[Above: Lon Cooper at his home in Florida. Photo: John T. Stemple.]
14 August 2013 (Last updated 30 April 2017) | Winter Haven, Florida. Waldo Wright’s Flying Service’s 1942 Boeing Stearman sat on the Fantasy of Flight tarmac. Rob Lock, the pilot, occupied the rear cockpit and a paying customer the front. Lon E. Cooper, a retired U.S. Army Air Corps* Basic Flight Instructor, looked on as the airplane’s propeller swung. The powerful Continental engine quickly roared to life, belching a bit of oily blue smoke. The sight and sound caused memories to flood into Lon’s mind. Time and distance instantly faded. The aeroplane before him was, with the exception of the paint scheme, strikingly like a Stearman from the 60th Army Air Force Flight Training Detachment (Lodwick School of Aeronautics) in the early 1940s. Mr. Cooper could almost feel the prop blast in his face, hear the deafening roar of the engine, and feel the gentle lifting and sinking as the trainer cruised through the bright blue sky.
On this August day, and several subsequent occasions, Lon Cooper sat down with this writer to relate the still widely unknown story of civilian pilot training during World War II. The events took place 70 years ago, but they were fresh in Lon’s mind. During the interview sessions Mr. Cooper mentally turned back time to the early 1940s and his engrossing wartime experiences.
To understand the importance and contribution of American civilians to the training of military pilots, one must be aware of the history behind the effort. The U.S. Military was woefully unprepared for the large scale warfare that was coming. The situation with military aviation itself was at the time grave. However, and fortuitously, in the late 1930s a few influential aviation and military leaders knew the United States’ need for pilots.
In late 1938, Lt. Gen. Hap Arnold, commander of the U.S. Army Air Corps, solicited the cooperation of a few major aviation schools. They were to establish, under their own initiative and funding, the future Civilian Pilot Training Program (abbreviated as CPTP or CPT).
The next year Robert Hinckley, head of the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA), took the controls of the experimental program. Author and aviation mechanic extraordinaire Robert G. Lock wrote (pages 5-6) in 2007 that Hinckley, “single handedly designed a program he had dreamed of for many years.” Mr. Hinkley’s objectives, according to Mr. Lock, included improving civil aviation by providing affordable flight instruction, and having government subsidize the high cost of airplane rental and flight instruction. Standardization of training techniques was yet another goal, as was utilizing existing facilities at colleges. In 1939 CPT took wing. Eventually, the flight instruction initiative saw expansion through contracts with flight schools around the nation.
Meanwhile, Nazi Germany was conquering Europe and Japan was fighting in China and moving to expand its empire. Americans wanted nothing to do with conflicts taking place beyond the nation’s shores. Furthermore, the Great Depression was still raging. Given a choice of guns or butter, Americans demanded butter from the government as the growing federal bureaucracies tried, with dubious success, to deal with the lingering economic crisis. Yet, the United States were tacitly already in the war; America was supplying European countries with armaments, and the U.S. Navy was escorting convoys across the Atlantic Ocean to English ports.
At first, the U.S. Military was unhappy with civilian training proposals. Robert Lock (page 5) wrote that the “military was not happy with this aspect of training, as they wanted complete control.” The U.S. Army alarmingly proposed grounding private aviation and taking control of the nation’s airspace. This was certainly not acceptable to the general aviation industry. To their relief, Congress passed legislation that provided program payments for schools to offer students a 72-hour ground school course with a subsequent 35 to 50 hours of flight instruction.
Yet, massive new initiatives do not function overnight. Even on the eve of America’s entry into the global war, the nation was unprepared to fight an aerial conflict. It was a matter of too little too late. In fact, a National Museum of the U.S. Air Force (NMUSAF) Factsheet presents the disturbing numbers. “In 1939 the Army [Air Corps] had a total of only 4,502 pilots, including 2,007 active duty officers, 2,187 reserve officers and 308 national guard officers. The number of new Army-trained pilots grew . . . from 982 in 1939, to about 8,000 in 1940, to more than 27,000 in 1941 – but many more were needed, and the Army itself could not train the huge numbers of cadets desperately required.”
