The Solo Flight

Lambert Field, MO, November 14, 1942

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[NOTE TO READERS: This is one of a series of short stories about my dad’s experiences in WW2, based on his letters, his diary, his pilot’s log book, and the many documents he saved from his time in the Navy, and other historical records. Individual conversations and scenes I have invented, though they are informed by the records in my possession.]

I had to fly with one hand and blow my nose with the other. Depending on how fast your nose is running, that can be quite a trick, especially when it’s time to land. It was my very first solo flight—I could not have picked a worse time to get a bad cold. More on that in a minute. But first, the back story on how I wound up in the cockpit of that N3N-3 on November 14,

N3N-3.jpg Photo Credit: Alan Wilson   License: Creative Commons — Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International — CC BY-SA 4.0

I have wanted to fly since my very first airplane ride. It was 1928 and I was five years old. The Curtis JN-4 “Jenny” was a two-seater biplane, with controls at both places. Daddy put me in the front seat where he could keep an eye on me as he flew. I was bundled up and wearing goggles that were way too big for me. I probably looked like I had bug eyes. After buckling me in and giving me stern instructions, “Don’t touch anything!”, dad started that throaty Hispano-Suiza 8 engine. Being a boy, I wasn’t scared by the noise—I loved it. The noisier the better! As soon as the ship lifted off the ground, I was hooked. Whatever it took, whatever I had to do, someday my future was going to include a cockpit.

In 1928, dad (D. K. as he was known to his friends) was fully invested in the fledgling aviation industry. He had been a sophomore engineering major at Georgia Tech when the Great War interrupted his academic plans. He enlisted in the US Naval Reserve Force (USNRF) in June of 1918, when World War 1 was creating a lot of widows. Fortunately the war ended before he got to Europe. 

Naval budgetary issues produced a massive drawdown of the military when the war ended, and dad was squeezed by it like everyone else. He was honorably discharged from the Navy in September of 1921.

As the years rolled and the Depression set in, work for most people became difficult to find. Thankfully, dad’s rare aviation skills kept him employed at one job or another. He was a certified flight instructor, a commercial-rated pilot, a certified aircraft mechanic, and a ground school instructor. For a time, dad was a salesman dealing with Aeromarine-Klemm aircraft and Salmson and LeBlond aircraft engines. I suppose dad could lay claim to being the first “equal-opportunity” instructor, because he taught both men and women to fly. 

**********

So, there I am at Georgia Institute of Technology in my sophomore year, studying mechanical engineering. Late at night on December 7, 1941, my roommate and I were in the dorm studying for semester finals when we heard a news flash that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. We looked at each other across the room, snapped our books shut, and said, “Let’s get with it!” 

He enlisted right away in the Army Air Corps. Unfortunately, I had to wait until May of ‘42, when I was old enough to enter the Navy Reserves in the aviation program. It did not occur to me at the time, but my dad had virtually the same experience at Georgia Tech in 1918. Same school and course of study, same navy, same intention to fly. Different war.

**********

“Greetings, gentlemen. You people can set your bags on the ground, right there,” said the grinning man as we got off the bus. We had pulled up to a building that looked a lot like a barracks. We were in Athens at the University of Georgia, where we would get pre-flight ground school instruction as well as physical training for strength conditioning. We were all a little anxious, not quite sure what to expect. Had it not been for that nervousness, I probably would have detected the malicious gleam in the man’s eye.

“No one will disturb them. Very well. Now, line up here behind me, gentlemen. Very good. Follow me, please.” 

That was the last time he was polite to us for the next three months. As it turned out, he was our physical training (PT) drill instructor. We didn’t know that at the time, however. He simply had ambushed us as soon as we disembarked from the bus.

He took off running at a good clip. We all looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders. We’re in street shoes and traveling clothes. The man jogged about 20 yards, looked back and saw no one following.

“LADIES,” he barked, “I SAID, FOLLOW ME! NOW!” He turned and began running even faster.

Oh, boy, I thought. What have I gotten myself in to? There was a reason I chose naval aviation and not the army. I’d had enough of ground pounders in Army ROTC at Georgia Tech. I wanted to be a pilot, not a grunt! I didn’t think running or marching would be part of the package! Boy, was I wrong!

