Last of the Flying Sergeants

Jan. 1, 1958
Slowly, in a small skiff, kicked along by an outboard motor, we pushed under Gandy Bridge in Tampa Bay, headed out toward Piney Point and a day’s fishing in the summer sun.

Close overhead, a flight of transient B-66Bs climbed for altitude off the runways at neighboring MacDill AFB. From the stern of the skiff, where he lounged lazily, fifty-nine-year-old, white-haired ex-M/Sgt. George Holmes watched the thundering Destroyers with a professional eye.

“Some difference from the ones we had when I first enlisted,” the old six-striper mused.

He could say that again.

Just a week before, in the blazing sun, I’d watched a review at Brookley AFB, just outside Mobile, Ala., as Sergeant Holmes, with thirty-nine years of service for pay purposes behind him and 9,100 hours of flying time in everything from JN-6Hs – the venerable old Jennys of World War I – to four-engined bombers and transports, was ceremoniously retired with honors as the last of the “flying sergeants” in the United States Air Force.

His Retirement, leaving only officers now as USAF pilots, closed a colorful chapter of Air Force history, dating back to 1914 when, out in the Philippines, Army Cpl. Vernon L. Burge became the first enlisted flyer.

Holmes, too, was a corporal when he won his wings.

“That was back in 1921,” he told me as we putt-putted across Tampa Bay, “a couple of years after I’d enlisted as a private in the infantry. It was called the Army Air Service at that time.

“I’d been in the Navy in the First World War, in the aviation section, as a landsman-machinist mate. We had a polyglot lot of planes in those early days – the old Curtiss R-6 biplane, the Curtiss R-9, fitted out with pontoons, the old HS-1L and the HS-21, which were pusher biplanes with laminated wood fuselages. But I learned something from every one of them. I even learned to fly – halfway sort-of, anyway – as a copilot on test hops. And I was thoroughly indoctrinated into flying.

“At the end of the war, though, I got out of the Navy and went to work as a mechanic for the old Franklin Auto works in Syracuse, NY. But flying was in my blood and a few months later, in the middle of 1919. I guess it was, I decided to get back into the service.”

Commercial aviation, in 1919, was getting off the ground…but just barely. The first municipal airport in the US was open at Atlantic City, NJ, and the first plane built for actual transport purposes – the eight-passenger Curtiss Eagle – rolled off the line that year, followed quickly by the line that year, followed quickly by the line that year, followed quickly by the twelve-passenger Martin.

But to a young man looking toward aviation as a career, that services – even though it was a period of serious postwar struggle for them – offered the best opportunities.

“I tried to get back into the Navy first,” Holmes recalled. “But they wanted to ship me to a destroyer down in Charleston. I told them no soap and went across the street and signed up as a private in the infantry, asking for duty in the Air Service.

“My first assignment was out at Hazelhurst Field on Long Island, near Hempstead, working on test blocks where we were running some old water-cooled, six-cylinder German engines. From there I went down to San Antonio. There were two Kelly Fields there then – Kelly One and Kelly Two, Kelly One, where the depot is now, was a mechanic’s school. The 1st Pursuit Group was at Kelly Two, and that’s where I was assigned, in charge of the radio communication school.”

Several things happened in 1920 that Holmes well remembers. He made corporal, and in June, Congress passed the Army Reorganization Act, which created a new Air Service.

“We had an authorized strength of about 1,500 officers and 16,000 enlisted men, he recalled. “Ninety percent of the officers had to be pilots or observers, and all the flying units had to be commanded by flying officers.”

