Flight School

by R. Nelson Nash

A number of lessons about how you think can be learned from my own experience in the U.S. Army Flight School program in 1956. Though I had some previous experience as a pilot over the previous ten years (just a little over 100 hours of pilot time) this is where I really learned to fly.

The course consisted of four months of basic flight training at Gary Air Force Base (AFB), located in San Marcos, Texas, followed by three months of tactics training at Ft. Rucker, Alabama. It was in this last phase that we learned how to adapt our basic knowledge to the missions that we would be flying for the Army. A short explanation is necessary at this point to understand why the initial phase was done at an Air Force Base? To understand why, you need to know what happened after World War II. In September 1947 the U. S. Air Force was created. Before that time it was known as the Army Air Corps, a creation of the Army Signal Corps. Over a period of about 20 +years the field of aviation changed radically and the military use of aircraft changed along with it. The Army Air Corps played a very significant part in WWII.

So, the “powers-that-be” changed their thinking. A new military branch should be created – one that was separate from the Army. Can you imagine the jealousies and rivalries this produced? One such example: Air Force people made such comments as “If God had intended the Army to fly He would have painted the sky olive drab.” Another: “Army pilots need Air Force Flight Instructors to teach them – those guys don’t know anything about airplanes!” That was the kind of thinking that predominated for many years. By the way, our class was the last one to be taught by Air Force Pilots. All the classes since that time have been taught by civilian flight instructors – just like all the Air Force Pilots were taught all along. Someone finally did some clear thinking!

Hence, my basic flight training was at Gary AFB. We all met our individual instructors on the first day. Each instructor had three students assigned to him. How fortunate I was to learn under the tutelage of Lt. Roger Brooks. He was a graduate of Baylor University where he was a superb athlete – an excellent performer on the three meter diving board for their swim team. Roger was about five feet four inches tall, a tow-headed blond and in excellent physical condition. Maybe, because of this background he was very conscious of precision in whatever he did or taught. That is the criteria in gymnastics. Springboard diving and gymnastics have a lot in common. This dominated his teaching technique.

When he met the three of us he let us know that, “I’ve been teaching here for five classes of students. Four of my students finished first in each class. One of you will finish first in this class.” One of my fellow students was named Arnold (not his real name, of course). He was intelligent, he looked the part, and he talked the part of an aviator in every way. I concluded right then – Arnold will finish first. We finished the four months at Gary AFB. He did not finish first in our class. When we made the move to Ft. Rucker the flight instructors there never even allowed him to solo. He was terminated from the class. You see, he retained some erroneous ideas (thoughts) that were not transferable to the type of short-field, confined landing areas that were required for the Army mission. In his mind he could not make the transition during the time frame allotted for the class.

While at Gary AFB there were check rides by a different instructor at certain hour intervals of flight time. There was the solo check, the 25 hour check, 50 hour check, 75 hour check and 100 hour check rides. Because of his demanding teaching technique Roger Brooks kept yours truly ahead of the normal schedule. While others were doing their 25 hour check ride, I was doing the 50 hour check, etc. As a result, during the last month at Gary AFB I could only fly for four hours that month! It was all the result of Roger’s mental discipline. It was the way he thought!

This all reminds me of the coaching ability of the great Vince Lombardi when he was with the Green Bay Packers. He demanded that his players operate on “Lombardi time – if you are not 15 minutes early for scheduled practice time, then you are late!” The clock on the stadium at Lambeau Field is 15 minutes ahead of normal time. My observation of many Americans is that they operate on “reverse-Lombardi time” — that is, they think “If I’m there 15 minutes after the scheduled time, then I’m on time!”

And then we all moved to Ft. Rucker for the Tactics phase of our training. Up until our arrival the facility had been designated Camp Rucker. Living quarters for students with families did not exist. We had to find places to rent in several towns that were in the area.

The class that preceded ours was about a month behind schedule because of a lot of bad weather. That meant that all the rental properties were still occupied by that class. We had no place to live and nothing to do for a month. And so, my wife and daughter and I drove to Athens, Georgia and stayed with her parents, checking in with the headquarters at Ft. Rucker every three days by phone to learn when we should return there. Bottom line – our three months training had to be compressed into just two months. Where there is a will, there is a way!

Our training at Ft. Rucker was primarily centered on learning how to operate the Cessna L-19 in confined, short field areas. The L-19 was a two tandem seat, all metal craft with a large engine and huge flaps that could be deflected 60 degree in the down position. This made it possible to fly it remarkably slow. It had lots of Plexiglas around the cockpit area for observation purposes. It was a “tail dragger” – not the tricycle landing gear that we are all familiar with today.

We started with learning how to land on a runway that was only 1,000 feet long. The approach end had 50-foot tall poles on either side of the landing strip, with a light weight rope stretched between them that had strips of some light weight material dangling from it. This made the rope “barrier” easily visible for the pilot whose goal was to make a “power approach” over the barrier and land in the remaining length of the runway, in a three-point configuration; that means all three wheels are on the ground at the same time, with the throttle fully closed – and the brakes locked! Then the pilot was taught to release the brakes for a split-second and apply the brakes again. Then, continue this procedure until the airplane has fully stopped.

We all “car-pooled” to work every day. There were five in our pool. One was Lt. Saunders. (That was not his name either). To set the stage for this story, every class started out with 120 students and the average class finished with 80 graduates. Ours made that average.

The average class destroyed eight L-19s. We made that average, too. But, Lt. Saunders was exceptional – he broke two aircraft! Naturally, he did not finish the course. You see, in learning to make the “barrier landings” he could not get the thought out of his mind that “when he cleared the barrier, he must add a little power to cushion the remaining descent to the ground. I was on final approach behind him when he broke the second plane. It was not pretty to watch! Harboring erroneous thoughts brought his aviation career with the Army to an end.

These stories are just common, everyday examples of how people think and how their thinking affects their lives. On the other end of the thought spectrum we might consider Galileo back in the 17th Century. Because of the way he thought he made a great number of discoveries that affect our knowledge of the world today. However, these discoveries “did not meet the doctrines of the authorities.” And, so he was tried by the Inquisition, found “vehemently suspect of heresy,” forced to recant, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. These authorities still infest our world today. You need to be aware of this fact and be on guard of their impediment to society and to your personal life.