Chapter Seven: Aircraft Gunnery School

When Grandpa Gordon arrived at the Aircraft Gunnery School in Las Vegas, he was one of the first instructors to get there. The proposed go-live date was in the Spring of 1949, so there was a lot to do. Before he could even take the course it had to be created first. Once it was completed, the instructors would then take the class to see if it was not only workable but passable as well. There is no point in having a training program that is so difficult that not even the best pilots in the world could pass it. The plan was to train and improve the pilot’s skills not destroy their morale.

The view of the base from the air in 1948

Pilots attending the school had to have 300 hours in combat-type aircraft to qualify. The first class would include both enlisted cadets and pilot officers. The cadet program would be a continuation of the Army Air Force’s policy. Since the new instructors already had the basic building blocks already in place they just had to fine tune the program. To start with, they had all gone through flight school and had advanced training, so they knew what worked and what they would have liked to see changed. Now they could actually make the changes that they had all dreamed of making because they were given full control of the program.

One thing Grandpa Gordon brought to the table was a unique perspective, he was the only instructor that had served in the RCAF during the war and had taken all the flight training classes in their program.  So the plan was to integrate the best components of that program as well. They were not too proud to use what worked no matter where it came from. Their goal after all was to make their pilots the best in the world.


The mission was to teach the next generation of pilots about the rigors of aerial combat. The USAF Weapons School would teach graduate-level instructor courses that would  provide the world’s most advanced training in weapons and tactics employment to officers of the Combat Air Forces and Mobility Air Forces. Every six months, the Weapon’s School would eventually graduate over a 100 Weapon Officers and enlisted tacticians who were to be Weapons instructors, advanced instructors, and leaders of Airmen. During the course, students would  receive an average of 400 hours of graduate-level academics and participate in demanding combat training missions.

It was hoped that the Weapon’s School Cadre would be able to author tactical doctrine and conduct tactics validation. It was planned that they would also collect tactical knowledge from deployed units, evaluate solutions in exercises and formally prepare them for application across the allied Forces. It was to provide a controlled learning environment to develop best practices in land and air.

One of the major goals of the project was that it had to be flexible and it needed to be able to grow and change with the ever changing face of modern warfare. Warfare and the technology surrounding it is like a virus that is constantly mutating and growing. This training program was designed to grow and change with it.

One of the goals of the course would be to train students to be tactical experts in their combat specialty while also learning the art of battle-space dominance and integration of joint assets. The expectation was to  create  a complete overmatch in combat power in any domain of conflict so that their adversaries had no choice but to submit or capitulate. Using an integrated approach meant that Weapons School graduates would not only be extensively familiar with their respective mission design series, but also trained in how all Department of the Air Force and DOD assets could be employed in concert to achieve synergistic effects.

The culmination of the course was the Weapon’s School Integration phase in which all assets combined in challenging scenarios simulating current and future threat arenas. Students would demonstrate their ability to lead and instruct while effectively integrating multiple weapon systems across the land and air.

Upon graduation, the new Weapon’s Officers and Advanced Instructors would return to the field to serve as unit weapons and tactics officers, leading combat missions and providing our Service’s senior leaders and decision makers tactical, operational and strategic impact support. This sounded all well and good on paper now they had to design it, and they only had a little over six months to do it. Because once it was created they still had to take the course themselves to work out all the kinks. This was going to be a lot of fun.

The groundwork for the training program would be taken from the 1942 through the 1945 training schedules and would then be subsequently modified and expanded upon.

Training came in five stages. Classification lasted one week and the education and training stages were nine weeks each. Each 9-week stage was divided into two 4.5-week (63-day) halves: a lower half and an upper half . The lower half was made up of students just beginning the stage and the upper half was made up of the students who were half-finished. The more experienced cadets would hopefully help the new cadets get through the section before they were promoted to the next stage.

  • On-line Training was the term for busy work given to cadets when there were no open spaces in the next level. They did any unskilled menial task that needed doing until a billet opened up.
  • Classification stage processed the cadet and issued him his equipment. This was the stage where it would be decided whether the cadet would train as a navigator, bombardier, or pilot. Candidates who failed the testing or the advanced physical were returned to the regular Army.
  • Pre-flight stage was divided into two parts and was attended by pilots, navigators, and bombardiers. The first six weeks was a compressed “boot camp” that concentrated on athletics and military training. This was followed by four weeks of academics. They were taught the mechanics and physics of flight and required the cadets to pass refresher courses in mathematics and physics. Then the cadets were taught to apply their knowledge practically by teaching them aeronautics, deflection shooting, and thinking in three dimensions. Cadets were evaluated for 10 hours in a crude flight simulator called a blue box, then performed a harrowing “ride-along” with a pilot-instructor for an hour. Those that passed were given Cadet Wings and were promoted to Pilot School.

