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Susan Sampson | A bit of history: WWII pilots were trained here

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When I moved to Wenatchee my cousin David said: “My dad was a Navy flight instructor there during WWII.”

I wondered how that happened. Uncle Gene was born in 1906, so he was 35 years old with a wife and child at home when Pearl Harbor was bombed.

“He tried to enlist, but they turned him down until they found out he was a flier,” David explained. “The Navy made him a warrant officer.”

I was curious about the flight-training program at Wenatchee, but how could I study it? I got a strong start at the North Central Regional Library.

Then, Linda Barta steered me to an index of Wenatchee World newspaper articles prepared by the late Bruce Mitchell, a historian who was employed by The World. Barta found nine articles on microfiche.

The articles outlined a basic story. In June 1942, the Civilian Aviation Administration (predecessor of the FAA) implemented a huge federal program to train civilian pilots, but quickly, training was taken over by the military. The program started with 19 Navy men who followed a strenuous regimen from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m six days per week. (I wondered if Sunday became party time like that for sailors when the fleet is in port? The newspaper doesn’t say.) The pilots learned “GSA,” but what’s that? Possibly aircraft gunnery, but I’m not sure.

One year after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, flying on the coast was prohibited (I never knew that before), so Fancher Field got busy. Pilots were trained on N3Ns, bright yellow biplanes with open cockpits and two fore-and-aft seats, which were primitive even by the standards of the time. They made the nearby hills daunting, my uncle had said.

Next, airports were divided between Army and Navy command, and Wenatchee went to the Navy. The two taught “Different flight patterns.” That was another mystery. I asked an 87-year-old FAA (formerly CAA) retiree, but he couldn’t help.

The closing Wenatchee World story, June 1944, says 1,269 pilots were trained locally. The Internet adds that the Navy trained over 60,000 pilots nationally in four years. Each published fact was like a kernel of popcorn that exploded into more stories, although like popcorn, some seeds refused to pop.

My tiny historical quest inspired my admiration for historians who take on major stories, say like the construction of the Panama Canal, or the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt.

Susan Sampson writes about the experience of being a newcomer in North Central Washington. She can be reached at