With their own country occupied by Germany, French air cadets came to Alabama to learn to fly. Vive la Dixie!
- By Janelle Dupont
- Air & Space magazine, March 2004
(Page 4 of 7)
Once they were back on the ground, the students were critiqued. “Regardez bien autour de vous!” (“Look around”) was a typical post-flight comment, as well as “Ne vous crispez pas!” (“Don’t tighten up”). But the flight instructors never were able to come up with a French equivalent of “Get on the ball!”
French texts and soundtracks for training films weren’t available until January 1944, and formal English language training did not begin until April, 10 months after the arrival of the first detachment.
Nonetheless, the first group of 100 achieved an impressive 75 percent success rate at primary training and thus avoided reassignment to navigator or other non-pilot training. (Socially, they appeared to have been successful as well: The August 14, 1943 issue of the military Training News reported that “Americans at Van de Graaf like the enthusiastic, voluble French better than the reserved British cadets who preceded them.”) In September, the pilots moved on to Gunter Field for basic training.
Basic posed new challenges for the French: instrument flying, night flying, cross-country flying—all without interpreters. The cadets trained on the BT-13 Vultee Valiant, which was bigger and heavier than the Stearman and also had a two-way radio and a dual-pitch propeller. In 10 weeks of training, each student pilot logged about 70 hours in the BT-13.
Basic was a learning experience for both instructor and student. My father’s Cajun French had an antiquated vocabulary that reminded the students of language from a 200-year-old book, but it served him well. “We were at home with French,” he says. “I think they understood us better than some of the instructors who learned it in college.” He created a dictionary for his fellow instructors of common aviation terms, with the French words spelled phonetically.
Problems other than language cropped up. Compared with Americans, the French had more vision problems that eventually disqualified them. They were also shorter, perhaps due to a poor diet in the years after World War I. Some French students compensated by using extra cushions on their seats. Later, the AT-6s’ rudder pedals were fitted with extenders.
The U.S. Army Air Forces’ History of Gunter Field, June–December, 1943 describes how the French students’ approach to flight training differed from that of U.S. students: “They [the French] have the old world conception of education. That is, they are more interested in the theory than are our cadets, so they are more favorably disposed toward the Ground School compared to our cadets who are more practical and think that only flying is important.”
U.S. officials made concessions to some cultural differences. For example, the French military included “aspirants”; these were analogous to U.S. “flight officers,” but without a commission. So Turner Field officials let the aspirants there live in the student officers’ quarters and frequent the officers’ club.