Idaho History

With U.S. on cusp of WWII, Civilian Pilot Training drew Idahoans to the sky

In the 1940s, Webb’s Flying Service flight instructors pose with their Ryan STA trainers.
In the 1940s, Webb’s Flying Service flight instructors pose with their Ryan STA trainers. Provided by Arthur Hart

In the spring of 1940, Idaho aviation was at a turning point in its short history, as was aviation in the history of the world. The war in Europe was going disastrously for America’s friends. Hitler’s Luftwaffe and Panzer forces had conquered Poland in the Blitzkrieg of 1939, and in the spring of 1940 had crushed the armed forces of France, Holland and Belgium, and had driven the British army off the European mainland at Dunkirk.

President Franklin Roosevelt abandoned any pretense of neutrality in the war by urging the sale of arms to Britain to bolster that island nation’s defenses against the invasion everybody was sure Hitler had to launch if he was to win the war. Despite strong resistance in Congress to getting America involved, in March 1941, the Lend-Lease Act passed, primarily to aid Britain, but also China and other nations fighting the Axis powers. It allowed lending or leasing American naval vessels to Britain, primarily destroyers, to fight German submarines that were taking a terrible toll on British and American shipping.

The federally funded Civilian Pilot Training program (CPT), started in 1939, enrolled hundreds of Idaho men and women in 1940, as individual programs were established in most Idaho colleges. President Roosevelt announced a goal of 50,000 new pilots that year, and the opportunity to learn to fly at government expense attracted many who had only dreamed of flying earlier. Many who enrolled probably never expected to be called into the military, although most of the men realized it was a possibility. Some college women who completed the course would become flight instructors, and after America got into the war in December 1941, other women became ferry pilots, flying American planes to Britain for use by the Royal Air Force.

Most Idaho men who completed the CPT course went on to further flight training and served in the Army, Navy or Marines. Some older Idaho pilots who had been in Army or Navy Reserve units were called up to active duty. Dr. Lyman West of Boise, a popular and active member in local flying circles, became a medical examiner and was sent on recruiting missions in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. He and Lt. Commander Bert Creighton signed up 22 young Boise men in September 1940 before flying on to Pocatello to recruit more. Dr. West would die in a plane crash later in the war.

Among the veteran pilots who gave flight instruction in the 1940 CPT programs were George Cooke, E.A. Phillips and Johnny Vickers at the College of Idaho; Ray Crowder, Malcolm Parsons, George Perry, Lyman Choate and Jack McConnell at Boise Junior College; and Harry Clark, Ray Clark and Allen Platte at Northwest Nazarene College. Bill Woods, who taught briefly in the NNC program, bought 120 acres northwest of Boise in 1940 and built his own field and hangars, where later CPT courses were offered. Woods named his airport “Floating Feather.” It was later his base for back-country flying of all kinds

Training planes used in the various CPT programs included Taylor and Piper Cubs, Fleet biplanes, Porterfield 65s and Ryan STAs. The latter were all-metal low-wing monoplanes, used by Webb’s Flying Service for the Boise Junior College program. The University of Idaho at Moscow and U of I Southern Branch at Pocatello also had CPT programs in 1940. Among those who got their training at Moscow was James Trail, an Eagle native who became a brigadier general and commander of the Idaho Air National Guard. His flight instructor at the university was Frank Wiley, a Montanan who would later write an aviation history of his state named “Montana and the Sky.”

In addition to the hundreds in Idaho who learned to fly in federal programs, others paid for private instruction in flying schools just because it was an attractive and exciting recreation. Young women who did not qualify for government-funded courses usually joined clubs and learned to fly together. Flying clubs in Boise and Nampa, for example, sponsored instruction and bought planes that were shared by members.

The year 1940 saw the birth of a passion for flying in Idaho on a scale that surpassed any in our history.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@gmail.com.

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