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The Royal Air Force in American Skies: The Seven British Flight Schools in the United States during World War II

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By early 1941, Great Britain stood alone against the aerial might of Nazi Germany and was in need of pilots. The Lend-Lease Act allowed for the training of British pilots in the United States and the formation of British Flying Training Schools. These unique schools were owned by American operators, staffed with American civilian instructors, supervised by British Royal Air Force officers, utilized aircraft supplied by the U.S. Army Air Corps, and used the RAF training syllabus.

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Chapter 1: Overseas Training

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Chapter 1

Overseas Training

Even before the beginning of World War II, British Air Ministry officials, drawing on the flight training experiences of World War I, recognized the need to move some aircrew training out of Great Britain in the event of war. Drawbacks to flight training in Britain during wartime included the limited size of the country, an urgent need for airfield and support facilities for operational squadrons, the often abysmal weather, and the very real possibility of enemy attack.1

In spite of the advantages of moving some flight training to Commonwealth countries, officials also recognized several drawbacks to any overseas training plan. The distances involved were in many cases daunting, literally involving potential locations on the other side of the world.

Another concern involved dealing with other governments.

Initial discussions with Commonwealth governments before the war concerning aircrew training produced mixed results. Australia, New

Zealand, Kenya, and Southern Rhodesia responded quickly and favorably.

 

Chapter 2: The American Offer

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Chapter 2

The American Offer

Even after implementation of the Empire Air Training Scheme and finalization of the Canadian training agreement, British officials still had many concerns. As impressive as the final Canadian phase of the overseas training plan appeared on paper, British officials worried that the magnitude of the program might prove beyond the capabilities of the

Canadians or that such an immense undertaking might run into difficulties that could result in unacceptable delays. Officials sought alternative training plans not only as an additional source of pilots and aircrew, but also as a safeguard against the possible failure or lengthy delay of the

Canadian plan. Even though other Commonwealth governments were agreeable, even desirous, of expanding their training plans (and later expansion would occur), the distances involved and in some cases the extremes of nature and geography limited these considerations. As a result, the British looked to the United States for possible assistance.

 

Chapter 3: Royal Air Force Delegation

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Chapter 3

Royal Air Force Delegation

Air Ministry officials realized that the sheer magnitude of the proposed training schemes in the United States would require considerable coordination and liaison between British and American military commands, as well as a close working relationship with the individual civilian school operators. Besides the obvious need for training supervision, accounting personnel would need to be involved due to the financial aspects of the new training programs and the complexities associated with payments to the civilian schools. Detailed records would be necessary to account for Crown funds as opposed to lend-lease expenditures. Many decisions would require approval by the British Treasury. Consideration had to be given to the maintenance of personnel records and the issuance of the necessary movement orders for the British students training in the

United States, as well as the RAF officers assigned to the various schools.

The work load required by these tasks far surpassed the capacity of the limited staff of the air attache at the British Embassy and the tasks were not compatible with the British Purchasing Commission or

 

Chapter 4: Journey to America

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Chapter 4

Journey to America

At the beginning of the war in 1939 young men across Britain rushed to join the armed services. These were joined by Englishmen living overseas who reported to British embassies, legations, and consuls around the world. Some faced arduous journeys just to enlist. Denys Rowland Ding lived in Kiangsi Province more than 400 miles into the interior of China.

Ding traveled to the British Legation in Shanghai to volunteer for the

Royal Air Force. The legation arranged for Ding to travel by steamship from Hong Kong through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, then around the southern tip of Africa, and back to England. Denys Ding had no trouble convincing a board of officers of his desire to become an RAF pilot.

This effort was not limited to Englishmen. Volunteers from Argentina traveled to Britain and enlisted in the Royal Air Force. Some of these young men later trained at No. 3 British Flying Training School in

Oklahoma. Several hundred Argentinians eventually served in both the

 

Chapter 5: New Schools

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The Royal Air Force in American Skies

On the platform to greet the British students were the two Royal

Air Force officers assigned to the new school, Wing Commander

Fredrick Hilton, the chief flying instructor, and Squadron Leader Andrew

Beveridge, the chief ground instructor. The two RAF officers looked as much out of place as the students because they too wore similar gray civilian suits in accordance with United States neutrality laws. Also at the station to greet the British students were several local newspaper reporters, which not only surprised the RAF officers, but would prove to be a harbinger of things to come.

The reporters departed after eliciting several newsworthy tidbits from the British arrivals such as surprise at finding no cattle on the railroad tracks and no cowboys at the Dallas station. Also, the students had not been overly happy about training in Texas while their traveling companions were destined for glamorous California, that is, until someone on the train mentioned that Texas had the prettiest girls in the nation.1

 

Chapter 6: Training

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Chapter 6

Training

Within a few days of their arrival, British students assembled on the school flight lines, met their instructors, and had a first look at the aircraft in which they would learn to fly.

All of the British Flying Training Schools, except No. 3 BFTS, received the Stearman primary trainer. Officially the Boeing Kaydet, the trainer had been designed by the Stearman Aircraft Company before the company became a division of Boeing Aircraft and would forever be known simply as the Stearman. The Army Air Corps accepted the trainer in 1935 and production included several models that differed only in the engine and minor details.

