(PNJ.com) - There is an old saying in aviation attributed to E. Hamilton Lee, who started flying in 1916 logging time as an air mail and airline pilot: "There are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots."
The flight instructors at Pensacola Naval Air Station during the two decades preceding World War II — most of them lieutenants in their 20s — would have scratched their heads if that statement had been made during their time. Flying in that era required a degree of boldness. And among the flight students arriving in the Cradle of Naval Aviation were a handful of men whose gray hair and weathered faces, the result of years spent on warships at sea, certainly categorized them as old.
The presence of these officers in Pensacola was the result of an Act of Congress passed in June 1926, which mandated that only naval aviators could command air stations, aviation training schools and tactical aircraft squadrons. It also stated that all aircraft carriers and seaplane tenders be commanded by naval aviators or naval aviation observers. The latter designation was for a flying officer not qualified to actually take the controls of an aircraft, but proficient in areas like navigation, gunnery and bombing, radio communication and aerial spotting.
Since the pioneer aviators had all been junior officers when U.S. naval aviation began in 1911, there were virtually no senior officers qualified for these commands.
Seeing the opportunity for advancement of their careers in the new arena of warfare, a number of senior officers applied for flight training and reported to NAS, training alongside men who in some cases were half their age. Many of them, including Ernest J. King, William F. Halsey Jr., Richmond Kelly Turner, John S. McCain and Frederick Sherman, would direct naval operations in World War II. The officers who had spent the majority of their careers in aviation referred to each of them as a JCL or Johnny Come Lately.
What became readily apparent to these JCLs was that regardless of rank, flight instructors reigned supreme over students. Commander Richmond Kelly Turner, known as "Terrible Turner" for his temper, discovered this fact on a 1927 flight.
Arguing with his instructor each time an error in his flying was pointed out, Turner quickly found the lieutenant taking control of the NY-1 seaplane and landing it himself, at which time he told Turner "in no uncertain terms that he had better do what I said or he wouldn't get by. From then on, he was amenable to all suggestions."
Captain William F. Halsey Jr., discovered that tradition trumped rank when he was the last person in his class to successfully solo, this position recognized by his classmates throwing him into the waters of Pensacola Bay.
Halsey also received the "Medal of the Benevolent Order of the "The Flying Jackass," which was awarded to a flight student who committed a blunder, in Halsey's case running over boundary lights along the edge of a runway.
He relinquished the medal when another flight student did something worthy of the award.
When he eventually received his wings of gold at the age of 52, Halsey certainly fit the parameters of being old and bold.