In the late forties, the U.S. Navy began a new era with the advent of jet engine-powered aircraft carriers. But while the aircraft carrier was the most powerful naval vessel of its day, it was also incredibly expensive. The U.S. Navy’s newest aircraft carrier was the USS Enterprise, the second in the U.S. Navy to bear this name. The Enterprise was designed and built at a time when the American public was still skeptical of the military and the country’s role in the world.

The early 1960s were a turbulent period for the U.S. Navy. With the Soviet Union flexing its military muscles, the Navy’s capabilities were stretched to the breaking point. With the world’s most advanced fleet, the Navy had a mission to carry out, but no one knew how to make it happen. The admirals in charge were faced with a choice: either go back to the old days of wooden ships with unreliable technology, or use the new technology to make the fleet more effective and safer.

The year 1962 was a pivotal one for the US Navy. In the midst of the Berlin Crisis, President Kennedy signed a bill authorizing funds for the Berlin Wall, creating a U.S. military presence in the country, and authorizing the first naval squadron in Vietnam.. Read more about laos pow rescue and let us know what you think.

A U.S. Navy helicopter pilot recounts the ups and downs of his flight training.

Christmas Eve 1958, 4:00 p.m. I returned home to the Boston area after working in New Mexico for a few months following my graduation in May. The phone rings and I’m alone in the house, so I answer it and the person I’m talking to asks me. He said he called from the Navy and Air Force recruiting service and they had a start date for me, the 10th. to begin pilot training in Pensacola, Florida in January. Am I interested?

Yes, I’m interested! Jubilation, elation, euphoria, joy, because I’ve always dreamed of flying for as long as I can remember. And because I’m not necessarily a strong candidate – English, poor GPA, lack of athletic achievement. But they have a class to fill, so I guess the first one to pick up the phone gets a seat. Merry Christmas!

I’m going to Boston to propose to my friend Fran. Seven days later we were married, and on the 10th. In January, I went to flight school at Pensacola Naval Air Station. (Fran and I celebrated our 62nd wedding anniversary this year).

The preparation for the flight consists of four months of academic courses, physical training, swimming and military indoctrination. We have 22 boys from all over the country in our class, and we spread out to study. Our first test is the PT, and I missed it. I come back the next night and take the exam, struggling, but it saves me extra gym classes, which gives me less time to study. And I’m gonna need that time.

We are given a curriculum with books and a slide rule. Really? Do English teachers need to know how to use a logarithmic rule? The answer is a resounding yes. Use all scales on a logarithmic ruler or bag for math and get expelled from school. I’m in a room with CJ and George, who are technical specialists, and spend weeks mastering the tools with their help.

A student pilot boards a T-34B aircraft for a training flight at Southfleet Field. (Scott Mackintosh)

A U.S. Navy Pilot at the Dawn of the Sixties

Swimming is also one of my weak points. For eight weeks, we swim half a day above, below and around the pool, including a mile swim in our clothes, and experience the Dilbert Dunker Survival Trainer. The PT includes all the usual activities, but also parachute training, trampoline and an obstacle course. In academia, the focus is on navigation, aerodynamics, propulsion and weather, which the Navy then calls aerology.

The four-month flight school concludes with a three-day survival exercise at Eglin Marshes. We survived three days of heavy rain and ate a black snake. Unforgettable!

In four months we will have graduated as Nuggets – newly graduated Warrant Officers – and be able to live off-base. After the ceremony we have to give a silver dollar to the first soldier who salutes, and surprisingly the non-commissioned officer is about to pick up his loot. He already has.

Next stop: Saufley Field, about 15 km away, where we will fly in the Beechcraft T-34 Mentor. On my first day in Southfleet, I followed a flatbed truck transporting a broken-down T-34 from the scene of an accident that killed two people. It makes you think!

