• WWI Flight Training Mystery Solved

Working on a blog about WWI flying I finally figured out the mystery about my grandfather Norman Dale's flying.

Lots of young men were available...far more than they could train because we couldn't built aircraft fast enough. So everyone went through ground school, which didn't require 'aerial equipment' aka aeroplanes. After mid-year in 1918 there were signs the war might actually end so an increasing number of people were shunted into the Observer program, including Norm. The two certificates we have documented his completion of ground school and observer training.

But then the armistice was signed on November 18th, 1918—just two months after his graduation, and a few weeks later he was discharged.

The pilot overage skewed the balance between pilots and observers such that, by mid-July 1918, the AEF was desperate for observers. As one member of the AEF Training Section advised the Division of Military Aeronautics Observation Section:

We desired 200 artillery observers with aerial gunnery, but stated that the full number called for was desired even if all had not such training. You will have to make every effort to send us fully trained men at the earliest possible date, as the facilities in the AEF will not permit of giving anything more than a refresher course. . . . If fully trained material is not available, make up the requested number by the best partially trained men available.

Now, as in wars to come, field commanders castigated stateside training staffs for sending poorly trained airmen, but they then went on to demand manpower at any cost. In this instance, the U.S.-based Training Section notified all ground school graduates that, because of the glut of people awaiting pilot training, no cadets would be accepted into the flying schools for several months, but men could volunteer as observers. Otherwise, they would be forced to transfer to other services, face immediate discharge from the Air Service, or wait until such time as they could be trained as pilots.

Already enrolled cadets not deemed qualified to be pilots but who were "otherwise desirable officer material" or those who were already qualified as pilots but who were "not at ease in the work" could become bombardiers or artillery observers?' The Air Service was, in other words, forcibly reconsidering its stance that only commissioned officers, not cadets, would be accepted as aerial observers. The dual system of Artillery and Signal Corps observer training had foundered on several levels, not the least of which was the relative trickle of men from the Field and Coast Artillery.

The Signal Corps therefore decided to recruit its own observers from nonpilot cadet volunteers who would receive special training at ground school and additional training with both the Artillery and Air Service. In August 1918, a new policy directed that aerial observers be commissioned in the Air Service rather than the Artillery, Infantry, or Cavalry. Those lacking artillery experience would be given instruction by the Artillery, and all aerial observers would receive training in aviation schools.

The urgent call for more trained observers continued into the fall. With some heat, Lt. Col. Herbert A. Dargue reminded the Director of Military Aeronautics that "the deficiency in observers in France is liable to cause an exceedingly embarrassing situation, unless every effort is to be put forth in the United States to expand observer schools to the absolute limit and train as many observers as possible." In an attempt to boost the morale of those trainees facing a seeming diminution of status and, no doubt, to impress on more men the worthiness of volunteering, the Chief of Training rallied all commanding officers of the flying schools to the view that "there is no question as to the importance of this work or the fact that it is of the same relative importance and dignity as that of the pilot."

By October, the Division of Military Aeronautics had increased authorizations at Langley and Post Fields and considered shortening the observers' course from seven to five weeks. Owing to the different backgrounds of the students - whether commissioned in the Air Service or Artillery, whether cadets or officers - the length of the observer course varied considerably over the relatively short period of its existence. Generally the course matched that offered by the Artillery schools, which were themselves different lengths.

In late 1917, the aerial observer course was six weeks long; it later became ten weeks, equal to the School of Fire for Field Artillery. Later, all three schools gave a seven-week course, and finally, to meet the stringent AEF demands for observers, the observer course was reduced to five weeks for commissioned personnel and ten weeks for cadets. Before going overseas, observers spent three additional weeks in the aerial gunnery course at Selfridge Field.

• KA-3B vs AGI

A Vietnam War Story (from someone else): 

The Russian "Trawlers" (Russian AGI) with what looked like one thousand "fishing" antennas plied the Gulf of Tonkin on a daily basis...needless to say, it was a cat and mouse game to see what havoc they could expend towards our two carriers operating there twenty-four hours a day. 

Since the U.S. government had proclaimed the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin three miles off the coast of North Vietnam and Hinan Island, People's Republic of China, to be international waters, American ships in the Gulf were bound to obey the international rules of the road for ocean navigation.  This meant that if the Russian ship maneuvered herself into the path of an aircraft carrier where she had the right of way, the carrier had to give way even if she was engaged in launching or recovering aircraft. The navigation officer was constantly trying to maneuver the ship so that the trawler wouldn't be able to get in position to abuse the rules of the road and gain the right of way. Sometimes he was successful in sucking the trawler out of position but the room available for the ship to maneuver was limited by our on-station requirements and sometimes the trawler was successful interrupting our flight operations. The pilots of the air wing were strictly forbidden to take any action against the Russian ship but on this day Commander John Wunche, the commanding officer of the heavy tanker KA-3B detachment, had finally had enough of the Russians' antics. 
John Wunche was a big man with bright red hair and a flaming red handlebar mustache. He was a frustrated fighter pilot whom fate and the Bureau of Naval Personnel had put into the cockpit of a former heavy bomber now employed as a carrier-based tanker. Commander Wunche flew the tanker like a fighter and frequently delighted the tactical pilots by rolling the "Whale," as we all called the KA-3B tanker, on completion of a tanker mission. Consequently, John's nickname was "the Red Baron." On 21 July 1967 he proved just how appropriate that name was. 

