One-a-Day in TAMPA BAY

By Espinosa, L. Bert | Sea Classics, September 2006 | Go to article overview

One-a-Day in TAMPA BAY


Espinosa, L. Bert, Sea Classics


As all-too-many fledgling airmen discovered, wartime pilot training was often as hazardous as combat flying!

"One minute I was free as a bird weaving through a bank of puffy clouds. The next I was scared witless, upside down, drowning in the cockpit of a sinking airplane fast plunging to the bottom of Tampa Bay! This is it, I remember thinking, Norm boy, you've had it. You're gonna die!"

Today, more than 60-years later, former WWII Navy pilot Norm Galler grins when he reflects on the incident that saw him unceremoniously dunked into the Gulf of Mexico during a 1943 solo training flight in a Navy SNJ trainer. One of thousands of military pilots hurriedly taught to fly during the war, Galler still vividly recalls the emergency ditching in Tampa Bay, Florida, which very nearly put an end to his flying career. "That engine just packed up and quit cold. Miles behind me was the shore - too far to stretch the glide of the 3-ton advanced trainer-leaving no choice but to bail out or ditch. At that moment, the broad expanse of the azure blue Gulf never looked more ominous. I was going for a swim whether I wanted to, or not.

"My fear of parachutes made me swear I'd ride a crippled airplane down rather than jump. So, I tightened the shoulder harness and seat belt while watching the airspeed and gauging the wind to ditch the plane at the lowest safe airspeed. 'Just do what they've taught you to do,' I kept telling myself, rolling back the canopy to the howl of the wind. And it worked - at least for the first couple of bonejarring bounces before the plane's nose tucked under, flipping the SNJ on its back in a swirl of foaming spray, sinking fast and taking me down with it. Keeping control of my nerves, I realized I was uninjured. Releasing the harness, I pushed my way out of the inverted cockpit and followed the streams of bubbles rising to the surface exactly the way we practiced in escaping from the Dilbert Dunker mockup cockpit in the gym's pool. Inflating the Mae West life preserver, I spotted the welcome sight of a fast-approaching crash-rescue boat. Thankfully, my Mayday call had been heard. The sharks were cheated that day."

This kind of accident was no rare occurrence in wartime. With hundreds of over-water training flights conducted daily, rescue boat crews were used to plucking young aviators out of Tampa Bay with alarming regularity. Galler was lucky. Wartime flight training accidents cost the lives of nearly a third of all airmen lost in WWII.

"None the worse for wear except for bruises from my over-tightened shoulder straps, I was thankful the Navy had taught me how to swim and survive a ditching. That afternoon I was back in the air in another SNJ. And this time the engine didn't quit! But that dunking in Tampa Bay was more frightening than any combat mission I ever flew," says Galler, now a retired insurance executive.

CREATING THE SCHOOLS WHICH TAUGHT A OJLJARTER MILLION YOUNG MEN TO FLY

The wartime impetus to amass an awesome force of Army and Naval airpower in the shortest time possible became a miracle of American ingenuity and resourcefulness. A nation leisurely training only a few hundred military pilots and aircrewman annually in 1939 suddenly found itself faced with the daunting task of teaching more than a quarter million young men to fly as the United States slowly became embroiled in the war in Europe. Pilot training tripled in 1940 and quadrupled soon after Pearl Harbor. With dizzying speed, the support facilities of barracks, schools and training airfields sprang up all across America. Empty fields seemingly transformed overnight into sprawling training bases complete with hangars, control towers, maintenance sheds, classrooms and living quarters for hastily organized pilot, aircrew and aviation mechanic training programs. Between the AAF and Navy, by 1944, more than 350 flying fields had been established for student airman. In teaching these eager fledglings to fly, the services rapidly acquired almost 58,000 training aircraft of all types. …

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