the earlier education tests, the new test was designed to measure judgment, mathematical skills, mechanical abiity comprehension, and leadership qualities. Another test measured reflexes, eye-hand coordination, the ability to perform under pressure and visual acuity. An interview with a trained psychologist comprised the third part.
Scores on the three tests were aggregated on a nine-point scale—the famous (or infamous) “stanine” (for “standard nine”) score. Most of the volunteers wanted to be pilots, and many were dissatisfied if their test scores resulted in assignment as a navigator or bombardier. Ironically, initially, the qualifying stanine score for pilot training was “1” but for navigator training it was “5.” The stanine, like almost all of the other requirements, was changed over time to suit the needs of the service.
The Air Corps Chief, Major General Henry H “Hap” Arnold foresaw the direction if not the extent of the new pilot requirements and solicited aid from already established civilian flying schools. The initial group of nine contract primary flight training schools increased to fifty-six by 1943.
The contractors were paid per student, supplied Army aircraft, flying equipment and a cadre of supervisory officers, and were then frequently inspected. They had to supply “adequate” facilities (the degree of “adequacy” was often challenged by cadets freezing or sweating in the barracks.) A typical school with a three-hundred student class size would have 278 civilian personnel, with 128 flying instructors. They would be supported by a 56-man military component, with a major commanding. Similar arrangements were made on a smaller scale to train technical personnel. Pan American Airways aided initially in training navigators, but in time Air Corps schools were provided for non-pilot rated officers.
General Arnold also developed the College Training Program to help qualify potential aircrew members. In being from March 1943 to June 1944, it examined candidates at one of twelve Army basic traing centers. Those that passed were enrolled at one of 153 colleges affiliated with the program, with the top twenty percent being tested immediately to determine which aviation cadet program they would enter. Almost 100,000 men entered aviation cadets through the CTP. An important aspect of the CTP program was the inclusion of six historically black colleges to offer programs to African-Americans. Tuskegee Institute was the most famous of these, and the achievements of its graduates are well known. A total of 926 of the 2,422 African-Americans who entered preflight training received their wings and commissions.
The aviation cadet program in World War II was an overwhelming success. In the short term, it produced the men needed for both air crew and ground duties in a United States Army Air Force that peaked at more than 2,100,000 personnel and 70,000 aircraft. Along with the xxxxxxx pilots, the aviation cadet program graduated almost 100,000 navigators, bombardiers and observers. Another valuable 2,576 graduated as enlisted pilots.
Many of the great aces were former aviation cadets, icluding the top ten: Richard Bong, Francis “Gabby “Gabreski, Gerald Johnson, Robert Johnson, Neal Kearby, Charles McDonald, Thomas McGuire, George Preddy, John C. Meyer, and David Schilling.
Perhaps more telling of both their heroism and their preponderance in combat, aviation cadets received twenty-eight of the thirty-eight Medals of Honor awarded to USAAF participants in World War Two. (note to the editor: Just for the record, these were: Addison Baker, Bong, Horace Carswell, Ralph Cheli, Doolittle, Robert Femoyer, Donald Gott, Pierpont Hamilton, James Howard, John Jerstad, John Kane, Kearby, David Kingsley, Raymond Knight, William Lawley, Darrell Linsdsey, Jack Mathis, McGuire, William Metzger, Edward Michael, John Morgan, Harl Pease, Donald Pucket, William Shomo, Walter Truemper, Kenneth Walker, Raymond Wilkins, Jay Zeamer.) Less heroic, perhaps, but extremely important, aviation cadets also served with equal skill and devotion in almost every one of the non-flying disciplines that were necessary to support flight operations.
But it was in the long term that the World War II aviation cadet program had its greatest effect. For the next twenty to thirty years, the World War II aviation cadets would mature into the great leaders their country required to meet the challenges of the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, and beyond.
The Korean War: A Déjà Vu Challenge
America’s massive post-war demobilization was abetted by federal budgets that constrained the new United States Air Force to levels far less than it deemed necessary for safety. With a massive number of rated officers on hand, aviation cadet training was closed down until December 1946, when it was opened on a very limited basis to unmarried enlisted men with at least two years of service remaining. Standards were high, with intensive testing and a required stanine rating of 7. The first 83 aviation cadets entered flying training at Randolph Field (then the only basic training base) in March, 1947. Three months later, aviation cadet training was opened to civilians with at least two years of college.
The new United States Air Force had set a goal of 70 wings as the minimum force necessary to defend the country, but a tight federal budget reduced this to 48 wings. An annual pilot quota of 3,000 was established, requiring 4,800 candidates. Three bases—Goodfellow, Perrin and Waco (later James Connally) were opened for basic pilot training, with Las Vegas (later Nellis) and Enid (later Vance) opened for advanced. The requirement navigators, bombardiers and radar observers was also recognized by the establishment of the Aerial Observer Bombardier program, a clumsy title. Initially only rated officers were admitted, but the AOB program was opened to aviation cadets in 1949, with the same standards as those required by pilots. A navigation school was set up at Ellington AFB for cadets and officers without previous aircrew training. Previously rated officers were sent to Mather Air Force Base.