The Factsheet adds the following: “Trainees from the CPTP entered the Army Air Forces Enlisted Reserve. Many went to further instruction and commissioned service as combat pilots. Others became service, liaison, ferry and glider pilots, instructors, or commercial pilots in the Air Transport Command.”
War officially came to the United States on Sunday, December 7, 1941. On that fateful morning the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked American military facilities in what was at the time the Territory of Hawaii. On December 12, 1941, President Roosevelt signed an Executive Order that put CPTP on a wartime footing.
A change in the program designation came on December 7, 1942. In the 1993 book To Fill the Skies with Pilots, Dominick Pisano cited (page 84) the reasoning: “To formalize the military aspects of the CPTP in wartime, the name of the program was changed to War Training Service (WTS) . . . .” Regardless, in his booklet Robert G. Lock records (page 12) the statement that CPTP/WTS was “exclusively devoted to the procurement and training of men for ultimate service as military pilots, or for correlated non-military activities.” Aircraft were now procured and provided by the government.
Lon Cooper was born in Maryville, Tennessee, in 1921. His father was an automobile mechanic by profession. In 1923, at his brother’s urging, Lon’s father relocated his family to St. Petersburg, Fla. Mr. Cooper’s family first became involved with aviation in 1924 after an airplane crashed while attempting to land in a clearing where the Vinoy Hotel now stands. Afterward, developer Walter P. Fuller instructed Lon’s Uncle Irl Cooper to build an airfield to service the St. Petersburg’s area. Land near Fuller’s Jungle Terrace development came available courtesy of Mr. Piper, and a grass airfield took shape. Piper-Fuller Field was the chosen name.
Lon Cooper’s father opened a petrol station on Park Street North. He sold aviation fuel and serviced both aircraft and automobile engines. That year Lon first flew. The flight took place in a 1929 Brunner-Winkle “Bird” biplane. Thus, at age 6, the youth had caught the flying bug.
With interest in aviation soaring, Albert Whitted Airport came into existence on the waterfront in St. Petersburg. After attending church services on Sunday mornings, Lon Cooper regularly and eagerly observed the activities on the airfield. Lon stated, “Passenger rides were available in a Ford Tri-Motor, Curtis Condor, Goodyear blimp and an autogyro. Additionally, biplanes would often perform a few aerobatic stunts to thrill the crowds that sometimes numbered in the hundreds. The climax of the day was sometimes a parachute jumper. He would collect tips in his leather helmet before jumping.”
Mr. Cooper graduated from St. Petersburg High School in 1940 and enrolled at St. Petersburg Junior College (SPJC). Toward the end of June 1941, CPTP became available to the students. Lon stated, “The promise of being taught to fly and of qualifying as a commercial pilot with a flight instructor’s rating was very attractive.” It was all available for the costs of manuals utilized during Ground School. Lon Cooper added a caveat: “However, to participate in the program we were required to agree to volunteer for the U.S. Army Air Corps if war came to fruition.” Being patriotic, Lon did not hesitate to sign the pledge form.
CPTP began for Lon Cooper on June 27, 1941. Ground School classes took place on evenings at SPJC. Lon remarked: “Dr. Wakefield, a chemistry instructor taught, and we learned much.” The curriculum consisted of the theory of flight, rules and regulations, navigation and meteorology. Mr. Cooper confessed, “We were thoroughly prepared for the written examinations.”
The flight training phased took place at Albert Whitted Municipal Airport. Lon described the field layout. “Four paved runways were available, and the now extant north-south runway did not yet exist. We used that grassy area as a taxi strip,” stated Mr. Cooper. He continued, “Landing north required the plane to be below the roof line of the U.S. Coast Guard Depot building. Landings south required touching down very near the seawall. When departing to the north, we flew directly over nude sunbathing booths at the St. Petersburg Spa Beach.” Lon grinned, “There was lots of speculative talk of possibly seeing beautiful women sunning themselves, but very few sightings.” He added, “Small hangars now occupy what was then a grassy area. We used this site for landings to save the tires.”
Johnston Flying Service provided the Primary phase. The inventory of training aircraft included two Piper J-3 Cubs, one yellow and one silver. Mr. Cooper commented, “The silver aeroplane, called a ‘Flitfire’ model, had British roundels on the wings and fuselage to remind us of the Royal Air Force’s Spitfire fighter.”