We began chasing after him in our street shoes and traveling duds. As he ran, he shouted at us, “You are in Company H, Platoon 2. Remember that, because when we post the training schedules, you will be responsible to be in the right place at the right time, dressed appropriately. Nobody here is your mama or poppa. You want to fly for the Navy? Well then, you will learn to be responsible starting right now. You WILL be on time for every event on your schedule. If you are even one second late to ANYTHING, I will bless you with an extra three mile run.”

He was merciful that day, if you count stopping short of killing us as merciful. We ran (at a near sprint) only two miles before he led us back to our luggage and the barracks that would be our home for the next three months. Some of the guys puked, and we all had blisters from running in our street shoes. It didn’t really bother me, because I was in pretty decent shape as a runner. At least, I thought I was. As it turned out, the PT did challenge me at times. 

The physical requirements necessary to graduate out of ground school included a provision to swim twenty laps—one thousand meters—in under a certain amount of time. The pool was fifty meters long with ten lanes. There were enough of us taking the swimming test that they split the pool into two five-lane sections. One section had the swimmers being tested, the other side was reserved for warm-ups for the next cadre. They would alternate, side to side, in order to run the groups of swimmers through the tests faster.

Okay, I’m ashamed to admit this next part. As it happened, I was climbing out of the pool in lane six after having done a two-lap warmup at the same time as the cadre in lanes one through five was emerging from the pool at the end of their thousand-meter test. It wasn’t anything I had planned—it just happened. In all the noise and confusion, the ensign monitoring the swimming test marked me down as having completed the twenty laps. I never said a word.

We had to pick a sport to participate in during the three months, and frankly that was a good idea, as it gave us cadets a chance to let off some steam. Although soccer was tempting, I decided that boxing sounded like fun. I’ve never been much of a scrapper, and I figured I’d learn some useful moves and combinations in the manly art of fisticuffs. My enthusiasm for the sport lasted until my second sparring session. My partner was quite a bit more experienced than me and was teaching me how to block punches. Only I missed and he didn’t, resulting in a broken nose and blood all over the floor.

I was really good at math and physics which helped a lot in ground school. As a cadet whose dad had been a pilot practically since the beginning of flight, ground school was a piece of cake for me. I pretty much aced the classes. However, we didn’t do any actual flying in ground school so I was really glad when this phase of training came to an end. 

On October 13, 1942, I graduated from Pre-Flight School and was ordered to Primary Flight School at Lambert Field in Missouri. That is where my actual flight training would begin.

**********

I arrived at Lambert two days before I had to report. I wanted to get the lay of the land and find my way around the base. It was unusually cold for late October, so one of my first stops was the commissary. I wanted to draw my issued gear before the next class of cadets arrived. I’d heard a few stories that the Navy was ramping up the training programs so quickly that the commissaries were running out of stock; some of the guys had to wait a week or two to get their stuff.

“What can I do you out of,” the civilian clerk asked with a lazy midwestern drawl. He looked a little older than me, maybe twenty four, twenty five.

“Huh?”

“Whaddayah here for?” the clerk asked with a tone that spoke of weary exasperation.

“Primary Flight Training,” I answered with some degree of pride. “I want to pick up my gear.”

“ID,” he said, holding his hand out. He checked my name against a list and nodded. “Gotcha right here, Cobb. You’re a little early, ain’tcha?”

I shrugged and nodded. As he disappeared into the aisles of shelves behind him to collect my gear, I noticed that he was limping.

“Didja hear that Ghormley’s out, Halsey’s in?” he called from somewhere back in the store room.

“What? Umm, no. I’ve heard of Admiral Halsey, but who is Ghormley?”

He walked back to the counter and set my gear down, pushing a requisition chit at me to sign. “Yeah,” he said, “happened a week or so ago. Ghormley was commanding in the south Pacific. Guess the brass didn’t like how he performed at Guadalcanal, so they turned the operation over to Halsey. Halsey will kick those Jap butts, for sure.”

