French Lessons

With their own country occupied by Germany, French air cadets came to Alabama to learn to fly. Vive la Dixie!

Instructor Herbert Cain introduces his French students to their new trainer. (AFHRA)
Air & Space Magazine

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Jean Pichon, who arrived with the second French detachment, was amazed at what he saw. He had grown up in Bordeaux, and when he’d left the previous year, the town had been battered by food shortages, blackouts, and executions carried out by the Germans at night. Pichon remembers well his first impressions of 1943 America: “Everyone was happy. There were factories going, there was work, money, plenty to eat. And at night everything was lit up!” At his first meal at an Air Forces facility, he couldn’t believe all the food laid out: eggs, butter, meat, milk…

The young recruits received their primary training at the Alabama Institute of Aeronautics at Van de Graaf Field, near Tuscaloosa, a field that had been recently carved out of farmland. Civilian instructors conducted primary training through interpreters, including, according to the Tuscaloosa News, “Mrs. Marguerite Taliaferro, a University French teacher, and Mrs. Gerrie Thielens, Tuscaloosa author.” On the flightline, instructors told students what maneuvers they would practice, and the translators did their best to explain the upcoming lesson. The News described the process as follows: “Before flying periods American instructors address Frenchmen on the flightline in long slow voices. Interpreters, waiting for convenient pauses, blaze out the same thing in lightning French.

“The students, on an average of 22 to 24 years old, lean and blackened by the African sun, listen eagerly, hang on every word.”

In PT-17 Stearman trainers, instructors used hand signals to indicate the next maneuver, such as a climbing turn, a lazy-eight, or a power-on stall. (Later, hand signals were standardized and explained in French-language instructional materials.) René Levêque recalled inflight communication in his Aerospace Historian article: “The PT-17 Stearman used in primary training in 1943 was a 200 hp biplane with a narrow undercarriage, an open cockpit, only basic instruments, and no electronic intercom system. When the instructor had something to say, he talked into a kind of funnel, hoping that the roar of the engine, the hiss of the slipstreams, and the lack of concentration, or the bewilderment of his student did not cancel his message. When his words did reach attentive ears, it was always garbled, and almost invariably in a foreign language. Well planned lessons previewed on the ground with the instructor and a translator and strictly adhered to in the air were a must, with arms, head, finger, and hand language to the rescue.”

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.

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