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1941-1945: World War II Sergeant Pilots

Flight students Jim Leach (left) and Jack Hoover beside a BT-13 basic trainer. Enlisted ground crew personnel formed a silent cheering section for enlisted pilot trainees and showed it in such ways as having a frosty soft drink ready for a sweat-stained student on a hot day. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Flight students Jim Leach (left) and Jack Hoover beside a BT-13 basic trainer. Enlisted ground crew personnel formed a silent cheering section for enlisted pilot trainees and showed it in such ways as having a frosty soft drink ready for a sweat-stained student on a hot day. (U.S. Air Force photo)

On the eve of World War II, it soon became apparent that there were not enough college graduates or young men with two years of college to fill planned aviation cadet requirements. As a result, in 1941 Congress authorized an enlisted pilot training program. As aviation students, they would receive the same primary, basic and advanced flight training as aviation cadets who would be commissioned as officers upon graduation. Enlisted students would graduate as staff sergeant pilots and would serve as flight instructors, transport pilots and in similar utility roles. (Later in the program, technical sergeants and master sergeants were allowed to retain their higher rank.) It was never intended that sergeant pilots be placed in a position of command over an officer. Candidates had to have a high school diploma and rate in the top 50 percent of the class, with at least 1.5 credits in math, and be between the ages of 18 and 22.

Despite discrimination from some officers, 2,576 enlisted men are known to have graduated as sergeant pilots under this program. Ultimately they flew virtually all types of AAF aircraft. Although most were elevated to the new rank of flight officer with officer privileges or to second lieutenant before assignment to a combat unit, about 332 pilots departed the United States while still sergeants and about 217 flew combat missions overseas as sergeants. Not counted in this number are other sergeant pilots based in the United States flying antisubmarine combat patrols. At least 137 Americans enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force and were trained as Noncommissioned Officer pilots, then later transferred to the Army Air Force as sergeant pilots before promotion.

Half of the first graduating class of flying sergeants went overseas with the P-38-equipped 82nd Fighter Group. Members of this class shot down 130 enemy aircraft, and nine became aces. In all, former sergeant pilots destroyed 249.5 enemy aircraft and 18 became aces flying fighters. William J. Sloan was the leading ace of the 12th Air Force with 12 victories. Four WWII enlisted pilots became general officers (seven pre-WWII enlisted pilots also became generals). Also included among former sergeant pilots are international race car driver Carroll H. Shelby and USAF test pilot and later air show aerobatic performer Robert A. "Bob" Hoover.

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