- Historic Sites
When I Landed The War Was Over
A veteran news correspondent recalls his days as a spotter plane pilot
October/november 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 6
The idea is simple and sound and goes back at least to the American Civil War: to direct artillery fire intelligently, the higher you are above the target, the better. At ground level it’s difficult to tell just how far short or long your shells are falling. In the Civil War they used balloons; in the First World War they were still using balloons, along with airplanes equipped with telegraph keys; in the Second World War the airplane had supplanted the balloon, but just barely. The United States Army of those days was not a hotbed of innovation, and when I reported for training as an artillery spotter pilot at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in early 1942, there was still an enormous building on the post called the Balloon Hangar, even though no balloons were to be seen.
But before that, there was Fort Hays, which wasn’t a fort at all in the 1940’s but a town in western Kansas with a civilian airfield on the outskirts. I had enlisted in the Army Air Corps, hoping, like all nineteen-year-old American male movie fans, to become a fighter pilot, but one eye tested at 20/40, so the Army Air Corps gave me to the Army , period, to become what was called a “Liaison Pilot,” meaning artillery spotter. At Fort Hays, the civilians taught us to fly, and it wasn’t easy, for them or us.
The airplanes were Aeroncas, tandem two-seater monoplanes with sixtyfive horsepower engines. They terrified us but aroused only contempt in our instructors, who were accustomed to heavier stuff. Sometimes, out of sheer boredom at the end of two hours in the air with me, trying to teach me crossroad eights, lazy eights, and all the other primer moves the beginning aviator learns, my instructor would seize the controls and put the lumbering Aeronca through snap rolls at an altitude of five hundred feet. The Aeronca, to him, was not an airplane : it was a sort of tricycle which occasionally found itself in the air. An Aeronca can kill you as well as an F-14, of course, but my instructor obviously didn’t believe that, as witness the aileron-block affair.
Aileron blocks were two pieces of wood joined together with a bolt: when the airplane was through flying for the day, you shoved the bolt forward along the slot between the aileron and the fixed wing, to prevent the ailerons from flopping and banging back and forth in the wind, since that could damage something. A piece of red cloth ten feet long was attached to the aileron block as a warning not to take off with the block in place, since the ailerons control the banking and turning movements of the airplane: with block in place, no bank and no turn, a situation that could, as they said in the Army, ruin your whole day.
Nonetheless, one bright morning, as the first student out on solo in this particular Aeronca, I took off, thought the control stick a bit stiff, glanced out the window, and saw that awful red streamer, standing out stiff from the wing. Death, I thought, and I haven’t even seen a German yet. There was, however, torque, the force exerted by the spinning propeller. Torque tends to turn the airplane, and sure enough, after a wide, wide circle of some twenty-five miles, I found myself lined up with the grass airstrip and landed. I instantly jumped out and threw the aileron block into a ditch before taking off again, but of course my instructor had seen the whole thing. After chewing me out for being just flat-ass dumb , he said, “Well, now you’ll know what to do when they shoot your ailerons out.” To him, clearly, there was nothing to fear in an Aeronca, not even the Luftwaffe.
After about twenty-five hours of solo at Fort Hays, we were shipped to Fort Sill, to the real Army, for sixteen weeks of learning to do the impossible with little airplanes. The “Short Field Course,” it was called. Two hundred hours of instruction in what to expect in combat areas, and it took place in those little olive drab L-4s.
The L-4 was the Army’s version of a Piper Cub: two seats, one behind the other, a lot of Plexiglas all around, so you could see who was coming after you, and a sixty-five-horsepower, four-cylinder Lycoming engine which pulled the airplane along at a snappy seventy-five miles per hour, assuming no headwind. Speed wasn’t the point. The L-4 was made of aluminum tubing with doped linen stretched over it: one man could pick one up by the tail and pull it along behind him. This lightness meant the airplane could land and take off from places unthinkable for real airplanes, and in combat, everybody knew we were going to be in a lot of unthinkable places.