My Dream of Becoming an Aviator
by John Delach
Guest Blog by Phil Brown
John’s articles about the airplanes/airports sure brought back a flood of memories. I went to school in Bonham, a small North Texas town with a population of about 7,000. Dallas was home of most of my aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. When I would visit, (if lucky) one of my uncles would drive us out to Love Field to watch the action. Security didn’t really exist. We would park where planes taking off flew right over us. So exciting for me! We could also go into the terminal and up to an observation platform where we could watch the action and hear the tower. I was in love with the idea of flying and dreamed of being a pilot. After reading stacks of pulp fiction I envisioned a long white silk scarf, dashingly worn around my neck, a form fitting helmet with dashing Ra-bans carefully shooting down those damn Nazis and Japs!
Prior to the war the Army Air Corps began to expand. They did not have enough instructors nor training fields. A program was started that enabled civilians to establish a training fields for the Air Corp. These contractors provided the actual airstrip, barracks for cadets and everything necessary to house and feed them. They also provided the flight instructors. When these instructor pilots hit town they really made a stir, young, handsome, dashing with lots of money; they were paid as much as $200 per month!
I was working at Saunders Drugs, the most popular of three drug stores spread around the town square. I was a soda jerk and none of the other stores had fountain action like we did. We were THE place for the local high school crowd to hang. The food (breakfast and lunch) was quite good. The owner of the store had a cook who had previously been a Pullman dining car cook. The cook prepared the pimento cheese, chicken salad, tuna salad and other dishes at home that he brought to the store. We were about the only hot spot in town and the flight instructors jumped all over our food and fellowship. Can you imagine how bored those guys were?
Since several were in the store regularly I made particular friends with two or three of them. As we became better friends I shared my dream to become a pilot. Two of them volunteered to give me free lessons. The closest field where a trainer could be rented was about 35 miles away in Sherman, Texas. There you could charter an Aeronica K for $8.00 per hour. The plane had a 45-horse power engine. In a strong headwind it would just about fly backwards! The instruction was free, I only had to pay for the plane. At that time my hourly income at the store was ten-cents an hour. Just think…I only had to work my a… off for 80 hours to get one lesson! Simply put, they were out of my reach.
One day my sister told me that I had a call from one of the other drug stores. I returned the call with hesitation and the owner, Mr. Jackson, asked me to come by his store. Mr. Jackson was very dour and intimidating. He told me that he was well-aware of the dominant business we had built up. He explained that he wanted to get something like that going. After some very flattering remarks he asked if I would consider coming with him. He said he would be more than willing to invest in whatever new equipment I thought we would need. I thanked him for his confidence, but I was happy where I was. He cleared his throat and told me he knew how much Saunders paid and he was willing to pay me 25 cents an hour. I nearly fainted. The old man had lost his mind. Since he was a pharmacist I thought he had been dipping into his own stuff: Twenty-five cents, holy cats, Great Scot or even caramba! I tried to look cool and only somewhat impressed. He said take my time to think about it and let him know in a few days.
I staggered out of the store and on to my regular job. I sweated over the offer for several days, planned to accept the fantastic offer but didn’t have guts enough to tell Mr. Saunders. We were paid in cash each Saturday night after closing. I thought that would be the proper time to tell Mr. Saunders the devastating news that his Cracker Jack soda jerk was moving to greener pastures.
Saturday night rolled around to find me sweating bullets. I went to the office for my weekly pay but also to resign. Saunders handed me the envelope and I stuttered and stammered as I gave him notice that I was leaving. He calmly asked why and where. He asked how much I would be paid? He cleared his throat and told me how much he liked me personally and that he would hate to lose me. If I would agree to stay with him he would immediately raise my hourly rate 50%.
I nearly fainted. That sounded like all the money in the world. Wow!!! 50%. Of course, I agreed to stay. It did not occur to me how much 50% was. All I saw was my rate would now be – just think of it – 50% more. I had the miserable task of going by Mr. Jackson’s store to tell him the bad news. Thankfully, he didn’t ask how much Saunders would now pay. Next Saturday night I took my money home and dumped it on the bed. It was certainly an improvement. However, I thought it seemed a little light. I then multiplied my hours by 25 cents and realized I had been given a math lesson that I never forgot.
But never mind, the raise gave me the money I needed to train to be a pilot. In those days you were required to have eight hours of dual instruction prior to your solo flight. Even so, the expense turned out to be too rich for my blood and I finally folded after six or seven hours. My log book has long since gone the way of the buffalo…wish I still had it. It was exciting, particularly for a boy of 15/16.
You can imagine how primitive the instruments were, a compass, altimeter, bank indicator, magneto meter which I think was it. The engine was started by twirling the propeller being very careful to step back and not forward. The flights we took were of course at low altitudes. In stiff winds cars on the roads below could easily out pace us. If we became careless and somewhat turned around, we would head for one of the towns and circle the water tower to see exactly where we were. I became adept at take-offs, but landings were a bit dicey. The plane was a taildragger and prone to stalling making low speed landings tricky.
My dream of being an ace did not come true. When I enlisted in the Navy my recruiter agreed that I could join the Navy’s V5 program meaning I would attend flight school. About the time the ink was dry on my papers he advised that the program was full…the Navy had more aviation trainees in flight school than they needed or wanted. Instead, I was sent to amphibian warfare school where I became a scared swabbie, probably a good break since I made it home safely!