• 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.


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