Embry Riddle Field, Clewiston, Florida and Royal Air Force Cottesmore, England. Somewhat different airfields united at RIAT 2001. The theme - Flying Training. In the VVIP Enclosure were over 200 old, bold pilots, all of them now in their seventies and eighties, and their families - members of Nos.1, 3 and 5 British Flying Training Schools (BFTS). On a blisteringly hot day we watched the flying, shoulder to shoulder sharing their memories of days gone by.
1940 and the world was at war. Europe and Scandinavia had fallen. Britain stood alone against Nazi Germany. Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal had already made the decision that in the event of war, flying training in the United Kingdom should be abandoned. "It would be fraught with problems and danger. The British Isles were cramped, vulnerable and subject to bad weather." Imagine instructing cadets in Tiger Moths in the hostile skies of Britain! RAF training had to be relocated if we were to secure a constant supply of pilots with which to defend our Realm. The wisdom behind this was highlighted on 16 August 1940 when the Luftwaffe in a single attack on RAF Brize Norton destroyed 46 training aircraft.
General "Hap" Arnold, Chief of the US Army Air Corps, supported Britain and largely due to his efforts, flying training began in the USA in early 1941. What he did enabled more than 11,000 pilots to graduate there - about one in six of RAF pilots trained overall during World War Two. Through mutual cooperation between President Roosevelt and Squadron Leader Mills DFC, two schemes were set up. The Arnold Scheme operational 1941-1943 and the BFTSs operational 1941-1945.
My interest lies with No. 5 BFTS who were based at the Riddle McKay Aero College, Embry Riddle Field, Clewiston in Florida, where my father, Keith Clanzy, received his training in 1942. Almost 50 years later as a student pilot, all those surrounding townships became as familiar to me as they had been to him. Belle Glade, Pahokee, Arcadia, Okeechobee (I never could spell it!) and a mysterious place called La Belle hidden amongst the trees whose only purpose was to serve as a place you hopefully recognised on cross-country sorties.
Each BFTS was built to a general specification. The airfield itself was to be one mile square with 2 runways and a control tower. Hangars and maintenance equipment were provided for the PT17A (Stearman) and AT6A (Harvard), together with emergency facilities, parachutes, and accommodation for ground instruction, administration, dormitories, dining halls and Link training. The work had to be carried out by Contractors within 60 days of signing the Contract!
BFTSs were RAF establishments in that the Commanding Officer, Adjutant, Chief Flying Instructors and Physical Training Instructors were all RAF personnel. The cadets were subject to RAF law and British Flying Regulations were strictly adhered to around the airfield, except on long cross country flights when American Law had to be observed. These schools were unique in WW2 by offering ab initio to wings training at the same airfield. American civilians became instructors trained to RAF standards. Syllabuses for flying instruction greatly reflected the RAF's needs as war progressed and included night flying, instrument flying, long distance cross-country flights and formation flying. No longer concentrating heavily on aerobatics as was previously done.
Back in England the would-be pilots made their way to the Aircrew Reception Centre (ACRC) in St. John's Wood, London. They would then be sent on to Initial Training Wings and Grading Schools (GS) located throughout Britain. GS's were thought to have been introduced because of the high rate of elimination being experienced under the Arnold Scheme. They provided the would-be pilot with 10 hours on Tiger Moths, offering a further refinement in the aircrew selection process. If successful, it was on to the Aircrew Despatch Centre (ACDC) at Heaton Park, Manchester. There to be assigned a passage to the US usually from Liverpool or the Clyde.
A constant stream of relatively fast unescorted passenger ships crossing the Atlantic, kept the cadets enrolling in 5BFTS at the rate of 100 every nine weeks. The ships had a good safety record made possible by naval intelligence obtained from the ultra secret Enigma code-breaking carried out at Bletchley Park near Milton Keynes. Even so, it required excellent seamanship to avoid contact with the 120 U-Boats operating in the Atlantic on any one day in 1943! One such crossing was dramatic however in May 1941. The "Britannic" was carrying cadets destined for the Arnold Scheme. Unknown to the cadets the ship was being used as bait for the German battlecruisers "Bismarck" and "Prince Eugen". It worked and the German warships sailed into the ambush prepared by the Royal Navy.
The air cadets training lasted 27 weeks. PT17A's (Stearman) were the primary trainers with one instructor and four cadets assigned to each aircraft. Early courses until the end of 1942 had a period on BT13A's (the Vultee, nicknamed the Vibrator) as a basic trainer. However, from Course 10 onwards the Vultee was dropped. AT6A's (Harvard) made up the advanced flightline, having more power than the primary trainer and panels suitable for instrument and night flying.
But it wasn't all hard work! The local people of Clewiston and Moorehaven, on the banks of the big Lake, into whose midst these training schools were thrust, treated the RAF cadets with overwhelming hospitality taking them into their homes at every opportunity. Dances, barbecues and cosy evenings at home were organised and many a lifelong friendship formed. It was hard sometimes to imagine the war torn Europe to which they would return and play their part.
The City of Arcadia in South Central Florida became the pivotal point for 2 Schools; No 5 BFTS at Embry Riddle Field and the US School at Carlstrom Field. Between August 1941 and September 1945, some 1325 cadets graduated from Embry Riddle Field to receive those coveted silver wings. But 21 young airmen died in training, 19 of which were aircraft accidents. They are buried together with 2 cadets from Carlstrom Field in a British Plot in Arcadia's Oak Ridge Cemetery, never to be forgotten. Each year on Memorial Day, now the last Monday in May, they are honoured in a service made possible by the town's Rotary Club.
In May 2002, I hope to stand alongside the people of Arcadia, British veterans (including my father) and former instructors to pay my respects to these young men who never flew in combat but simply " crossed the river to rest in the shade of the trees."
* * * * *
Since writing this article, I did indeed attend Memorial Day (27 May 2002) at Oakridge Cemetery with my father and my husband, Eddie. It is a great tribute to the generosity of the people of Arcadia that this ceremony has been performed with such dignity for the last 46 years. John Paul Riddle himself now lies alongside his cadets beneath the trees - it was his wish to be so.
I wasn't born until August 1946 but I am forever mindful that British servicemen fought for my freedom and that of all future generations. So I feel extremely proud and privileged to be able to join 5 BFTS as a Family Member, at their annual reunion each Autumn and I am without doubt richer for knowing them all.