FLIGHT TRAINING IN THE WARTIME US NAVY COULD DEFINITELY HAVE ITS HAZARDOUS MOMENTS
It was December 1943 at "Hutch" (Naval Air Station Hutchinson, Kansas). We affectionately knew the station as an "E" base - the E meaning elimination! Many flying cadets washed out at this location for lack of flying ability - or a variety of other reasons. We were flying the Boeing N2S Kaydet - referred to as "Yellow Perils." We wore heavy sheepskin flying gear with face masks. If it was under five degrees above zero or less, we did not fly. If it was over five degrees, we went up. There was always a gap between our goggles and face mask. On occasion we would have white streaks frozen an our cheeks. Our flight boots were lined with sheepskin, they were very warm - they came about half way between the knee and the feet.
There were two large circular "mats" at the field - one for takeoffs, one for landings. This arrangement let the new cadets takeoff and land directly into the wind. The N2S had narrow landing gear and loved to group loop! Otherwise, it was a fun plane to fly and on some days there would be ten or 15 biplanes in the pattern.
We were about a week into our aerobatic syllabus. Usually, two cadets would go out to the practice area together. This was done for two reasons: There was no radio contract between planes; and in the event one cadet went down or bailed out, the other could report back to base and have him picked up.
We used simple hand signals to communicate. If l patted my head, it meant I was taking the lead to do whatever maneuvers I wanted while my wingman watched. If I patted my head and pointed to him, he would pat his head and take the lead to do this number. When finished he would again pat his head and point back to me.
On this particular day, another cadet named Gottnick was scheduled to go out with me. We took off and arrived at the practice area, holding 4000 feet. The ground was covered with snow from a storm that passed through during the night. I did some snap rolls, a few slow rolls and a loop. Then I passed the lead to Gottnick. He did a couple of snaps rolls and was on his back halfway through the first slow roll when I saw something fall off his plane. No...it didn't fall off his plane - it fell out! It was Gottnick! He fell out of the cockpit.
I couldn't believe my eyes. It was somewhat like one of those Disney cartoons where the character runs off the edge of a cliff, hangs for a second or two, does a double take looking straight into the camera, then plunges to earth. Gottnick came out with arms and legs flailing. He appeared to be running in mid-air!
By the time I got over the initial shock his chute had opened. I saw his boots fly off and watched as he landed in the snow in his stocking feet. I circled at about 200 feet. He gave me the OK signal and started walking towards a farm house approximately a half-mile away. I went back to base and reported the incident to operations.
A couple of hours later, the farmer brought him back to base in a truck and dumped him off at the main gate, chute and all (the farmers were not too fond of us, but that is another story).
The plane was a total loss. When asked what happened, he said "my sleeve got caught on the belt release and it came open!" Not a very good story, but he got away with it since the Navy needed all the pilots they could get at this point in time (or so they thought). They arranged to give him a couple more hours of dual instruction.
A week or so went by and, to and behold, I was scheduled to take Gottnick out again. This time we were to practice precision spins. The idea was to line up on a road and/or railroad track, do a two-turn spin and recover on the same line you had started.
I went first, then climbed back up to watch him. He pulled up into a stall, kicked it into a left hand spin and I started to count. One...two...he didn't pull out...three...four and then I saw it again - something came loose from the plane! It was Gottnick! Again, the chute opened, the boots snapped off, he landed in the snow, and another farmer brought him back to base.
When asked what happened, he said "I couldn't get it out of the spin." Not being able to get an N2S out of a spin is equivalent to saying you can't zip up your fly. Of course if a rudder cable had snapped, then it would be another story.
Unfortunately for Cadet Gottnick, the cables were intact. The next day he was on his way to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Chicago. We were minus two perfectly good aircraft and two pairs of expensive flight boots, On occasion, a cadet would come back from town and say "I saw Gottnick's boots today. The farmers were wearing them."
NAS CORPUS CHRISTI
I was in advanced training at Corpus, flying SNJs. We were near the end of our training, but still had to be checked out in dogfighting. The check ride instructor would take two cadets out at a time. The other cadet on this day was my friend John Lundgren. Out instructor was Lt. (jg) Supple, who we nicknamed "Shaky Supple."
The three of us took off and I joined Shaky's right wing, John on his left. We headed for our assigned area. I always liked to fly a tight formation and took up my usual position as though I was flying wing on my regular instructor. John did likewise. I saw Shaky jerk his head quickly to the left, so I moved a little closer and so did John. A couple of minutes later he did it again.
I thought to myself that Shaky must really like formation flying. My left wing was now right in his face. When Shaky glanced over at me, he had panic in his eyes. He looked at John, picked by the mike and yelled, "Are you two nuts? Get your god damned wings out of my face! NOW!" We moved out.
