Life as a carrier-based pilot in World War II

The intersection of people who can write and people who can fly is a much larger set in England than in the U.S. Based on my history of reading books by or about Louis Zamperini, Amazon suggested that I read Norman Hanson’s Carrier Pilot. I’ll devote a few posts to this book.

On a 1938 family visit to Germany, the person who would set in motion Hanson’s career as a military pilot didn’t seem too scary:

However , on the following day we saw some indications of the coming conflict as we watched , in awed silence , a brigade moving up the left bank on its way to the Eifel area . Everything was there — motorised infantry , artillery , tanks , camp kitchens , AA guns , anti – tank weapons and ambulances ; all moving on pneumatic tyres at 30 mph . My brother’s only comment — he was currently engaged in building airfields in the south of England — was that our own manoeuvres on Salisbury Plain with cavalry , horse – drawn vehicles and the usual leisurely approach of peace – time Britain to matters military , seemed pretty silly by comparison . That very morning , too , we had seen Jews scrubbing pavements in Cologne’s shopping streets , supervised and encouraged with the occasional kick in the ribs by large , fat characters dressed in khaki . Wearing black jack – boots and swastika armbands , they carried cudgels in a manner which suggested that they hadn’t learnt that sort of thing in Sunday School . But we were young and carefree , with plenty of good , solid British pound – notes to change into cheap Reichmarks ; and food and drink — everything , in fact — was cheap enough in Germany in 1938 . We considered Hitler to be a rather comical character who took himself frightfully seriously and did the hell of a lot of bawling ; but hardly a major contender for the European Handicap . How wrong can you be ?

Today, 27 years on the planet is seldom sufficient to move out of one’s parents’ home. Back then, 27 was too old:

A batch of forms fell from the envelope ; and each one was stamped in large capitals — PILOT OR OBSERVER . I handed them to my wife Kathleen without a word . ‘ You ? ’ she said with a grin . ‘ You , at your age ? I thought you said you were going to be a mechanic ? ’ I had to believe her . In my own eyes , I certainly didn’t fit in at all with the image of an aircraft pilot . For one thing , I was approaching 27 . I wasn’t one of the eagle – eyed , dashing young daredevils who were already writing history in the skies over London .

Hanson goes to Florida to train with U.S. Navy cadets. You couldn’t fall behind in ground school because there was a written test every week. Also two hours of physical training every day (why do we think we can get into shape on less time than this?).

The basic aircraft — our trainer — was the N3N – 3 , a 235 hp dual – controlled biplane , built by the US Navy. It was remarkably uncluttered and had fixed undercarriage and no flaps.

The instrumentation was simple enough. A ‘needle-and-ball’—an Americanism for a turn-and-bank indicator; a ‘rate of climb’, in feet per minute; an altimeter; an instrument which showed how much power the engine was exerting, calibrated in inches of mercury; a simple compass; an oil pressure gauge; and, probably from our point of view, the most important, an airspeed indicator. To stay alive, you must keep an aircraft flying above its stalling speed. If you drop below that danger mark the aircraft will, with a degree of rapidity which varies according to the particular type of aeroplane, go into a spin. You will then be in lots of trouble and all you can do is to call on your experience. The snag is that, as a learner, you haven’t got any. The instructor occupied the front seat where he had a duplicate set of controls and instruments. He had a rear-view mirror—and a good instructor spends most of his time, in the initial stages, watching you through it. He wants to see that you are enjoying flying. If you don’t, there is no point in carrying on. You either love it or you don’t—there are no half-measures. And if you don’t fall in love with it at the very outset you are wasting your time and everybody else’s in trying to get used to the idea. The only sensible thing to do is to walk away from it and take up embroidery or flower arranging. You will be much happier and you won’t kill either yourself or anyone else. The instructor also had a speaking tube, known in the US Navy as a Gosport, for all the world like a length of flexible gas-tubing, with a mask and mouthpiece for him to speak through and a pair of earphones at your end. He could, therefore, chat to you until he was blue in the face in the comfortable knowledge that you couldn’t argue. In the business of learning to fly, there is only one guy who should be doing the talking—and he shouldn’t do any more than is strictly necessary.

The cockpits of those days, of course, were open; and flying hasn’t been the same since lids were put over them. The beating roar of the engine and the rush of the slipstream from 120 knots were music to my ears. After a while Culp told me to place hands and feet lightly on the controls and to ‘follow him through’ several gentle manoeuvres: straight climbs and glides, level turns, turning climbs and glides. He then told me to try some myself. The results were most ham-fisted. As in learning to drive a car, everyone overcontrols to begin with. Then the period was up. Learning to fly is a mentally exhausting business in the early stages and a little goes the hell of a long way. But no sooner are you down than you itch to be off again. It becomes an obsession.

