Solo today – ha!

In 1955 I graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a degree in Aeronautical Engineering and was in Air Force ROTC with a three-year commitment to become a pilot. In today’s world, if Uncle Sam is going to train you to become a pilot, you will commit to 12 to 14 years after you receive your wings. That’s the right thing because Uncle Sam/taxpayers will spend about $750,000 to make you a pilot.

Cub with pilots
A great military career starts in the Cub.

Back to the story. After about two weeks of getting introduced to the Air Force, getting a flight physical* and obtaining uniforms at Lackland AFB in Texas, I was off to Primary Flight Training in Kingston, North Carolina. My first airplane to solo was a Piper Cub.

After about eight hours of dual flight training, my instructor, a civilian who had flown P-51s in WWII, was going to have me solo. On this day, just before my first solo flight, he wanted to demonstrate high speed taxiing and have me do some.

After his demonstration, I began the high speed taxi exercise. However, I got on the brakes instead of only the rudder…came to VERY quick stop…going head over heels, turning upside down and coming to rest with fuel dripping down on my head. Both the instructor and I got out of the Cub uninjured. Clearly, I did not solo that day. The instructor busted me on the next two flights and recommended I be washed out of pilot training.

I was to meet the “Board” in a few days to be terminated from pilot training. Usually this was just a formality!

Before the Board meeting, I telephoned my parents to tell them about what was going on. My mother asked me, “Have you done everything you can?” I responded, “Yes, I think I have!” She responded, “That’s not what I asked. Have you done EVERYTHING you can?”  I responded, “Yes, I have.”  She responded, “Well, then just put your hands in the hands of the Man; and ALL will work out for the best.”

B-47
Flying these only happened because of a second chance from “the board.”

I met the Board arguing that it was very important for me to become a pilot so I would know, first hand, what pilots might need since I was an Aeronautical Engineer who planned a career in the aviation world.

The Board decided to give me a second chance. I got a new instructor, soloed, finished pilot training, flew B-47s with an A/C who had flown B-17s in WWII, flew F-86Hs in Mass ANG, and had a great career at Pratt & Whitney among other places, flying for over 50 years. He is now retired from Pratt & Whitney, doing mentoring with youngsters and the “elderly” about aviation.

* I was 6 foot 5 inches, but did jumping jacks and bent my knees so I was under 6 foot 4 inches when measured. When asked to stand up straight, I just threw my shoulders back. The airman taking my height measurement just said, “Well, OK!” Note: If I ever had to bail out of an aircraft and the ejection system didn’t work properly, I would leave an inch and a half of my knees behind, or my head was going to be a battering ram going through the canopy. I never had to bail out so I never had to test that!

4 Comments

  • I believe the Marine commitment is still only 6 years after winging. That translates to about 8 total once you do your training. I’d highly recommend giving the Marines a look to any young person thinking about flying in the military.

    1. The Navy pilot training pipeline is the best in the world. (FYI even helicopter pilots get fixed wing qualified first!)
    2. You don’t have to have an aviation degree, any bachelor’s degree will do.
    3. You don’t need any prior flying experience at all (they prefer you don’t).
    4. If you pass the ASTB you go into the Marines with a guaranteed flight slot.
    5. You’ll be a fully Commissioned Officer after training (rather than a Warrant).
    6. You’ll STILL get the GI Bill, to use for your graduate degree or more flight training when you get out.

    Think about it!

  • One correction- I was told the current payback is now 8 years for all aviators. Thankfully, not anywhere close to 12 or 14 though.

    • Current commitment in the USAF is 10 years after winging (=12 yrs)

      There is a move to change it to 14 years (8 + 6 in the reserve)

  • I remember those F-86H’s. Based in Manchester back in the 50’s wherein I attended Civil Air Patrol camps. We weren’t supposed to visit the ANG unit based across the field, but I and a buddy found ourselves over there one day via the airport access road. We were welcomed by “the guys”, shown the simulator and sat in a jeep out by the runway in use as a couple of pilots launched/recovered that day. Great afternoon! Educational as hell.

    Glad they gave you a 2nd chance my friend.

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