Lon’s initial flight was on June 28, 1941, in a Piper Cub. Matt Pelling was Mr. Cooper’s “excellent” instructor. Lon stated, “Mr. Pelling was patient and repeatedly stressed safety. He always required a precision performance of every maneuver.” Mr. Cooper elaborated. “Low work was accomplished north of the airport. There were no wires or houses and was good for emergency landings. Higher practice took place over Snell Isle or Tampa Bay east of the airport.” After logging 8 hours and 15 minutes of dual instruction, Lon Cooper soloed on July 16, 1941.
Upon passing the Private Pilot written exam, Mr. Cooper had logged 23 hours of dual time and 16 solo. After successfully completing his check ride with the Civil Aeronautics Inspector, on August 26, 1941, Lon received his rating. Over the course of the ensuing weeks he logged 24 hours and 30 minutes of additional flying time in Cubs, a Taylorcraft and two Aeroncas. Lon Cooper noted, “At the time the airplane rental fee was $6.00 per hour!”
Soon after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the program name changed from CPTP to War Training Service (WTS) and the Army took direct control. The CPTP/WTS graduates received orders to report for Army Air Corps active service. However, due to his history of childhood asthma Lon received an exemption. Instead, his posting was to the Army Air Corps Enlisted Reserve. He then undertook Secondary Flight Training at Albert Whitted.
Classes commenced on June 22, 1942. Mr. Cooper studied advanced theories of flight, navigation, meteorology, flight rules and regulations relating to commercial flight, instructing and radio procedures. Lon commented, “An FCC license was required to operate an aircraft radio. We easily passed the test.”
Beard’s Flying Service taught the Secondary phase that would lead to a commercial certificate and instructor rating. The aircraft types utilized included WACO UPF-7s, a Monocoupe, a Piper J-5 Cub cruiser and a J-3. One instructor, Mr. G.W. Lindsey, had flown as a crop duster in Mississippi for years. Mr. Cooper explained this particular instructor’s special contributions: “Mr. Lindsey demanded safety and precision in all maneuvers. He added 8-point rolls, which required the student to stop rotation at every 45 degrees, to the curriculum to teach us to better control the planes.” Lon remarked, “Lindsey also taught us wing overs to perform quick reversals of course and slide slips to make emergency landings into small fields.” The schedule soon included cross country flying, navigation and aerobatics.
“We used two WACO UPF-7s for aerobatic training. Their fuselages were blue, and they had yellow wings and yellow tail surfaces with a red and white striped rudder. Student instructors learned to perform loops, chandelles, 720-degree steep turns, lazy 8’s, snap rolls and on-axis slow rolls. The WACO was perfect for this type of flying,” explained Lon Cooper.
Mr. Cooper continued, “To complete cross-country training, our class was divided into 2 teams of 3 for the distance flights. South Florida airspace provided relief from skies filled with military aircraft. The teams flew in 4-place WACO cabin biplanes accompanied by Mr. Ellis, our instructor.” Lon elaborated, “Navigation was by visual observation, dead reckoning and with the use of a magnetic compass. A navigational calculator, which was a circular plastic slide rule, was utilized to calculate compass headings and correct for wind drift.” Mr. Cooper stated, “Our WACOs were equipped with an AM radio receiver that incorporated a loop antenna. Rotating the loop allowed us to establish headings from AM radio stations. We could then determine our position by triangulation.” Instrument landing approaches took place without students wearing a hood.
Lon Cooper completed CPT Secondary Flight Training on January 9, 1943. He had added 63 hours of dual time and 85 solo. Lon passed the oral and written exams. On January 11, 1943, Mr. Cooper passed his check ride. He now possessed a Commercial Pilot Certificate with Single-engine O-330 Horsepower Land and Instructor ratings.
Upon the completion of CPT, the Army Air Corps Enlisted Reserve ordered Lon to report on January 15 to Atlanta, Georgia, to undergo a check ride. Mr. Cooper commented, “The passing of this check ride was required for acceptance into the Army Air Forces Central Instructors School at San Antonio, Texas. The purpose of this new school was to furnish high quality instructors for civilian contract institutions and standardize flight training.”
