The airport at this base had multiple paved concrete runways. This was different from the grass, unpaved field at Union City, Tennessee.
I had no problem getting into a more complicated and larger airplane and I began to again enjoy the flying. This new airplane was called a basic trainer [BT13] or [BT15] and we were now on a real military base. The instructors were all in the military and the interaction was more formal. We did a great deal of formation flying and began night flying. We flew for one half of the day and continued with our ground school for the other half of the day. When we flew in the morning, we would also fly that night. It was a seven day per week program allowing for a holiday only when the weather was too bad to safely fly.
I loved the airplane and I felt that I could do almost anything with it. This was a 450‑horsepower low winged monoplane with fixed landing gear and a two‑position propeller. It was much larger than the primary trainer and had an enclosed cockpit. The seats were in tandem with dual controls and a low frequency radio with an intercom. It was stressed for acrobatics and we were not limited from doing any maneuver that we wanted to do. The only difference between the BT13 and the BT15 was the engine. One had a 450 HP radial engine manufactured by the Pratt & Whitney Co. while the other had a 450 HP radial engine manufactured by the Wright Co. As I recall, the Wright engines were probably older since they almost all had some oil leaks.
The airplane had no peculiarities except when in a tailspin. When entering the spin, and during the first few turns the airplane would vibrate until it really got wound up. Because of this and because it was made by the Vulture Corp. it was nicknamed the Vultee Vibrator.
We flew this aircraft for two months during which time we practiced precision landings, acrobatics, cross‑country, formation flying, instrument flying, and night flying.
After my first week of flying this airplane and finding it to be easy to fly and very tame, I was introduced to instrument flying. This was done with an instructor in the rear seat. The student would be flying under a black hood so that he could not see outside of the cockpit. The takeoffs were made with the student under the hood steering the airplane by watching the directional gyrocompass. If the instructor wanted to take over the controls, he would shake the control stick from side to side and the student would yield the controls to him.
It was during this type of practice that I almost got clobbered.
We had completed some practice maneuvers with me flying the airplane under the hood and the instructor relaxing in the rear seat. As was typical, after about an hour of dedicated instrument flying we were both happy to end the lesson. He wanted to look at a rice paddy that we were flying over, so he shook the stick and made some steep turns circling over the rice paddy. When he was finished with this, he told me over the intercom to take over the controls and return to the base to land.
I entered the traffic pattern, which at this time of the day was crowded, and flew the standard pattern, entering the final approach and in a standard glide to the paved runway. At about 400 feet above the runway I felt the stick shaking and took my hand off the stick, relinquishing control of the airplane to the instructor, thinking that he wanted to make the landing.
We continued the glide to the runway, but it seemed to me that we should have already begun to break the glide and begin to flair out for the landing. The glide continued and I was getting antsy. The runway was now directly in front of me and coming up quickly. Automatically my hand was close to the stick ready to pull back, and then it happened. My hand was on the stick and I was pulling back and breaking the glide and we were on the runway.
I taxied off the runway and into the parking ramp and into a slot, shutting down the engine, filling out the paperwork, undoing my safety belt, and climbing out of the airplane and on to the ramp, nervously waiting for the instructor to ream me out for interfering with his landing.
We were walking side by side with our parachutes over our shoulders when he remarked rather nonchalantly that even though it was a smooth touchdown he felt that it would be better to practice flaring out sooner before touching down. I looked around at him and told him that I thought that he was landing the airplane. He turned white and asked me what gave me that idea, and I told him that I felt the stick shake and I was under the impression that he wanted to make the landing. He explained that he had an allergy and was reaching into his back pocket for a handkerchief and probably hit the stick with his knee when he sneezed at the same time.
We both stopped, looked into each others eyes realizing that we had a close one. We walked into the operations room, sat down and began to laugh ourselves sick, but never uttering a word to the other men in the room.
I really enjoyed landings as the biggest challenge and whenever possible I practiced. I found that I was able to predict exactly when the wheels would touch down and I could land and take off in as short a runway as possible. I would sneak off to one of the auxiliary fields to shoot some landings.
After a couple of weeks we were sent to one of the auxiliary fields to be tested for landing skills. There was a white line painted across the runway and we were to make seven landings and takeoffs each, landing with the main landing gear in front of the line and the tail wheel behind the line. The scoring was a U for unsatisfactory, an S for satisfactory (landing within a couple of feet of the line), and SS for a perfect landing as described above.
My engine began to run rough and I called the instructor's aircraft to report this. He ordered me to go back to the base and get another aircraft and return for the landings. When I returned, the weather turned sour and we all flew back to the base and I could not get in even one landing. When the weather cleared the next day we were scheduled to do some other missions, and I did not get a chance to do the landing test until about two weeks later, when we were scheduled for our next landing tests.
We flew over to the auxiliary field in formation and began the landings one after the other. When we had all done the seven landings the other aircraft were ordered home and I was asked to continue the landings to make up for the ones that I had missed. I asked if I could make the pattern smaller since I was the only one in it and the instructor who was seated in a parked airplane even with the white line answered in the affirmative.
I made a very short pattern and when I had completed six more landings the instructor said that I should return to base. When the grades were posted, I had twelve SS and one S, the best grades in the class. I wasn't too impressed with these grades figuring that I had sort of cheated somewhat by making so many consecutive landings in a row and within a smaller traffic pattern. Also I had probably practiced more than anyone in the class. However, my instructor was proud of me and I enjoyed the respect of my classmates.