Pilot School

  1. Primary Pilot Training taught basic flight using two-seater training aircraft. This was usually done by contract schools (civilian pilot training schools) through the Civil Aeronautics Authority–war Training. Cadets got around 60 to 65 flight hours in Stearman, Ryan, or Faairchild primary trainers before going to Basic.
  2. Basic Pilot Training taught the cadets to fly in formation, fly by instruments or by aerial navigation, fly at night, and fly for long distances. Cadets got about 70 flight hours in BT-9 or BT-13 basic trainers before being promoted to Advanced Training.
  3. Advanced Pilot Training placed the graduates in two categories: single-engined and multi-engined. Single-engined pilots flew the AT-6 advanced trainer. Multi-engined pilots learned to fly the AT-9, AT-10, AT-11 or AT-17 advanced trainers. Cadets were supposed to get a total of about 75 to 80 flight hours before graduating and getting their pilot’s wings.
  4. Transition Pilot Training Single-engined pilots transitioned to fighters and fighter-bombers and multi-engined pilots transitioned to transports or bombers. Pilots got two months of training before being sent into combat duty.

Cadets who graduated at the top of their class were graded as second lieutenants. Aviation cadets who washed out of pilot training were sent to navigator or bombardier school. Aviation cadets who washed out of navigator or bombardier training were usually sent to Flexible Gunnery School to become aerial gunners.

Liaison Pilot School lasted 60 flight hours. It was an option for cadets who had passed primary training, but had washed out of basic or advanced training. They were trained to fly single-engined light aircraft similar to the light trainers they flew in Primary and were given training in takeoffs over obstacles, short-field landings, and low-altitude navigation. Their duties included transportation of troops and supplies, medical evacuation, aerial photography, and low-level reconnaissance. Graduates received liaison pilot wings. They were originally graded as flight staff sergeants until 1942, when they were graded as flight officers.

Bombardier School lasted 18 weeks. It consisted of 425 hours of ground instruction in the proficiencies of a bombardier (plus familiarity with the tasks of the pilot, radioman, or navigator in case of an emergency). After 3 weeks this included 120 hours of air training in which the cadet began with practice runs and ended by performing bombing runs with live ordnance. Graduates received a bombardier’s wings.

Navigator School lasted 18 weeks. It consisted of 500 hours of ground instruction in the duties of a navigator (charting, directional bearings, computed headings, airspeed, radio codes, celestial navigation, etc.). This was combined with familiarity with the tasks of a pilot or radioman in case b . Graduates received a navigator’s wings.

Radio Operator School lasted 18 weeks and was run by the U.S. Army Signals Corps. Graduates received the rank of Sergeant, with the top percentage receiving the rank of Staff Sergeant. They wore the Army Air Corps insignia. There was no official Radio Operator’s wings – there were many tailor-made ones cast or made from regular wings by jewelers or embroidered on cloth.

Flexible Gunnery School was a six-week program that taught the cadet how to man a flexible-mount machinegun or a powered turret. All aircrew had to attend gunnery school in case of emergencies and had to qualify before they could join an aircrew. Bombardiers and navigators attended either before or after they attended their training school.

All of the instructors were the best fighter pilots in the Air Force and for the most part in the world. As part of the training it was planned that they would actually fly with the cadets. They would pit themselves against the cadets to help stimulate them and make them strive harder to improve their skills.

After feverishly working for six months, Captain Gordon Anderson and his fellow instructors had come up with the proposed curriculum and training schedule. It was then run by their superiors. This was just a formality since they had pretty much been given Carte Blanche to create it. As was expected, their superiors approved the program. The next thing they needed to do was to take the class themselves. This was to see if there were any issues or problems that had not shown up in the planning stages. Since time did no permit, they did not take the whole 5 1/2 months to test the program. After all there was a lot of time spent practicing different flight techniques. Techniques that they had devised and were expert at already. So they allotted one month to work out the kinks and to streamline the program.

The last couple of months were spent evaluating the prospective cadets for the first class. They wanted the very best pilots for their first class since they were going to be the role models for all the classes to follow.

To catch the reader up with the status of the Las Vegas AFB, let’s give a little background information on the base. In 1941, the underdeveloped Las Vegas Airport site was selected and construction began, using Work Progess Administration barracks, Civilian Conservation Corps equipment and fuel, and McCarran Field for air service. All this work was done mainly because the Las Vegas Airport was simply too small and primitive to use.

Housing for 3,000 servicemen was immediately needed along with many critical runway improvements. Hangars and other necessary airfield buildings had to be built from scratch. The new airfield was activated two weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack and was named the Las Vegas Army Airfield. There was initial training for fighter aircraft and B-10 bombers. Gunnery training was extremely basic to start with. Training for many of the airmen began in the backs of trucks, with fixed-arc mounted shotguns, practicing their aiming skills in ground range courses. After ground training was completed, trainees were flown in bombers for gunnery practice against towed targets. After five weeks of training, the cadets were rotated to their next training station. After a few months passed, Las Vegas AAF gained the necessary B-17 bombers required for training. Training equipment was repeatedly improved over the course of the war, including hit score flash lamps, frangible range safety bullets, and gun cameras for training study.

