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Chapter 1 - Training for War  click on the links below for more of the story...
i. Prelude - ii. Down to the Basics - iii. Advanced with Jet Speed - iv. Bent Wing Mania

Down to Basics

Goodfellow AFB, San Angelo, Texas, June-Dec, 1949

For brevity in my biography I refer to senior officers by first name in repetitive circumstance.  I avoided that liberty, even when invited to do so, in my 20 years of service, partly military tradition, but more a concern for any perception of cultivating superiors for self-interests in their eyes or my peer’s. I despise sycophants!

"Cadet Robert W. Smith, Reporting, Sir!"

San Angelo was such a dinky and dingy town. It was the most gruesome place I had ever seen, even during an auto tour around America. I was seldom off the base in my six months and had no desire for it and the life was so exciting that the time flew, just as I did.  We had a period of indoctrination during the initial weeks when the only times we could vary our vision from dead ahead was in our barracks or classroom. Relating that tradition to the need to align the instrument gyroscopes, the order was “Cage your eyeballs, Mister!” and that meant head and eyes straight ahead.  In the mess hall, we ate ‘square meals’ which added the requirement to lift food straight up and straight in, with no talking.  Until that ended, I actually never saw what the inside of the hall looked like, but hadn’t missed much. Such seemingly immature controls, and designated punishment for inevitable failures was vital to military conduct, command and response on young recruits and it separated some who were not able to endure authority.

On the flight line, we were free of that and that was where we spent half the day, save for weather too bad to fly, which was seldom.  Among our first assignments was the hotshot pilot photo to send home.

From the start, we began training in the pilot’s seat of a T-6, the Texan, the advanced trainer of WW II fame, an airplane with 750 horsepower, providing a lot of torque to deal with.  The Texan had narrow main gear and a tail wheel, a combination noted for ground loop accidents on landing. To minimize damage we flew off grass during the early part of basic, which often allowed skid rather than the airplane rolling up with wing damage or worse.  The courageous one in this situation was a brand new 2nd Lt. John Motil, my instructor, seated in the back where visibility and judgment of position on landing was the poorest.

Instructor, John Motil

Since he flew that first take-off and landing he was probably more uncomfortable than I was but the table would turn when I had control all the way, next.  After that first indoctrination flight it was business every minute. 

Acrobatics soon became my passion, especially the slow roll, our most difficult maneuver, and most exciting.  That roll took brute force, not the finesse of others and was uncomfortable because while rolling around the longitudinal axis of the airplane you hung in the straps, rolling from positive to negative ‘g’, and dangling sideways in between. Once I had performed that maneuver, I practiced it frequently in my solo flights to the point that I could make the airplane remain level while rolling completely over, whereas the instructors were pleased with a mediocre roll with a hump in the flight path.  I had heard of 4-point rolls: A slow roll with a pause in the roll at every 90-degree position.  This was not taught but I experimented with them to hone my skill on the ordinary slow roll, much to my advantage later.  

Novice and the Texan

I experimented with acrobatics because I favored them, and also because John was trained as a bomber pilot in the B-25 Mitchell and then straight to instructing us.  His experience with it was when he was in my shoes.  One of my later friends went directly from training to instructing and taught French student pilots who spoke limited English!  On the other hand, to John’s credit, he added the demand of preciseness to maneuvers that the fighter-pilot instructors did not.  For example, the fighter pilot’s Chandelle, a steep climbing turn maneuver born from WW I combat, was rapid roll-in, forceful, and high-g.  John Motil required a precise combination of constantly changing roll rates, climb angle and airspeed, start to finish:  A much more difficult and demanding maneuver. It was necessary for me to learn both techniques, because I flew with other instructors, at times. I recall it as good fortune because the combination proved to me that I could get the most from an airplane by combining gentle toughness and brute force, to best advantage, depending on the situation.  I have not seen this more vividly demonstrated than in video taken in the cockpit from behind a world champion professional acrobatic pilot, who just happens to be a petite, delicate woman, when outside the cockpit.

Captain E. S. McDonald

Our 40-hour check flight was the most critical point for us, since it was the first in which we were seriously evaluated for the dreaded “wash-out” from flying.  This was the beginning of gaining the confidence to become a good throttle jockey.  As luck would have it, I was assigned as my Check Pilot our top dog, Flight Commander, Captain E. S. McDonald, a fighter pilot who was the scourge of the flight line.  He was an advocate of the school of torture, believing you learned to fly best under great emotional stress, and he was a master at psychologically imposing it throughout the flight.  I had never flown with him!

