James Connally & Harlingen AFB Aviation Cadet Program History. (By Ron Barrett, 63-06-JC)
The Flying/Aviation Cadet pilot training program was responsible for the training of almost all of the rated officers in the Signal Corps, Air Service, Army Air Corps, Army Air Force and the USAF, from 1917 until the 1960s, writes former Aviation Cadet Errol D. Severe, author of “The Last Of A Breed.” Severe himself is a former aviation cadet and runs the Aviation Cadet Museum in Eureka, Arkansas.
Note that Flying/Aviation Cadets were not limited to just being pilots. There were also over the years 100,000 Aviation Cadet (AvCads) trained/rated Navigators, Observers and Bombardiers. Thousands more Aviation Cadets were trained and rated (awarded navigator wings) in special flight programs for radar-interceptor-officers(RIOs), radar navigators(RNs), radar bombardiers(RBs), electronic warfare officers(EWOs), weapons systems officers(WSOs), defensive systems officers(DSOs) in the B-58s & B-1s, nuclear weapons officers and as commissioned flight engineers on the B-36. There were and are lots of flight-crew members awarded “NAVIGATOR” wings who were AvCads but flew totally different missions.
The real numbers are not exactly known but it appears that there over 500,000 Aviation Cadets that earned their flight ratings from 1918 to the end in 1965. The US Navy version of the program was Naval Aviation Cadets (NavCads).
The very start of the US military flight training program can be traced to “United States at large,” Volume 40, Part 1 (Washington DC:GPO, 191) page 42 for the passages in the law and page 849 for the 1918 legislation. On July 9, 1918 aviation students were recognized as “cadets” and the Army was prohibited from barring from service men who were not “equipped with a college education, as long as they were qualified in all other aspects.” A history of the Aviation Cadet Program was written by the late Dr. Bruce Aschroft, Staff Historian HQ AETC office of History and Research, 2005, titled “We Wanted Wings: A History of the Aviation Cadet Program.” Dr. Bruce Ashcroft was one of the most notable historians in the USAF.
Most of the US military air leaders of WW-II and in the two decades thereafter were aviation cadets. Notable were National Guard Captain Charles Lindbergh, General Henry “Hap” Arnold, General Carl Spaatz and General Curtis LeMay. General Curtis LeMay was both a navigator and a pilot and supported the double/triple ratings employed in Strategic Air Command during the Cold War. These multi-rated flyers flew mostly the B-47. The USAF bought over 2,000 B-47s in the 50s. By 1970 over half of the USAF’s general officers were graduates of the aviation cadet program.
Due to the formal cessation of the aviation cadet program in March 1965, the growth of the USAF Academy, the active duty Officer Training School(OTS) and the Reserve Officer Training Course(ROTC), college degree required-programs for obtaining ratings, the number of aviation cadets remaining in the USAF over time went to zero, circa year 2000.
Although the very beginning of the “Flying/Aviation” cadet program was spread over two years (1917-1918) the end of the USAF Aviation Cadet program was not spread out. The end came on a precise date, with a precise class. However the end was accomplished in two distinct parts : pilots in October 1961 and navigators in March 1965.
The pilot Aviation Cadet program ended with the graduation of 2nd.Lt. William F. Wesson October 11, 1961. AvCad W. F. Wesson started in the to be near last class of pilots at Webb AFB. Webb class 61-G & Reese AFB class 62-A were the two last “classes.” However due to a T-33 in-flight fuel line failure that necessitated an ejection Wesson suffered a broken back and hip. He remained in a body cast for months, recovered, fought and did earn back his aviation cadet flight training status. Wesson’s class had moved on! All the other cadets had graduated! Cadet Wesson thereafter became the smallest class to ever exist of Aviation Cadets 62-B-2. One cadet. Reference pages 6-12, “The Last of A Breed,” by Errol Severe.
Lt. William F. Wesson was assigned to Webb AFB, TX as a T-37 Instructor Pilot. You can read about his untimely death in a book titled “The Last of The “Breed” by Errol D. Severe. (NOTE this updated provided by Jim Wiltjer who was a student pilot of Lt. Wesson). Lieutenant Wesson’s death was a stark reminder to all of us that were aviation cadets of the hazards of flying in those days!