He stared at me for a moment and shook his head.

“What?” I asked.

“Make the most of this, buddy. I’d love to be in your shoes right now. It’s a great opportunity to learn to fly and to serve the country. Count yourself fortunate. I tried to sign up—no one will take me. Club foot,” he explained. “So figured I could at least serve by clerking here at Lambert, keep ‘em from wasting some Navy puke on stuff a civie can do.”

“Thanks,” I nodded. “I’ll do my best.”

**********

“Cobb!” the flight instructor barked. “You’re with me. I’m Lieutenant Virnig. Let’s get you up in the air. Got your logbook?”

“Yes, sir”

“Any air time yet?” he asked as we walked across the tarmac towards a bright yellow N3N-1 biplane. I’d heard dad chuckle about these airships, calling them the “Yellow Peril.” The “Peril” part wasn’t about the airplane—it was a solid ship that handled well—the peril part had to do with the fact that it was mostly used as a trainer, and student pilots weren’t the safest of fliers.

“Nine hours, sir, with my dad. He’s a flight instructor and former naval aviator.”

“What ship?”

“A Curtis Jenny. War surplus.”

“I’m impressed,” Virnig said. “The Jenny is a good airplane. Did your dad teach you anything about flying?”

“Ground school stuff only, sir. He said he didn’t want to teach me anything that the Navy might want me to unlearn. So those nine hours were just as a passenger.”

“You got a smart daddy, son. Did you log your nine hours?”

“No, sir.”

“Well, then, we’re starting from scratch.”

Virnig took the rear seat and put me in the front. We strapped in and took off with Virnig at the controls. We flew for about ninety minutes, during which he had me get the feel of the controls. I took the stick, tried the rudder pedals, and learned how to adjust the throttle. I was grinning the whole time.

Later that day we flew again, this time in an N3N-3. The N3N-3 was a slightly upgraded model from the N3N-1 and used the 240 horsepower Wright J-6-7 radial engine. The N3N-1 had the J-5, which only produced 220 horsepower. The N3N-3’s vertical stabilizer was a little different, too, and there were a few other minor changes.

On this hop Virnig began giving me basic instructions about recovering from stalls and spins. It’s a little nerve wracking when the airplane starts dropping like a brick. I was really glad Virnig had his hands on the controls. What he was teaching me is that, if you keep your cool, and know what to do, you can recover from these kinds of problems. It’s when you panic that stalls and spins become deadly. Toward the end of this flight, Virnig stalled the aircraft and turned the controls over to me to recover it. Well, I’m still alive, so I must have gotten something right. Virnig landed the ship, for which I was secretly thankful.

After we climbed out of the cockpit, he said, “You did okay today, Cobb. After the first couple of screw-ups, you got the hang of it.”

“Thanks, sir. It just kind of gives me the willies when we’re a thousand feet up, and the ship starts behaving like a cinder block.”

“Hey, if that doesn’t give you a shot of adrenalin, you’re not human. But you learn to master your fear and think your way out of the situation, pushing the nose down, applying the proper rudder. But if you lose your head, a stall or a spin will kill you. That’s why we always practice at altitude—the ground comes up awful fast and you need time to recover.”

I looked back at the aircraft as we walked toward the hangar. “So who makes these beauties, anyway, sir? Boeing? Martin? Grumman?”

“No, not the N3Ns. We do,” Virnig said. “We, meaning the Navy. There’s a factory in Philly that pumps ‘em out for us. Navy owns it—lock, stock, and barrel.”

“The Navy has its own factory? That’s odd. How did that happen?”

We stopped and turned, looking at the flight line of trainers parked on the tarmac. Virnig pulled out a Lucky Strike and his Zippo and lit up. After he exhaled a cloud of smoke, he looked at me. “It was WW1, Cobb. The Army soaked up all the private manufacturing capacity, so the Navy built it’s own factory. Things have changed since then. Now everyone is building for us: Grumman, Boeing, Douglass. Nuts, even outfits like Ford have turned their production lines from cars to bombers.”

“I reckon war changes everything. It sure changed my direction,” I said.