The Cold War got hotter and in June 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea. A goal of 95 wings was set for the Air Force, and this meant another massive explosion of pilot training. Air Training Command (ATC) knew that it had to have 10,000 candidates to meet its new goal of 7,200 pilots per year, based on an expected 29 percent attrition rate. Unfortunately, recruitment was low and the attrition ran at more than 50 percent, so that only 2, 119 pilots were graduate in FY 1951. ATC expanded, but recognized that the only solution was to repeat World War II’s success by opening nine contract pilot flying schools between 1950 and 1953.
During those three years, conditions for entry were eased, and the reintroduced stanine test score requirement was lowered. Airmen who had served for 18 months no longer needed two years of college, although civilian applicants did. The minimum age for applicants was lowered to 19, and the stanine was dropped from 7 to 5 to 3. By 1953, the requirement of 7,200 pilot graduates was almost met.
In 1952 a “revitalized” program was introduced for the class of 53-H, partly in the hope of reducing the wash-out rate below its then current 34-percent level. Preflight training at Lackland AFB was lengthened to twelve weeks, permitting flying training bases to concentrate on flight activities. A light plane screening program, using inexpensive aircraft such as the Piper Cub, was introduce to try to determine who might wash out early-on. A new 18-week primary training used the North American T-6 and T-28 was followed by a 16-week training program that used the T-28 and North American TB-25 for conventional training and the T-33 for potential jet pilots. (The T-28 went through a long and troubled period of engine failures.) Wings and commissions were awarded after twelve months, but the program called for an additional four months of specialized training.
AOB training went through similar adjustments, beginning in 1951 with the Single Observer Training program. It provided a common curriculum for the separate career paths of aviation cadets, non-rated officers, navigators and bombardiers coming back on duty and pilots who wanted to train as navigators. Basic training was at Ellington and Harlingen AFBs, while advanced was conducted at Ellington and Mather.
The new AOB system met Air Force requirements, and training was conducted in Douglas TC-47, North American TB-25, Beech TC-45 and Convair T-29 aircraft.
The number of applicants for aviation cadets had increased faster than they could be brought into flying schools, and many served in enlisted ranks, unofficially noted as “pre-cadets.” At Goodfellow Air Force Base, in the summer of 1951, the enlisted “pre-cadets” worked on the flight line, wiping down each T-6 as its prop ticked to a stop after a flight.
Aviation cadets during the Korean War period led a relatively more pleasant life than their World War II counterparts. The training was just ad demanding, but the United States was becoming prosperous, and many more cadets had access to automobiles. They still had the same, earnest desire to win their wings and get into combat and many looked forward to a career in the Air Force. But the practical fact of the matter was that the war in Korea seemed certain to end soon, and if the Air Force didn’t need them, the air lines certainly did.
The Cold War and the End of the Aviation Cadets
For the very first time in history, the United States did not immediately begin a massive demobilization after a war ended. The Korean War had drawn to its grudging Armistice halt, but the Cold War persisted. It was now recognized that the Air Force had to be a permanent, in being force, not something that could be cobbled up in six months when the next emergency arose.
The Air Force had transitioned to a steadier state, and it retained many rated personnel who had been recalled to duty. As a result a decision was made to stabilize pilot training at 4,800 per year, and to give students much higher quality training. The reciprocal of this of course was to seek higher quality students by increasing the entrance requirements, in part by raising the necessary stanine score. In 1961, the USAF required navigator cadet applicants to have at least two years of college.
The year after the end of the Korean War, the USAF decided to made to induce more AFROTC students to enter pilot training, with a goal of having 65% of new classes being filled from AFROTC ranks. This general goal was spurred by the bomb-shell debut of the Soviet satellite Sputnik October 4, 1957 . At that moment in time, only 31% of the officers in SAC and TAC possessed college degrees. There began an immediate effort to recruit more scientists and engineers for officer training schools, and in 1961, the Chief of Staff, General LeMay stated that 95% of Air Force officers should have degrees.
Gradually, graduates from the military academies, ROTC, Officer Training School (OTS) supplanted the aviation cadets, with the last pilot training class in 1961 and the last navigator class in 1965.
The last aviation cadet in pilot training was William F. Wesson, who graduated on 11 October, 1961. Wesson had entered flight training in December 1959, as a member of Class 61-F. Forced to eject from his T-33 at Webb AFB, he broke his back and hip. Wesson fought being dismissed formedical reasons, and in June 1961, returned to Webb for training—the sole aviation cadet on the base. It was a lonely time for the only member of the specially designated Class 62-B, but Wesson persevered and won his wings and commission. Sadly, he was to lose his life in a civil aircraft accident a few years later.
The last navigator cadet to graduate was Stephen V. Harper on 3 March 1965. Harper, the very last man to be an aviation cadets, was a member of class 65-15. His wings were presented by Major General Benjamin D. Foulois, who had started the program so many years ago in Canada.
Former aviation cadets, including the author, have often called for a return of the system, maintaining that it is more egalitarian, and more productive. Unfortunately, while the former claim may be true, statistics tend to disprove the latter. Aviation cadet attrition was always significantly higher than that of student officers, and very much higher than that of academy graduates. With the decline in total pilot requirements, a return of an aviation cadet program is simply not feasible