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'Flying Sergeants' helped forge Air Force legacy

RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas (AFPN) -- They were not paid much, their opportunities for promotion were limited, and they were treated harshly in training, but that did not stop three generations of enlisted aviators from becoming pilots in the Army Air Corps.

Beginning in 1912, enlisted pilots played an important role in writing the aviation history being celebrated this year during the Centennial of Flight.

These enlisted pilots were known as "flying sergeants" for the staff sergeant rank they received upon graduation from flight training irrespective of their previous rank. Enlisted men seized this once-in-a-lifetime chance to fly, said retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Edward Wenglar, a former enlisted pilot.

"I was born the tenth child of a sharecropper and, at that time, there was no one lower than a sharecropper," Wenglar said. "I went from driving a mule to flying the newest (aircraft). It was quite a step. We never thought about whether we wanted to be an enlisted pilot or an officer pilot. We just wanted to be pilots, and we would gladly have stayed privates forever just to have the chance to fly."

Wenglar, who served overseas during World War II from November 1942 through July 1944, holds the distinction of achieving the highest rank of any former enlisted pilot. In February 2003, at the Air Force Enlisted Heritage Hall at Gunter Annex, Ala., he accepted a memorial stone on behalf of all enlisted pilots.

In Lee Arbon's book about enlisted pilots, "They Also Flew," Chief Master Sgt. Wayne Fisk compared pilots to precious stones, with the shiniest of all U.S. aviation achievements being those of the sergeant pilot.

Allowing enlisted airmen to earn their wings as pilots was a temporary response to drastic shortages of qualified pilot candidates during wartime. Two Congressional laws authorized the training: the Air Corps Act of 1926 and Public Law 99, which went into effect in 1941. Public Law 99 reduced the education requirement, making the average age of the sergeant pilot between 18 and 22, younger than most pilot training cadets with a college education.

Enlisted pilot training in the late 1920s initially was informal, practical in nature and not a product of the flying schools, which developed in the early 1940s with World War II enlisted pilots.

Instead, Arbon said, "If fortunate enough, these early, World War I enlisted pilots grew up in the local organization learning under a generous officer in their unit. For the initial enlisted pilots, the World War I generation, many came out of the ranks of mechanics to become successful pilots."

An enlisted man's opportunity to train to fly was many times luck of the draw, Arbon said. Such was the case in 1912 for Cpl. Vernon Burge, the first enlisted pilot, who was a mechanic accepted into pilot training.

Arbon who attended pilot training in 1942, recalled, "Training conditions were fiercely competitive, attrition was very high, half of us were cut after the medical physical, and only one forth made it out of training."

Enlisted pilot candidates trained six days a week in class or in the air and spent Sundays doing drill, Wenglar said. One of his strongest memories was training in the hot July sunshine in Arizona with temperatures in the hundreds, which made the flight line surface even hotter.

"While waiting your turn to fly, the instructors would order us to complete one push-up after another, our hands burning," he said. "When we couldn't do any more push-ups, the instructors would make us (get on our backs and) hold our feet up six inches from the ground. Looking back, it's amazing we got through. They worked hard to wash us out, especially considering they needed us so badly."

According to Wenglar, enlisted pilots flew in 22 campaigns from the Mexican-American War to World War II.

"Name a combat plane or theater and you'll find a number of sergeant pilots in each of those units," Arbon said. "We did everything. It took us a long time to acquaint the world to the fact that we did indeed exist. When we did get acknowledged, people realized we had done a grand job."

The enlisted pilots were high achievers in the Air Force and beyond.

"Our careers as enlisted pilots made us better men and gave us opportunities later in the civilian world that we never would have been offered," Wenglar said. "Many of us went on to become airline pilots, doctors and educators. We destroyed a total of 249.5 enemy planes, and five out of seven men in charge of air transport systems went on to become commanders of troop carriers in Europe, the Pacific and the Middle East."

Seventeen enlisted pilots became fighter aces, and 11 became general officers. Many sergeant pilots' heroic deeds and accomplishments reached historic significance.

Walter Beech, co-founder of Beech Aircraft Corporation, was one of the early enlisted pilots who achieved notoriety. He was a World War I pilot and became a member of the National Aviation Hall of Fame. Bob Hoover, a World War II pilot, is also listed in the Aviation Hall of Fame and is considered one of the great test pilots of all time.

Ralph Bottriell earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for his work with parachutes. Two enlisted pilots, Ira Biffle and Bill Winston, taught Charles Lindbergh.

During World War II, 30 staff sergeant pilots flew transport missions in the China-Burma-India Theater, delivering supplies and people over the treacherous Himalaya Mountains better known as the "Hump."

The opportunity for enlisted men to become pilots ended in late 1942 with the Flight Officer Act. This law replaced the program's sergeant pilot rank with the warrant officer rank, which was also eventually done away with. Retired Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager, famous for breaking the sound barrier, was in the last class of the enlisted pilot program when it was replaced. The following year, all sergeant pilots received orders to be promoted to the new "Flight Officer" rank.

Following World War II, George Holmes chose to revert to his former rank of master sergeant and served as the Air Force's last enlisted pilot until his retirement in 1957, according to the U.S. Air Force Museum.

To learn more about the history of the enlisted pilot, visit the Air Force Enlisted Heritage Research Institute Web site at www.au.af.mil/au/cepme/heritage/homepage.htm. (Courtesy of Air Education and Training Command News Service)

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