The "Bonnie Dick" had nearly completed a recovery. The Russian trawler had been steaming at full speed to try to cut across our bow and the bridge watch had been keeping a wary eye on the intruder. For a while it looked as if the Russian would be too late and we would finish the recovery before having to give way to the trawler. But a couple of untimely bolters extended the recovery and the Bon Homme Richard had to back down and change course to comply with the rules. The LSO hit the wave-off lights when the "Whale" was just a few yards from the ramp.

John crammed on full power and sucked up the speed brakes for the go-around. The "Bonnie Dick" began a sharp right turn to pass behind the Russian, causing the ship to list steeply, and there, dead ahead of John, was the Russian trawler. He couldn't resist. He leveled the "Whale" about a hundred feet off the water and roared across the mast of the Trawler with all fuel dumps open like a crop duster spraying a field of boll weevils. The Russian disappeared in a heavy white cloud of jet fuel spray, then reemerged with JP-4 jet fuel glistening from her superstructure and running lip-full in the scuppers. The Russian trawler immediately lost power as the ship's crew frantically tried to shut down anything that might generate a spark and ignite the fuel. 
She was rolling dead in the water in the Bon Homme Richards wake, the crew breaking out fire hoses to wash down the fuel, as we steamed out of sight completing the recovery of the Whale. The Red Baron was an instant hero to the entire ship's company.

A Vietnam war story of my own

Two of us, a flight of EA-6Bs, were stooging around Yankee Station in mid-73, war essentially over, waiting to recover.

We saw an AGI and tanker dead in the water bow to stern with a hose between them—their idea of UNREP (refueling).

We made a low pass to 'pay our respects' and I commented on the UHF radio to the other aircraft, "One of these days those Ruskies will learn how to conduct underway replenishment like a real Navy."

Someone keyed their mike and in perfect English relied, "Fuck you, Yankee."

All that "fishing gear" worked pretty good as antennae, apparently!

• Know Where You're Going When You Volunteer

2011 ended for us on the next to last day of the year with the sale of our Twin Beech. We weren't flying her much for physical, financial, and business reasons, so we were happy to have her go to a place in Ohio where she'll be flown and kept in a manner to which she was accustomed.

In the process we remade our acquaintance with Taigh Ramey, one of a handful of genuine Twin Beech experts around, and a thorough gentleman. His shop is in Stockton California, in the valley east of San Francisco, where we stopped on the way home to San Diego from Oregon where we bought the bird.

And all that reminded me of a spiral bound collection of stories, by former military flyers who had flown the Bugsmasher, titled She's A Beech.

Taigh said he'd heard of it and would give anything to read it, and I knew I had a copy someplace.

So after their departure

I went home and rummaged around until, sure enough, I found the book. I'd told Taigh I'd share it with him if I found it, and so I started to scan it into a PDF file. But I was brought up short by the line on the title page that said reproduction of the mid-1990s book in any form was prohibited without the permission of the author. I pondered the 17 year copyright expiration issue, but resolved to contact editor Tom Smith regardless.

In 1995 it would probably have been a frustrating and fruitless effort to track him down—and back then I wouldn't have been considering sending the material off as a computer file or finding some way to share it on the Internet, either.

But on the last day of 2011, with help from Google, I found Tom's phone number on a RAFS (Real Aviators Flew Stoofs) forum, a Stoof being the iconic Navy/Grumman S-2F 'Tracker'.

And, boy, am I glad I called Tom. Even if you didn't know the 82-year-old was a Naval Aviator, you could tell by the verbal equivalent of the spring in his step that he'd been to Pensacola. It was clear he still wore his wings of gold with pride, if even only metaphorically.

This was taken just after Tom's initial carrier qualification on the USS Monterey, December 1954.

We traded a few flying stories, and Tom graciously allowed me to share his book with you and the story below. The details of how he manage to find the stories for the book, and background on the authors, are in the PDF.

Tom, we salute you for your service and for your effort to preserve the stories that prove, She's A Beech

This tale, modestly told when you think about what he actually did, is by Colonel Benjamin H. Shiffrin, USAF (Retired).