Navigator Aviation Cadets in 1960 was ending at Harlingen AFB, Texas and beginning at James Connally AFB, Waco, Texas. In parallel at that time the F-89J radar-interceptor officer(RIO) school was being moved from Harlingen AFB, Brownville, Texas to James Connally AFB, Waco, Texas. Then the F-89J RIO training was moved in to the F-101B RO training wings of Air Defense Command. The Tactical Air Command Weapon System Officers(WSOs) for the F-4(F-110) came into being shortly thereafter.
The very last classes of USAF aviation cadets were solely navigators, from 1961 until March 1965. There were over 6,500 navigators trained in this period of time (all in T-29s). The high point for the 60’s was 2,371 navigators trained in 1961. The navigators were a mixed lot. In the overall Undergraduate Navigator Training (UNT) program these classes and flights were sometimes made up of navigator trainees that were from the new USAF Academy, ROTC, OCS, the National Guard, foreign military nationals and cadets. All but the aviation cadets had the free range of James Connally AFB. The aviation cadets were kept in their own area right up and until the end of the program, March, 1965. Note: some of the early cadets at the newly created USAF Academy were provided a program whereby they could earn nav-wings upon graduation, having received supplemental navigator training during their academy training period. The academy cadets would appear time to time in the T-29s.
Aviation Cadet Class 65-15 was the very last class of aviation cadets. The events of the last Aviation Cadet’s graduation are well recorded in the base paper, “The Lodestar” published by Centralized Printing Incorporated of Waco, Texas, issue Volume 3, Waco, Texas, Wednesday, March 3, 1965 Number 9.
Col. Jasper N. Bell, himself a former aviation cadet honorable gave the Commander’s Message to the last class, class 65-15.
Members of Class 65-15 were as follows: Eulalio Arzaga, Jr., James J. Crowling, Jr., Ronald M. Durgee, Harry W. Elliott, Timothy J. Geary, Robert E. Girvan, Gleen D. Green, Paul J. Gringot, Jr., William P. Hagopian, Steven V. Harper, Robert D. Humphrey, Hollis D. Jones, Evert F. Larson, Gerald J. Lawrence, Thomas J. Mitchell, Ronald W. Oberender, Raymond E. Powell, Victor B. Putz, Milton Spivack, Donald E. Templeman, Herbert F. Turney. The above aviation cadets became USAF 2nd Lieutenants. and were awarded their navigator wings, March 3, 1965.
Class 65-15 chose classmate Cadet Steven V. Harper of Miami, Florida, for the honor of representing, the ‘Last Aviation Cadet,’ based on his high academic, military and flying grades. Aviation Cadet Harper described cadet training as, “Good, tough and fast.” 2nd Lt. Harper was immediately sent to Graduate Navigator Training flight school at Mather AFB, California.
The Air Force Navigators Observers Association ‘AFNOA‘ Historian has digitally archived the above issue of the Lodestar for the Air Force History programs. A copy is available upon request.
Undergraduate Navigator Training (UNT) related navigator radar-navigator-bombardier(Navbomb), and Electronic Warfare Officer(EWO) training was consolidated thereafter at Mather AFB, Sacramento, California. UNT Navs and NavBombardiers were all trained in Convair T-29s. EWOs were trained in highly modified Douglas C-54s and later C-118s. Over 25,000 navs were trained in the T-29s alone from 1950 through 1975.
Aviation Cadets as trainees were now history. However many remained as Officers in the ranks of the USAF for the following decades. During the 60s and 70s over half of all of the USAF Commanders had been aviation cadets.
ROTC, OCS and the Air Force Academy now provide the dominance of officers to the USAF and to the ever smaller flight schools. As of 2006, the USAF no longer trained the once distinctive “navigator.” By 2008 the navigator had been all but replaced, except for some limited operations, by integrated flight navigation systems (inertial+doppler+radar+IR+terrain matching)and the Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) nav-systems. The USAF crews the non-pilot, the Combat Systems Officer (CSO) in such aircraft as the back-seater in the F-15E Eagle, Offensive & Defensive Weapons Systems Officers in the B-1, the Air Battle Staffer’s on the large Recce and AWACs aircraft and in the small fleet of Air Combat Command B-52s left flying. There is a going away nav grouping too, in the older C-130 units; especially in the Air National Guard.