When he demanded a Chandelle and I started my instructor’s version, the shouting and cussing began.  I quickly repeated it with the fighter type. After more procedures and maneuvers, I had undergone great pressure by the time he directed me to make a slow roll.  I was determined to impress him and commenced from level flight, without pulling the nose up until necessary to hold altitude. He became absolutely irate, not to mention profane, shouting at me that we would never complete the maneuver except in a screaming dive. I was adding power to overcome the significant drag of uncoordinated flight, necessitated for that roll and was very confident.  Inverted, halfway through the roll, his taunts had diminished and all of his ranting had ceased by the time we were hanging sideways, passing the point in the roll. I completed the challenge with very minor changes in altitude, a nearly perfect slow roll.  The rest of the flight was quiet and extremely pleasant, although the Captain never said anything when we landed, walking away without a word or indication of results! 

I was uncertain of anything until my instructor told me that I got the highest grade Capt. Mc Donald ever gave a student.  What’s more, he got a compliment from the boss!  Luck was with me in enjoying and choosing to work hardest on the thing that most impressed him.  I was encouraged that the remaining months were secure for me, with night flying, formation, and instrument training, all adding to my 131 T-6 hours by the time I completed basic.


But that period of exuberance was short and it didn’t work out so easy, because I soon felt I was not progressing and was at risk in the early stage of instrument flight training.  I suppose that we all had those ups and downs of confidence and it benefited us.  Initial instrument training, seated in a little blue box, unbalanced on a pole, officially the ‘Link Trainer’, psyched me out from the start, as it did many, because it gave false indications of the task and poor confidence resulted.  Airplanes never controlled in any way like that abomination.  All of us dreaded its wooden cover closing over our heads and the confidence-sapping flopping about of the little monster as it sprung into action, at the start of each training session.  The T-6 was a great vestige of WW II, but the blue monster was not, and Link Trainer was an oxymoron.  That diabolical little machine would compare to the moving base simulators of today like the Wright Flyer to an F-15.  With miniaturized digital computers, advances in simulators keep pace with airplanes.  Exemplified two decades ago, when the FAA took the big step of allowing an airline flight crew to train solely in a ground simulator for their first flight ever, in the Boeing 767, alone except for their unsuspecting passengers.

I was soon in a T-6 “under the hood”, a white canvas that covered the entire rear cockpit when slid overhead to learn about instrument flying and ….. vertigo! The changing illusions from sun and shadows through the hood helped to produce that complete disorientation, which has cost many their lives, especially those inadequately trained as was the case in the fatal flight of John Kennedy Jr. and his wife.  Our navigation aids and instrumentation of the early 50’s were vintage 40’s, also.  The radio navigation aids throughout the USA were low frequency ground stations along “airways”, each station with its Morse code unique identifier, emitted at intervals on low frequency radio, supplemented by light beacons for nights in clear weather.  Except for a station identification pause, all stations alternately transmitted either ‘A’ (dot-dash) or ‘N’ (dash-dot), in opposing quadrants centered on the station.  Once on one of the four paths where the edges of the quadrants overlapped, the combining of the two provided a continuous monotone.  With a detailed procedure and learned technique, it was possible to come upon an unknown radio station and find your way. First listen for an identifier, telling you which station, thus its location in the stations’ reference book.  Then you had to find your relative position, but there was a rub.  That was a real tough task for a cadet having enough trouble keeping his eyes on the instruments and flying under control, without reading and following that procedure and messing with the radio, which required constant change of volume.   Now the added burden of looking up the station and it’s geometry of quadrants and the compass headings of the four “flight paths” forming the separation of the quadrants.  Those paths from station-to-station formed the airways.  All of that, while flying on instruments, without benefit of auto-pilots.  Then a time-consuming discovery of the direction of the station by holding a selected path and listening for diminished or increasing volume, not always easily, and seldom quickly perceived.  But the instructor demanded haste.  Then a rather complicated series of maneuvers to determine which quadrant you found yourself in, and finally to identify the proper track. 

Fortunately, the advent of the Automatic Direction Finder (ADF) with its homing needle had arrived with the jet and I happily left Morse code forever in the T-6, though I enjoyed that old bird and its’ systems, part-time for two years, sometimes just for sport. With time and a lot of sweating on my part and the instructors’ skill and effort, that major hurdle was past and I could get along OK on instruments, but I didn’t become a professional instrument pilot until I attended an advanced jet instrument school in preparation for an all-weather jet interceptor assignment in late 1952.  Many WW II fighter pilots never learned how to fly instruments very well.  It’s like my generation trying to beat today’s kids in video games, and fighters of today are even more of the same, requiring expert use of complex but invaluable heads-up and console video displays. 

