'Flying Sergeants' helped forge Air Force legacy

Discussion in 'Aviation' started by syscom3, Sep 29, 2006.

  1. syscom3

    syscom3 Pacific Historian

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    'Flying Sergeants' helped forge Air Force legacy

    by 2nd Lt. Amber Millerchip
    Air Education and Training Command Public Affairs

    3/11/2003 - RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas (AFPN) -- They were not paid much, their opportunities for promotion were limited, and they were treated harshly in training, but that did not stop three generations of enlisted aviators from becoming pilots in the Army Air Corps.

    Beginning in 1912, enlisted pilots played an important role in writing the aviation history being celebrated this year during the Centennial of Flight.

    These enlisted pilots were known as "flying sergeants" for the staff sergeant rank they received upon graduation from flight training irrespective of their previous rank. Enlisted men seized this once-in-a-lifetime chance to fly, said retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Edward Wenglar, a former enlisted pilot.

    "I was born the tenth child of a sharecropper and, at that time, there was no one lower than a sharecropper, " Wenglar said. "I went from driving a mule to flying the newest (aircraft). It was quite a step. We never thought about whether we wanted to be an enlisted pilot or an officer pilot. We just wanted to be pilots, and we would gladly have stayed privates forever just to have the chance to fly."

    Wenglar, who served overseas during World War II from November 1942 through July 1944, holds the distinction of achieving the highest rank of any former enlisted pilot. In February 2003, at the Air Force Enlisted Heritage Hall at Gunter Annex, Ala., he accepted a memorial stone on behalf of all enlisted pilots.

    In Lee Arbon's book about enlisted pilots, "They Also Flew," Chief Master Sgt. Wayne Fisk compared pilots to precious stones, with the shiniest of all U.S. aviation achievements being those of the sergeant pilot.

    Allowing enlisted airmen to earn their wings as pilots was a temporary response to drastic shortages of qualified pilot candidates during wartime. Two Congressional laws authorized the training: the Air Corps Act of 1926 and Public Law 99, which went into effect in 1941. Public Law 99 reduced the education requirement, making the average age of the sergeant pilot between 18 and 22, younger than most pilot training cadets with a college education.

    Enlisted pilot training in the late 1920s initially was informal, practical in nature and not a product of the flying schools, which developed in the early 1940s with World War II enlisted pilots.

    Instead, Arbon said, "If fortunate enough, these early, World War I enlisted pilots grew up in the local organization learning under a generous officer in their unit. For the initial enlisted pilots, the World War I generation, many came out of the ranks of mechanics to become successful pilots."

    An enlisted man's opportunity to train to fly was many times luck of the draw, Arbon said. Such was the case in 1912 for Cpl. Vernon Burge, the first enlisted pilot, who was a mechanic accepted into pilot training.

    Arbon who attended pilot training in 1942, recalled, "Training conditions were fiercely competitive, attrition was very high, half of us were cut after the medical physical, and only one forth made it out of training."

    Enlisted pilot candidates trained six days a week in class or in the air and spent Sundays doing drill, Wenglar said. One of his strongest memories was training in the hot July sunshine in Arizona with temperatures in the hundreds, which made the flight line surface even hotter.

    "While waiting your turn to fly, the instructors would order us to complete one push-up after another, our hands burning," he said. "When we couldn't do any more push-ups, the instructors would make us (get on our backs and) hold our feet up six inches from the ground. Looking back, it's amazing we got through. They worked hard to wash us out, especially considering they needed us so badly."

    According to Wenglar, enlisted pilots flew in 22 campaigns from the Mexican-American War to World War II.

    "Name a combat plane or theater and you'll find a number of sergeant pilots in each of those units," Arbon said. "We did everything. It took us a long time to acquaint the world to the fact that we did indeed exist. When we did get acknowledged, people realized we had done a grand job."

    The enlisted pilots were high achievers in the Air Force and beyond.

    "Our careers as enlisted pilots made us better men and gave us opportunities later in the civilian world that we never would have been offered," Wenglar said. "Many of us went on to become airline pilots, doctors and educators. We destroyed a total of 249.5 enemy planes, and five out of seven men in charge of air transport systems went on to become commanders of troop carriers in Europe, the Pacific and the Middle East."

    Seventeen enlisted pilots became fighter aces, and 11 became general officers. Many sergeant pilots' heroic deeds and accomplishments reached historic significance.

    Walter Beech, co-founder of Beech Aircraft Corporation, was one of the early enlisted pilots who achieved notoriety. He was a World War I pilot and became a member of the National Aviation Hall of Fame. Bob Hoover, a World War II pilot, is also listed in the Aviation Hall of Fame and is considered one of the great test pilots of all time.

    Ralph Bottriell earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for his work with parachutes. Two enlisted pilots, Ira Biffle and Bill Winston, taught Charles Lindbergh.

    During World War II, 30 staff sergeant pilots flew transport missions in the China-Burma- India Theater, delivering supplies and people over the treacherous Himalaya Mountains better known as the "Hump."

    The opportunity for enlisted men to become pilots ended in late 1942 with the Flight Officer Act. This law replaced the program's sergeant pilot rank with the warrant officer rank, which was also eventually done away with. Retired Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager, famous for breaking the sound barrier, was in the last class of the enlisted pilot program when it was replaced. The following year, all sergeant pilots received orders to be promoted to the new "Flight Officer" rank.