To the first British students, most of whom had never been in an airplane, and even later students who had been through a grading course on the RAF Tiger Moth elementary trainer, the Stearman, an open cockpit fabric-covered biplane, presented an imposing sight. With a maximum loaded weight of 2,717 pounds, the Stearman towered more than nine feet to the top of the upper wing.

 

Chapter 7: American Hospitality

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Chapter 7

American Hospitality

British flight students arriving in Canada had experienced generous and abundant hospitality. This much-appreciated warm welcome, although surprising, was still understandable because Canada was a Dominion country, a member of the British Commonwealth, and totally engaged alongside England in a devastating war with a common and deadly foe.

Nothing, however, could prepare those British students destined for the

British Flying Training Schools for the overwhelming hospitality soon to be encountered in the United States.

Ever mindful of Anglo-American relations, British officials gave each student a small blue book. The book began, “You are going to America as guests” and then explored various aspects of American life, defined the different geographical regions of the United States, recommended several books on American history, and offered tips on conduct. The small blue book described America as a “great, friendly, yet different nation” and warned students, “you will not be expected to tell your hosts and hostesses what is wrong, in your opinion, with them and their country.” Students were also advised to be careful when asked about

 

Chapter 8: Changes

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The Royal Air Force in American Skies

Soon after the first schools opened it became obvious that the authorized staff for the new schools was totally inadequate. The Air Ministry had allocated only nine officers, a chief ground instructor for each school, and a chief flying instructor for each pair of schools, to supervise the six British Flying Training Schools located across the southern United

States from Florida to California.

When the first schools opened, not even this inadequate staffing was available. When the first students for No. 5 BFTS arrived at the school’s temporary home in Arcadia, Florida, no chief ground instructor had been appointed and the BFTS students attended ground school with the school’s Arnold Scheme students. Both No. 4 BFTS in Arizona, and No.

3 BFTS in Oklahoma, opened before the chief ground instructor had arrived and the chief ground instructors from the California and Texas

British schools had to supervise these additional schools, which were located several hundred miles away. Squadron Leader Thomas Whitlock, the newly appointed chief ground instructor at No. 2 BFTS, arrived at the school’s temporary home the day before the students arrived. Squadron

 

Chapter 9: Operations

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The Royal Air Force in American Skies

It would be impossible to recount the operational careers of each graduate of the BFTS program. Here is a small representation of the diverse experiences these young men encountered after they left the

British Flying Training Schools.

Keith Durbidge graduated with Course 3 at No. 6 BFTS, returned to

Canada and then undertook an uncomfortable voyage back across the

Atlantic. “We disembarked at Liverpool and boarded a train for the

Reception Centre at Bournemouth. The only food provided on the train was ship’s biscuits, four inches square, one inch deep, hard as concrete and full of weevils. We realized we were back in a war theatre.”1

Douglas Sivyer, a graduate of Course 3 at No. 1 BFTS, traced the operational records of the graduates of his early course. Of the thirtyeight who completed the course, only fourteen survived the war. Eight graduates of Course 3 attended an Operational Training Unit (OTU) on

Spitfires. One of these, Eddie McCann, flew with 131 and 165 Squadrons at Tangmere and then 232 Squadron in the Mediterranean where he escorted American medium bombers. Of the others, Johnny Gallon and

 

Chapter 10: The Final Year

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Chapter 10

The Final Year

British and American citizens followed the course of the war on their radios and in newspapers and national magazines, which regularly published situation maps depicting the positions of the Allied forces on the various war fronts. By late 1944 Allied armies that had landed in Normandy six months earlier were now advancing across northern

France toward Germany. Allied forces that had landed in southern France were rapidly moving northward, while other Allied armies battled up the mountainous spine of Italy. Numerous massive Soviet armies steadily drove German troops back all along the broad eastern front. The situation maps graphically depicted a relentless tightening of the noose around

Nazi Germany, which would lead to ultimate Allied victory.

The only exception to this unremitting advance came with a German counteroffensive through the Ardennes Forest toward the Belgian port of

Antwerp, which was eerily reminiscent of the first German advance into

France in the spring of 1940. Caught off guard by Hitler’s last gamble,

 

Chapter 11: After the War

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Chapter 11

After the War

When No. 3 BFTS closed at the end of the war, Spartan School of

Aeronautics put together a small looseleaf booklet. This informal publication contained responses from each employee in the school’s various departments to a short questionnaire. Flight instructors listed personal information such as permanent addresses, a summary of experience, ratings held, and total flight hours. Designed as a means for these now former employees to stay in touch, one question stands out. Among the flight instructors, all of whom had anywhere between 2,500 and 6,000 hours of flying time, in the space for “Future Plans” some had jobs, a few were returning to previous jobs, but the most prevalent answer was “Indefinite.”

Following the end of the war, the former students of the British Flying

Training Schools and the RAF officers and enlisted men who had served there, along with the schools’ civilian employees, dispersed literally around the world. Most of the British students returned to various civilian occupations, married, and raised families; some remained in the Royal

 

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