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)
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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.

Instructors remember that some French cadets, particularly those from rural areas, lacked mechanical ability. “A lot of them hadn’t even been around cars,” recalls Jack Wishnick. “I mean, we could at least adjust a carburetor.” But he respected their courage and desire to fly, especially considering what many of them had gone through to escape German occupation. “Some of them had walked across the Pyrenees,” he says.

Basic training was a high-pressure, potentially dangerous business, especially for those still scrambling to learn a second language. Initially, the French accident rate in basic was higher than that for U.S. cadets. My father once saw a formation takeoff in which the French student, instead of turning smoothly, turned hard left, colliding with another airplane and killing himself and his instructor. (Not all the accidents were the pilot’s fault, though. Once, a Gunter ground crew forgot to replace an aircraft’s gas tank cap, and as soon as the French student made his first maneuver in the craft, fuel spilled onto the engine and set it on fire. The aircraft went down behind a hill. Sometime later, the student pilot walked through the base’s front gate carrying his parachute and announced sadly, “J’ai perdu mon avion”—I lost my airplane.)

As time went by and both students and instructors became better at each other’s languages, the French cadets’ accident rate dropped to about the level of the U.S. cadets. Tighter discipline on the ground also helped cut accidents, especially on solo flights. “In the early stages of the French program, instructors were allowed to maintain a friendly and informal relationship with the students,” recounts one report. “It was felt that they had undergone great hardships, shown great initiative, and were in a difficult position, being in a strange country. In 1944, in order to lower the accident rate, and to put the program on the same basis as the American program, the relationship of instructor and student was limited strictly to the flight line, and [conversational] subjects [were confined to] flying, while on the line.”

Adjustments made on both sides seemed to help. Of the first group of 75 French cadets at Gunter, 72 graduated and earned high praise. According to an Army report, they had shown “zealous enthusiasm” in most aspects of training.

Still, the language problems that had surfaced early in training sometimes continued into advanced training. According to a history of Craig Field, where pilots received single-engine instruction: “During the first part of their training [at Craig], the eager students had the tendency to indicate that they understood the instructions or explanations of their instructors, when actually the procedure under discussion was still a little vague to them.”

Eventually, 24 detachments of French cadets moved through primary, basic, and advanced training, earning their wings after more than 200 hours of training flights.

In 1998, I began asking my father about his experience training the Free French. He had flown with them, cussed at them, and celebrated with them at graduation, but he knew little about what had happened to them after their training days.

In August 1945, the French government had awarded my father French pilot wings, citing his contribution to the liberation of France. After the war, he served as a pilot in the Air Force Reserves, retiring as a captain in the 1950s and later working in corporate finance. We wondered if any of the French students had also stayed in aviation, so we placed a notice in a French air force publication. The responses started coming in:

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