Primary Flight School

In the years immediately preceding World War II, several European countries, particularly Italy and Germany, began training thousands of young people to become pilots. Purportedly civilian in nature, these government-sponsored programs were, in fact, nothing more than military flight training academies.

The United States was initially slow to respond but the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 contained language authorizing and funding a trial program for what would evolve into the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP). President Franklin D. Roosevelt unveiled the program on December 27, 1938, announcing that he had signed off on a proposal to provide a needed boost to general aviation by providing pilot training to 20,000 college students a year.

After the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939 triggered World War II, the military value of the CPTP became obvious, even to the program's detractors. The United States started to evaluate its ability to fight an air war and the results were appalling. Pilots, instructors, and training aircraft were all in short supply.

The U.S. Army (which included the Air Force at the time) deemed the situation to be so grave it proposed that private aviation be suspended and all pilot training (most notably the CPTP) be brought under the control of the military. The December 13, 1940, issue of American Aviation Daily carried this account of the Army's intentions  “Preliminary plans are understood to be already drafted by the Army to ground all private flying in the U.S. for the duration of the national emergency.…The Army will take over all training (including CPTP).”

The Army's proposal met with stiff resistance. Just two weeks after the American Aviation Daily article appeared, 83 companies with a vested interest in general aviation organized the National Aviation Training Association (NATA). The NATA members recognized that, if left unchallenged, the Army plan would, for all practical purposes, ban private aircraft from the nation's skies. The NATA and other aviation interests blunted the Army's bid with an effective lobbying campaign in Congress. Their actions not only saved the CPTP, they may have saved the entire general aviation industry in the United States.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entrance into World War II, the CPTP changed forever, including the name. The Civilian Pilot Training Program became the War Training Service (WTS) and, from 1942 to 1944, served primarily as the screening program for potential pilot candidates. Students still attended classes at colleges and universities and flight training was still conducted by private flight schools, but all WTS graduates were required to sign a contract agreeing to enter the military following graduation.

The CPTP/WTS program was phased out in the summer of 1944 but not before 435,165 people, including hundreds of women and African-Americans, had been taught to fly. The CPTP admirably achieved its primary mission, best expressed by the title of aviation historian Dominick Pisano's book—“To Fill The Skies with Pilots."

When the U.S. entered the war in Dec. 1941, the Army Air Force (AAF) continued with the type of pilot training program it had originally established in 1939 -- primary flying schools operated by civilian companies under contract and basic and advanced flying schools operated by the AAF. The civilian primary schools had been started in 1939 by ten civilian contractors without contracts -- all they had was an urgent plea from General Arnold and his statement that he thought he could get the necessary funds from congress the next year. Fortunately, the schools were already well in operation at the time of Pearl Harbor.

The civilian schools used Stearman, Ryan and Fairchild trainers owned by the AAF; their flight instructors were civilian employees. Each cadet was given 60 hours of flight training in nine weeks before moving on the basic flight school.

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