The RAF in American Skies – How British Pilots Trained in the U.S. during WW2

The RAF needed pilots faster than it could train them during World War Two. Starting in 1941, it sent hundreds of its budding aviators to the neutral United States to learn how to fly. (Image source: WikiCommons)

In 1941, the RAF needed pilots faster than they could be trained. In order to fill the quota, it established special aviation ‘boot-camps’ on neutral U.S. soil. Thousands of British pilots earned their wings at the schools. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“Passage of the Lend-Lease Act in March 1941 allowed for the training of British pilots in the United States and the formation of British Flying Training Schools.”

 By Tom Killebrew

IN EARLY 1941, Great Britain stood alone against Nazi Germany. Norway, Poland, France, Belgium, and the Low Countries had all fallen to Hitler. Outnumbered and under siege, the United Kingdom needed soldiers, sailors and especially pilots.

Although much of the Royal Air Force’s pilot training program had been relocated to Canada and other Commonwealth countries under the Empire Air Training Scheme, the demand for combat-ready pilots remained acute.

Desperate, Britain looked to the United States for help; Washington was determined that it would be forthcoming. Passage of the Lend-Lease Act in March 1941 allowed for the training of Allied pilots on U.S. soil and the formation of British Flying Training Schools. These unique establishments were owned by American operators, staffed with civilian instructors, but supervised by British flight officers. Each school, and there were seven located throughout the southern and southwestern United States, utilized RAF’s own training syllabus. The aircraft were supplied by the U.S. Army Air Corps.

British pilots in the U.S. trained on the same aircraft American fliers did, like the ubiquitous Boeing Stearman. (Image source: WikiCommons)

British pilots in the U.S. trained on the same aircraft used for American flight instruction, including the ubiquitous Boeing Stearman. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Campuses were located in Terrell, Texas; Lancaster, California; Miami, Oklahoma; Mesa, Arizona; Clewiston, Florida; Ponca City, Oklahoma; and Sweetwater, Texas.

Unlike any other military flight training programs of the time, all aspects of instruction at the British Flying Training School, from the first flight through advanced training and graduation, occurred at the same facility.

The United States was officially neutral when the first British flight students arrived in civilian clothes in June of 1941.

The enrolees, many of whom had never been in an airplane or even driven an automobile before, mastered the elements of flight, attended ground school classes and were introduced to the mysteries of the Link trainer – a coffin-like rudimentary flight simulator. Once the cadets had made the grade, they would then take to the skies for solo cross-country flights.

Before computerized flight simulators, pilots-in-training learned about instrument flying using these closed Link trainers.

Before computerized flight simulators, pilots-in-training learned about instrument flying using these closed Link machines.

Students embarked on night flying with the natural apprehension associated with taking off into a black sky aided by only a few instruments, a flickering flare path, and limited ground references.

At the beginning of the program, a time when the need for pilots was most acute, the RAF flight training curriculum had been reduced from the standard 150 hours to just 130. By the end of the war and with victory in sight, instruction was extended to 220 hours.

Some students failed the periodic check flights and had to be eliminated from the program, others were killed in training mishaps. Those lost were not shipped home, but buried in local cemeteries. The graduates became Royal Air Force pilots.

More advanced flight training took place on the North American AT-6 Texan or Harvard. (Image source: WikiCommons)

More advanced flight training took place on the North American AT-6 Texan — aka the Harvard. (Image source: WikiCommons)

But the story of the British Flying Training Schools is more than a tale of young men learning to fly. The young students would also forge strong and long lasting bonds of friendship with the Americans they came to know. Local communities embraced the British pilots — picnics, dances and socials were held in their honour and local families even took the young men from into their homes during weekends and on periods of leave.

This bond of friendship would last not only during training, but would continue throughout the war and live on long after.

On the international level, the British Flying Training Schools program was one of the greatest cooperative ventures ever undertaken between nations. Aircrew training, along with other collaborations such as lend-lease, cemented the alliance between Great Britain and the United States that transcended national interest and continued after the war, throughout the Cold War, and exists to this day.

killebrew_royal_air_force_american_skiesTOM KILLEBREW’s most recent book is The Royal Air Force in American Skies: The Seven British Flight Schools in the United States during World War II, recently released from University of North Texas Press. received a master’s degree in history from the University of Texas at Arlington and taught American history at Navarro College in Waxahachie, Texas. He is also the author of The Royal Air Force in Texas: Training British Pilots in Terrell during World War II (UNT Press). He lives in Erath County, Texas.

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