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William Henry Fuller
And now we could officially wear the white flash on our wedge caps (designating air
crew). In addition, we were promoted to the rank of L.A.C. (Leading Aircraftsman). On
June 20th, 1941 we became student pilots.
My first instructor was Mr. Bill Loftus, an American civilian pilot. My first thought was
"How is he going to fit in the little cockpit of a Tiger Moth?". But he was a great guy and
he taught me how to fly and he trusted me enough to send me off solo after 8 hours, 10
minutes of dual instruction.
I just want to take a few minutes to reflect on this phase of flying training or rather
flying instruction. As I remember my time as a flying instructor, the moments of sheer
terror and anxiety for me were when I decided it was OK to send my student off to do
his first solo. I never rushed a student into his first solo - we did have guide lines as to
how much time it should take to solo at the advanced flying school. Normally it was
between 6 and 9 hours of dual instruction, but we were allowed to use our own
judgement. There will come a time when you can say "OK you are ready, taxi back to
the hanger, let me out and you go to it". No flourishes, hand shaking or any of that
movie stuff. You don't want to put any more pressure on him than there already is.
You want him to concentrate on what you know he can do.
At that precise moment in time, you, as the instructor, are fully confident in the
student's ability to solo successfully. However, it is while you are watching him taxi out
to the end of the runway, positioning himself, waiting to get the OK from the tower to
taxi into take-off position, you start to ask yourself questions - and when you hear him
open the throttle, your anxiety level increases as the speed of the plane increases.
Once you've seen the take-off everything settles down as he does his circuits and it
starts all over again as he lets down for his landing. When his wheels touch the
ground, and he starts taxiing to the hangar, you hurry into your office and go about your
business, making it look just like another dull day at the office.
Now, getting back to Fort William where I have just reached the time when my
instructor, Bill Loftus is sending me off on my first solo. We have just been up for an
hour and ten minutes together, refreshing me on "circuits and bumps" (take-off and
landings) and recovering from stalling.
The instructor is climbing out of the plane and I now know that this is it ! He's sending
me up alone ! "OK, keep your eyes open for other aircraft while you taxi out, take your
time with your check, then go for it. Just one take-off and around the circuit and come
in for a landing. Then taxi back to this spot. You are on your own, Fuller!".
Hm, he seemed pretty confident in me, but I'm scared ! But it's more than feeling
scared because I can hardly wait to get out there and get in position to take off !! I
didn't know the rest of the students in my flight were all lined up at the flight room
windows watching because they know it's my turn.
It's a nice warm day with a gentle breeze so I don't have to worry about those tricky
winds of Mt. McKay - I'm pushing the throttle forward now and the little old Tiger Moth is
picking up speed, now at 30 mph., and we will lift off at 35 mph., and we do. Don't pull
back 'till we get to 45, then a gentle climb at 50 mph. 'till we get to 1500 feet. Feels
great ! I unglue my eyes from the instruments and look around me. Gentle climbing
turn to the left, level off at 2000 feet, throttle back, cruise at 60. I feel myself relaxing
now, look down, everything looks peaceful again, look around me to be sure I am not
anywhere near any other planes. Look back and for the first time there is no instructor
in the back seat. That gives me another shot of adrenalin. I'm half-way down the
down-wind leg now and I have a sudden twinge of disappointment because I realize I
am half-way through my solo flight! But it's great and I still have a couple of minutes to
enjoy the power, the thrill, the solitude, before I have to start worrying about getting this
thing back on the ground.
I'm on the X-wind leg now, letting down slowly, turning into the wind and throttling
back gently. Keep the airspeed at 40, concentrate on keeping the wings level and
speed steady. OK so far. Over the field now at about 50 feet, throttle back slightly, now
a few feet above the ground, throttle off, stick back to level off, hopefully about 2 feet
off the ground, speed now down to 35 and there's the ground, a little bumpy but OK.
That's it ! Not a bad landing ! Actually a darn good landing I thought. Now the rush
happens. I'm down safely ! I'm sweating a ton. I can't believe how good I feel and how
relieved I feel. Then I see the other students out in front of the hangar waving and
punching the air. Yeah ! We used to punch the air in those days too.
I taxiied in, turned off the switch and just sat there, It seemed like I had been out there
for an hour, in fact, I had clocked only 10 minutes on my first solo !!
Then my instructor broke the reverie by climbing up on the wing and shaking my hand
! What a day! In fact, the day was June 29th, 1941 !
