On January 2, 1967 I started
flight school at Ft. Walters, TX in class 67-15 as a "Blue" hat.
At that time flight school consisted of one month of preflight, 4 months
of primary flight training at Ft. Walters, and 4 months of advanced training
at Ft. Rucker, Alabama. We were told that our training would
cost the Army $90,000 by the time we graduated.
When we entered "preflight" we were segregated by last name so I didn't see much of Russell anymore. "Preflight" was one month of constant harassment and book work. It was designed to weed out the weak ones that couldn't take the stress and to eliminate the "dummies" in the group. It was a great relief to get through that first month because it meant we were going on "the hill" to begin flying. We had all chipped in for a big party at the Baker Hotel main ballroom, in Mineral Wells. Part of our money went to arranging for several busloads of young ladies from Texas Women's University to come down and join us for a fine dinner and evening of dancing.
I made sure I was right up front when the ladies arrived and we were all trying to find just the right one for each of us. I don't know if it was just me being choosy or if it was in the LORD'S plan but almost all those ladies passed by before I spotted the one I knew was just right for me and she was one of the last 10 to come in the door. I didn't know it than but she would later set such a high standard that her memory and friendship over the years kept me single until my 40's. Her name was Norma Barrera. We dined together and danced the night away will little interruption. With the party over and names & dorms taken down the ladies went back to Denton, TX and we moved on the hill to begin flying.
A normal day consisted of half a day of classroom activities and half a day of flying. The academics were not that hard if you had time to study but shinning boots and buckles seemed to take priority. I found it hard to shine boots and that used up valuable study time. We had to carry merit and demerit slips and I got quite a few demerit slips that forced me into "marching time" on the parade field.
When we finally got to the airfield there were 3 students to an instructor. The majority of the instructors were civilians. Mine was a very short man named Mitchell who had to fly with a pillow and pedal extensions as I recall. We didn't know it at the time but Mr. Mitchell was on probation, as an instructor, because of problems teaching his students. When we arrived at the classroom all the students had to stand at attention until their instructor gave them permission to sit down. We seemed to always be the last to be seated because it seemed that Mr. Mitchell's paperwork was more important than acknowledging our presents. All 3 of us felt like fools standing there at attention while everyone else was busy with their flight plans. This daily backup meant we were pretty much always last to leave the flight line. Because of this we were referred to as the, "Chad Mitchell Trio" after the popular "Hootenanny" TV show of the time. We had become the joke of the flight class.
I really felt like somebody when I was flying that chopper. We all dreaded the day we were to solo and yet looked forward to it as a milestone. Just about everyone else in the class had soloed when Mr. Mitchell finally got out of the ship and told me to take her around the pattern. I was both excited and scared to death at the same time. It didn't really hit me until I made my first turn and looked over at the other seat and realized it was empty and it was just me up there. I said a short prayer concerning the helicopter not acting up while I was alone in it. When I turned onto the down wind leg I glanced again at the empty seat and realized that I was actually flying that thing all by myself. I felt very proud of my accomplishment when I finally finished my solo. As with all the others before me, the bus stopped at the motel pool where all the solos were thrown in and I got my turn. I wish my parents could have seen that.
All 3 of us were having problems with our flying because of the way he taught and the fact that he didn't gradually bring in our limits of flying parameters. At the end of the first few weeks everyone else was holding to 20-30 ft of altitude and 10 mph while we were still flying along fat dumb and happy at plus or minus 50 ft and 20+ mph limits. All the pink slips started to show and going into the 4th week we were split up and rode with different instructors. We then had to take a ride with a military instructor to see if we had enough potential to keep in the program. All 3 of us were then pulled from the flight line to await board review.
About a week later we had to go before the board. It convened very early in the morning and there was a room full of students there. I asked the secretary how many had been kept in the program and she said that the last 100 or so were all booted out of the program. Boy was that ever a letdown. We talked among ourselves and each of us agreed to give the others a thumbs up or down when they came out. I was the first of the afternoon session and each of the morning guys had given us the thumbs down. When I was called in I was in there less than 10 minutes, the shortest time of any of them, and was told that the instructor we had had been on probation at the time and was now out of the program. I was then told that our flight evaluation rides showed potential in all 3 of us and that we were to be recycled into the next class. I was then dismissed. Boy was I ever happy. I gave the others a thumbs up and told them that we were all still in the program but were being recycled into the next class. And so I became a "Yellow" hat with class 67-17.
The flying part was easy but I was having a problem with the classroom side of things. Military history and such was not my cup of tea and besides that I now had a car and was in love with that little lady up Denton way at Texas Woman's University. Weekend passes were common and that is where I was headed if I had not exceeded my demerit limit. Fortunately for me our flight class was one of the few mixed with "officer" students and we all became friends. Every Friday those of us beyond out demerit limit were given merit slips by some of the officer students. We would hold those merit slips until the very last minute and thereby lock in the needed magic number for weekend passes. That young lady became my first real heartbreak though we remained close friends for some 20 more years after that before things faded away. Those merits sure helped my love life but cost me precious study time.
On the way back from Denton one Sunday something happened that was to happen again 2 more times in my life. It was really rainy and I was going to be late getting back to base because of a love struck passenger friend. The rain was falling really hard and I guess we were doing about 60 or so when we saw the train signal at a crossing going and a rail road utility truck working on the crossing bells to our left. The rain limited visibility quite a bit and not seeing a train in either direction I figured the workers had activated the signal. I had just decided to head on through when here comes the train. I hit the breaks and the car did a 180. I now found myself heading down the road backwards, at high speed and headed straight into the train.
At the exact time I realized we were going backwards and headed straight for the train everything started going in "slow motion". Call it an adrenaline surge to the brain or whatever but that's the best way I can put it. In any case I found that I could steer the car somewhat and I angled it to the side a little in the hopes that it would stop in the ditch and we would miss the train. Since the road there was built up a little we went airborne, backwards, over the ditch and hit the far side with a brain rattling thud. We bounced in the air and finally came to rest about 20 ft away right at the bottom of the pole the work crew was working on. We were about 10 ft from the train. The car had stalled out and was covered with mud. When we realized we were both still alive I started the car and pulled back onto the road. That must have been a site for those workers. That was the first of 3 times I entered into the "slow motion factor". Be it just luck or the hand of GOD we made it through that one and back to base.
With that phase of the training complete we all headed for Ft. Rucker, Alabama where we would continue our training in Hueys. I was heart broken having to leave my newfound love but duty calls. The only problem I had there was advance instruments. I was close to busting out when they gave me a new instructor. Early on the first flight he saw what was wrong and had me fly the entire flight without the hood, which was a no-no. In breaking the rules, he opened my eyes as to how what I was doing in the air related to the ground and the beacons we were using for approaches. It all fell into place and I aced the next flight as well as that phase of the training.
Graduation day finally came and it hurt that my parents could not come down for it. We were given a packet of papers and in it was our standing in the class. I was 3rd from the bottom. Seems ironic though that 3 years later I would become, for 3 days, the youngest pilot in Army Aviation history to reach the highest possible level of IP & Standardization. For 3 days, at 22 years of age, I was one of 3 pilots in Korea with that designation. I was then "lost" in a poker game and became the property of a General at the DMZ that was sorely in need of a Huey IP for his battalion. I was just in the right place at the right time for that one.