Many years ago I posted on an Army Air Corps website hoping to connect with folks who flew with my Dad. I received a response a few years after I posted and began a lovely pen pal relationship with the subject of this article.
On a beautiful sunny Bay Area day I had the pleasure to record an interview my 97-year old friend about his experiences in aviation. You see Bill never really wanted to be an aviator, yet the love of flying was deeply instilled his brother who had become a pilot. Here is the story of how this reluctant aviator’s openness to opportunity and determination to learn, led to a lifetime of flying and becoming an ambassador for General Aviation.After high school Bill Mason was working as a line boy then mechanic at historic Metropolitan [Van Nuys] Airport in the early 1940s. Tex Rankin, a nationally and internationally known aerobatic pilot, was running Rankin School of Flying there. Bill’s job was to push airplanes out, start them, and warm them up. He says that it was a funky job but part of pay was learning to fly. Prior to this job, Bill hadn’t thought about aviation and didn’t have a burning desire to learn to fly, but since he was there, he did learn to fly in a J3 Cub. Bill’s brother Sammy, was already an accomplished aerobatic pilot .
In 1940 Tex Rankin was awarded a Department of Defense contract with the Army Air Corps to develop and operate a civilian primary flying school for soon-to-be cadets. Tex chose Tulare California located in the Central Valley. Tex was looking for instructors and he sent a telegram to Sammy. Sammy had been doing aerobatics and was interested in a change. Tex persuaded Sammy to follow him to Tulare, and a few months later Sammy asked Bill to head to Rankin to work as an airplane mechanic. “Then it wasn’t long I followed Sammy up. I had less than 100 hours of flight time” Bill says.
In late 1942 Sammy approached him and said “Bill they need instructors, you better go get some more time.” Bill explained “At the beginning, the requirement was something like 500 hours and Instructor’s endorsement. But with the war, events were happening so fast, and the pressure was on to find qualified instructors, the requirement went down to 200 hours, and I went over the mountains to Olancha in Owens Valley, to scrape up 100 hours in a plane; an Interstate, owned by one of the Rankin instructors.” He or his wife would come over on weekends, and drill us, while during the week; he and a buddy would sharpen their technique. He laughs and says, “That Interstate was a delightful plane to fly, as most all of my previous time was in a J-3 Cub.” Bill put in nearly 100 hours in Interstate and went into Rankin’s Instructor Refresher Course. Brother Sammy was his instructor. “You probably couldn’t have a better instructor than Sammy. He had won a national award for instructor of the year.” It was the spring of 1943 when he started instructing. Bill was very young, most instructors were much older than him, but before long he was confident in himself and teaching. With a twinkle in his eye Bill recalls the following story:
“Such were the times, that I didn’t even have a license, when I started instructing! I don’t know how I got under the radar on that, but halfway thru the war, someone upstairs said that those few of us without should be licensed. I remember that ride with the CAA inspector, (it became the FAA after the war) a bright and warm sunny day in the valley. During the ride, he said, “ Okay, now lets see your aerobatics.” Being a lot younger than he was, and by that time well honed in my job, I pulled the loop half of the maneuver nice and tight. I looked in the mirror at that time, and he was completely blacked out, with his eyes closed and mouth hanging open. It was a beautiful Immelmann, but he never saw it! So that ride gave me a Commercial license, with Instructor’s rating, up to 450 HP, the only one I ever had.”
He describes the cadets who were mostly young adults [19,20,21 years] as gung ho, jumping to go, they wanted to learn so they could fly in combat. He received five green cadets and tried to graduate all five. Bill says he didn’t wash out too many people. I remember my Father saying the he did wash out a few. On the whole the cadets wanted to learn.
Training started with basic controls, rudder to turn etc. Soon the teaching focused on flying square patterns how to adjust for wind. This task was easier in the Central Valley with county roads and farmer’s fields providing reference lines. The instructor sat in the front seat of the Stearman. There was a mirror where you would watch the cadets. The students could hear the instructor, and vise versa, but there were no two-way communications. For the most part they used eye and hand motions. “I look back on it and think about how amazing it was, they learned quickly. Once they had 60-70 hours they were pretty good pilots.” The Army Air Corp handled the classroom ground instruction.
He was in the air instructing 5-6 hours per day, depending on where the cadets were in the program. As they became more proficient there were less hours in the plane. He recalls that after learning aerobatics didn’t have to teach them too much. When to solo was up to the instructor. He shared, “If I figured they were showing good progress, I would have them pull over, get out, buckle the belts and tell them to go. Most of them would say that they heard my voice in their head while they were up on their solo.” Cadets were with an instructor for 60-70 hours or a little over 2 months.
Some students had better personal facilities, were more natural flyers. Bill told me of a couple of incidents his cadets had in the airplanes. He paused and said:
“Come to think of it, pilots that make mistakes and recover from it, are probably better pilots than a pilot that never made a mistake.”
Bill Mason was done flying at Rankin in 1945 and the school closed. He was given a chance to get out of service or stay on active reserve. He laughs in recalling his decision, “ I said get me out as quick as you can. This meant that the draft board picked me up and I was drafted right way.”
After discharged from the Army Air Corp Bill tried to get job as a CFI but there were no jobs. All the flyers were back from WWII and were working at airports. So Bill let go of flying for a time, took up a career, and set about raising his family.
Brother Sammy had a Stearman in Santa Paula. In 1963 his wife saw it and bought Sammy’s plane for Bill. It was N65874. For decades Bill flew that airplane around the country particularly enjoying annual Stearman gatherings in Galesburg, Illinois. Bill was well known for giving rides, answering questions about training in the Stearman and being an ambassador for General Aviation. As well, over the years many cadets found their way back to Bill to talk with him about their primary training, update him on their lives and military careers, and thank him for the wisdom he imparted to them.
The reluctant aviator took opportunities presented to him, showed determination in the face of being young and inexperienced, got an education, and went on to become a talented instructor. We can all learn lessons in perseverance, commitment to craft, maintaining an adventurous spirit from the Greatest Generation.