For aviation in general, this era had many highlights. The first passenger airline was established, in 1927, between Key West, Fla., and Havanna, Cuba. The Atlantic was spanned non-spot by two former Royal Flying Corps officers, Capt. John Alcock and Lt. Arthur Brown, who flew from Newfoundland to Ireland in a Vickers-Vimy bomber. And a US Navy NC-4 flying boat went from Rockaway Beach in New York City to Newfoundland, to the Azores and Lisbon, and transcontinental airmail service of sorts. Dr. Sanford Moss invented toe supercharger and, at McCook Field, engineers dreamed up the idea of variable and reverse-pitch propellers. The altitude record went up to 30,000 feet, and work progressed on the development of a practical radial air-cooled engine.

In August of 1920 the army Air Service asked for volunteers for pilot training, and Holmes stepped forward.

“They only had two primary training fields then, he recalled. “One at March Field, out in California; the other at Carlstrom Field, here in Florida. I went out to March. Capt. Barton K. Yount – he later became a lieutenant general – was in charge. I took my primary on an old JN=6H, a Curtiss Jenny biplane, with a 150-horsepwer Hispano-Suiza water-cooled engine.

“For any advanced, I went back to Kelly Two. As flying cadets there we wore white arm bands and a white band around our campaign hats. For some reason or other – I can’t recall just why now – we were known a ‘twelve-and-a-halfs.’”

One of Holmes’s closest buddies during both his primary and advanced training days was another enlisted trainee by the name of Irvine.

“He’s a lieutenant general now.” Holmes told me with a smile. “You might know him from around the Pentagon – C. S. Irvine.”

As advanced students, Holmes and Irvine flew a variety of planes – the old SE-5A, which was a single-seater biplane with a 180-horsepower Hispano-Suiza engine; the Thomas-Morse Scout biplane, with a La Phone rotary engine; and even French-built Spads and German Fokkers

In August 1921, when he received his wings, Holmes remembers he had the choice of going back to his old rand of corporal or being discharged.

“I was getting married.” Holmes said, “and I needed more than a corporal’s pay so I took my papers, walked across the street and took a job as an aeronautical draftsman at the San Antonio Air Depot.”

Two years later he singed up in the Army Reserve as a private, and, in 1924, a young Air Force officer by the name of Weyland – later to become Gen. O. P Weyland – gave him his written examination for a commission. He took his test for flight and pilot rating in a Jenny – they were still around – and, when the paper work got cleared away, he had a commission as a second lieutenant in the Reserve.

Still a civilian, he watched both commercial and military aviation mature. Experiments were started in midair refueling – the forerunner of the “long-reach” of our present SAC bombers. Four Army flyers made the first round-the-world flight. Hundred upon hundreds of “barnstormers” – most of them war-trained and all of the flying war-surplus planes – toured the country making the nation air-conscious. These aerial swashbucklers were paving the way for today’s booming commercial aviation industry.

In 1926, Congress authorized the formation of the Army Air Corps and established the office of the Chief of the Air Corps, with Maj. Gen. Mason M. Patrick as its first chief. They also created a new sub-Cabinet post, that of Assistant Secretary of War for Air, and they loosened the purse strings with new appropriations for planes.

“It was after that, that I began to think seriously again of getting back into uniform,” Holmes recalled.

In 1928, the year after Lindbergh spanned the Atlantic in his single-engined Ryan monoplane, which weighed only 5,000 pounds fully loaded, Holmes put in for active duty. Called up, he was assigned to the 12th Observation Squadron at Dodd Field, on the grounds of Fort Sam Houston at San Antonio, as assistant engineering officer and assistant parachute officer.

“We had O-2Hs in the squadron then,” said Holmes. “That was a Douglas job, with a Liberty engine. We also had one old trimotored Fokker C-7A.”

On this hitch, Holmes stayed in uniform for thirteen months. In late 1929 he got out again. Within a year after Lindbergh’s flight, commercial aviation as booming.

US airlines doubled their mileage, tripled the amount of mail carried, and hauled four times as many passengers as the year before. That year, too just before Wall Street fell on its face, the newly formed Transcontinental Air Transport, with Lindbergh a chairman of its technical committee, inaugurated coast-to-coast passenger service, flying Ford Trimotors, which carried ten passengers at 110 mph. The trip – air by day, rail by night – took forty-eight hours and cost $351.94 one-way.