Lon related the following: “Early that January morning, 10 of us were tested by Mr. Porter in a WACO UPF-7. My check ride was the last of the day, and at that point only 2 of my colleagues had passed.” After requiring certain maneuvers, Porter surprisingly directed Mr. Cooper to perform a favorite maneuver. Lon duly performed an 8-point roll. Lon Cooper’s eyes widened as he explained, “After the roll Mr. Portly abruptly took the controls and flew back to field and landed.” Lon naturally thought he had failed. On the ground, Mr. Porter gruffly asked, “Who taught you to fly?” Cooper supplied the names of his instructors, but Porter indicated he knew none of them. Finally, much to Lon’s surprise, the examiner stated, “Of all I have flown today, you are the only one that has really flown the airplane.” Mr. Cooper remarked, “Mr. Lindsey’s special training at Beard’s Flying Service was largely responsible for my passing.”
Orders directed Lon to Maxwell Field, Alabama. He arrived on January 16, and completed his physical. Although technically civilians, Cooper and his colleagues were issued officer uniforms for wear on and off base. They also received “Trainee Instructor” arm patches along with A2 flight jackets. Housing was in framed tents with wood floors and screened windows. Each tent contained a wood-burning stove to fight the cold of winters. The flight line was in close proximity, and noisy North American AT-6 Texan advanced trainers went aloft at all hours of the day and night.
On February 5, 1943, the potential instructors traveled via train to Kelly Field. Accommodations at the base were “excellent.” Four men shared a room, which possessed a bathroom and shower. The chow was good and plentiful. Waiters saw to every trainee’s need. After another physical, room assignments took precedent and bedding given to all. Mr. Cooper explained, “We were civilians but our training was designed so that we would experience cadets’ ground school classes and military discipline. All of our instructors were Army officers.” It was a requirement that beds be maintained to prescribed Army standards, and a half dollar had to bounce off the taut blankets during “white glove” inspections. Physical training (PT) and close order drills were part of the regimen. Roll call took place each morning after a cannon announced the start of the day.
The Fairchild PT-19 Cornell and a few PT-26s were the airplane Mr. Cooper and his colleagues flew. Lon remarked, “The PT-26s did not fly well during slow and snap rolls. In fact, they would sometimes go inverted during spins when flying solo from the front cockpit.”
Mr. Cooper’s flight instructor was 1st Lt. King, a 27-year-old man. Lon was 22 at the time, and the youngest of the candidates. On February 21 he took his first flight. Lon remarked, “Our flight maneuvers were the same as those I previously learned. I was glad that my instructors had been tough on precision. Many older candidates experienced difficulties with the precision required.” Lon Cooper passed his check ride on March 16, and his last flight at Kelly was on March 17. Lon remarked, “Of the 350 trainees only 65 graduated from the Classification phase.”
The Central Instructors School moved to Randolph Field, Texas. It was there that Lon Cooper completed Advanced Instructor Training. Randolph was “The West Point of the Air.” Lon and his mates lived in barracks.
The Kelly Field PT-19s and instructors followed to Randolph. Mr. Cooper commented, “Check rides included helpful suggestions and very little criticism.” Lon completed his flying on April 16. This time, however, all 65 trainees from Kelly graduated. Cooper related a highpoint from Randolph Field. He noted, “The graduation air show included a performance by Maj. Alfred Williams who flew a Grumman G-22 Gulfhawk II powered by a Wright Cyclone R-1820-G1 engine rated at 1,000 horsepower.”
Lon continued, “Also at graduation we were assigned to civilian contract schools. There were more positions than instructors to fill the openings. Major Frame told three of us that Lodwick School of Aeronautics (formerly named Lakeland School of Aeronautics) in Lakeland, Fla., wanted us. We accepted the offers. I was happy because the posting was in my home state. The Army provided train tickets and I arrived home in St. Petersburg 3 days later.”
Lodwick was the 60th Army Air Force Flying Training Detachment (AAFFTD). The location was 2 miles north of Lakeland, Fla. The school was a facility within the Army Air Forces Eastern Flying Training Command. Lodwick utilized the Lakeland Municipal Airport. Al Lodwick became the sole owner in August 1941.
Mr. Cooper commented, “Mr. Lodwick contributed much to America’s victory as a school proprietor and military consultant. He was frequently absent and on consulting tours for the Army Air Force.”
