Sun-N-Fun--An Annual Pilgrimage
by Harry Francis
Editor's Note: Harry Francis, of Elliston, VA, has been around airplanes most of his adult life. In fact, one would have to believe that aviation and its people take center stage after his family, so it's no surprise to learn that Mr. Francis gets down to Lakeland, Florida for the big show every year. But there's even more to it than that: Harry's aviation roots live just down the road from Lakeland..and he always stops to pay his respects. Read on. Bartow Flight Line, 1954.
I joined the USAF right out of high school, in February, 1953, and was was sent to Lackland AFB for Basic training. During Basic, I applied for Aviation Cadet training.
After successfully completing the written knowledge tests, I appeared before a Board of Officers for the "dreaded" Interview. The head officer, a Major, asked me just why did I want to be a Pilot? With enthusiasm, I answered: "Sir, my older brother is a USAF pilot, and two of my uncles were pilots in WW2. I am sure the USAF will shortly be in space. I want to be a part of that program."
The Major seemed shocked, looked right and left at his fellow Board members, and said: "thank you Cadet Francis, you are excused".
As I left, I thought to myself: 'BOY, you sure Blew that one!'
But, in fact, I was accepted into the Pilot Training Program and assigned temporary duty, awaiting class assignment to James Connelly AFB, Waco, Texas. There, I worked on the flight line servicing B-25s. I later accepted an indoor job as Pre-Cadet Sqdn. Administrative Clerk, and actually processed the orders assigning me to Aviation Cadet Class 55-H.
After Pre-flight classes back at Lackland AFB, San Antonio, our class was assigned to the Primary Flight School at Bartow AFB, Florida, where we would take our initial flight training.
First we would learn to fly in the PA-18 Super Cub, a special USAF version with a 102 hp Lycoming engine and no flaps. We were trained at Gilbert Field, Winter Haven, Florida; being bused back and forth to Bartow each day. I soloed the PA-18 on March 17, 1954, following instruction by Mr. Joe H. Dunnaway.
After completing 25 hours in the light plane, we then were transfered to the T6G at Bartow. WOW, what a change that was; from simple instruments to a whole panel full of gadgets and a long checklist to learn, retractable gear, and lots of Horsepower!
BUT what great fun! Aileron rolls, slow rolls, snap rolls, spins, immelelman turns, instrument flying, etc, etc, etc. What a great challange and what great fun for a 22 year old!
I soloed the T6G almost exactly one month later, on April 23, 1954. My Instructor was Mr. Harvey McRoberts. He flew P-47s in the Pacific campaign, and taught us the manuvers necessary to get the enemy off one's tail: steep turns followed by a half snap roll. BOY, what a ride!
So, you see, every year I get to go to Sun-n-Fun, I make a pilgrimage to both Gilbert Field and to Bartow.
Gilbert field is now a very active GA airport with lots of airplanes. Back in 1954, we were about their only business other than crop dusters, but Bartow is now a major mid-Florida Airfield and Industrial Park.
I find it interesting to visit both places, bringing back old memories; but also find it sad to see new building and open spaces where once there were barracks and military buildings from the 1940s and 1950s.
The main hanger at Gilbert Field, where we immersed newly-soloed pilots in a garbage can (no pool available) :), is still there. At Bartow, the control tower, where Ms. Kate gave us clearances over the radio, is one of the few remaining structures...along with the present flight offices which were (also) used in 1954. Inside the main office is a Memorial Wall for WW2 and Korean- Era student pilots. Reviewing the log of visitors brings back lots of memories, all good.
Control Tower Katey and helper, 1954.
The control tower today.
LIttle Buddie (now called Bud), who helped refuel aircraft in 1954, is still there, helping visiting and local pilots with their fueling needs, etc...still cheerful and helpful as he was in 1954!
So you see, every year Sun - n - Fun is a historical trip for me. The long-ago memories flood through my thoughts and bring tears to my eyes..in the JOY of still being able to Fly.
Gung-ho pilot Francis, 1954
Harry L. Francis
1946 Ercoupe 415 D
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