Ben graduated from Army Air Corps pilot training on August 15, 1941. After Pearl Harbor, he flew submarine patrol with C-47s, C-46s and 0-52—the Curtis Owl. People grew up fast in WW2, and just four years later, in January of '43, Ben was Commander of the 1st Arctic Search and Rescue Squadron, based in Greenland. In '45 he activated and commanded the 44th TC Squadron, flying C-46s with a mission of providing air drops on Japan.

After the war he operated a flying school, fixed base operation, and an aircraft sales and service business in Bethany, Connecticut. He was recalled to active duty in '47 as a Major, was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in 1951 and Bird Colonel in 1953. Among other prestigious assignments he was Base Commander of Kelly AFB. He retired in 1968 and started a new career as a successful company executive.

I think you'll enjoy his story, especially for the unusual and historic details in it:


In early January of 1943, I was the Officer-of-the-Day for the 103rd Observation Squadron based at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. A teletype message came across my desk requesting a volunteer pilot with multi-engine and ski-plane experience for an urgent rescue mission.

Nothing was mentioned about what and where the rescue mission would be, or what type of aircraft was involved.

Being completely bored with squadron inactivity in wartime following a frustrating year of ineffective antisubmarine patrol in obsolete aircraft, I volunteered immediately. I had never been on skis, on my feet or airplane, and my multi·engine experience totaled 1.5 hours. In a matter of hours I was accepted for the mission.

Two days later I received secret orders. I learned that the mission was to rescue crew members of a B-17 that had crashed on the Greenland ice cap. The B-17 went down while searching for another lost aircraft.

Greenland? Up to now I had always thought of Greenland as a little green island somewhere in the ocean. After pouring over numerous charts and maps, I found the location of Greenland ... and went into immediate shock!

My orders required me to pick up a new AT-7 (C·45) at the factory in Wichita, Kansas. There I was to undergo a quick checkout in the Beech, and then proceed to the Norduyn Aircraft factory in Montreal, Canada, to pick up pontoon-type skis.

From Montreal, I was to fly to Presque Isle, Maine; Goose Bay, Labrador; and then to Greenland. At Presque Isle I was to pick up an ex-airline pilot who knew the route to Greenland.

With orders to proceed with dispatch, we arrived at BW1, (Narssarssuak) Greenland, on 24 January. My co·pilot/navigator escaped at once back to the United States. He probably thought he would be assigned to go on the rescue mission if he didn't get the hell out of there fast.

I sought out Colonel Bob Wimsatt, Commander of the Greenland Base Command, and the only person who had ever been to the rescue base on the east coast of Greenland, BE-2 (lquteg), and returned. All others who had tried were either lost enroute or were still there.

It took two days to recruit a crew chief, S/Sgt McDonald, and to collect the necessary survival gear. I checked with every pilot I could find that had flown in Arctic conditions. With their help, I plotted the flight and waited for good weather conditions.

On the third day, weather forecasters assured me that the weather enroute would be clear. It was probably the last time in my life that I ever completely believed a weather guesser.

After crossing the ice cap at 10 ,000 feet, we flew over the water along the shore to our destination, an airfield more than four hundred miles north, and sixty miles up a narrow fjord. The further north we flew, the lower the ceiling became. We crossed over the Eskimo village of Angmagssalik, at the mouth of the fjord, with a ceiling of about 1,000 feet.

There was an American operated radio beacon at Angmagssalik, but not at our destination airfield. We had already passed the point of no return, so our only option was to fly up the narrow fjord with lowering ceilings.

We were truly flying into a tunnel with towering mountains on both sides, water below and the ever lowering ceiling above. To make matters worse, it began to snow, restricting our visibility. We had calculated the flying time from the beacon at Angmagssalik, and knew we would be in deep trouble if time ran out and we didn't have the airfield in sight.

As the time elapsed, we were flying with 500 feet of ceiling and about a half mile of visibility. At that moment I observed the silhouettes of two B-17 bombers on the snowy bank of the fjord. The area turned out to be our destination airfield. But no semblance of a runway was visible from the air. I executed a hard landing with several bounces on the very rough runway.

We had to get the aircraft skis out of the cabin before we could exit the aircraft. As we left the aircraft, we were met by Colonel Bernt Balchen, commander of the rescue task force. He threatened to court martial me on the spot for endangering the vital ski·equipped AT-7.

Hell, I was just glad to be alive!

The six man crew of the crashed B-17 had been awaiting rescue since November 9. They had been spotted on the ice cap by Colonel Balchen on November 24, and had been the subject of an intense rescue effort for more than two months.

We went to work immediately to install the pontoon· type skis on the AT-7. We worked without a hangar in sub-zero temperatures with little daylight. We succeeded in mounting the skis on the next day and made some taxi tests on the rough and icy runway.

