The Cradles of Heroes

In Uncategorized on April 28, 2010 by hillermuseum

Training Aircraft of the 1940s

At any airport in the United States, an astounding variety of aircraft can be found.  Thousands of different airplanes, gliders, helicopters and even airships have been developed, built and flown since the days of the Wright Brothers.  Airport visitors often stop to admire the largest, sleekest, fastest or most distinctive of these flying machines, but few fly as often or serve as important a function as the humbler machines that are used to teach new pilots.

Today, flight training is readily available across the United States, and aspiring aviators travel here from around the world to learn their trade. This has not always been the case, however.  In 1940, the nation that gave birth to the airplane suffered from an acute shortage of qualified pilots even as wars of conquest were fiercely pursued around the world with powerful air forces.

As the United States prepared to meet new threats abroad, its production of airplanes surged.  In 1940, just 4,000 aircraft were built in the United States.  By 1944, American aircraft production had soared to nearly 100,000 planes, almost half of the world’s production.  Providing enough skilled pilots to fly these aircraft was a daunting challenge, one that fell to a unique group of brightly-colored training aircraft. 

Three types of airplanes were used during the 1940s to train new pilots with a minimum of accidents.  Primary Trainers provided an introductory experience to flight.  When a student mastered basic flight skills, instruction shifted to a more sophisticated Basic Trainer with a more powerful engine and more complex systems.  Successful students completed their training in Advanced Trainers equipped with variable-pitch propellers, retractable landing gear, and other features found in front-line aircraft.  Over 50,000 training aircraft were built in the United States between 1940 and 1945.  Three of the most popular airplane types were the Boeing-Stearman PT-17, the Fairchild PT-19, and the North American AT-6.

One of the most iconic airplanes of the 1930s and 40s was the Stearman biplane.  Developed as the Stearman Aircraft Company Model 75, production of this rugged aircraft passed to Boeing following its acquisition of Stearman in the 1930s.  The Stearman eventually received the designation PT-17 and was the first airplane flown by many new cadets.  Its simplicity, durability and forgiving flight characteristics made it popular with students and instructors alike.  These same traits have made the Stearman a favorite with air show performers, who use its slow, stable flight and throaty radial engine to thrill hundreds of thousands of spectators at exhibitions around the world.

While lacking the Stearman’s classic biplane appearance, the Fairchild PT-19 accomplished the same Primary Training mission in a more modern package that closely resembled a front-line aircraft.  Its monoplane design and slim inline engine provided improved visibility compared to a biplane, and the widely-spaced landing gear improved the landing success of novice pilots.  Easy to maintain and economical to fly, over 8,000 were built and some 100 remain flying today in private hands.  It was this plane that first earned the name “Cradle of Heroes” as it trained hundreds of future aces.

As the skills and abilities of student pilots advanced, so too did the machines they flew.  Most 1940s pilots completed their training in North American’s AT-6 trainer, a sophisticated machine with three times the power and twice the speed of the mild-mannered Primary Trainers.  Pilots mastering this airplane’s complex systems could transition in confidence to front line aircraft.  Some 15,000 AT-6s were built under a variety of designations, with some remaining in service well into the 1990s.  Today, many continue to fly with air show performers, movie studios, and even air racers eager to keep the spirit of the 1940s alive in the 21st century.

The magnificent machines that trained the flying heroes of World War II return to the Hiller Aviation Museum on Saturday, May 1st.  The Museum’s hangar door will open wide to welcome an amazing collection of vintage trainers flying in from home bases throughout Northern California.  Join the festivities and admire these beautifully restored aircraft.  Stay to hear the roar of the engines as each departs at the end of the day, returning home as they did so many times with so many new pilots some seventy years ago.



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