I remember lying on my bunk bed that night after writing my letter to Ada, still hyped
up with the adventure of the day,...the first solo happens only once in a lifetime and it is
nice to savour the feeling. In fact, I am feeling it again right now !!
I was probably lying there with a stupid grin on my face because I started to think back
to the time on the farm outside Decatur, Indiana, when the barnstormers were flying
people around the area in their Tiger Moths for $2.00 a trip. I wanted to go up that day
so bad, but Mom was afraid to let me go. Well, it took a while but I finally made it !!
With a lot of luck, I was going to be a pilot after all.
I knew the "wash-out" rate was from 20-25% at that time, but I honestly never felt it
could happen to me. I always felt I would get my Wings. When it came to being flight
tested I was nervous of course, but never afraid that I would not make it.
The next day was very exciting. I was assigned to a new instructor, a Mr. Rusty
Eggert, another young American civilian pilot instructor and a great guy to boot. Our
paths would cross again later under unusual circumstances. I'll always be grateful to
Rusty for something he did a few weeks later.
But, back to June 30, 1941, the day after my 10 minute solo. Rusty took me up for
half-hour of take-off and landings and sent me out again for 45 minutes of solo. That
was a great trip because not only did I prove to myself that yesterday's safe landing
was not a fluke, it built my confidence up and I had time to fly around the country side
and get the unbelievable feeling of sitting up there, all alone and feeling like I was
sitting on top of the world !
There is a detachment and a sense of power that is hard to explain. I was to find out
later that solo night flying is much more compelling than day flying. Maybe it's because
the stars seem so much brighter, closer and in greater numbers than they do from the
ground. Time has sort of dulled the senses but the memories are still there. I am
getting off the track again. I was saying my new instructor, Rusty Eggert did a nice
thing. It was 2 days before the end of my flying training at Fort William, August 4,
1941, my 21st birthday. Ada, Mom and Dad had come to Fort William by train from
Transcona to visit me and celebrate my birthday before shipping off to Ottawa on
August 6th for Advanced Flying Training on Harvards.
I mentioned it to my instructor that I was watching for their arrival but no sign of them
yet. As luck would have it I had been assigned to a one hour solo flight to practise
steep turns and stalls and spins and loops. So I went up to do my exercises and when I
came down an hour later I found Rusty over by the fence that runs along side the road,
along with Ada, Dad and Mom. He had watched for them... When they arrived outside
the fence (they weren't allowed on the base) Rusty guessed it was my family and my
girl friend, went over and introduced himself as my instructor and proceeded to point
me out to them, so they got to see me doing my aerobatics as he explained what I was
doing ! What a great birthday present that was !!
Now, I have told this next story a few times in the past. But I have found that unless
I set it up first, some people have taken it with a grain of salt to say the least. All I can
say is it happened to me and about 4 or 5 other pilots on this particular morning at Fort
William, July 25th 1941.
There are several reasons why a plane should be landed into the wind, if possible, the
main one being that your ground speed is slower and allows for a safer landing.
For instance, if you are flying into a 15 mph wind and your approach air speed is 65
mph, then you are travelling over the ground at only 50 mph. Now, a Tiger Moth stalls
at 28 mph and the approach is between 35 or 40 before throttling back just above the
ground. These figures are all airspeed.
Now, on the day in question, a sudden storm moved into the area and the main
problem was the gusty winds that had suddenly whipped up. In the Tiger Moths we had
no radio communication with the control tower. We depended on coloured flares or
flashlight signals or coloured flags.
So the first signal that was sent up was a red flare calling us home to base. The
weather was getting pretty rough and some of us had already been blown a mile or so
downwind from the airport. I was one of those being blown toward Mount McKay, some
2 or 3 miles northwest of the field. So my first concern was to push the throttle forward
as far as it would go and try to get back to base.
The Tiger Moth's maximun airspeed straight and level is about 50 to 60 mph, the wind
was blowing between 35 and 40 mph, so at the best of times my ground speed was 15
mph. I was making some progress toward the field but very slowly. It took me about 20
minutes to get to the perimeter of the field and I was still at 2,000 feet. That is when I
saw several men dotted around in various spots on the field in pairs. As I soon found
out, they were waiting for the planes to come down so so they could each grab a wing
tip to anchor the plane against the wind.
Landing was a real challenge, the stalling speed of the plane is 28 mph, the wind you
are flying into is in excess of 35 mph, that means if I let the plane stall into the landing I
would be going backwards at 7 mph !!!
