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Susan Sampson | Pilots left their legacies on region

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After I wrote about the Navy flight training program at Fancher Field, I was contacted by Bob Lindell, who had even more lore to recount. He recalled that even before the Navy came to Wenatchee, a civilian pilot training program was started in Wenatchee, and may have been instrumental in helping establish the Wenatchee Junior College.

Newspaper accounts explain that the program was created in anticipation of the growth of civilian aviation. WWII turned the trainees into civilian pilots, ferry pilots and flight instructors serving the military. High-school boys entered the program. Some of their instructors were female teachers, and some of the women became pilots, too.

Mr. Lindell’s late cousin Howard was a member of that class of civilian pilot trainees. After completing his training, he entered the Army Air Force and flew “the Burma Hump,” the extremely dangerous route from India over the east end of the Himalayas into China. Although most such flights carried cargo, Howard transported medics who parachuted into airplane crash sites.

The work of the pilots flying the hump was so valorous that President Roosevelt awarded their entire China-India wing of the Air Transport Command a Presidential Unit Citation. Theirs was the first non-combat unit ever to receive that honor.

Mr. Lindell recites some of the history of flying in the Wenatchee area that was almost as risky as flying during the war. While the operator of a former landing strip in East Wenatchee was fueling an airplane with its gas tank in the nose, the tank exploded, killing him.

Mr. Lindell’s friend Bob Akers had two younger brothers who bought a biplane for barnstorming. They picked apples during the harvest season to earn money to fly to California to do a barnstorming tour, but crashed and died near Ritzville.

Finally, there was the death of Maj. John T. Fancher of the Air National Guard in Spokane. In 1928, Fancher came to Wenatchee for the Apple Blossom Festival. He put on a night-time show of dropping explosive devices from his plane. They were intended to detonate six seconds after being scratched. Three devices failed to detonate, so after the air show, Fancher inspected them. The first failed again. The second exploded after a proper delay. The third exploded in his hand, wounding him grievously. He died a few hours later, and Fancher Field was named to honor him.

Susan Sampson writes about the joys of being a newcomer in North Central Washington. She can be reached at alienfiction@yahoo.com

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