We learned to our dismay that a hard landing or bounce on takeoff would result in the props cutting the skis. To correct this, Colonel Balchen had the blacksmith shop of the civilian airfield construction crew cut the landing struts and insert metal pipes to lengthen them. The work was completed overnight and taxi tests the next day proved the aircraft to be uncontrollable on the ground—one ski was pigeon-toed and the other, people-toed.

Again the blacksmith shop removed the struts in an attempt to realign them parallel. All their work was in vain. That evening, after all their creative labor, the blacksmith shop burned down, skis and all!

The rescue, code-name PN9E, eventually succeeded when Colonel Balchen and a U.S. Navy crew flying a PBY Catalina amphibious plane, landed on the ice cap on its belly. This had never been attempted before, and demonstrated great courage on the part of Colonel Balchen and the Navy flight crew.

The rescue required two such belly landings. On the second flight an engine failed due to overheating and required the PBY and crew to remain on the ice cap overnight. Repairs made during the night allowed the PBY to takeoff on two engines, but the ailing engine had to be shut down again after takeoff.

Lt. Spencer and rescue man Sgt. Tatley on board the rescue plane.
All members of the B-17 crew survived.

Colonel Balchen, the renowned Arctic and Antarctic pilot, who had also flown Admiral Byrd across the Atlantic in 1927, wore two hats at this particular time. In addition to being the Rescue Task Force Commander at BE-2, he was also the Commander of the 1st Arctic Search and Rescue Squadron. After leaving these command positions, he led a successful bombing expedition from Iceland to northern Greenland where German weather stations had been discovered by Danish patrols. These stations were providing valuable weather information to German submarines and luftwaffe operations.

The complete story of the PN9E rescue effort is told in Hitch Your Wagon - The Story of Bernt Balchen, by Clayton Knight and Robert C, Durham, Bell Publishing Company, 1950.

Click here to download She's a Beech (PDF 3.8Mb) and the rest of the Model 18 stories. This was a tame one, by the way. 

• Human History Ends At Midnight

If Earth's history was placed on a calendar with each day representing about 10 million years, human history so far would begin at 11:59PM and end at midnight tonight.

On our Calendar of Earth's Events, from January to March not much happens, our clump of space dirt was hot and dry. But as it cooled and collected water from comet impacts it didn't take long for life to get a metaphorical toe hold.

The first single cell microbes appear in early April, with small multicellular clumps forming later in the month. Such bacterial mats are still found on Earth (and probably will be found on other planets too, as we may soon find out). Here's an image taken by Johnathan Stott of a bacterial mat found in boiling water at the Old Faithful Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park.

In May—on our year-long Earth history calendar—vertebrates emerge as fish. Slowly life on land evolves into plants and begin to cover the globe in July.

In mid-September fish crawl up on land and early reptiles preview the dawn of the dinosaur era, which continues through late November.

Birds and small shrew-like mammals first appear in early November, but are overshadowed by reptilian species until early December, when the dinosaurs disappear abruptly, in a few hours on this scale.

By late December, the recognizable ancestors of modern mammals make their debut.

Today, New Years Eve, things start to get busy, but it's not until noon that our first distant ancestors appear. Then tonight, between 9:30 and 10:00 pm, Homo Sapiens migrate out of Africa to populate Eurasia and the Americas.

At 11:59 pm, one minute before midnight, human history and civilization as we know it begins, and virtually all recorded history occurs in the last 10 seconds. As you watch the Time Square ball go down use the following timeline:

Dec 31 11:59:00PM - Cave paintings in Europe
Dec 31 11:59:20PM - Invention of agriculture
Dec 31 11:59:35PM - First towns
Dec 31 11:59:50PM - First dynasties in Egypt
Dec 31 11:59:51PM - Invention of alphabet
Dec 31 11:59:52PM - Bronze metallurgy, invention of compass
Dec 31 11:59:53PM - Iron metallurgy, founding of Carthage by Phoenicians
Dec 31 11:59:54PM - Ch'n Dynsasty China, birth of Buddha
Dec 31 11:59:55PM - Euclidean geometry, Roman Empire, birth of Christ
Dec 31 11:59:56PM - Zero and decimals invented, birth of Mohammed
Dec 31 11:59:57PM - Mayan civilization, Byzantine empire, Crusades
Dec 31 11:59:58PM - Renaissance in Europe, voyages of discovery, science
Dec 31 11:59:59PM - Technology, planetary exploration

As for the future, well:

Taking a positive view:
Jan 01 00:00:01AM - Life found on planets, genetic engineering, robots
Jan 01 00:00:02AM - Extraterrestrial intelligence, interstellar exploration
Jan 01 00:00:03AM - Artificial intelligence, cyborgs, space colonization

Taking a negative view:
Jan 01 00:00:01AM - Religious wars
Jan 01 00:00:02AM - Cave paintings
Jan 01 00:00:03AM - First towns