Lon Cooper reported to Lodwick on April 25, 1943. Despite completing rigorous CPT, CAA and Army Air Forces flight and instructor training, Lodwick examiners gave him check rides. After the testing and 6 hours of dual and 2 of solo the men replaced their “Trainee Instructor” arm patch with “Lodwick School of Aeronautics” appliques. Lodwick also provided them with “Lodwick Flight Instructor” wings.
Mr. Lodwick also owned Lodwick Aviation Military Academy (the 61st AAFFTD) in Avon Park, Fla. Lon stated, “The three of us shared a room at the Jacaranda Hotel, and the 61st is where we instructed our first class. That group was designated as 43J.”
On May 10, 1943, Cooper flew his first flight as an Army Primary Flight Instructor. The class of trainees transferred from the discontinued glider program to combat pilot training. Lon received 5 cadets. All 5 graduated.
One interesting addition to the curriculum, which was dangerous and therefore discontinued after 43J, was night flying in Stearmans.
Mr. Cooper recalled, “The exhaust collector ring glowed dull red, and the exhaust manifold produced a large blue fire ball at full throttle. A steady stream of sparks exited past the cockpits and disappeared beyond the tail. It was scary.”
Lon’s next class was in St. Petersburg. On June 29 he married Dorothy (Dot) Bradford. Mr. Cooper remarked, “Our honeymoon was spent looking for a home in Lakeland.”
Upon returning to the 60th at Lakeland, Lon became subordinate to Flight Commander Robert Koleman. Refresher flights allowed him to gain familiarization with boundaries and the 3 auxiliary fields.
Training groups consisted of 8 flights. Each flight had a commander, check pilot, and 10-15 instructors. Mr. Cooper added, “Each week the 4 flights would switch morning and afternoon flight times to balance weather and flight conditions.”
At Lodwick the Army provided the cadets, training aircraft (PT-17s and in 1945 the PT-13), curricula for cadets and instructors, officer check pilots, a flight surgeon and a small complement of enlisted personnel. The school provided dormitories, a mess hall with kitchen, an academic hall for classes and a recreation hall that doubled as a hospital.
Although the flight instructors came from varied backgrounds, each had passed stringent Army and Contract School check rides. Classes contained 50 to 300 cadets. Lon commented, “All the cadets had previously met physical and aptitude requirements and had completed some ground school by the time of their posting to Lodwick.”
Lon recalled, “The planes were originally painted with a blue fuselage, yellow wings and a red and white striped rudder. In 1943 the livery was changed to all silver, and the U.S. markings were revised to remove the red circle in the middle of the white star.”
“Lodwick had 3 paved 3,500 foot runways. There was also a paved aircraft parking area and taxi strips. The rest of the field was grass and were often used for takeoffs and landings,” stated Mr. Cooper. Two hangars served for flight operations and both possessed ready rooms. The north hangar housed a parachute airing tower, a parachute packing room and a U.S. Weather station. The cadet barracks, classrooms, and a drill field and mess hall were between the hangars and Lake Parker. Aircraft maintenance took place inside a third hangar. The control tower was north of the 2 east hangars. It was approximately 60 feet in height and had a glass enclosed room at the top and a small balcony one level below. All the mechanics held certifications for aircraft engine and airframe maintenance.
Lon expressively noted, “Line Girls attended the planes. These young women taxied, fueled, parked, propped and generally looked after the airplanes.” He explained the starting procedure. “At the beginning of flights in the mornings and afternoons several teams, each consisting of 3 women, would start the planes using a ‘slingshot’ made with 2 bungee cords and a boot that fit over the top of a propeller blade. The first lady would prime the engine and place the boot over the tip of the prop and the others would place their cords, one on each side of the propeller, over the crankshaft. The cords were then stretched taut to about 20 feet. ‘Clear’ and ‘Contact’ were duly shouted and the ignition switched to both magnetos. The propeller was then tipped past dead center and the engine would turn over several times. Starts were almost 100%.” Mr. Cooper added, “Each slingshot team would routinely start a row of 9 Stearmans very quickly.”
