“Get pilots to the front!” That was the cry of Lieutenant General Barton K. Yount, head of the United States Army Air Forces Training Command (AAFTC), as 1942 dawned. He had been hand-picked by General Henry H. Arnold for the job and Yount was doing everything within his power to accelerate flight training at the primary, basic and advanced levels. On Dec. 7, 1941, the surprise attack on America at its Pearl Harbor base in the Territory of Hawaii had united the nation in a determined effort to utterly destroy the Empire of Japan in the Pacific and reduce to rubble Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich in Europe.
In the wake of Japan’s attack a cloak of security quickly descended upon America’s factories producing weapons of war. Although the bombing came as a shock to the nation, the U.S. military high command was not totally caught by surprise. More than three months before the raid the Army Air Corps submitted a plan to the War Department conducting a massive air assault against Germany and Japan. The comprehensive document originally called for 2 million men and 88,000 aircraft.
Although production of war materiel in the United States had increased by 400 percent during 1939-1941, the nation’s ability to train military pilots was sorely lacking. According to the Air Corps, the lack of training bases needed to fight a war on two fronts was “wholly inadequate for the job ahead.” As early as 1940, however, the Air Corps established dedicated training bases at Randolph Field, which became the Gulf Coast Training Center supported by the Southeast and West Coast Training Centers located at Maxwell Field, Montgomery, Alabama, and Moffett Field in California, respectively.
As the war in Europe progressed and France fell to the Nazis in June 1940, force planning by the Air Corps changed frequently. Two months before Germany attacked Poland the plan called for creating 24 combat groups requiring a flight training program that could graduate 1,200 pilots each year. After Germany occupied Norway, plans were upgraded to include 41 combat groups requiring 7,000 pilots annually, but in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack planners called for 84 combat groups and 30,000 pilots.
Before America’s entry into the war the AAFTC’s pilot training programs graduated 1,244 pilots, but by 1943 that number surged to 65,797. Despite enormous pressure to graduate more and more pilots as the war dragged on, the AAFTC accomplished impressive results across a six-year period: Between July 1939 and August 1945, 768,991 pilots, including women, Americans enrolled in British flight schools, instructors and other individuals. Of these, 233,198 completed primary training, with a majority of those earning their wings flying the Boeing/Stearman PT-13 or PT-17. Another 202,986 men and women graduated from basic flight training and 193,440 completed advanced courses. Of these, 102,907 eventually flew single-engine fighters and 90,533 took the controls of multi-engine bombers and transports.
Meanwhile, back in Wichita the production of primary trainers for the Air Corps and Navy flight schools accelerated after Dec. 7, 1941. Earlier that year the factory had already delivered the 2,000th Stearman airplane (a PT-17) Aug. 27, only five months since delivering the 1,000th trainer, and national defense plans called for the Wichita Division to build as many as 2,000 trainers annually.
Major George H. Brett, one of the Air Corps’ strongest proponents of air power, commented on the delivery in a letter to Julius Schaefer:
“This is an outstanding contribution to the national defense program. Aug. 27 should be a red-letter day in your company’s production history and a day that you deserve the right to be proud of. We appreciate that it has taken a lot of hard work, effort and time to accomplish this tremendous production, and may I extend my congratulations and the thanks of the entire Air Corps to you and your entire organization for your outstanding production of primary trainers.”
Still, the frenetic pace of the war efforts left no time for future celebration as the 3,000th, 4,000th, 5,000th and 6,000th ship rolled off the final assembly lines like clockwork. In one month alone, April 1943, manufacture of Air Corps PT-13, PT-17 and Navy N2S-series biplanes reached 275 ships, and one of those was the 7,000th built. In a brief ceremony held that month in the bustling Plant I complex, General Raymond G. Harris, in charge of the Midwest Procurement Division of the Army Air Corps, and Lieutenant Commander R.G. Vaughn, resident military official at the factory, officially accepted the aircraft. Pressure to build more trainers and build them faster was a constant companion of every employee at the Wichita Division. As General Yount constantly preached to his subordinates, the key to America winning the war was getting pilots to the front lines as quickly as possible.
It was impossible, however, to prepare a pilot for every situation he would encounter in the dangerous skies above Hitler’s “Fortress Europe” and the vast Pacific Ocean. Every effort was made to give airmen the best training possible under time constraints, but senior officers of the Air Corps and Navy knew that no amount of training, no matter how extensive, could thoroughly prepare pilots for aerial combat.
