Pre-flight instruction involves many aspects

Published 9:17 am Wednesday, August 29, 2012

by James D. Howell

Sweat runs down my arms and back inside my dress blues, standing on a street in Pensacola, Fla.; my heavy wool pea coat is slung over one arm, and my thumb is in the air looking for a ride out to the Naval Station, to begin training in the U.S. Naval School Pre-Flight.

A sympathetic driver stops and offers a ride; he seems to know the way, and drops me just outside the main gate. I’ve hitchhiked all the way from Franklin in my winter uniform with my sea bag in tow. People have been kind.

I report to the base duty office and am sent to a transient barracks, with instructions to check in to various offices on base and then report to the indoctrination battalion to begin my initial training.

The indoctrination battalion is an assembly and introductory system administered by cadets in their last week of pre-flight. New uniforms are issued, assembly technique and familiarization occurs, with a lot of yelling and running. I think I just went through all this a short while ago. It is somehow a little different.

Time passes and others join the mix in yelling and running. There are sailors (like me) just out of boot camp and sailors with a few years of experience in the fleet.

There are Marines with similar experience also; there are guys with no military experience at all. I learned that other classes are forming that are for aviation officer candidates.

They differ from us; they have a college degree and will receive a commission after completing pre-flight. For the present they get yelled at and run around like everybody else.

I will be a part of Naval Cadet Class 9-57; I don’t know how the numbering system works. Most of our time is spent getting our uniforms ready to endure the rigors of training.

Spit-shined shoes is the norm, and most master the technique without difficulty. The rest of the time is spent with base familiarization, formation marching and learning to hold a straight face when something funny happens; it often does.

The time comes when we are assigned to our drill instructor and marched off to our barracks for the next 16 weeks or so. It’s a lot quieter.

There is greater latitude for study, work and time off in this school. I learn to be prepared all the time for inspections and to clean the Brasso out of the inside of my belt buckle.

Academics start with a bang and do not let up until the last week of school. We study navigation, weather, principles of flight (aerodynamics), aircraft power plants and systems, Navy history and customs, leadership (Yup, I need to learn that), organization and pipelines of training — either multi- or single-engine, or helicopter.

You get a preference without guarantee. Mixed with that is physical fitness (gymnastics, swimming, obstacle course and survival), and a lot of marching (drills), with and without rifles.

We are tested for attitude, aptitude and other ‘tudes. We are measured, top and bottom, around and across. I learn the Navy is doing ergonomics for cockpit design; I don’t know what “ergonomics” means.

The buzzword in this process is “Don’t sweat the program.” Nice to say, but difficult to remember when academic exams are mixed with physical fitness and routine harassment.

Mostly, I try to do the next thing placed before me and it seems to work out OK. Everyone is in the same boat here, and we try to help each other.

In this school, we do no laundry. We can use the base laundry or we can use a contract laundry from off base and have the clothes delivered to our barracks on a schedule. No more scrubbing brushes or clothes ties. I feel a bit more human; I think I’m going to like this program.

Interesting things happen. One of our classmates has difficulty marching in step and making changes on command. He is removed from the formation several times, and is given extra instruction.

In the gym one day, I see him working through a low hurdles course on a track. He is grace in motion. Doesn’t miss a single hurdle and runs with the smoothness of long familiarity. He graduates with the class, but I don’t get how this could be the same person. Mysteries abound.

Graduation comes, and we’ve lost a few members, for different reasons. I try not to think about failure. The next stop is learning to fly a real airplane; I’ve been on one aircraft ride in my life.

I keep in touch with my parents, but distance grows between us.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at