Lon Cooper then related the situation in Florida. With the war the region transformed from a rural peninsula into essentially a multiplex of military training bases. Around us, he indicated, “There were 2 training fields south of Lodwick. One was Drane Field, which was an auxiliary base for MacDill Army Air Field in Tampa. Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and Martin B-26 Maurader bombers were common users. Bartow Army Air Field was the other, which was also an auxiliary of MacDill. Bartow served as a facility for pilots transitioning to North American P-51 Mustang fighters.” As an aside, Mr. Cooper added the following: “Obviously, airspace was at a premium.”
During one interview session Lon recalled a memorable incident involving a Mustang. “One morning as a group of instructors were grading cadet landings, he related the following: “We looked up to see a P-51 approaching with its wheels and flaps down and a dead engine. The Mustang landed and came to a stop at the far southwest corner of the field. We learned that the pilot was a Transition Training Instructor flying out of Bartow. The P-51’s engine lost oil pressure, and controllers told him to hit the silk. However, the man remembered our field and performed a dead-stick landing.” Mr. Cooper added, “The fighter was disassembled and returned to Bartow Army Air Field.”
Lon elaborated upon his Lodwick experiences. “Our students were Army Air Corps Cadets who were selected to be Combat Pilots. Class sizes varied from 50 in the beginning to 300 at the peak of operations. Five cadets were assigned to each instructor. Army Primary was for most their first flight training, and for some of the cadets, their first flight.” He explained that a cadet had to accumulate 8 hours before he could solo. Every cadet received dual and solo time that totaled 60 hours. The cadets also received 50-60 hours of physical and military training, 85-140 hours of ground school and 5 hours of simulated instrument flight in a Link trainer. Mr. Cooper remarked that the “washout rate was 27 to 30%, and those who washed out were transferred to Navigator, Bombadier or Gunner schools.”
Lon Cooper noted that, at the conclusion of each class, a graduation exercise took place for the benefit of the cadets. Instructors who had been barnstormers before the war performed old routines. Military pilots also conducted flying demonstrations in high performance combat aeroplanes. Lon remembers one display in particular. He stated, “One time a former ‘Flying Tiger’ flew a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, the fighter made famous by his American Volunteer Group (AVG) mates in China and Burma. The P-40 and an overly eager but inexperienced P-51 pilot from Bartow entered an impromptu dogfight when the Mustang attempted to bounce the Flying Tiger. The episode ended with the highly experienced pilot in the older and less capable Warhawk chasing the neophyte in the state-of-art Mustang beyond Lodwick.”
Mr. Cooper recalls several occasions when former students returned during their Army service to thank the Lodwick staff. Once, one of Lon’s former charges flew his Douglas A-26 Invader attack bomber to Lodwick and gave Mr. Cooper a ride. Another, a major, piloted his Republic P-47 Thunderbolt to the field and put on a flying routine in the big fighter.
Additionally, indicated Mr. Cooper, with a maze of airfields in the area, Army pilots erred and landed mistakenly at Lodwick. For instance, a Northrop P-61 Black Widow night fighter pilot used the entire runway to land, damaging the aircraft’s brakes. With repairs completed, the twin-engine plane flew on to its base. Another time, a Douglas A-26 Invader attack bomber unexpectedly paid a visit. Again, brakes came into hard use. New wheels with the type’s special tires arrived by air, and after a week or so it too departed.
On a different day a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress approached with its number 3 engine missing. The powerplant had burned and fallen off over Lake Parker. After landing and conducting inspections, the crew flew the big bomber back to their base.
Robert Lock recorded (page 13) that the Army Air Forces ended their agreements with schools on June 30, 1944, and the Navy terminated on August 4, 1944. The NMUSAF “Civilian Pilot Training” Factsheet sums up the successful endeavor: The CPT/WTS programs “operated at 1,132 colleges and universities and 1,460 flight schools,” and “trained 435,165 pilots between 1939 and 1944.”
In the autumn of 1944, the Sanibel Island Hurricane came in close proximity to Lakeland. To reduce damage to the Stearmans, 2×4 boards secured along the upper surfaces of the lower wings to disrupt airflow over the wings’ and reduce lift. Also, the wheels sat deeply in the sandy soil and served as anchors. Furthermore, ground crews lashed wings and tails to ground.
