"You can fly, but now we're going to make a military aviator out of you."
In November, 1959 the Air Force had civilian contract primary flying training bases. Bainbridge and Spence Air Bases,
Georgia; Bartow and Graham in Florida; Malden Air Base in Missouri, and Moore Air Base, Texas. When we arrived the skies were filled with airplanes. We would soon be in them, and actually flying. At these bases a group of highly experienced civilian flight instructors would:
1. Show us new uses for our flight caps.
2. Convince us we had no business operating any kind of machinery, let alone something with a whirling propeller.
3. Regale us with war stories the like of which we now occasionally tell.
4. Show us what precision aviation was all about.
5. Shape us into fledgling air force pilots.
We were joined here by the USAF Student Officers and twenty Allied Nation classmates from Turkey, Venezuela, Pakistan, Iran, Ethiopia, Germany, and Bangladesh.
Quite a few of our brothers did not advance from pre-flight. The "want-to" weeding out process had cut our numbers considerably. The change from a military base to small civilian contract schools was designed for a sudden change of emphasis from things military, to flight discipline. Primary would weed out more who did not have the necessary skills or who could not conquer airsickness. And still more S.I.E.'s. The Moore AB Yearbook quoted what proved to be the whole class motto; "For many are called, Few are chosen...."
I had never been in the cockpit of an airplane, and since I'm left handed, I wondered about the left hand drive version of the Link trainer, and eventually the airplane. My very first visit to the Link cleared that up. Left hand...throttle, right hand...that stick thing between your legs. One version fits all, prepare to become ambidextrous, or else. Climbing into the T-34 cockpit the first flight was like climbing onto a bucking bronco in that we had no idea what was going to happen next. The transition from simulation of flight to actual flight was exciting to say the least. We prepared for the first flight as much as possible. Academics taught us the aircraft and its' systems. The "Link" sessions simulated the flight. We practically memorized the Dash-1. My roommate and I spent hours in the aircraft giving each other "blindfold" cockpit checks. We knew where every switch and gauge was located while blindfolded. We also memorized and tested each other on all checklist and emergency procedures. == We were ready to fly! ==
My first T-34 flight with a kindly old silver haired instructor named Mr. Earl Lucas.... was a real awakening. I was doing pretty well through his aerobatics, (probably a mild shade of green) until Mr. Lucas started his descent to RTB. It involved doing what he called "clearing turns", making certain another aircraft was not directly under us and out of view. Suddenly we were inverted, going down at a 45 degree angle, rolling back and forth from one wingtip to the other as fast as the T-34 would roll. Well...tear off the earphones and get ready for a new c--t cap...cause this one found that new use.
It is said that anyone with good vision and reasonable coordination can be taught to fly given time. However here the name of the game was "you don't have much time." Some say it was like trying to get a drink of water from a wide open fire hydrant. We were in a crash course of academics, military training, sessions with the "Link ladies" and physical conditioning training in the unique style of "Coach Hardee". As if this were not enough, now we were learning how to fly. We were now learning what they meant by "Every man a tiger!"
To help motivate us we had to wear our baseball flight caps backwards until our first solo. We rode the D'ville bus each day to the auxiliary field for T-34 flights (unless we took the first flight). We received about 9-10 hours of flight instruction in the venerable Beech T-34 "Mentor" primary trainer aircraft. Then our instructors told us we were ready to solo. And we did. If you didn't solo before 15 hours, you wouldn't do it in the air force. With tight syllabus training schedules to keep...slow learners were history quickly.
Three new things happened here. Check rides, Pink Slips, and Elimination rides entered our vocabulary. Suddenly the solo rides of boring holes and sight seeing turned into actually practicing stalls, spins, chandelles, cuban 8's, lazy 8's, Immelmans, cloverleafs, loops, rolls, etc. Not only were they teaching us to fly, they were going to evaluate everything we did in the process. Every dual flight brought tight critique and grading on check flights was critical to continuing. The expected standards were high...unattainable for some.
Twenty more hours of instruction, solo and check rides in the T-34 prepared us for the ride of our life. Our first flight (dollar ride) in the T-37 "Tweety Bird" jet trainer. We were among the first bases to use these noisy little jets. Farewell to canopies that could be open in flight, mixture settings, rpm settings, inches of throttle and magneto checks.
Well, not all of us got to fly jets just yet, some of the bases still were using the propeller driven T-28 "Trojan" as the second primary trainer. They were caught in the Air Force's transition to the all jet force. The T-28's were the last primary non-jet trainers. Their Wright engined machine (800 HP) pushed them to around 280 mph, but sounded like the world's noisiest tractor. As for the "tractor drivers" (we all knew the T-28's were manufactured by International Harvester, or was it John Deere?), they probably became better pure stick and rudder pilots due to the power and torque of the T-28. However we did feel they exaggerated that point just a little with their "spot landing" challenge. In either case, if you could fly the T-37, or the T-28, you knew you were a pilot. In all we logged about 30 hours time in the T-34 (logging 88 landings in my case). In the T-37, we loggedabout 65 hours dual, 35 hours solo, with a total of 203 landings. We packed up with about 130 hours total time in our logbooks. Leaving primary we were told: You can fly, but now we're going to make a military aviator out of you.
To make us appreciate the safety and dependability of the B-25, we were sent aloft in the T-28, at the time the Air Force's newest trainer. It's engine sounded like a garden tractor and could be depended on to go to pieces at any minute. Everyone felt like a test pilot when he flew the machine.
Revitalized Pilot Training Program
The 1952 plan called for converting the PA-18s and T-6s, beginning with the introduction of the T-34 in April 1954, with the retirement of the Piper Cubs and T-6s to be completed by July 1956. Student pilots would then fly the T-34 in light plane screening and the T-28 and its successor, the TX (ultimately the T-37), for the rest of primary. Specifications called for a side-by- side, two-seat trainer with an average speed of 330 miles per hour, tricycle landing gear, and a minimum endurance of two hours in the air. The T-33 and its successor, the TZ jet,
Helen Murphy © 2009-2016 All Rights Reserved
2nd Lt. Bill Gmelin (2nd from right) and flight instructor George Jones (center) pose with members of the 3307th Pilot Training Group alongside aircraft 7636, the plane they were flying on the night of June 16, 1955.
Marana Air Base, AZ 1954-55 3307th Pilot Training Group
T-34 ATC Pilots of the 3303rd PTG
An investigation and hearing into the crash were conducted in the weeks that followed. The investigation’s conclusion:
“The cause of this crash is undetermined. The imprint of this aircraft on the ground at the point of impact and dispersal of the debris indicates that the aircraft struck the ground in a near vertical dive and exploded upon impact. There was no radio call from the crew and no evidence of fire in flight either from nearby eyewitnesses to the explosion or from examination of the empenage. The attitude and speed of the aircraft is believed to be the only key to the accident cause. Either fouled primary controls or misuse of controls through disorientation or other such factors are the only apparent conjecture possible. The extent of distortion of the aircraft and engine left little chance of establishing whether or not there had been a mechanical malfunction. There was no foreign object likely to have fouled controls found in the wreckage.”
Bill’s dog tags were recovered from the debris field; there were no identifiable remains. His son Peter Gmelin was born on July 13, 1955.