21 January 2016 | Winter Haven, Florida. It was not in one of his beloved Boeing PT-17 Stearmans, but the flight was a first for former Second World War U.S. Army Air Corps flight instructor Lon Cooper.
A few days after ceremonies were held in Clearwater and at Winter Haven Municipal Airport (KGIF), which was designated Winter Haven Army Air Field during the Second World War, to honor Floridians who volunteered for service with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and Royal Air Force (RAF) during World War 2, 20th Century Aviation Magazine arranged for Mr. Cooper to take a ride in an ERCO Ercoupe 415-C, a civilian make and model that saw limited service with the Air Corps and Civil Air Patrol during WW2, evaluation by the RAF in 1948, and utilization by Alaska State Defense Force (a component of the Alaska National Guard) pilots in support roles as late as 2007. A staff writer, who is a licensed pilot, was tasked with piloting the venerable flying machine.
Lon Cooper was born in Maryville, Tennessee, in 1921. 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 CPT or CPPT) became available to the students.
“The promise of being taught to fly and of qualifying as a commercial pilot with a flight instructor’s rating was very attractive,” said Lon. It was all available for the costs of manuals utilized during Ground School. Lon Cooper added a caveat: “However, to participate in the program we were required to agree to volunteer for the U.S. Army Air Corps if America entered the war raging in Europe.”
Lon Cooper’s initial flight was on June 28, 1941, in a Piper J3 Cub. On August 26, 1941, he received his pilot certificate.
Lon’s logbooks record flight time in Piper Cubs, Taylorcrafts, Aeroncas, WACOs and Fairchilds. Although he had not logged many hours in a wide variety of aircraft, Lon Cooper was nevertheless an expert at the controls of a Stearman.
After obtaining his instructor rating, Mr. Cooper was sent to Randolph Field, Texas, for Army orientation training.
Afterward he was posted to the 60th Army Air Force Flying Training Detachment (AAFFTD) operated by the Lakeland/Lodwick School of Aeronautics, which was located 2 miles north of Lakeland, Florida. It was an institution within the Army Air Forces Eastern Flying Training Command.
Lon Cooper enjoyed his time at the 60th AAFFTD and fondly recalls instructing British RAF and American Army Air Corps pilot candidates.
There were many noteworthy occurrences during Lon’s time in Lakeland. One was when a neophyte North American P-51 Mustang fighter pilot decided to ‘attack’ a 60th AAFFTD student who was airborne in a Stearman.
Quite to the intrepid and overconfident fighter jockey’s surprise and consternation, the slow but nimble biplane trainer snapped around and latched onto the Mustang’s tail and stayed in that coveted position. The P-51 aviator, through turns, frantically and unsuccessfully tried to shake its pursuer. Finally giving up, the inexperienced and undoubtedly frustrated Mustang driver banked away and flew back to the stable at Bartow Army Air Field.
Prior to his January 20, 2016, Ercoupe adventure Lon commented that, “Other than the Stearman, I did not fly in many other aircraft of the era” and added, “This will be my first flight in an Ercoupe.”
On the ground Ercoupes are steered solely via the control wheel and without the aid of rudders. Lon found this arrangement particular interesting, and during the aerial component of the excursion the 20th Century Aviation Magazine pilot, who was wearing his RCAF Association hat and ‘Snoopy’ Royal Flying Corps/RAF polo shirt, briefly permitted Mr. Cooper to take the controls. “It was a very enjoyable experience,” Lon confessed.
Now in his middle 90s, Lon Cooper continues to remain active within the Lakeland and Winter Haven aviation communities.
One issue he is laboring to resolve is the preservation of the two remaining hangars on the grounds of the former airport where the Lodwick School of Aeronautics was located. The structures are adjacent to Joker Marchant Stadium, the Spring Training home of the Detroit Tigers and the ballpark of their Lakeland Flying Tigers minor league affiliate. The area is now referred to as ‘Tiger Town’. Developers wish to demolish the last remnants of the Lodwick School of Aeronautics. Lon and fellow aviation aficionados and historians hope and pray for a satisfactory outcome.
It is not uncommon to see Mr. Cooper gazing longingly skyward at the buzzards and eagles effortlessly cavorting on invisible currents of air in the vicinity of KGIF. Lon eagerly awaits his next return to the heavens.
The author (Susan Gale) thanks Lon Cooper for his wartime service and the staff of 20th Century Aviation Magazine for their assistance and cooperation.