Mr. Cooper chuckled. He said, “Famous broadcaster Lowell Thomas, whose son was a cadet at Lodwick, reported the following during a radio broadcast: “The wheels of the planes at Lodwick School of Aeronautics in Lakeland, Florida, are in foxholes awaiting the approach of a destructive hurricane.’” Lon noted that, “Although winds were measured as high as 100 miles per hour, due to our precautions we had suffered only minor damage to our aircraft on October 18. The storm moved away quickly and the maintenance crews began repairing the planes on October 19. On Saturday, October 23, Lodwick’s proficient mechanics had enough planes airworthy to continue training flights.”
With the pace of war and demand for services declining, Lon terminated on August 4, 1945. Mr. Cooper believes that Lodwick “was the best U.S. Army Civilian Contract School.” He noted that Lodwick “was often visited by personnel from other schools to observe our activities with the objective of improving their operation.” A total of 8,825 trainees entered Lodwick. At closing, 6,114 cadets had graduated. At its peak of operations, Lodwick employed 500 people.
The above number of students included 1,327 British students. Prior to the United States’ declaration of war on Germany and Japan, the flyers from the “Mother Country” left the Royal Air Force (RAF). This enabled them legally to train in the neutral country as civilians. Upon graduation, they returned to the United Kingdom and re-enlisted. However, after America entered the war, the RAF sent their pilot candidates to American schools with the rank of “aircraftsman.”
Mr. Cooper recounted one remarkable story about one of the British trainees. “A British cadet,” he explained, “was lost on a solo flight from the 60th AAFTD. Fog suddenly blanketed the area after the first morning flights departed in Stearmans. The poor atmospheric conditions held long beyond the fuel capacities of the airborne training aircraft could last. Emergency landings accounted for all but one plane, which was being flown by a British student on a solo flight. Air searches ensued to no avail. The plane and pilot were missing and presumed lost.”
Lon paused for a moment and then continued. “More than 4 years later, word reached Lodwick that an airplane wheel was found floating in the northern Gulf of Mexico. From the serial number and maintenance records, it was identified as being from our missing Stearman.” Lon continued, “During the closing process in August 1945, a military transport plane landed at the field. The pilot was passing through our area and came to relay a message to our field. The communication originated from a liberated British prisoner of war. The transport pilot told our Flight Director, Mr. ‘Doc’ Holman, that he had been transporting freed Allied prisoners from Germany to England. An Englishman told of his capture while undertaking flying training in Lakeland. The man explained to the American pilot that fog had blocked his return to base one morning and he became lost. When the fog cleared, the student discovered that he was over water. Soon thereafter the trainee spotted a submarine on the surface.” Lon exclaimed, “As the British student flew near the sub’s gunners shot down the unarmed Stearman!” (Author’s note: Melanie Wiggins’ Torpedoes in the Gulf indicates, based upon records cited from with Jürgen Rohwer’s Axis Submarine Successes: 1939-1945, that the following U-boats undertook the last forays into the Gulf from May through December 1943: U-527, U-84, U-518 and U-193. Therefore, based upon Mr. Cooper’s tenure with the 60th AAFFTD, it would have been one of the aforementioned German submarines that downed the Stearman.)
The Kriegsmarine crew rescued the hapless student pilot from the sea, and he was transported back to Germany and imprisoned. During questioning the British prisoner informed his captors that he was in training as an RAF officer when captured. The Germans placed him in an officer’s detention prison. Lon emphasized that “confirmation of the facts was eventually forthcoming.”
Referencing the above incident, Lon remarked, “Many people still do not know that German U-boats hunted Allied shipping off the Florida coasts.” Targets were plentiful in American waters. Writer Homer H. Hickam, Jr., therefore referred (page 31) in Torpedo Junction to the German navy’s hunting grounds in American waters as “the American shooting gallery.” Mr. Cooper added, “One U-boat was sunk just north of Tampa Bay.”
With pride Lon Cooper related the following: “The last class at Lodwick was very special for us. Officers who had previously washed out were permitted to return for flight training. No one washed out this time.” Mr. Cooper added, “These combat veterans related many interesting stories.”
After the war, Lon retired from flying. He said, “There were thousands of pilots returning from the war. My services in aviation were no longer needed. I turned my attention to family and career.”
