Flying training: the American advantage in the battle of air superiority against the Luftwaffe.

AuthorWerrell, Kenneth P.

A number of factors explain why Germany lost air superiority in World War II. These include the aircraft, associated equipment (such as gunsights, drop-tanks, "G" suits), and numbers. However, probably the most significant American advantage in this epic battle was the number and quality of its pilots and thus the key element was the American flying training program. During the war the Army Air Forces (AAF) produced 193,000 pilots, just over half as single-engine pilots, of which 35,000 were fighter pilots. America ramped up its output of pilots at an astounding rate, from a mere 225 men who pinned on pilot wings in the last half of 1939, to 2,500 in the last quarter of 1941, rising to a peak of 29,000 in the second quarter of 1944. (1) Pilot quality is more difficult to describe.

Prior to the great expansion, an applicant had to have completed two years of college to be eligible for flying training. This requirement was waived prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, replaced by a test that attempted to determine the individual's suitability for flight training. Later psychologists developed the stanine (standard nine) series of tests that proved very effective in assessing aptitude for successfully completing the pilot training program. (2) One result of this admission policy was to produce pilots who were young. The two-year college requirement meant that most of the graduates were in their early twenties; the elimination of that requirement pushed the age down into the teens, as high school graduates were eligible, and even some without a high school diploma. Thus many, if not most, of the trainees were in their teens, and many pinned on their wings before they reached their majority.


As part of the New Deal and to stimulate interest in aviation, in early 1939, Congress passed the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP). It gave students in select colleges seventy-two hours of ground school and thirty-five to fifty flying hours, permitting these students to earn their private pilot's license. However, the military apparently did not like the program. There was a belief among pilot trainees that having, and certainly admitting to having, a private pilot's license was a negative, because the Army wanted to teach prospective pilots, "the Army way." (3)

The Army's pilot training program was conducted at bases located from coast-to-coast, in the southern half of the nation, where better weather could be expected. It was organized into three geographic commands, at first named: Southeastern; Gulf Coast; and West Coast and then Eastern; Central, and Western. The flying training consisted of three phases: primary, basic and advanced, each initially of four months duration. (4) In July 1939, the program was cut from twelve to nine months and then, in May 1940, further reduced to seven months. Another decrease in 1942, shrank each phase from ten to nine weeks, however in March 1944, the phases were increased to ten weeks. The graduates were awarded their wings and rank after completing the advanced course. The new pilots then went through a phase of transition before they arrived at their unit. (5)

Students in primary usually soloed with about eight to ten hours of flying time, usually with no more than twelve hours. Primary students received about sixty-five flying hours until March 1942, when the requirement was cut to sixty flying hours. About forty to fifty percent of these were dual hours and each student was to make at least 175 landings. Prior to 1940, all instruction was conducted by military personnel, but with the great expansion of the training program, in July 1939, a system of contract schools was initiated employing civilian instructors with military check pilots. (6) In May 1943, the primary phase was conducted at fifty-six civilian primary schools. The AAF saw a building surplus of pilots by 1944, consequently it began to be cut back the primary contract program, and phased it out by the end of the war. During the period from July 1939 through August 1945, 233,000 graduated from the primary phase, surviving an elimination rate of twenty-eight percent. (7)

The would-be pilots then went on to the basic phase, where all the instructors were military. Until July 1939, the students received 103 flying hours, which was then cut to seventy-five flying hours. The next May it was reduced to seventy hours. In all, 203,000 graduated from the basic phase that had an elimination rate of twelve percent. (8)

