On September 12th, 1944 newly-arrived observers at Mountain Farm RAF base near Oxford, England might have been excused for thinking they were “seeing things” when a British Mk XI Spitfire wearing USAAF markings, tail number 944 and an unusual blue color scheme executed a successful if spectacular crash landing on the sod runway. The talented pilot who walked away from the slightly damaged aircraft was in fact an American named John S. Blyth. A closer look would have revealed that the legendary Spitfire had had all its guns and protective armor removed in favor of extra fuel tanks and two large 36” focal length cameras. Blyth was one of a small cadre of American pilots flying daily high altitude photo recon missions over Nazi Germany assessing bomb damage for Allied planners.
in WWII England, a Spitfire wears U.S. markings as did the one flown by John
In all, John Blyth flew 51 unescorted missions to distant targets such as Berlin and Munich, all alone in the cockpit of his unarmed and unprotected specially adapted Spitfire, a plane which Blyth described as a “gift” to any pilot privileged to fly it.
I have chosen Lt. Colonel John S. Blyth USAF (Ret) to introduce this column not just because his story is an inspiration in itself, but because he represents a unique breed of American military aviators whose flying careers began as enlisted (non-commissioned) pilots.
To all but a handful of dedicated military aviation historians it may come as a surprise that since Army Corporal Vernon L. Burge climbed into his Wright Model B biplane in 1912, more than 3000 “Flying Sergeants” or “enlisted” pilots have flown for the Army, USAAF and U.S. Air Force, while another estimated 5000 non-commissioned officers wore the wings of Navy, Coast Guard and Marine aviators. It is a statistical verity that of the 3,000 RAF fighter pilots who saved England in the “Battle of Britain”, 2,000 were Sergeants, including members of the famed “Eagle Squadron” – Americans who had crossed borders in order to serve with their cousins across the Atlantic prior to Pearl Harbor. The 145 Eagle Squadron enlisted pilots who later joined the USAAF became the only Sergeant pilots entitled to wear the wings of both countries.
This “ageless” J-3 Piper Cub was often the first introduction to flight for U.S. Enlisted Pilot trainees. (It was also the plane in which the author soloed.) Al Cooper Photo
It is worth noting that many of the pilots who volunteered to fly transport planes across the deadly Himalayan “Hump”, and the brave men at the controls of those cantankerous gliders delivering Airborne troopers behind the beaches of D-Day Normandy likewise wore stripes on their sleeves rather than bars on their lapels.
As a proud former non com, I dare to suggest that this unique breed of military aviators brought with them a motivation and sense of pride which distinguished their military service over and above mere technical proficiency. Often ostracized, treated with official skepticism, and routinely segregated, they performed with unusual dedication and unquestioned honor. Eighteen became fighter “Aces”, 760 retired as field grade officers and eleven became Generals. General Eisenhower’s personal pilot, like that of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery came from the enlisted ranks, while Aleksandre F. Yefimove rose through the ranks to become Chief of the entire Soviet air force. Louis H. Carrington, a l942 graduate of WWII’s enlisted pilot program, with his crew won the coveted Mackay Trophy for their historic non-stop trans-Pacific flight of an RB-45 multi-jet bomber with mid-air refueling, a precedent-setting accomplishment, and as early as the 1920s, it was a tiny handful of Army non-com pilots who pioneered the art of teaching all-weather instrument-flying in the face of a military dictum which opposed the idea.
At least 5,000 enlisted pilots known as “Nappies” flew for the Navy, Marines & Coast Guard.
Commenting on the wisdom of the WWII “enlisted pilot” program of the USAAF, one historian said “The program’s success was not a result of the U.S. Army. The success lay with the motivation and spirit of the enlisted men it trained. These men made the program. They had been given the opportunity of a lifetime to fly. They wanted to fulfill their dreams and be a success. They wouldn’t – and didn’t – fail”
As a parting tribute to this nearly-forgotten era, I salute old-time flying sergeants George Holmes and Tom Rafferty who - by then serving as officers - took retirement at the end of WWII retaining their aeronautical ratings and “permanent” ranks. When the USAF became a reality in 1947, they immediately re-enlisted as Master Sergeants, thus becoming the first, last and only Sergeant Pilots to wear the new Air Force blue uniform.