Old School, New duties

Published 11:38 am Monday, July 29, 2013

By Archie Howell

I learn of an opportunity to transfer to the US Naval School Preflight midway through my shore base duty period. The powers that be will permit swapping of duties between stations within the training command if it did not require a household move. A pilot wants to move from an academic instructor to flight instructor job, and I think it would be fun to be a ground school instructor. I already live in Pensacola, and the move would mean a shorter drive to work.

I submit the necessary paperwork, complete the indoctrination course, and am assigned to the aircraft power plants and systems division. I feel welcome, and I am comfortable in the classroom environment. My students are a mixture of services and nationalities. I have U.S. Marines, Navy, and Coast Guard, German air force, Pakistani air force, Saudi air force and a few other South American nationals.

It is my job to motivate (mostly keep awake) and educate these future pilots in all things aircraft, from conventionally powered (reciprocating engines) to modern jet engine design and operation. I outline carburetion and ignition systems. I cover basics of hydraulic and electrical systems, and Bernoulli and Pascal’s principles. Students in preflight (I can remember) are pushed to the limit of data absorption.

Many of my classes are scheduled just after a rigorous physical training session or lunch. Holding everybody’s attention is practically impossible. I develop a long list of off color jokes that seem to work most of the time. Nothing works all the time.

I also develop a technique of climbing on and over the engine models, when appropriate, to accentuate an operation. I think seeing an instructor step out of the formal presentation mode brings a little interest to what can be a dull presentation. My students seem to readily accept the somewhat unorthodox teaching methods; I am rewarded with formal recognition by my peers.

The instructor job also comes with a few interesting perks. I, along with my wife, am required to chaperone cadet behaviors at their recreation club on weekends, in turn with other officers. The watch comes with free beer and lots of socializing.

Each spring brings a formal dance to the cadet corps, with a bevy of young ladies invited from colleges along the Alabama and Mississippi coast. It’s designed to expose young would be officers to the formal social aspects of officer’s life. I’m not at all sure what is learned from the experience. It seems to be some combination of mating ritual, freedom celebration, and testosterone display by cadets and young ladies alike. I think success is determined by the absence of damage to property and persons involved.

During my tour as an instructor, the first movements are made toward establishing a US Naval Aviation Museum, to be located within the confines of the main navy base at Pensacola. Some pressure is felt to contribute to this cause. I don’t know who is responsible for the idea or what the outcome will be.

Included within the walls of the main instructional building is a small library, with current newspapers and other publications, and an extensive selection of books on naval customs and history. I take delight in perusing the shelves and periodicals. I read extensively about the latest scientific research into LASERs and MASERs. Scientific American magazine is far above my intellectual head, but I find their articles fascinating. This is new technology and it is sure to find its way into military use. No one is quite sure what the impact will be, but everyone predicts a wide variety of applications, perhaps even as a death ray, as portrayed in Buck Rogers comic books. For now it’s a laboratory research novelty, expensive and requiring complex, powerful equipment.

The flying part of my job is just to maintain proficiency; a small fleet of aircraft is provided for pilots not assigned to primary flying duties. I get to enjoy short cross-country, sometimes overnight, trips to places of my choice. Life is good.

Long years later, I visit the Naval Aviation Museum at the Naval Air Station, Pensacola, and discover a major, well designed and presented, collection of US Navy airplanes and galleries that showcase life as we knew it. I recognize nine display aircraft types that I’ve actually flown. The engine models that I used in class are now a part of the museum. I run my hands along the leading edges of wings that have soared with eagles, pierced the fog of northern latitudes, and carried the flag of my country to distant lands.

My heart grows warm. I touch them with no small amount of nostalgia and respect.