He nodded. “I reckon so. See you here tomorrow, 0900.”

**********

I could feel Virnig pushing the stick forward, even as I heard him shouting at me through the speaking tube. “Doggone it, Cobb! Push the stick forward. Otherwise you’ll never get the airspeed to lift off. It’s like you’re stalling the aircraft, even though we’re still on the ground!”

The N3N was wallowing down the runway, nose too high. Virnig took over before we ran out of runway. Once we got in the air, he gave the controls back to me.

“Remember your basics from ground school, son,” he said to me, noticeably calmer, as I started a climbing turn. “You need to achieve takeoff speed before the aircraft will lift off. When the plane’s nose is too high, it creates greater air resistance, and the airplane can’t achieve takeoff speed. The solution is to keep your nose low until you have plenty of airspeed to rotate.”

I nodded, showing that I’d heard him. This was my second takeoff today, and I’d made the same mistake on both of them. I was angry with myself and rattled.

Virnig could tell I was upset. “Take it around, land, then taxi back to the beginning of the runway, and let’s try again.”

I nodded again, checked the traffic around me, and got into the landing pattern. My landing was nothing to write home about, but it wasn’t terrible either. I taxied back to the beginning of the runway and stopped short, to let two students take off ahead of me. When it was my turn, I did a visual check for incoming traffic, and was rewarded with a “Good boy.” Jamming the throttle forward, I started rolling. Although it went against my natural inclination, I forced myself to push the stick forward, and held it there as the ship gained speed.

“Good, good, son. Not yet… not yet… okay now, ease the stick back a little. There! See how easy that was,” Virnig said through the voice tube.

I was grinning again. It was a much better takeoff, and I noticed how much more responsive to the controls the N3N was at the higher speed.

After another ninety minute hop and an acceptable landing, I taxied the N3N back to the flight line and shut her down. We both disembarked from the airplane, and I stood waiting, as Virnig wrote up the evaluation.

“You’re doing okay, Cobb, and you’re improving. We’ve got a lot to work on, but you catch on fast.”

“Yes, sir,” I responded, secretly disappointed. I’d thought that I’d be further along by now, but it was all turning out to be more complicated than I had ever imagined. It gave me a renewed appreciation for how skilled dad was in his Jenny. I was really wrestling with simple maneuvers like banking the airplane in a turn. But it wasn’t simple! When you bank, the airplane loses altitude unless you goose the throttle slightly or pull back on the stick. And if you don’t coordinate your pedal movements with your stick movement on turns, you wind up skidding instead of banking. When you level off, you have to retard the throttle or you’ll pick up speed, which causes the airplane to climb. Will I ever master this?

“Okay, son, you’re flying again on Tuesday. Meet me here at 0900.”

“Yes, sir.”

**********

Over the next two weeks, I cringed as I saw Virnig’s comments on my evaluation sheets.

On November 4: “Always fails to throttle back after leveling off. Can’t remember to push stick forward on takeoff.”

On November 11: “Always takes off with left wing low. Breaks glide OK but doesn’t continue to bring stick back for a landing.” 

This discouraging remark was on November 12: “Has trouble keeping plane straight and wings level on takeoff. Tries hard but forgets to do the right thing at the right time.” 

I’ll tell you whose tail was dragging, and it wasn’t the N3N’s. It was mine. I was beginning to think I’d never be ready to solo. I even wondered if Virnig was going to wash me out of the program.

I got up on Friday morning and didn’t feel too spunky. I wondered if maybe I was coming down with something. I went for an early morning run, showered, geared up, and went to the cadets’ mess hall. Sat with a couple of my buddies, and we were all pretty down in the mouth about the instructor evaluations we were receiving. That actually cheered me up a little, knowing I wasn’t the only guy with my tail between my legs. 

“You know what today is, guys?” Johnson asked mournfully. I’d finished breakfast and was about to head for the flight line. I was meeting Virnig at 0900 for today’s hop.

“Friday, genius. Why do you ask?” Carpenter answered.

“Yeah, but it’s Friday the 13th,” Johnson replied. “I don’t know about you guys, but I sure don’t need anymore bad luck in the cockpit.”