The student further honed his skills in the advanced phase of pilot training, in which he was shunted toward his eventual aircraft type. The AAF based aircraft assignment on the requirements of the service along with aptitude, physical standards, and student preference. In mid 1944 the latter was largely disregarded. About thirty-five to forty percent of the pilot trainees preferred fighter assignments and about fifty-five percent bomber assignments. The demands of the service varied over time, which resulted in some men being put into cockpits they did not desire, but in fact the actual overall assignments mirrored these desires with about thirty-five percent going into fighters. (9) However, while this might have worked at the macro level, it sometimes did not work at the micro level. It was noted at a training command conference that forty percent of those trained in fighters, wanted to fly another aircraft type. (10) Trainees who were considered to be middle of the road students, that is with abilities to handle either fighters or bombers with no special bent to either, were usually assigned to twin engine schools. The documents indicate that the AAF believed certain traits were pertinent for piloting the two major types of aircraft, one report, for example, writing that "if a prospective pilot is indifferent or if he has a good memory for charts and procedure he is sent to a twin engine school. Those weak in air discipline or interested only in flying and stunting are usually places in a single engine school." (11) There were also comments that older more mature students would be better suited in bombers, along with those who lacked initiative. (12)

Size played a major role in aircraft assignment. There were stories, and anecdotal evidence, of classes of students being lined up by height with the shorter and lighter men assigned to fighters and the taller and heavier ones to bombers. As one history states, "cadets were frequently assigned to pursuit training merely because they were relatively small and frequently against their own wishes." (13) Although crude and perhaps ineffective, this method had some merit considering the cramped fighter cockpits and the strength needed to handle some of the bombers (particularly the B-24). (14) The AAF imposed physical requirements for aircraft assignments. A regulation in July 1942, put the upper physical limits for pursuit assignments at five feet nine inches, raised to five feet ten inches in October and 160 pounds, and then in May 1943, to six feet and 180 pounds. There was a tendency to disregard the limits and fudge if the fighter quotas were not met. In addition, some of the flying centers established their own limits, for example, Southeast Flying Training Center in October 1942, set the limit for fighter assignment at six feet in height and 180 pounds in weight, prior to the above mentioned AAF change. (15) This determination of aircraft type (single engine; twin engine) was made early in the phase.

Not all the trainees in the single engine program were to fly fighters. A directive in May 1943 ordered that seventy percent of the students in single engine training were to receive gunnery training and become pursuit pilots, the remaining thirty percent were to receive instead additional training in instrument, navigation, and formation flying and would fly other types of aircraft. The latter route was to be less arduous and provide the AAF with pilots for instructor, ferry, transport, and multiengine copilot duties. This regulation was abolished in July 1943. (16)

In May 1940, flying time in the single engine advanced phase was cut from seventy-five hours to seventy hours. By December 1940, advanced fighter training was broken down into single-engine and twin-engine components in which, for a time, the twin-engine students got eighty-six flying hours. Although unclear, it appears that by May 1942, all advanced fighter students were to fly seventy flying hours. (17) The program of April 1943, added ten flying hours, notably increasing instrument time to nine hours and gunnery hours to twenty-two (seven air-to-ground and fifteen air-to-air). (18) In November 1943, the P-38 transition program required eighty flying hours distributed between transition and fundamentals (twenty-four hours), formation (ten hours), navigation (eleven hours), instrument (nine hours), aerobatics (four), and gunnery (twenty-two hours, of which seven was air-to-ground and fifteen air-to-air). Of these hours, eight were to be flown at night and in addition ten hours were to be in the Link trainer. These hours were flown in the AT-6 (sixty-six hours), AT-9 (four hours), and P-38 (ten hours). (19)

The students graduated having logged between 210 and 225 flying hours. Many of them also had received about ten flying hours in the P-40 before graduation, and then went on to further training flying the P-39 and P-40. The new pilots usually got additional training in the type of aircraft they would fly in combat, although this varied. This was complicated by units transitioning from one aircraft to another and the need for replacement pilots. (20)


With a program that grew so big, and so fast, major problems had to be expected and they certainly were encountered. Near the end of the war (March 1945) Central Flying Training Command sent a report forward with a cover letter which stated: "As evidenced in the inclosed report, fighter pilot replacements are arriving at the...

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