Piloting Big Bombers Is Big Business

Building the AAF Part IV

Nine weeks in cockpits. classes. and mechanic's overalls won't make a four-engine pilot. A man also has to have the executive's skill for management plus "the ability lo think of 50 things at once."

Down in Texas in a lakeside setting at stone's throw from one of the world's greatest plane plants, the Army Air Forces Training Command is bringing out the "big business" instinct in pilots who would fly the Consolidated Vultee four-engine B-24 Liberator bomber.

The job here at Tarrant Field, as at other AAF four-engine transition schools in the nation, is to create combat crew loaders with responsibility over the lives and efficiency of ten men and a $250,000 "flying battleship."

In a nine-weeks' course that sends the student officer into both the classroom and the air on a round-the-clock schedule, the "lone eagle" pilot becomes a flying executive whose staff is the crewmen and whose office is the fuselage of one of the world's most potent airplanes.

The bomber pilot is the "finger" and the "brain" of a closely-knit unit and must always be conscious of his relationship to a group of comrades whose destinies — successes or failures — are inseparably interdependent.

When the student — who may be anything from a second lieutenant to a lieutenant colonel — realizes his enormous responsibilities, the transition school's task is more than half done.

The B-24 pilot learns to lift his huge craft into the skies with efficiency — not dash. Besides being pilot he is also engineer, mechanic, coordinator of sev eral score pre-takeoff checks and tests, safety expert, leader, and general manager.

Typical of the veteran flyers who direct Tarrant's stiff training routine is Maj Albert L Haley, 25-yr-old squadron commander who won his wings at Kelly Field. "Not every pilot can handle the Liberator," he says, "for obviously not every man can think of 50 things at once — and still fly an airplane. There are countless flyers, top-notch in single-engine planes, who are prevented by disposition or temperament from taking charge of the B-24."

Before the big plane's captain ever taxis off the ramp, he is required to make, or oversee, 40 individual checks. With the assistance of his copilot and his enlisted engineer, he inspects the crew, engines, fuel, gas tank caps, brakes, wheel chocks, wing flaps, bomb bay doors, and the readings of a complexity of instruments that would do justice to the control center of a heavy cruiser. After the engines are started, 9 checks are made before taxiing; 8 more after the Liberator is headed for the taxi-strip; 15 before the actual takeoff; 2 more when the plane is in the air; and 5 when it reaches cruising altitude. Before landing, 19 checks are made. There are 6 more immediately after landing, plus a final 13 later to secure the ship on completion of its flight. The passenger is left with a definite conviction that the four-engine pilot is no carefree birdman but a methodical and highly skilled technician.

To make him such there is great emphasis on ground school subjects. The student officer must thoroughly learn the inner workings of his plane preparatory to assuming broad obligations in the attainment and maintenance of perfect mechanical performance. The smooth synchronization of power available from the B-24 is dependent to a large degree on the pilot's understanding of the problems involved in its structures and engines, with considerations of the feelings and skills of his crew. Because it is his task to supervise the work of his men, the pilot must have a precise understanding of their respective duties. To learn the problems which confront his ground crew, he makes practice repairs with his own hands. If damage occurs because of his error, the guilty pilot is required to do much of the repair work himself.

In ground school he also studies wing and tail assemblies, superchargers, brakes, retractable gear apparatus, airframes, engines, and propellers. He first meets the eye-filling instrument panel in class, where a complete replica has been installed.

Further, he is required to freshen-up his technique in code and visual message sending and receiving, while renewing his ability to identify scores of naval vessels and aircraft types. The principles of avigation, learned by the student as cadet before he won his wings, are reviewed, and the Liberator learner is made aware of the important role the pilot plays in maintaining constant speed and heading for the benefit of the navigator.

Actual B-24 transition flying is begun, of course, during the daytime when the student officer gets his first introduction to the inside of the Liberator's cabin. Then come taxi trials, takeoffs, banks, turns, glides, climbs, spirals, stalls, and landings. Before his record sheet is finally signed by his squadron commander, the Liberator's future manager masters a number of emergency procedures and learns to fly his plane safely on three engines, also on two. And before leaving for the Operational Training Unit — his last stop before combat — he flies at night on instruments only, in battle formation, and at altitudes well above 30,000 ft with oxygen equipment. The final examination is a long cross-country hop.

His training completed, the four-engine pilot represents the world's finest "eager beaver" of the airways.

In the words of Training Director Major Haley, "He's more than a pilot. In our AAF he stands for everything human that it takes to tear out the heart of an Axis city,"

This article was originally published in the November, 1943, issue of Aviation magazine, vol 42, no 11, pp 223, 225.
The original article includes 3 photos.
Photos are not credited.

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