John and I then both beat him in doqfighting which upset Shaky no end. When we landed he gave us a "down" for the flight. When asked why, he said "You used your flaps and you flew a dangerous formation." We told our instructor the story and he confronted Shaky. There was a big argument but he got the "down" changed to an Via:" "up." We found out later that Shaky had a nervous tick, hence the nickname. By the way, we had not used our flaps during the flight - Shaky was just a lousy pilot.
Strangely enough, Shaky wound up in my fighter squadron (VF-2) flying Hellcats. The Corpus incident was still on his mind. One night at the bar, he bet me $50 that he could beat me in a dogfight. We were at Pasco, Washington, at the time. There was an extra FG-1 D Corsair available to us and I told Shaky I would give him an advantage and meet him in the "Bent Wing Bastard." He had never flown one and some of the guys told him the Hellcat would out-turn the FG-1 D at lower speeds. And that was correct. However, I had no intention of getting low and slow. In the Corsair you could drop the flaps ten degrees at a time, all the way down to 50 degrees. That gave me an advantage on the first couple of turns and I took the 550. We didn't talk much after that.
This was called a WTS base (War Training School). Why, I don't know. In any event, it was the first time our class would have a chance to fly. The planes were Aeronca Chiefs -- side-by-side with a wheel. I was disappointed. I wanted a stick. Bombers had wheels. Fighters had a stick. Besides, you had to fly the damned thing left-handed,
My instructor was a sweetheart of a guy named McConnell - friendly and helpful at every turn. He was also a good pilot with a favorite saying when things didn't go right "Bear shit!" I heard that term many times over our 90-day period. He had one small problem which was a bit of a draw back - he drank a lot. Most mornings his breath made my eyes water. Anyway, on this particular day I was scheduled for my fourth hour of dual instruction. He showed up on time, smelling the same as usual with one added feature - he was stoned. I politely asked if he would like a little nap before we went, McConnell said, "Bear shit! Let's go!"
He climbed aboard and I started the engine and taxied to the runway, got the green light and opened the throttle. As we lifted off I heard a strange noise I had never heard before. I looked over at Mac - he had passed out and was snoring! I was in a panic. I flew around for over two hours and could not wake him up.
Finally, the gas gauge made a statement I could not ignore and I headed back to base. I entered the pattern, made one pass and took a wave-off. On the next attempt I managed to get it down after about the third bounce! I taxied back to the line and killed the engine. Mac came out of the seat like his ass was on fire! He thought we had an engine failure. He was mumbling "what-sa-matter, what-sa-matter?" I assured him we were okay. He gave me a 100 percent for that flight and asked me if I would keep the whole thing to myself? He was really embarrassed. I told him my heart couldn't take another one of those. He never did it again.
The Navy said we should solo after eight hours of dual. He cut that a bit short. I still had to fly the other four hours, even though he said I didn't need it. My solo was uneventful because I knew I could do it.
Perhaps, if I was riding with four or five different cadets who were all over the sky...l might need a few drinks also.
BACK TO CORPUS
We were starting the spin syllabus in the SNJ. Our instructor took each of us up to demonstrate how to pull out of a spin. Cadet in the rear seat, , . instructor in front.
We leveled off at 5000 feet. He kicked into a left hand spin, let it go a couple of turns, pushed the right rudder to stop the rotation and dumped the stick forward to pick up speed for the pull out and recovery. When he did this, something strange happened! He came up out of the seat and was nearly out of the cockpit! I could see the bottom of the parachute he should have been sitting on. He managed to grab the front windscreen with his fingers and was hanging there. Meanwhile, we were going straight down and much too fast.
I finally got my wits about me, pulled back on the stick hard and banged him back down into his seat. He was so shook-up, he could hardly talk. He thought he was going to hit the prop. That would not have happened but he most likely would have hit the tail section on the way out. I flew around for about 15 minutes trying to get him calmed down but he was a mess. I was afraid he was going to have a heart attack so I went back and landed the plane from the rear seat.
Now I don't know how many of you have been in the back seat of an SNJ, but you can't see a bloody thing out front. I made a semi-carrier type of approach in a left-hand turn with my head sticking out into the slipstream. I rolled out just prior to touching the runway and managed to stay on the ground in one piece. By now "Honest Abe," our instructor's nickname, had recovered enough to taxi back to the line and park.
Abe was really a neat guy, Didn't drink...except for that night. He had a terrible hangover the next day and did not fly. His back was sore from the bump he took when I banged him back down in the seat, I told him it was from falling off the bar stool at the BOQ!
Copyright Challenge Publications Inc. Sep 2000
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