Image of the Air Force wings with the museum name underneath

Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 
FREE Admission & Parking

Stripes and Wings: Enlisted Pilots WWI & WWII

"It is not the policy of the War Department to train enlisted men in flying aeroplanes ..." –Rebuke to Lt. Lahm's report that he trained Corporal Vernon Burge to fly in 1912.

More than 4,500 enlisted Airmen became pilots and served alongside their far more numerous officer counterparts.

Corporal Vernon L. Burge: First Enlisted Pilot
Corporal Vernon L. Burge was Lt Benjamin Foulois' mechanic on Signal Corps airplane No.1 at Ft. Sam Houston, Texas.  In 1912—only three years after the Army bought its first airplane—Lt Frank Lahm taught him to fly in the Philippines. 

World War I Enlisted Pilots
In July 1914, Congress authorized the training of enlisted pilots. During the war, sixty enlisted mechanics earned wings in France and ferried aircraft from French factories to US aero squadrons at the front, but none are known to have flown in combat.

William Beigel: World War I Sergeant Pilot
Sergeant pilot William Beigel's World War I-era uniform trousers and coat. The enlisted pilot wing and propeller insignia is on the right sleeve. He was post sergeant-major at Rich Field in Waco, Texas, in 1919, when he learned to fly at age 31.

1920-1939: Between the Wars
Between the world wars, more than 260 enlisted pilots served in the Air Corps. The Air Corps Act of 1926 directed at least twenty percent of pilots assigned to tactical units be enlisted, but this rate was never achieved. Enlisted pilot training ended in 1933.

1941-1945: World War II Sergeant Pilots
In 1941, when there were not enough candidates with college experience to fill aviation cadet requirements, Congress again authorized an enlisted pilot training program. Enlisted received the same aviation training as the cadets who would become officers, but they graduated as staff sergeant pilots.

More than 2,500 enlisted men graduated as sergeant pilots, and they flew nearly all types of aircraft. Though most were promoted to officers before going to a combat unit, about 217 flew combat missions as sergeants. In all, former sergeant pilots destroyed 249.5 enemy aircraft and eighteen became fighter aces. One, William Sloan, became the leading ace of the 12th Air Force with twelve victories.

End of an Era
In late 1942, the sergeant pilot training program ended when the educational requirement for pilots was lowered to a high school diploma. Also, all pilots became flight officers or second lieutenants at graduation. Eventually, nearly all sergeant pilots received officer commissions.

From 1912-1957, about 4,150 pilots trained and flew as enlisted men, with 3,000 rated pilots and nearly 1,150 liaison pilots. After 1957, the USAF would not have enlisted pilots again until 2017.

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