Endings of all that was Aviation Cadet in the USAF came when the USAF announced in The Air Force News (News Service)Release of March 10, 1998 that former Aviation Cadet David C. Gildart, a Major General in the IG Offices Pentagon, was “the last uniformed former aviation cadet.” Maj. Gen. David C. Gildart retired March 5, 1998. This was but one ending. Inquiry to the Pentagon PA Office as to how this claim was to be interpreted was made. To-date the USAF HQ-PA has never stated what it meant by ‘last uniformed’ former Aviation Cadet as there were two more former aviation cadets: one in the USAF Reserves and another in the Air National Guard on duty.
The next to the last avcad, the penultimate ‘last aviation cadet’ appears to be Ronald P. Barrett of AvCad Class 63-06 B-1, James Connally AFB, Waco, Texas, who retired from the USAF Reserves, August 15, 1999. Barrett’s active navigator duty was in the 7th Logistic Support Squadron (Special Weapons)and the USAF Reserves thereafter. Barrett’s Reserve unit the 442FW/ACC HQ section wrote the Pentagon PA and AF Times because former AvCad Barrett was still on USAF duty as a very active reservist for more than a year after Gen Gildart was retired. Barrett thereafter authored and provided to the USAF History Programs and Museums, “The USAF Flight Navigator Time Line,” because the Air Force was found to have had no definitive history of the Navigator. A summary of the USAF Navigator Time Line is posted on web site: USAF Nav History as set up by former Aviation Cadet Mike Radowski.
The next ending of the “last aviation cadet” appears to be the final ending of all, of any aviation cadet, anywhere, in that the National Guard Bureau announced it possessed the “last aviation cadet.” On November 1, 2002 Lt. General Russell C. Davis retired in November, 2002 per Dr. Bruce Ashcroft (deceased) of AETC’s book ‘We Wanted Wings,’ as pictured on page 74. A visit was made to Randolph AFB/HO offices and a meeting was held with Dr. Ashcroft to verify this fact. It stands as a true fact.
It appears at this time that Lt. Gen. Russell C. Davis, ANG Ret. is the actual ‘last aviation cadet.’
Ronald P. Barrett, USAF Reserves Ret. is the penultimate last aviation cadet and Ret. Maj. Gen. David C. Gildart the third from the last aviation cadet. If anyone knows different, please contact us.
I do think an article on the finality of the aviation cadet would be interesting as it was the Aviation Cadet Program that to this date that provided to the AF the greatest number of trained flyers, over 300,000 to 500,000 pilots+navs+bombardiers+ROs,RIOs, EWOs, DSOs, etc. There is no comprehensive history of the Aviation Cadet Program in the National Museum of the USAF at Wright-Patterson AFB, or a T-29!
The most used navigator-trainer plane was the Convair T-29 (especially during the greatest age of SAC, MAC & TAC; 1950 to 1975). The T-29 was also used by the Navy. The T-29 trained both undergraduate navigators (basic navs at Harlingen & Connally) and Advanced Radar Navigator Bombardiers (at Mather). The T-29 had a number of internal navigator configurations, although the outside for the most part looked the same. Former navigator training such that it is, was flown in the Boeing T-43(737) until Sept. 2010.
For the pilots the most utilized pilot trainer was plural at all times; a series of trainers from the single Wright-B Flyer to to-days fleet T-6 II. The NMUSAF has a great representation of the pilot trainers-training aircraft in the Air Museum. There were also some special very limited addition modified pilot trainers such as the two-seat A-10, TB-58, TF-102/106, TU-2 (humpback) and SR-71. The area of special flight trainers and research modified aircraft is yet to be fully documented.
The USAF Pentagon Offices (HO) Air Force History & Museums Programs sponsored and published an excellent book on the AAC/AAF/USAF flight training titled: Training to Fly Military Flight Training 1907-1945 authored by Dr. Rebecca Hancock Cameron (Welch), 1999.
Please correct me (Ron Barrett) when you find an error, because I did it, and add to the above if you like. It is “our nav history.” Let’s not lose it. Ref. ronbarrett Website
Ron Barrett, Navigator Historian and former Aviation Cadet , Class 63-06 James Connally AFB, Waco, Texas. 305-797-0745 & (816) 732-5802 1406 South Lexington St. Holden, MO. 64040