We also began to do night flying. At first we practiced landing with the runway outline on, and the runway floodlights on, and the airplane landing lights on. This was easy, and it was a pleasure, particularly since the air was much calmer at night, with no updrafts. However, after a night or two the floodlights were shut off, and only the runway outline lights and the wing lights were used. This too, was easy and I figured that I had it made, but then we were not permitted to use the aircraft landing lights and it became more interesting.
The technique, at night, for getting a number of aircraft into the air quickly, and to practice traffic control at the same time was interesting. The field was divided into four quadrants by having a cross of lights on the ground at the center of the field.
After takeoff each aircraft was assigned to a quadrant and an altitude. The altitudes were 1,000, 2,000, and 3,000 feet. This would allow twelve aircraft to be in the air at one time. A typical assignment would be, for example: number two quadrant at level three, or number one quadrant at level two. Once up at a level and at the proper quadrant the pilot would circle either to the right or to the left depending on which quadrant he was in.
Getting to the proper level was the trick. It was necessary to first get into the quadrant and then to start to circle in the direction for that quadrant and to locate the aircraft at the next level above, and to climb and enter his level at the opposite side of the circle. Then to keep climbing, doing the same maneuver to go through the next level until reaching the assigned level. The danger was to keep from colliding with the other aircraft when passing through their altitudes. It was also very black out and easy to develop vertigo.
Once at the proper position in the pattern and flying circles, making sure that your circle did not encroach on any of the other circles, it was necessary to wait for either a green light beamed up from the ground or a call on the radio to come in and land. The same procedure was now done going down to land. There were some accidents, but not as many as I had expected.
I believe that it was about this time that I was introduced into the world of guns. One morning we were brought to the gunnery range and we were each given a Colt 45. This is a semi‑automatic 45 caliber handgun which was issued to officers as their personal weapon. It is a fairly heavy, large gun with very lethal firepower. The ammunition is large caliber and can knock over someone who gets hit. It is accurate, but the individual who is firing it must be familiar with its recoil, which is considerable. At that time it was fired using one hand with the arm out straight. This was different from the two handed method now used. This was my first experience firing a real weapon, and I was anxious to become a straight shooter like John Wayne.
My first attempts to hit the target were laughable. The instructor then told me to relax, and to squeeze the trigger instead of pulling it. I concentrated on this and pretty soon I was doing much better. I could now hit the bull's eye regularly.
The next gun that we were trained with was the army carbine. This was a relatively short rifle firing 30 caliber ammunition, and it was much easier to use than the Colt 45. This gun I felt was superior and could be used for hunting if that were necessary.
We were also trained to use the Thompson sub‑ machine gun which was also 45 caliber. This gun was fully automatic and had almost no recoil. It also was probably the gun used by the Mafia in all of the old movies.
The toughest target practice was skeet shooting which we did on a regular basis. This was done with a twelve gauge shotgun which became my favorite. The guns were either pump action or semi‑automatic. The targets were clay dishes about four or five inches in diameter, and were tossed into the air by a spring mechanism. One target came from each side and it was necessary to lead the target in order to hit it. At different angles it was necessary to use different amounts of lead. At the ninety degree point it was necessary to lead the target by about three feet in order for the shot to arrive at the same time that the target arrived. If the gun was not on the shoulder before the trigger was pulled the butt of the gun would recoil and hit the shoulder with considerable force. There were several purple shoulders in the shower room that night.
Of course shooting from a fighter plane was the ultimate. There was probably no greater thrill than aerial gunnery. To have done this without electronics and all of the modern aids was fantastic. Again I am getting ahead of myself.
My only recreation was when one of the PX female employees took a shine to me. She lived on the base and I could visit her after hours. My roommate who was married covered for me if I stayed out past lights out. When I would return to the barracks, he would ask me what I had succeeded in doing that evening. I would give him a blow by blow description of what had transpired. He would then tell me what to do the following evening. I was a virgin at the time and so I listened to him intently and followed his instructions. It seems that he was having a vicarious thrill by partaking in my seduction of this female.
I wonder if I have any relatives in Arkansas.
There was a situation that came up that is worth telling about. Each barracks had an officer in charge, called the tactical officer. He was a non-flying officer, and it was his duty to keep control of us. He would call us out and march us to the mess hall for our meals. He also inspected our rooms each morning to make sure that we made our beds properly and to see to it that our rooms were clean.
One morning I had overslept and was late to assemble into the formation for breakfast. This would have been a major problem calling for me to serve extra time marching around the area in my time off. I elected to not make my bed that morning, hoping that I would have time to make it after breakfast. We did not return to the barracks before going to class, and when I returned to the barracks after lunch, I found that my bed had been made. I asked around and no one knew who had done it.
The next day I again did not make my bed up, and again when I returned to the barracks I found that someone had made it.
Several days went by and I had almost forgotten about this incident, when after a very late night flight I again overslept and again did not make my bed. Again I found my bed made. This time there was a note pinned to my blanket. It was from the tactical officer asking me to report to his office.
I walked over to his office with a feeling that now I would be punished. However, when I entered the office he stood up, returned my salute, and then shook my hand. In a very gentle voice he asked me to sit down, looked me straight in the eye, and asked me to please cooperate with the system and make up my bed each day. He told me that he had a son who was also in the service. He knew that we were working hard and flying seven days a week, but if I took advantage of him, the other men in the barracks would do the same thing, and that could become a catastrophe.
I left his office feeling ashamed of myself. I returned to the barracks, told my buddies that I was being punished, and for the rest of our stay at this station I never again missed making my bed.