Instrument flying hadn’t yet been idiot-proofed by the GPS and moving map:

We sweated for hours and hours under the hood of a ground-based Link trainer, practising ‘flying’ on radio beams, making timed approaches to ‘airfields’ and controlled let-downs in simulated bad weather. Then we were off in a Harvard dual trainer, sitting in the rear cockpit with a hood over us, preventing even a chink of light from reaching us. The instructor, acting also as safety pilot, sat in front. He flew the aircraft until we were within radio distance of a small civil airfield; then turned on our radio and left us to it. We had to find the beam, track down it at the right altitude and speed; and finally to put the aircraft in an exact position to let down on to the duty runway. Our ears had to make sense of the radio signals flowing in to them. We had to read our instruments and stopwatch intelligently. And our hands and feet had to transmit all this correlated information to the aircraft controls. This time we were listening to real live radio and aiming for a real live airfield. No Link trainer nonsense! Flying blind made great demands on concentration; keeping at steady heights on steady courses at set speeds; listening, listening all the time to the high-pitched drone of the beam; losing it, finding it again. Then doing the let-down, feverishly watching the stopwatch, trying to keep an even rate of descent; getting the correct beam for final approach, crossing the ‘cone of silence’. Now! Airfield ahead! Waggle your wings! The instructor snapped up the blind-flying hood. Is the airfield ahead? Sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn’t. This time, nothing but the Gulf of Mexico as far as the eye could see. Last time it had been a forest. Christ! Where did I go wrong? ‘OK, OK, I got it. We’ll go out north again and have another crack at it.’

How did sex and money intersect before Florida’s child support guidelines established an official price for out-of-wedlock sexual encounters?

After a quiet drinking session one night at the Battle House Hotel in Mobile, we decided at midnight that it was time we started to wend our way back to the station, using the method by which we had come—hitch-hiking. The four of us stood on the pavement of the main street, in the direction of Pensacola, and waved our thumbs. A big open Oldsmobile cruised to a standstill. ‘Pensacola, boys? OK, climb aboard!’ The driver, a man of about 45 years of age, was cheerful—nay, downright jovial. This was not surprising considering the amount of alcohol he seemed to have put away. His joviality was somewhat blurred and his driving slightly erratic. He crawled along for a minute or two, then stopped again. ‘Hey! Any o’ you fellers want a piece of ass before we get going? On me, boys—my treat. How’s about it?’ What on earth was a ‘piece of ass’? We looked dumb—he thought so, too. ‘You Limeys don’t know what a piece of ass is? You don’t want a jump? Hell! You know! A woman! A good whore! How’s about it?’ To a man we declined. His opinion of Limeys had hit an all-time low. What sort of fellers were these? ‘Well, I’m having me a blow-through before I leave town. Only keep you waiting ten minutes, boys. Hey! Officer!’ (This to a policeman, patrolling the street.) ‘Hey! Officer! Where’s the nearest whorehouse?’ The policeman wasn’t at all put out by the request, the inflammable breath or the bleary bloodshot eyes. ‘Second left, third house on the left. Good house, too. OK?’ We drove down. He pulled up the car with a screech of brakes outside the brothel; a good-looking three-storey house in a nice enough district. ‘Sure you won’t join me in a piece of ass, boys? Round your evening off nicely.’ He leered. Then he stood up in the car. ‘Hey! Mother! Bring out your whores! Bring out your whores!’ He was bawling at the top of his voice. ‘Goddammit! Woman! Bring out them whores, for Chrissake!!’ I wondered how much longer he would create a disturbance before someone did something about it. Then suddenly a first-floor window opened. A middle-aged woman, hair in curlers, stuck out her head. Her voice was equally refined. ‘Now you just git the hell out o’ this. My girls have had a long, hard day and they’re all tuckered out! Git the hell out of it!’ ‘Ah! The hell! You just git them whores o’ yours down again and open this goddam door! I’ve bin pinin’ for a piece of ass for the last two hours and I just ain’t goin’ home!’ ‘Mister, you can just fuck off. All my gals are in bed and you ain’t gonna see one of ’em!’

Florida was already home to, um, gentlemen’s clubs:

Pettigrew and I were at the Villa Venice, one of the better night-clubs on the Beach, with a very good, well-dressed floor show. We had sat through two shows but Jim, whose whole world revolved round girlies, insisted on seeing the third and last performance. … The last show gave him his chance, for the girls appeared clad only in wonderful head-dresses, gauntlets, high-heeled shoes and G-strings. Jim shook me back to life. ‘They’re on.’ So they were. And Jim was right—she was a honey. Blonde, about 19; and everything came out and went back again in exactly the right places. She smiled at him and made his day. We were cold and shivering outside, despite our greatcoats. … Eventually she emerged, looking lovely enough to eat. Her hair under the lamplight was beautiful. She wore a mink coat which she must have earned the hard way. Her legs beneath it were the pride of Florida. As Jim moved towards her, she declaimed—from 20 yards, in a rasping voice which can’t have done a thing for Jim’s ego: ‘It’ll cost you 30 bucks!’ It must have been a hard life for a high-kicker in Miami. ‘Thirty bucks?’ said Jim, incredulously. ‘Thirty bucks? Jesus! I only want to borrow it, not buy it!’ She swept past us with a look of contempt. Her perfume and the swish of her mink wafted over me. Strange things, girls, I thought. And how bloody awful to be so hard at 19! Already she must be sick to death of men. She isn’t young any more. Boys, young men, have been left far behind, and the wallets of the well-to-do—men of any age, shape or colour—are her only interest.

