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AVIATORS WANTED: Training Those Willing to Fly to Fill the Sky

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This is the second blog in a series marking the 75th Anniversary of the End of World War II and will feature an “Aviator Flight Log Book” which will be available during the Arsenal of Democracy Flyover in September 2020.

If you were offered a chance to learn to fly at little to no cost, would you take it?

This was the question posed to some 20,000 American college students per year in the late 1930s.  More than 35 years had passed since the Wright brothers had taken that auspicious flight, and interest in aviation was now booming. Politicians, starlets, even the mail was carried by air, but flying commercially or even piloting still seemed out of reach to many.  That is until the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) began.

Black and white photo of six men standing around a biplane. Men appear to be listening to one man talking.
Vachon, J., photographer. (1941) Instructor with group of student flyers under Civilian Pilot Training Program. Congressional Airport. Rockville, Maryland. Maryland Montgomery County Rockville Rockville. United States, 1941. Sept. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,
Despite the official stance of neutrality, events in Europe and Asia caused palpable tension with the thought of looming war. Italy and Germany were training, and seemingly, preparing for a great battle to be led through the skies. In 1938 General “Hap” Arnold, commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces considered our country’s preparedness and recognized that the airmen and aircraft assigned under him were not nearly enough. Fortunately, the Civilian Aeronautics Authority (predecessor to the Federal Aviation Agency) was already working on a multipurpose panacea that would prepare American youth for the emerging air age through vocational training at colleges and universities across the country.  In doing so, the national defense would have a pool of trained pilots to draw from should it be needed. This push to fill the skies also opened the sometimes secluded cockpit doors to Americans from a variety of backgrounds, despite “race, creed or color” according to the Civilian Pilot Training Act of 1939.

One of the individuals who benefited from the diversity of the CPTP was Catherine Vail Bridge, who fell in love with flying when a date took her up in a Piper Cub. When she learned that the CPTP at the University of California, Berkeley would accept one woman to every 10 men (something she credits first lady Eleanor Roosevelt for), she jumped at the chance. Bridge completed her primary ground school and 35 hours of flight time in a Piper Cub, earning her cherished pilot’s license.  Noting that women weren’t permitted to pursue the advanced CPTP School, Bridge joined the University’s flying club where she was able to continue her aviation education. While at school, she met her future husband, Arthur “Art” Bridge who was going to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps until Catherine pronounced:

Why walk when you can fly!

She got Art set up with the CPTP, and by the time he graduated the U.S. Army Cadet Training Program in January 1942, the two were engaged. One week later, Art was sent overseas.  Catherine kept busy by training and flying with the second class of Women Army Air Forces (WASP) where, at one point, she had more hours than her husband!

Color photo of brown "Aviators Flight Log Book" featuring text and photos.
Aviators Flight Log Book for Catherine Vail Bridge. Based on the Catherine Vail Bridge and Arthur H. Bridge Collections, Veterans History Project, AFC/2001/001/34158 and Veterans History Project, AFC/2001/001/34223.

According to the National Museum of the United States Air Force, the CPTP started small with nine schools participating in early 1939.  By the program’s peak, there were 1,132 colleges/universities and 1,460 flight schools participating in the program. Perhaps one of the most notable universities was Tuskegee Institute in Alabama where the first African-American U.S. Army Air Force combat pilots were trained. When the program started; however, the 18 men and two women who participated in the program were barred from aviation duty in the military. Charles Walter Dryden was acutely aware of this, even though he had always wanted to be an aviator.

Black and white photo of seven men standing and kneeling near aircraft. Men are in US military uniforms. Some have aviator caps and goggles on.
Members of the 99th Fighter Squadron who are operating in Northwest African Tactical Air Forces. , None. [Between 1944 and 1945] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,
By January 1941, the War Department announced the designation of the 99th Pursuit Squadron – an all-Black unit trained at Chanute Field and later transferred to Tuskegee, Alabama. Dryden had learned of the CPTP program through his local newspaper and immediately pursued the opportunity. He received his pilot’s license and enlisted in the second class that went through flight training at Tuskegee. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the CPTP changed its name to the War Training Program. Military aviators continued the same training across the country with Primary, Basic and Advanced in which they would gradually increase the complexity of the pilot’s training. Dryden checked out in the PT-17, AT-6 Texan and flew predominantly the B-40s overseas in Italy.  During his Veterans History Project oral history interview, he recalled his first exchange with the enemy Luftwaffe stating:

Every one of us had a brave desire to shoot, to be the first, because we knew we’d be historically heroes from then on.

The 99th Pursuit Squadron and other segregated units that followed proved to be integral to winning the war, but more importantly paved the way for full integration of the U.S. Armed Forces.

The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that by the time the CPTP concluded in 1944, America had roughly 435,000 newly trained aviators including aviation leaders such as astronaut and Senator John Glenn, triple ace Bud Anderson, commander of the Tuskegee Airman Benjamin O. Davis, Jr, Chinese American WASP – Hazel Ying Lee and the last of the Doolittle Raiders Richard “Dick” Cole.  In addition to helping defeat the Axis powers, these American aviators and support crews brought civil aviation into a new age of exploration and technology.


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