    Following World War II, George Holmes chose to revert to his former rank of master sergeant and served as the Air Force's last enlisted pilot until his retirement in 1957, according to the U.S. Air Force Museum.

    To learn more about the history of the enlisted pilot, visit the Air Force Enlisted Heritage Research Institute Web site at Maxwell AFB and Gunter Annex au/cepme/ heritage/ homepage. htm. (Courtesy of Air Education and Training Command News Service)
     
  2. FLYBOYJ

    FLYBOYJ "THE GREAT GAZOO"
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    Great info - I still see nothing wrong with a NCO pilot....
     
  3. Glider

    Glider Well-Known Member

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    The RAF had thousands of them. Thanks for the post I admit that I didn't realise that the US had any NCO Pilots. It was a good read.
     
  4. Nonskimmer

    Nonskimmer Active Member

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    I knew about them, but it was still a good read.

    Most air forces of the war had non-commissioned pilots, but I believe the Japanese made the most use of NCO pilots out of all the combatants.
     
  5. evangilder

    evangilder "Shooter"
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    Great read. I agree with Joe, I think NCO pilots would be fine as well. Besides, most NCOs are way better than an O-1 through O-3.
     
  6. Wetterfrosch

    Wetterfrosch New Member

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    Does anyone know why George Holmes reverted back to the rank of MSgt?
     
  7. syscom3

    syscom3 Pacific Historian

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    It probably had to do with the end of hostilities and the resultant reduction in the number of ranks.
     
  8. mkloby

    mkloby Active Member

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    :D


    Good post - thanks syscom
     
  9. Airframes

    Airframes Benevolens Magister

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    Agree with all, a very interesting read, thanks.
     
  10. comiso90

    comiso90 Active Member

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    OTS or OCS is certainly a way to weed people out and instill an extra measure of esprit d corp but it's not necessary for a good pilot.

    I cant see a sergeant flying an F-22 or B-2 though. I imagine they'd be relegated to flying Sherpas and Carvans delivering fine scotch and hammocks to the Officer's clubs in remote locations.

    .
     
  11. mkloby

    mkloby Active Member

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    No - OCS is not required for a good pilot at all. It does, however, test character under stress... it's main function.

    That, combined with requisite scores on aptitude tests may help to produce a better qualified average aviation student - and even still about 20-25% I believe are attrited along the way in naval aviation. That doesn't mean that there aren't NCO's or SNCO's out there that would do very well in the aviation program.

    The Navy opened up a pilot program to enlisted sailors to become warrant officers and go through flight school. I'm not sure what has happened since then though. I saw the first warrant officers coming through primary flight training as I was leaving back in 07.
     
  12. comiso90

    comiso90 Active Member

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    Yeah.. thats what i meant about "weeding out"... It's a great filter to separate top performers from under performers.

    You can say the same thing about college... a degree doesn't necessarily mean you're qualified.. it just means you had the opportunity to go to college and the persistence to get a degree.

    lots of dummies with degrees and lots of brilliant people w/o them.

    .
     
  13. Glider

    Glider Well-Known Member

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    I can see a sargeant being good enough, but not allowed to and not being given the opportunity.

    On the old Ark Royal one of the senior F4 Pilots was a Lt Commander and started out as a stoker in the Ark on his first tour at sea. An F4 isn't an F22 but for the early 70's it was of similar complexity.

    In 1972 the Tiger visited the USA and the Captain heard a number of the Junior Officers getting above themselves. During the next excercises he declared that there had been a catastrophic hit in the officers Mess and most of the officers were deemed to be casualties. The excercise went ahead for two days with the senior rates in charge and she passed all her tests.

    Do not underestimate the Non Coms.
     
  14. Soundbreaker Welch?

    Soundbreaker Welch? Active Member

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    lol, good statement.
     
  15. Cherbonnier

    Cherbonnier New Member

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    In addition to actual Enlisted Pilots the Navy had the Naval Aviation Cadet Program, NAVCAD up until around 1966. This offered Enlisted personnel to apply for flight training without having a Four Year Degree. All the original Navy Astronauts and ex-Navy Astronauts were Navcads. If I'm not mistaken if one SecNav was a Navcad.

    The last enlisted pilot I met was a grizzly old Chief that flew a twin Beech into NAS New Orleans from Corpus in 69.

    Thanks for the information.
     
  16. renrich

    renrich Active Member

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    Quite a lot of USN EM pilots in 1941-42.
     
  17. pbfoot

    pbfoot Active Member

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    IMO the best officers with very little exception came through the ranks invariably they were more level headed and easier going then the ring knockers. In one of my postings I alternated into Base ops every few months with the exception of the CO it was all NCO's ( the only one in the CAF)and was given the award of best Ops centre in the CAF for several years
     
  18. DerAdlerIstGelandet

    DerAdlerIstGelandet Der Crew Chief
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    The best in the Army (at least on the Aviation side of the house) are the Warrant Officers. They almost always start out as enlisted and normally around the rank of E-6 transfer from NCO to Officer. They make much better decisions because they were NCOs in my opinion.
     
  19. Clay_Allison

    Clay_Allison Active Member

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    If the army was ever allowed to adopt a COIN plane to provide their own small-scale CAS, I'd hope the pilots would be Warrant Officers.
     
  20. muscogeemike

    muscogeemike Member

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    I read a story of an enlisted USMC pilot early in WWII somewhere in the Pacific.

    An incoming raid caused planes to be scrambled and the Squadron Commander was informed that this pilot was missing. When the CO investigated he found that the pilot was on K.P!
     
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