World War II was about numbers.
It was a global war foughton an industrial scale unlike anything before or since. Conservatively, it consumed at least 55 million lives while overturning the way humans regarded their nations, their worlds, and themselves.
It also spurred the greatest technological revolution of all time: in five years, going from 250mph biplane fighters in some nations to 550mph jets and ocean-spanning bombers that delivered atomic weapons.
Supporting the vast American effort were huge training establishments for the U.S. Army Air Force (AAF) and the U.S. Navy (USN). This is their story.
Prelude to war
In September 1939, when war returned to Europe, the Army Air Corps had fewer than 1,000 pilots in training. Two years later, before Pearl Harbor, the AAF had 12,000 potential pilots in schools from coast to coast, from Texas to the Canadian border. That figure was swamped: In the last two months, 10,152 Army pilots pinned on silver wings, too late to put their newfound skills to use—until the next time.
From 1939 to 1945, Army schools produced 193,440 pilots. They included 61,000 for twin- and multiengine bombers, plus 21,240 to fly gliders and 204 to master new helicopters. There was, of course, what the Army called “wastage”: over 200,000 budding fliers eliminated by failure, death, or injury.
“Wastage” included prodigious numbers of aircraft. The Army wrote off nearly 5,000 trainers of all types during the war, with 3,500 fatalities in 2,100 accidents.
Army flight training consisted of four phases: preflight, with an enormous variety of academic subjects; primary, usually at 50-odd civilian-owned schools; basic, with more advanced aircraft at military facilities; and advanced, with single- and twin- or multiengine pipelines. Once winged, new pilots reported for transition training at bases for fighter, bomber, or transport-type aircraft. By that stage, most of them had logged about 220 hours—the point at which instructors said, “They know just enough to get themselves in trouble.”
But those pilots existed to go where directed and to put Norden sights on target: 56,119 navigators and 28,361 bombardiers. The latter two figures are somewhat skewed because some were double-rated in both specialties.
The military had long known that flying an airplane is an athletic ability that can be learned with approximate uniformity by relatively large numbers of individuals. The main difference from civilian students—other than physical and vision requirements—was the time factor. Aviation cadets needed to absorb immense amounts of information and skills in a short time, typically less than 250 hours of flight instruction plus ground school in X months (the period varied throughout the war). But a cadet who hadn’t soloed in eight to 10 hours likely was sent to a “washing machine” with a frequently humorless instructor for an up- or down-check to continue.
Future poet and novelist James Dickey (author of Deliverance) was an Army cadet en route to flying P-61 night fighters in the Pacific. In his journal anthology Sorties, he wrote, “(Flying) is a new attitude for the body, one men have had only a few years: to be positioned, moving in space, and to have the view either from a Stearman PT-17 or from a rocket ship: these are new attitudes and conditions for the body, new dangers and new ecstasies…Every one of these boys at the primary training base feels as though he himself has discovered air, and is the first to live in it.”
To read the article from the February 2016 issue of Flight Journal, click here.
By Barrett Tillman