3 November 2016 | Winter Haven, Florida. This morning a 20th Century Aviation Magazine photojournalist, who is also a pilot, flew Lon Cooper, a former Second World War U.S. Army Air Forces flight instructor, to the site (Avon Park, Florida) where he first instructed student pilot candidates.
The flight was a deserved 95th birthday gift, and, as fate would have it, the “sortie” took place on a glorious autumn day in central Florida. Although Mr. Cooper officially celebrated the personal milestone a few weeks prior, 3 November was the first opportunity to fly in a period “warbird.”
The two men converged at the world-renowned Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base. After being flown from Winter Haven Municipal Airport (KFIG) to Avon Park (KAVO), Lon Cooper introduced himself to the young, female administrative assistant who was staffing the airport office. Memories from 73 years past flooded into his consciousness. “I was here in 1943. Avon Park was where I first instructed,” he told her. She was obviously impressed and a conversation ensued.
Upon climb out after takeoff on the return leg to KGIF Lon explained through the intercom, “The paved runways were not here at the time I instructed here. We flew off a large grass field.” He motioned to the southeast section of the airfield and added: “The big hangar we had is still here, and you can also see the area where we parked the Boeing Stearmans.”
Once back at KGIF, the pilot told 20th Century Aviation Magazine the following: “Twice I allowed Mr. Cooper to take the controls for a very few minutes, essentially long enough to get the feel of the vintage aeroplane in level flight. He did quite well during the brief periods of piloting. Lon still knows how to fly!”
Mr. Cooper graduated from St. Petersburg High School in 1940 and enrolled at St. Petersburg Junior College. Toward the end of June 1941, the Civilian Pilot Training Program (abbreviated CPTP or CPT) became available to the students. Lon stated, “The promise of being taught to fly and of qualifying as a commercial pilot with a flight instructor’s rating was very attractive.” It was all available for the cost of manuals utilized during Ground School.” However, as Lon noted, “To participate in the program we were required to agree to volunteer for the U.S. Army Air Corps in the event war was declared.”
CPTP began for Lon Cooper on 27 June 1941, and Lon’s initial flight was on 28 June 1941, in a Piper J-3 Cub. Soon after the Japanese attacked, on 7 December 1941, Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, CPTP/CPT was re-designated as “War Training Service” (WTS) and the U.S. Army took direct control.
Lon Cooper completed Secondary Flight Training on 9 January 1943, and the graduates received orders to report for Army Air Corps active service. The Central Instructors School had previously been relocated to Randolph Field, Texas. It was there that Lon Cooper completed Advanced Instructor Training. Lon recalls that Randolph was considered to be “the West Point of the Air.”
Lon Cooper’s assignment was to the Army Air Corps Enlisted Reserve and at graduation he was posted to civilian-operated military contract schools. Therefore, Cooper soon (25 April 1943) found himself assigned to the Army Air Forces Eastern Flying Training Command and the 61st Army Air Force Flying Training Detachment (aka the “Lodwick Aviation Military Academy”) at Avon Park.
Mr. Cooper stated, “Three of us shared a room at the Jacaranda Hotel, and the 61st is where we instructed our first class. That group was designated as 43J.” On 10 May 1943, Cooper flew his first flight as an Army Primary Flight Instructor.
Lon was then sent a few miles northward to the 60th Army Air Force Flying Training Detachment (aka the Lodwick School of Aeronautics). Specifically, the field was two miles north of Lakeland, Florida.
In the post-war book Two Hundred Thousand Flyers,Williard Wiener (page 161) describes the Lakeland training center. A synopsis follows. The commanding officer was U.S. Army Major Charles E. Flaherty, who was formerly the operations officer at Maxwell Field, Alabama. The school was on the edge of Lake Parker and was bordered by moss-hung trees and palm and orange groves. Flanking the parade ground were three wide, two-story barracks that featured verandas. Concrete runways crossed the flying field, which was the Lakeland municipal airport before it was leased to the school. There were five auxiliary fields utilized by the 60th. From June 1941 to October 1942 British cadets received training at Lakeland. Mr. Cooper finished the war at the Lodwick School of Aeronautics and then ceased flying, deciding to concentrate on a establishing a career and supporting his wife.
For the special birthday flight an ERCO Ercoupe 415-C was deemed to be an appropriate plane because in August 1941 an Ercoupe became the first American military and U.S. Army Air Corps make of aircraft to fly under rocket power.
The 20th Century Aviation Magazine colonel was asked to fly Lon Cooper as an unofficial representative of three associations, which closely relate to Lon’s flying career of yesteryear and the trio are in some respect pursuing the goal of honoring America’s veterans. Being a member of these groups made the excursion even more meaningful for both cockpit occupants.
Firstly, the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels is proud of its Bluegrass Honor Flight program. The group’s 2017 Catalog contains an article (Supporting Our Veterans /2016 Bluegrass Honor Flight) on page 18 that presents pertinent information. At one point the text states that, “Of all wars in recent memory, it was World War II that truly threatened our very existence as a nation — and as a . . . free society.” A few sentences later one reads: “Our time to express our thanks to these brave men and women is running out. And thanks to you we are able to help fulfill our veterans’ wishes. . . .”
Secondly, the Commemorative Air Force (CAF) website quotes science fiction writer Robert Heinlein, who once said: “A generation which ignores history has no past and no future.” Thus CAF’s fleet of historic aircraft, which is commonly referred to as the “Ghost Squadron,” serves to “recreate, remind, and reinforce the lessons learned from the defining moments in American military aviation history.”
Thirdly, the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation exists to present “the Army Aviation story at air shows and other events” and “to honor men and women who have served in Army Aviation.” To do so the nonprofit group “acquires, restores, and maintains historic, flyable aircraft representing Army Aviation (Vietnam era to present).” The Ercoupe 415-C technically qualifies under this category because a few were utilized by pilots of and maintained by personnel belonging to the Alaska State Defense Force, a component of the Alaska Army National Guard, up until 2012.
The fact is that without CPTP/CPT/WTS and the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) in Canada — and the scores of Americans who joined the Royal Canadian Air Force prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor and became instructors — the Allies could not have produced enough highly trained aircrews to combat the Axis powers in the global conflagration. Thus, Lon Cooper and his civilian and military colleagues were instrumental in producing the needed deluge of competent airmen. These teachers are among the unsung heroes of World War II. We owe them recognition and our thanks for a job well done.
The author (Susan Gale) thanks Lon Cooper and 20th Century Aviation Magazine for their cooperation and assistance with this article.
Sources and Suggested Readings
Army Aviation Heritage Foundation
Boeing-Stearman Model 75
British Commonwealth Air Training Plan
Commemorative Air Force
Cooper, Lon E. Memories of a Civilian U.S. Army Air Corps Primary Flight Instructor. Lon Cooper, 2013.
Guillemette, Robert. Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP)
Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base
Lock, Robert G. Civilian Pilot Training Program, AAC War Training Service & Primary Flight Training Aircraft. March 15, 2007.
National Museum of the U.S. Air Force – Civilian Pilot Training Program Factsheet
Piper J-3 Cub
Pisano, Dominick. To Fill the Skies with Pilots: The Civilian Pilot Training Program, 1939-1949. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
Strickland, Patricia. The Putt-Putt Air Force: The Story of the Civilian Pilot Training Program and the War Training Service, 1939-1944. Washington, DC: Department of Transportation/Federal Aviation Administration, Aviation Education Staff, 1971.
The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan
U.S. Army Air Corps
U.S. Army Air Forces
Wiener, Willard. Two Hundred Thousand Flyers. Infantry Journal. New York: American Book-Stratford, Press, 1945.