Society was stratified in more obvious ways (though very likely less segregated):

We boarded a bus in Pensacola town one afternoon—five or six of us—to go out to some beauty spot on the coast. We clambered in, saw the back seat—right across the full width of the bus—completely unoccupied and, naturally enough, parked ourselves in it. Departure time came and went. No activity. Then one of us asked a passenger in front of us what was the cause of the holdup. ‘The driver’s waiting for you to get off that seat,’ said the lady addressed. ‘This seat? Why? What’s wrong with it?’ ‘That seat’s for black folks.’ ‘Well—there aren’t any on board.’ ‘Don’t matter. That seat’s for black folks and that driver ain’t gonna go ’til you boys gets off it.’ Sure enough, as soon as we stood, the bus departed. We called that just plain bloody ridiculous! Now, in Miami, we found things even more droll. Blacks had to clear the streets of the Beach by a certain time each evening and get off to their shanty town outside Miami City—a curfew, if you like. The segregation wasn’t confined to blacks and whites either. Miami provided visible signs of segregation between Jews and Gentiles, which surprised us even more. The first sign I saw was a black-and-white painted noticeboard outside the main entrance to a fashionable golf club on Miami Beach where I was invited to play. It read, starkly and uncompromisingly, GENTILES ONLY ALLOWED HERE. There were night clubs and restaurants similarly labelled.

After inverted spins in Pensacola, Hanson was released to fighter training per se.

Some 14 miles north of Miami lay the Navy’s airfield at Opa Locka, its fighter training station. So far, our progress; had brought us to the stage where we could fly an aircraft. Now we were to learn to use it as a lethal weapon of war. We trained hard, too; eight days without a break, and with a fine disregard for Sundays. At the end of eight days, peace descended for a while with one full night of liberty and the whole of the following day until 9.30 pm. The North American Harvard—SNJ-3 in US Navy terminology—was the first aircraft we used for this fighter course. We liked this modern advanced trainer; all-metal, dual-controlled and highly manoeuvrable. It was fully equipped with retractable undercarriage, constant-speed propeller and flaps. The 700 hp engine pulled the Harvard along in great style and in fully fine pitch for take-off it gave a screaming whine which no one could fail to recognise. It should be said at this stage that, in a matter of a week or two, our flying had rapidly become more sophisticated. For one thing, with heavier and more powerful aircraft, whose higher wing-loading would not permit them to maintain a glide with the same ease or for anything like the distance of a lighter aircraft with lower wing-loading, it became necessary to make powered approaches and landings. Instead of cutting the throttle as the final crosswind turn was made, engine power was maintained, propeller pitch was adjusted to give increased revolutions and flaps were lowered by ever-increasing degrees until the ‘flare-out’ point was reached.

By day, we covered all aspects of fighter training: ground strafing on semi-submerged rocks off the coast; air-to-air firing on drogues towed over the Everglades; gun camera attacks on individual aircraft or on simulated bomber formations, flown by our own classmates. We persevered more and more with formation flying, but now in much more open formation, giving us time and space to search for ‘enemy’ aircraft. Close formation is pretty and impressive at air displays, but hopeless for fighters avidly looking for enemies. Then we started the course all over again. We graduated to Brewster Buffaloes (F2A), fighters which had lately been discarded by the US fleets as obsolete. They were short, chunky machines with a 1,200 hp Wright Cyclone engine.

In other words, kids who had just recently learned the basics were flying 1,200 hp taildraggers!

More: read Carrier Pilot.

3 thoughts on “Life as a carrier-based pilot in World War II

  1. For a good US born aviation writer look no further than Ernie Gann. Fate is the hunter should be required reading for all aviators.

  2. “Everything was there — motorised infantry , artillery , tanks , camp kitchens , AA guns , anti – tank weapons and ambulances ; all moving on pneumatic tyres at 30 mph . My brother’s only comment — he was currently engaged in building airfields in the south of England — was that our own manoeuvres on Salisbury Plain with cavalry , horse – drawn vehicles and the usual leisurely approach of peace – time Britain to matters military , seemed pretty silly by comparison” The author probably witnessed training exercises. Nazis heavily relied on horses in WWII This source claims that they predominantly were horse drawn

  3. >(though very likely less segregated)

    During WWII, my mother drove a car to Pensacola for her brother who was training to be a pilot. At one gas stop, she encountered Black soldiers eating lunch outside a diner because they were not permitted to eat inside. The German POWs they were guarding were being served at the counter.

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