Las Vegas AAF was constantly growing through this period. Several auxiliary fields were added including one that later became the Creech Air Force Base, and another later known as Groom Lake. B-17 training continued through March of 1945, when training shifted to B-29 Superfortresses. The B-29 training continued to war’s end in August 1945. Las Vegas AAF was then converted to handle troop return, separation and demobilization. These tasks allowed the base to remain open for most of 1946, at which time it was temporarily inactivated.

This inactivation period lasted only for eight months when Las Vegas AAF was reactivated in August of 1947. It was now used as a training center for bomber crews. This retasking suffered from many organizational issues causing it not to be fully functional until March of 1949. The Air Force had a pressing need for advanced fighter pilot training, and now it was optimized to do just that. The initial training began using P-51 Mustangs.

The first class of trainees would soon be called to service in the Korean War. Soon after that, Las Vegas AFB was renamed the Nellis Air Force Base in honor of Lieutenant William Harrell Nellis, a P-47 pilot from Southern Nevada killed in action on Dec 27, 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge. The first school opened at Nellis, and Air Combat Command (ACC) redesignated the 3595th Pilot Training Wing as the 3595th Training Wing.  On July 17, 1950 Nellis began a replacement pilot training program to provide 115  F-51 Mustang pilots and 92 combat-ready F-80 Shooting Star pilots. Nellis’ advanced single-engine pilot training transferred to Alabama on September 1, 1950. Nellis assumed fighter-bomber training, and ACC established its USAF Air Crew School  on November 14, 1950, equipped with F-80s and early-model F-84C  Thunderjets. On 1 October, Nellis AFB base management functions transferred from Williams AFB.

Once the cadets were chosen they were put through their paces. To see what they were made of, they flew three check-out flights on the Mustang P-51. Once the three flights were completed they moved on to the basics of the fighter pilot’s craft: air-to-air combat maneuvering or dogfights as they were more commonly referred to.

For air-to-ground training, they dove at a shallow angle and straffed a 20-foot-square cloth target with a huge bulls eye on a desert range. Air-to-air gunnery training was a little more challenging. One instructor and three trainees would chase after a six by 30 foot target attached to a 1,200 foot cable towed behind a T-33. The idea would be to make different maneuvering runs on the target and to fire short controlled bursts at the bull’s eye on the target. Each plane had different colored ammunition so that the trainees shooting could be analyzed after the exercise was completed.

The top instructor would then do a demonstration to show the trainees how it was done. He would then brief them on speed control, G-force control, closing, aiming, tracking, countering yaw and breathing. All the finer points, a pilot has to keep in mind while pursuing a target.

Air combat maneuvering was the most strenuous subject in the syllabus. The textbook that they started with was updated a few years later by a Korean war fighter vet Major Frederick Blesse and was entitled “No Guts, No Glory.” It would remain the standard for over 20 years.

After each day of flight training was completed, every maneuver, flight, mistake and triumph was analyzed and discussed. Anecdotal accounts of actual dogfights were also included in post-flight analysis. Of course, Grandpa Gordon excelled at recounting his adventures.

As the weeks progressed, more and more advanced maneuvers were learned and practiced. Each new maneuver was backed by lectures on mathematics, physics and aeronautics. It was not enough to be able to do the maneuvers, you had to be able to understand the mechanics behind them. It took me a few weeks of searching but I finally found the manual that they used for the initial class.

As the years passed on, the program continued to progress, develop and to become more polished. No expense was spared in the program, all the newest planes were used in the class.

It is over 240 pages long and boy is it full of some technical stuff.

I have included one page of the manual just to show what the reader what I am taking about.

It was a Wednesday afternoon on November 8, 1950 when Grandpa Gordon was flying in a training mission with his cadets when he got a radio message saying that we were at war with North Korea. Upon hearing the news he knew what he had to do. When he landed back at the base he wrapped up his post flight briefing with his trainees and he then went to see his CO Colonel Frank Miller. When Colonel Miller saw Captain Gordon Anderson the first thing he said was, “What took you so long? I already have your transfer papers filled out.”

The CO said that he knew Gordon wanted to get over there ASAP. So he apologized about the circumstances. He said that the first air wing that will be seeing action is the 16 Fighter Interceptor Squadron, 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing and they will be utilizing the F-80c Shooting Star. But the good news is that in early December they will be replaced with the F-86 Sabre. This will be in the event that the scuttlebutt is true and that the North Koreans will soon be getting the new Russian Mig-15. Grandpa Gordon said that was fine, he would go no matter what he had to fly. He saluted his commander and thanked him for the opportunity to serve his country. He also said that he would be appreciative if he could come back as an instructor after the fighting ended over in Korea.

When he got back to his shared office he had the lieutenant put out a call to Sauk Centre, Minnesota so that he could tell his parents about his transfer to Korea.