So we had to approach the field at 40 to 50 mph (airspeed) just to get over the field,
slowly throttle back just above the ground and touch down well above stalling
speed,.. between 35 and 40 mph airspeed. At that point I see 2 guys trotting alongside
the wing tips, now grabbing hold of the outside struts or the wing tip itself and literally
pulling the aircraft down to the ground. The aircraft is travelling over the ground at a
walking pace and I still have quarter throttle on to keep the plane from being blown
The guys on my wing tips hung onto the plane laying across the wing as we taxied
into the spot where they anchored it down in front of the hangar to keep the plane from
being blown over !! The more remarkable thing about this is that all five planes got
down safely, all were caught by the ground crew fellows who looked like they had done
this before. It wasn't taking us rookie student pilots long to find out that there is
something new to learn everyday in this flying business.
The fun part of Elementary FLying School was the flying itself, but that only took up a
small period of the day. We may get as much as 3 hours on a good day and as little as
an hour and twenty minutes at other times. The major part of the day was devoted to
Ground School. This is where we were taught how the plane flies, what it's limitations
were and all about aerodynamics. The first thing our instructor said to us was " I don't
like the phrase 'Ground School' because most of you probably goofed off from time to
time when you were attending public school. I call it 'Ground is hard' classes because
if you don't learn everything I'm here to teach you, you may find out for yourself just
how hard the ground is !
A bit corny, but he made his point. He had our undivided attention. The 'ground is
hard' classes were very interesting and it wasn't a chore to listen to him all afternoon.
There were other things to learn as well as flight instruction. We got our first taste of
learning morse code, which was also interesting but not something that you wanted to
stay at for a couple of hours at a time. I do remember though that being introduced to
the alphabet in morse code turned us all into a pack of weirdos. For example, code for
letter "A" was ._ when tapped on the key. Verbally it read "dot-dash", but you don't
say "dot-dash", you say "dit-dah". So, learning the alphabet, say with your partner, you
don't need a key to do it. If you wanted to see if he could translate the word "cat", you
would say "dah-dit-dit,dit-dah, dah. If he knew his alphabet he would come up with the
word "cat" - voila !! Now you can just guess what happened from that day forward !
Everywhere you went you could hear some guy shouting "dit-dahs" testing his mate.
Even after "lights out" in the barracks someone would "dit-dah" a message out so
everyone could hear. Whether you wanted to or not you found yourself translating it.
You just couldn't help it. Thank goodness the practice wore off before we got to
Service Training School in Ottawa a month later.
Learning to do aerobatics in Tiger Moths was a great experience. Rusty Eggert was a
terrific instructor and he took his time in explaining each manoeuver. We started with
doing deliberate stalls and spins. They were a lot of fun and very easy to do. The loop
was tougher but you soon found out why you were taught how to pull out of a spin
before the loop was attempted. My first attempt at a loop became half a loop and when
we were upside down it very quickly became a stall and a spin !!
My first unintentional spin and I succeeded in pulling out of it by myself !! My next
attempt at the loop was successful and it felt great ! I learned a lot that day and it
wasn't all new. I learned I was remembering and applying, in a tight situation, what I
was being taught!
We graduated as a class right on schedule with every student getting his 50 plus
flying hours without any serious mishaps. I racked up 54 hours and 30 minutes on Tiger
Moths. We said goodbye to our instructors and were off to Ottawa to start our
Advanced training on Harvard Single Engine aircraft ! We could hardly wait to fly these
I'm on sick leave after my appendics operation
Ada and me, Fort William on my 21st birthday
Mom and I in Fort William
Ada,me,Vivian and Stan
Dad with Ada and me
Cousin Bob Gunn and me in front of Uncle Jack's and
Aunt Annie's house in Kerrisdale Vancouver
Connie, Ada and me
#2 E.F.T.S. FORT WILLIAM 1941
This was taken only hours after my first solo
FORT WILLIAM 1941
Budding Pilots. Do we look cool!
FORT WILLIAM STATION 1941
On our way to Uplands Ottawa to train on Havards.
Graduates from #2 E.F.T.S. Fort William.
We are proud "50 hour wonders",
just finished elementary flying on Tiger Moths.
Our most proud possession at this time was
the white flash we wore on our service cap,
designating "student aircrew".
Fred Irvine, back row right end.
He summered at Malachi, two doors down from us.
Killed only weeks after getting his wings,
off Kiska, on the B.C. coast.
That's me in the window (left)
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