My flight instructor is a handsome man named Ron Baker. He is a foreman, which means that after his training he was immediately appointed as a flight instructor. After 12 flights I was cleared to fly solo and continued with Baker who trained me for another 30 hours in the aerobatic program. We do flips and spins. Straight take-off and descent, inverted flight, loopings, Immelmans, chandeliers and countless landings. It is an excellent education in the fundamentals of flying that will stay with me throughout my career. Surprisingly, I seem to be doing well, as almost half of my class is empty for the flight. The study of poetry is of course an advantage.

After two months and 43 hours of flying this little bird, our next stop is North Whiting Field, northeast of Pensacola, where we transfer to the North American T-28 Trojan, a rugged beast with 1,500 horsepower and the performance of a World War II fighter jet. The T-28 is actually a very good aircraft, but I failed my pre-salt check after flying a T-28 for six hours. No serious admonitions, just verbal outbursts at every mistake.

Successful completion of the check ride with an A should be taken seriously, as repetition means disqualification from the program and transfer to the navigator course without ever being able to return to pilot training. My new instructor, Lieutenant Martin, is a natural. One of my mistakes is forgetting to put the mixing valve in the rich position during climbs and descents, but Martin has an ingenious solution. When we meet at his house, he takes my wife Fran aside and asks her to whisper a rich brew in my ear every night when we go to bed, which she does. I pass the next pre-salt check and we move on. Today, more than 60 years later, I still hear occasional whispers: A rich mixture.

One of the T-28s the author flew at North Whiting Field. (Courtesy of Dan Manningham)

A U.S. Navy Pilot at the Dawn of the Sixties

In North Whiting, precision and stunt flying are on the agenda: Loops, Immelmans, barrel rolls, Cuban eights and spins. CPAs love to spin, left and right, over and over again. And every conceivable kind of disorder, including couples. The T-28 has so much torque that a sudden application of takeoff power in the landing configuration at approach speed will cause the aircraft to tip onto its back without any control movement. All of this is excellent training in the fundamentals of flying. This phase will take another two months and 42 hours of flight time, after which we will move to South Whiting Field.

Training at South Whiting begins with a short basic instrumentation course, the rest is training and gunnery. The curriculum is demanding and the dropout rate is high. We begin by forming two levels, breaking and meeting, learning to follow and lead. It’s a lot of fun, but there’s not much to forgive at this point. At this point, a few friends join me, and I have almost all of them.

On my fourth training flight, just before my self-inspection, my instructor tells me that even though the flight went well, he’s going to do me a favor. He gives me a discount for two more test drives. A favor? Are you serious? With a track record like that, all it takes is one little mistake during a test drive and I’m out. I’m so angry I can barely contain myself, but hurting a colleague only makes it worse, much worse. Especially since the new instructor says extra time is needed for the first flight: Too bad, because it would have been a good test drive.

In fact, the inspection continues with a great little Marine that I have never seen before. My winger goes ahead of me on this check and has to make a shallow turn to the right – a roll of 15 degrees or less to accept me joining him, but he immediately goes to a roll of 30 degrees, making any attempt to catch up and join him much more difficult. My infuriating reaction is to take off from the ground and immediately make a turn at such an angle that I have to keep an eye on the distance between the wingtip and the runway as I make the turn and raise the landing gear. I’m in a 40-degree roll, 20 feet off the ground, but I’m determined to make up my lead. It’s a risky move because it’s too aggressive, and I don’t know how the major in the backseat will react. But I like it, I participate, and the flight goes well. When we get back, I worry about how things will go, but the Major is a Marine and he likes aggression. Semper Fi!

It continues with the flight of four aircraft in formation and over rough terrain, followed by a short air gunnery course. We fly over the bay and shoot at an arm being pulled by another T-28. Great conversation.

Then we are sent to the assembly line – special training for fighter planes, multi-engine planes, airships (yes, that still belongs to the Navy) or helicopters. When I meet the detailer, he first makes it clear to me that my preferences don’t interest him, but then he tells me that currently only multi-engine planes or helicopters are open. Since I’ve heard that the gold nuggets sent to ME units are on the bar for a year or two, I wonder about the helicopters. Helicopters were relatively new in 1959, and that probably means a good job market if I get fired.

