School for Luftwaffe Tamers

by Sidney Shalett

from the New York Times Magazine
Orlando, FL

You are seated in the bomber's nose of Speedy, a Flying Fortress, winging your way toward Orlando, headquarters of AAFSAT — the Army Air Forces School of Applied Tactics. Suddenly over South Carolina a freak storm blows up and hail commences to beat a clamorous tattoo on the miniature greenhouse in which you are perched. Thick clouds like wads of dirty cotton close in; you peer through the glass in an attempt to see, but you might as well try to read a newspaper in a steam room. You should be frightened witless, but instead you are exhilarated. The massive steadiness and sturdiness of Speedy, the unfaltering roar of her four mighty engines, the calm sureness of her skilled crew give you a confidence that all the hail and fog in the heavens could not shake.

That confidence is symbolic. It is the same confidence that is engendered by a visit to any Air Force center where the legions of America's mechanically dexterous, keen young men are being trained as masters of their superb fighting machines.

The War Department recently lifted the curtain of secrecy on one of the most important training centers in the country, the Army Air Forces School of Applied Tactics, where experts in aerial death, who learned their lessons in blood over Tunisia, China, the Philippines, New Guinea and Germany, teach the art of bombing and fighting to fresh young men who are going into combat.

AAFSAT is a unique idea. A vast section of central Florida is set aside as its domain. It is, first, a school — an institution of higher learning for the men who must fly the planes and keep them flying in the combat areas. From every training Air Force in the country, complete cadres of officers and men — especially picked for their smartness — come to AAFSAT; they're all there, from ground men to bombardiers, pilots and commanding officers. Thus, taking advantage of the finest type of new scientific devices and the experience their instructors have gained in combat, they are trained for one month as fighting units. Then they go back to their home fields, pass on the information learned to their comrades, and the whole team, better prepared than it otherwise would have been, is ready to go into battle.

Second, AAFSAT is a complete Air Force, with a complete Fighter Command, Bomber Command, Air Support Command and Air Service Command. So, in addition to the classroom work, the various groups get their training in the field, under simulated combat conditions.

AAFSAT, which is under the command of Brig Gen Hume S Peabody, also recently has become the seat of tactical air-combat instruction for the joint Army-Navy Staff College — an important step forward in coordination and cooperation between the air arms of the two services.

AAFSAT is geared to graduate 4,500 trained men a month; these men are the red blood corpuscles of the giant American Air Forces that will blacken the skies over Germany and Japan. It gives you a boost to meet these men, particularly the pilots. Swollen as the Air Forces are, the pilots still preserve something of the dash, the romance and the glamour that you associate with the early barnstorming days of flying. They work hard and they play hard; they pay scrupulous attention to the business of flying, but they seem to have a way of saying to-hell-with-you to stuffy regulations. The very way they rip the wire out of their stiff caps and let the caps flop rakishly over the band seems to set them apart from other soldiers.

You are "old" at 30 in the Air Forces. AAFSAT's instructors, many of whom have chased Japs at Pearl Harbor or sent Messerschmitts blazing into the English Channel, are "aging" or "old" men of 28 upward. There are smoldering-eyed firebrands such as Major Charlie Bond, a former Flying Tiger, officially credited with killing nine Japs over China and Burma; scrappy little fighters such as Lieut Col Walter B Putnam, a fighter-group commander back from the Far East, whose peppery brand of instruction would make a stone man want to fight, and a whole roster of drawling Texas and Oklahoma heroes from the famous Nineteenth Bomber Group, who fought like hell all the way from the Philippines down the heartbreaking route through Java and to Australia. Every one of them would trade every medal he owns to be able to get back at the enemy's throat, but their job now is to hammer their knowledge into the thousands who must finish the job. They do it.

You find it almost unbelievable to talk with some of the youngsters of 20 to 25 who now are piloting thirty-five-ton Forts — $250,000 worth of machinery — or hurtling through the air in wicked attack bombers or pursuit ships, or calmly floating fifteen airborne infantrymen to a safe landing in a glider. A Fortress or a Liberator is an awesomely big thing, and its control panel, to the uninitiated, seems the most hopelessly complicated mess of gadgets in the world; a troop or jeep-carrying glider, for all its size, seems the most fragile and capriciously uncontrolled flying device thought up by man since Icarus tried out his wax wings. It is incredible to think that John Jones, 23, just out of law school, is co-piloting a Fortress; that Richard Smith, 25, who sold second-hand cars in Syracuse, flies a night fighter, or that Willie Brown, 26, who used to be a bookkeeper in Pittsburgh, can actually handle that glider.

They are tough, tanned, fit young men, with a lot of confidence in themselves and their machines and a tremendous enthusiasm for what they are doing. They spark this enthusiasm right into you.

The best of American ingenuity has gone into the perfecting of scientific devices for the training of our airmen. There is no substitute for experience, of course, and there are some things a plane crew can learn only in actual battle. But AAFSAT has tapped Yankee mechanical skill to the utmost to provide gadgets to train men to fly, to shoot, to navigate a plane by the stars, to find unseen enemy at night and shoot him down, to detect and intercept enemy bombers winging in from the sea.

AAFSAT`s classrooms have scores of small gadgets — sand tables for practice in setting up desert and jungle airdromes; range-estimation trainers, for split-second guessing of distances; projectors for instantaneous recognition of enemy planes, tanks and ships; "automatic raters," which clock the time a student takes in answering basic questions; almost miraculously realistic gunnery training devices.

Next to actual victories, there's nothing in the world which breeds confidence than a view of our mighty training program in operation at Orlando, Nowhere does military and industrial dynamo of America hum stronger than at the centers where keen young men are being trained as masters of our superb fighting machines.

This article was printed in the "Air Digest" column of the December, 1943 - January, 1944, issue of Air News magazine, vol 5, no 6, p 46.