We progressed to formation flying and one day I was solo on John Motil’s wing, with a classmate in his back seat. I had been easing gradually closer in formation on my own with other students for some time.  Some of us practiced on solo flights to get a leg up, and students never flew dual, except with instructors, too much like making the prisoners the warden, I suppose!  I was training on John’s wing and he must have been pleased because he put me in a loose trail behind and started a loop.  Because of his background, he was not skilled in this, so wasn’t much for high-g turns and pulled up in a very loose loop, which forced me to do the same to stay on his tail.  After we made it over the top and started the steep dive toward earth, I noticed we were going to pull-out awfully close to the ground because of too little g down the back of the loop.  Fortunately, I started moving inside his arc so I could increase g as much as possible, without losing sight of him under my nose.  His pullout was dangerously close to ground impact and I would not have made it if I stayed directly in trail.  Fortunately, I had preempted John on this phase of instruction also, so it was not my first time at rat racing.  In spite of that we both came very, very close to not making the pull out.

Christison & Smith "Hangar Flying" on the wing

My student record gained me an assignment for advanced training in fighters at our only jet school, where I joined Basic classmates Ray Beck, Charlie Christison, Harry Falls and George Helbring.  I would remain with them in advanced training and, except Harry, we went together to our first flying assignment as pilots.  My first acrobatic maneuvers months before had driven earlier thoughts of the B-36 far from my mind, although I later enjoyed the opportunity and unique experience of flying some very big birds from time to time. 

Goodfellow was not on the beaten path, but once in a while a transient pilot would land. One, in particular, furthered my emerging dream to be a fighter pilot. His arrival and take-off in the XF-88, an experimental jet fighter, that was forerunner of the McDonnell F-101, Voodoo, was a big event for all of us.  Little did I know that I would one day fly a modified version in a very unique test flight.  Once a temporary relocation from hurricane weather sent a whole squadron of Navy “Privateers” our way and filled our ramps.  That was a version of the WW II B-24, except with a huge single vertical stabilizer, in place of the 24’s dual tail, and that sight sealed my desire on fighters.  The size was impressive, especially that mighty tail, stories high, but I couldn’t get an image of looping or point rolling in it!

Martha, Lane & I

On 75 bucks a month, Martha and I stuck to letters but I got a message to call home and found out I became a Dad September 9th letting me know our daughter was on earth and healthy.  Christmas was the only leave permitted in our year of training and it coincided with my moving to advanced training.  Martha had never driven and wanted me to teach her over our Christmas holiday.  This was the bad break of a lifetime for this lady, with me, a half-assed pilot, who had learned teaching skills from the likes of Capt. Mc Donald.  Using his imperatives, sans expletives, for every maneuver she made as she fought clutch, shift et al, I soon found myself in the right seat, alone in the middle of a neighbor’s front yard, with Martha walking home in tears.  Let me tell you here and now, that is the only time I have ever been able to bring that little lady to tears in 55 years of marriage. 

I enjoyed that brief time in Wichita with Martha, baby daughter Lane and my folks as much as any in my life.  After the holiday I proceeded to Phoenix for training in jets at Williams A.F.B. via the last round trip left in my old Plymouth.  The holiday was far too short, but I was also chomping at the bit to get into advanced training and jets. Driving to Phoenix, I picked up Harry ‘Buster’ Falls at the Tulsa or OK City Airport.  He carried a typical G.I. bag stuffed full of all his clothes and a bottle of bootleg whiskey, from home.  The only problem was, that cargo had received the usual care of airline loaders and the whole bag smelled like a still was operating in the trunk.

PHOTO:  Harry “Buster” Falls ...from year book photos

I had almost forgotten a nickname over the years, but was reminded by Buster’s note to me on his graduation photo, “Shaky, I’ve enjoyed your friendship very much and I hope I can fly your wing someday, Happy Landings”  For as long as I remembered, I had tremors of my hands, which had no effect on anything, except a youthful concern when someone mentioned it.  Almost immediately I was dubbed “Shaky” with the only consolation that I was number one, “Shaky 2” was reserved for Joe Monger, another of my classmates, who autographed his graduation photo noting the fact.  I was to carry that through my early career, then it started to diminish as I lost both the tremors and then the moniker in my first combat tour.  I guess that I just needed to be ‘all shook up’ in my first aerial dog fight.  Gone, but not forgotten because my first combat commander and a jet ace, Bones Marshall, recalled it in a complimentary note about me to someone who passed it along, just a few years back.

Phoenix looked like paradise upon arrival, especially compared to San Angelo, not to mention the base was great also, and we lucked out by enjoying the winter and spring weather during the next six months.

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