I was assigned for helicopter training at Allison Field, which is close to my work, which is convenient since Fran is pregnant and not moving in any case. But in the deep wisdom of the Navy, we were first sent to multi-engine training in a Beechcraft SNB (C-45) at North Whiting.

Manningham completed multi-engine training on Beechcraft SNB-5 (above) at North Whiting Field before switching to helicopters such as the Bell HTL-6 Sioux and Sikorsky HO4S-3 Chickasaw (below) at Allison Field in Florida. (Above: University of West Florida, below: courtesy of Dan Manningham).

A U.S. Navy Pilot at the Dawn of the Sixties A U.S. Navy Pilot at the Dawn of the Sixties

The SNB training is a combination of multi-engine and instrument training. It’s a great training program, because I can tick off the multi-case when I apply for my civilian license, and it’s a serious instrument training program, even if it is a little outdated. The Navy does not use ILS (Instrument Landing System) radio navigation, so we are not trained in that, but we are trained in LFR (Low Frequency Radio Frequency) approaches, which were created in 1928 for airmail pilots. It’s primitive, but very effective. We also train MDF (Manual Direction Finder) approaches, another anachronism similar to an ADF (Automatic Direction Finder) but without an automatic, so the signal antenna had to be adjusted manually. These techniques are complex and archaic, but they are excellent for developing our basic instrument flight skills in the wet, choppy spring air of Florida.

Cross-country ski training is held in Minot, North Carolina, because the instructor’s family lives there. Along the way, we stop at NAS Olathe in Kanna, but make a stop in Kansas City for the evening. The instructor drinks too much, so comrade Vito Catrone and I are on the plane back to Olathe and the instructor is lying unconscious in the back seat, and we have a leave the prison without pay card for any offense during this trip.

I leave North Whiting with a total time of 203 hours. Then it’s helicopter training at Ellison Field.

We start with ground school on the specifics of the helicopter, and there are quite a few – just the specifics. Our original rotary trainer is the Bell HTL-6 Sioux, a bubble wing helicopter that was featured in every episode of M*A*S*H. The training starts in the middle of a 10 acre grass field, the instructor gives me the controls and tells me to hover, but not to go over the 10 acres. And for the first hour or so, that’s all I can do. But just like with the motorcycle, something clicks and you move on to other maneuvers.

In the middle of helicopter training, during the morning meeting, we heard a long list of names, followed by the announcement that those named would be suspended from flight training and the rest would be released only if necessary. The pressure is strong.

Advanced helicopter training is conducted on the larger Sikorsky HO4S (H-19) Chickasaw helicopter and repeats the training program on the smaller helicopter. At that point, I meet a student who just failed his last driving test in 18 months and was dropped from the program, never to return. More pressure.

My final round of inspections is the highlight of the program because everything depends on it. The controller is a small marine, Pulaski, a quiet man. I start, I steer and I take off. Major Pulaski said: Just fly to the paper mill, which is about 15 miles north. Then go around the mill. Next: Okay, let’s go back.

Manningham accepts congratulations after his wife Fran applies his gold wings. (Courtesy of Dan Manningham)

A U.S. Navy Pilot at the Dawn of the Sixties

Back again? Really? Have I been so bad that it’s over? What about all the mandatory maneuvers for each driving test? Is my aviation career over?

We go back to Ellison, pass out, and Major P. says: Congratulations! Good luck in your career. It’s over, in a good way.

Two days later, on the 30th. June 1960, Fran tied my gold navy wings and I was free: Untie yourself from the bonds of earth / And dance in heaven on wings covered with laughter / Reach out and touch the face of God.

Dan Manningham served five years in the U.S. Navy, flew helicopters, and then worked for United Airlines for 33 years. He wrote about his experiences with the 5th Anti-Submarine Helicopter Squadron (HS-5) in the March 2023 issue of Night Divers.

This article was published in the May 2023 issue of Aviation History magazine. Sign up for the newsletter today!

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