“That goes for me, too, Johnson,” I said. “I’ve had enough problems flying, I don’t need any new ones.”

Carpenter looked at me and said, “Buck up, Cobb. My dad used to say, ‘Son, any hop you can walk away from was a good hop.’”

I chuckled. “Think my daddy said the same thing to me.” I checked my watch. “Anyway, if you boys are scheduled at 0900, we’d better get a wiggle on.”

Virnig was waiting for me at our aircraft. “You ready, Cobb?”

“Yes, sir. Ready and rarin’.” I didn’t feel good, but I wasn’t about to tell him that.

“That’s the spirit. Show me some good stuff today, boy.”

He put me through my paces, and about the best thing I can say is that I didn’t crash the airplane. After we’d been up for just shy of an hour, he called to me through the speaking tube and told me to land and taxi to the flight line. I felt crushed, because he was ending our ninety minute session half an hour early. I wondered what I’d done wrong.

My landing was actually pretty good and so was my taxiing. When I cut the engine we both got out of the plane, and he marked his evaluation sheet.

“Want to know how you did, Cobb?” Virnig asked.

“Yes, sir,” I said. I was already feeling worse physically, so I braced myself for what I was about to read. There were only three words: “Safe for solo.” I whooped loud enough to turn heads all the way down the line.

Safe For Solo.jpg  Cobb Family collection

Virnig grinned at me. “Go hit the head if you need to. Come back here immediately and wait for your check pilot. It’s going to be Lieutenant Rothchild. You’ll take him up for a check ride. He’ll have the final say as to whether you are ready to solo.”

I couldn’t believe it, but my check ride was nearly flawless. So much for bad luck on Friday the 13th. Rothchild approved me for solo and gave me an upcheck, meaning that he graduated me from Stage A flight training into the Stage B training.

Although I was riding on cloud nine, I felt awful physically. As soon as I could get away from the flight line I went to sick bay. The doctor checked me over and pronounced, “No flying for you until you’ve got this cold under control.”

“But sir, I’m supposed to solo tomorrow.”

“Yes, and I’m supposed to make admiral tomorrow, but that won’t happen either. It’s life, son, get used to it.”

I looked at him, then saw the captain’s bars on his coat on the hall tree. “Captain, sir, are you really about to be promoted?”

He rolled his eyes. “It was a joke, son, a little bit of sarcasm. You’re not going to fly tomorrow. If you think you’ve got a headache now, just wait till you’re at 3000 feet or so. It will hurt so bad you’ll probably black out, and that could really ruin your day.”

He gave me medicine, and I went straight back to the barracks and straight to bed.

**********

“Look, Doc, I’m feeling much, much better this morning. Headache is completely gone, and I have a lot more energy than I did yesterday.”

He looked at me, unimpressed. “Care for a kleenex, son? Your nose is dripping.”

I sneezed and blew my nose. “Doc, now it’s just a runny nose. You’ve got to let me fly.”

He just looked at me.

“Please, sir.”

The man must be a good poker player, because he just stared at me without answering, his face giving away nothing. He pointed to the kleenex box, and I blew my nose again.

“Listen, Doc, I… I’ll, um… Ah! I promise I won’t go any higher than 1500 feet. I’ll stay below that.”

He sighed. “You promise?”

“Yes, sir, scout’s honor.” It sounded dumb as I said it, but I was desperate.

“You’re in the Navy, son, not the Boy Scouts, and you’ve been entrusted with some very expensive equipment—only the good Lord knows why. 

“If you break your promise, Cobb, I’ll throw you in the brig. Understood?”

“Yes, sir, absolutely.”

“Okay. You’re cleared to fly. But if you’re gonna crash, don’t run into anything important.”

“Got it, sir. And thank you.”

He just raised his eyebrows and shook his head.

Grinning, I turned to go. 

“Hold up, Cobb.”

I turned around, “Sir?”

He pointed at the box of Kleenex. “Take it with you.”

And that is why I was flying with one hand and blowing my nose with the other for my first solo flight. I kept my promise to the doctor, and I graduated to the next stage of Primary Flight Training.