After listening to combat veterans complain about inadequate training of replacement pilots, General Yount summed up the situation well: “There is not a thing that you have said that is not true. All we need is about two years to train each one of these pilots to do just what you would like. I wish we had more time. General Arnold is enthused about giving us more time if we can work it out, but to date, the problem has been to get more men to the front! Every criticism you have made we are thoroughly cognizant of; we have done our best to correct it. I am not saying that by way of alibi, because we know the shortcomings that our pilots have.”
In an effort to get those pilots to the front more quickly, by 1943 more than 50 Contract Primary Training Schools were operating in the United States. These schools were administered under the watchful eye of the Civil Aeronautics Authority that provided facilities and personnel while the Air Corps provided textbooks, a standard curriculum and training aircraft including the PT-13 and PT-17. The schools were closely monitored by the Air training Centers. The flying course itself was 10 weeks and about 40 percent of students “washed out” of the program. Graduates were transferred to basic and advanced training bases within the Air Corps Training Center regions.
Student pilots at the primary flight training schools in the Gulf Coast area were fortunate to have a fleet of Stearman PT-13 biplanes at their disposal. By contrast, students at the Spartan School of Aeronautics in Tulsa, Oklahoma, had to alter-nate between aging PT-3 ships and the PT-13. Gradually, however, as the Wichita Division increased production rates, Stearman biplanes began replacing the trusty but obsolete Consolidated machines. The contract schools eventually earned a reputation for turning out competent airmen, not only for the United States but also for Great Britain, China, Canada and other allied nations.
The U.S. Navy, too, was desper-ate to train new pilots for combat, particularly in the vast Pacific Theater of Operations. Before the war training at Pensacola and Jacksonville, Florida, was accelerated, along with instruction at Corpus Christi, Texas. Pensacola became a major training hub for naval aviators, graduating as many as 1,100 pilots each month by the time America entered the war. The Navy’s flying course was similar to that of the Army Air Corps, but the Navy did not use contract flight schools. Instead, Navy officials continued flight instruction at Naval Reserve Bases and later a series of training facilities that operated under the Air Primary Training Command.
It is interesting to note that during the war years the rugged biplanes built by the Wichita Division drew praise from senior officers of the United States Army Air Forces for their reliability and ease of maintenance. General Harper, assistant chief of air staff for training, told the joint Aircraft Committee that the Army Air Forces Training Command thought highly of the Stearman trainers, but cast dispersions on the monoplane Fairchild PT-23: “The PT-17 has proven to be a most satisfactory type and maintenance difficulties negligible compared to the Fairchild wooden types. The wood aircraft will not stand up in the hot, dry climate where many of our schools are located, and much difficulty is being experienced with the PT-23 due to vibration trouble.”
By early 1945 World War II was entering its final phase of bloodshed. Germany’s military machine and war production were slowly disintegrating under the combined weight of relentless bombardment by the U.S. Eighth Army Air Force and Great Britain’s Royal Air Force, while American, British, Canadian and French forces drove the Nazis back into the Fatherland and the Soviet juggernaut crushed Hitler’s Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front. Germany surrendered in May but the Japanese fought on until September when Emperor Hirohito brought an end to hostilities.
When the fighting finally ended and the world again embraced peace, the city of Wichita could be proud of its contributions to the Allied victory. It is estimated that during the war the Wichita Division, Boeing Aircraft Company, Beech Aircraft Corporation, Cessna Aircraft Company and the Culver Aircraft Company had manufactured 25,865 aircraft, plus sufficient spares to build another 5,000. Boeing was the largest employer with 29,795 people on the payroll. The Wichita Division built 8,584 primary trainers, or about 44 percent of all primary training aircraft built during the war. These accomplishments were a testimony to the strong work ethic and patriotism exhibited by thousands of men and women of the Wichita Division of the Boeing Aircraft Company. For many of the employees, their service had begun in 1927 when they went to work for a native Kansan named Lloyd Carlton Stearman and the company that bore his name.
On Jan. 11, 1945, PT-13D (Serial No. 75-5963), Army Air Corps serial No. 42-17800 rolled of the final assembly line. After the war parent company Boeing applied a sign to the fuselage stating that the trainer was the last of 10,346 built by the Wichita Division. Years of research by aviation historian Kenneth Wilson, however, eventually disproved that claim when he verified that another PT-13D, serial No. 75-6026, Army Air Corps serial No. 42-17863, was the final aircraft produced.
As of 2018, the airplane is on static display at the United States Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.