Yet, Lon never lost his desire to be in the skies again at the controls of a beloved Stearman. As God would have it, Mr. Cooper would briefly return to flying, and as the biblical prophet Isaiah wrote, “mount up with wings of eagles.” On October 12, 2005, which was his 84th birthday, a PT-17 owner by the name of Sarah Wilson offered Lon a ride in her Stearman. The plane carried the Army markings with which he was so familiar. He exclaimed, “It was a real thrill. The Stearman had not forgotten the maneuvers!”
Then, on August 13, 2009, Robert Lock allowed me to fly with him in his son Rob’s Stearman. Lon Cooper remarked, “It was great to again feel the changing pressure on the controls while flying the maneuvers.”
Subsequently, on October 6, 2010, Rob Lock invited Mr. Cooper to fly his restored Army Stearman. Lon stated, “I was at the controls during the entire flight, and I was surprised at how normal it was after all those years.”
Most recently, on birthday number 90, Lon Cooper received a birthday flight on October 12, 2012, provided by Rob and Jill Lock in Waldo Wright’s Flying Service’s beautiful Stearman. “It was wonderful. I felt at home in the Stearman even after 66 years” remarked Mr. Cooper.
Lon moved to Auburndale, Fla., in 2004, where he still resides. He periodically visits Fantasy of Flight in Polk City and Winter Haven Municipal Airport.
Mr. Cooper’s fervent desire is that the stories of “the many male and female civilian academic and flight instructors, aircraft mechanics and support personnel during World War II not be forgotten.”
He concluded the interviews by stating, “I was just one of many. We performed our jobs exceptionally well. The fact is that America’s air forces became superior to all in quantity and quality.”
*The Air Corps became a subordinate element of the Army Air Forces on 20 June 1941. Since the Air Corps was established by statute in 1926, its disestablishment required an act of Congress. This action did not take place until 1947. Between 9 March 1942 and 18 September 1947 the Air Corps continued to exist as a combatant arm and personnel of the Army Air Forces were still assigned to the Air Corps (Source: Air Force Association USAF Almanac).
The author (John T. Stemple) thanks Mr. Lon Cooper for his wartime service and cooperation during the preparation of this article. A more comprehensive record of Lon’s life is contained in his booklet titled Memories of a Civilian U.S. Army Air Corps Primary Flight Instructor. You may contact Mr. Stemple via the following e-mail address: MilitaryAviationChronicles@Gmail.com
Sources and Suggested Readings
Army Air Force Civilian Pilot Training Program Patch & History
Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) – Wikipedia
CPT – Memorabilia & Information
Curtiss P-40 Warhawk
Dominick Pisano, To Fill the Skies with Pilots: The Civilian Pilot Training Program, 1939-1949, Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
Douglas A-26 Invader
Fairchild PT-19 Cornell
Fantasy of Flight
Grumman Gulfhawk G-22 II
Homer Hickman, Jr, Torpedo Junction: U-boat War off America’s East Coast, 1942, New York: Dell Publishing, 1989.
Louis E. Keefer, From Maine to Mexico With America’s Private Pilots in the Fight Against Nazi U-Boats, Reston, Virginia: COTU Publishing, 1997.
Lodwick School Patch & Logbook
Lon E. Cooper, Memories of a Civilian U.S. Army Air Corps Primary Flight Instructor, Lon Cooper, 2013.
National Museum of the U.S. Air Force – Civilian Pilot Training Program Factsheet
North American P-51 Mustang
Northrop P-61 Black Widow
Patricia Strickland, The Putt-Putt Air Force: The Story of the Civilian Pilot Training Program and the War Training Service, 1939-1944, Washington, DC: Department of Transportation/Federal Aviation Administration, Aviation Education Staff, 1971.
Piper J-3F Flitfire
Republic P-47 Thunderbolt
Robert G. Lock, Civilian Pilot Training Program, AAC War Training Service & Primary Flight Training Aircraft, March 15, 2007.
Roger Guillemette, Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP)
Rohwer, Jürgen. Axis Submarine Successes: 1939-1945. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1983.
Stearman PT-17 Kaydet
U.S. Army Air Corps
U.S. Army Air Forces
Waldo Wright’s Flying Service
Wiggins, Melanie. Torpedoes in the Gulf: Galveston and the U-boats, 1942-1945. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1995.