Holmes had no trouble getting a job with Pan American Airways down in Cristobal, Panama, as a crew chief and mechanic, flying on their twin-engined Sikorsky S-31s. Later he went to Guatemala City for PAA ass a co-pilot, flying Ford Trimotors over the rugged Central American mountains and jungles to San Salvador and San Jose. Still later, he flew as a combination mechanic and copilot on PAA’s Consolidated Commodores, trimotored Fokkers, and Sikorsky S-43s from Miami throughout the Caribbean.

The Air Corps was still in his system, however, and in 1931, he reenlisted, this time as a sergeant, at Randolph Field.

“I had to get special authority,” Holmes recalled, “to wear my wings and to fly.”

While waiting for this authority to come through, he was assigned to the maintenance section.

“I made the first installation of blind flying instruments on an Air Corps plane while working there,” Homes said. “The instrument itself was called a sonic altimeter and we put it on a BT-2.”

When his authority to fly as an enlisted man cam through, Holmes was assigned as test pilot for the engineering section at Randolph, a job he filled until 1933, when the country’s commercial airmail contracts were canceled and the Air Corps was called upon to fly the posts.

Major – later general – Joe Cannon was in charge of flying at Randolph at the time, and he promptly shipped Holmes of to Chicago to fly Ford Trimotors between the Windy City and Omaha, North Platte, Kansas City, St. Louis, and Cleveland.

“I flew them all alone, too,” said Homes, not without a trace of nostalgic pride. “No copilot, no mechanic. I was a sergeant, then, drawing down $84 a month as an air mechanic first class, plus fifty percent extra for flight pay. I was also getting $5 a day while detached to the airmail run. And I earned every cent of it. Aside from having no copilot or mechanic, there was no radio, and no instruments to speak of, beside a turn-and-bank indicator, and an altimeter. Later, they switched me to flying single-engined Fokker C-14s and they weren’t any better.”

After the airmail fiasco was settled – and the commercial airlines resumed flying the mails – Holmes returned, still a sergeant, to his test piloting at Randolph.

“In my spare times,” Holmes recalled, “I did some instructing, teaching seven students their primary in a PT-3.”

One of his students in this period was a cadet named Birchard, now a full colonel and deputy commander of the Continental Division of MATS.

“I was eight and a half years a buck sergeant,” Holmes told me. “Then, in 1940, I made tech sergeant, I also got my command pilot’s wings in January of that year. In March 1941, I made master sergeant.”

With the entry of the US into World War II, and the rapid buildup of the Air Corps, Holmes, in 1942, was commissioned a captain. As a flying engineering and maintenance officer and test pilot he served throughout the war years at Luke Field in Arizona, at Randolph, Roslyn, N. M., and Kelly Field, where he was chief inspector for the Air Materiel Command, with thirty-two sub depots under his supervision. Finally, in the closing stages of the Pacific campaign, he was commanding officer of the 301st Air Depot Group, as a major, with eighty-eight officers and 1,800 enlisted men under his command. He wound up the war on Biak with the 4th Air Service Group of the AMC. In 1946, after attending the Air Inspector’s School at Orlando, Fla., and the Special Staff School, he got out of uniform once again, this time with the rank of lieutenant colonel. He was back in uniform again, though, six months later, reenlisting as a master sergeant at Kelly Field in Texas.

“I still had my wings,” he laughed now, “and they gave me the job of flying the Munitions Board around in a B-17. Sometimes we’d get strange brass on board and you should have seen some of the looks they got on their faces when they learned a sergeant was in command of the plane. I used to have a major flying with me as a copilot.”

In 1949, Holmes – still with only six stripes – went to Brazil to spend thirty months flying members of the Joint US-Brazil Military Commission around on inspection trips.

Back from Brazil he was assigned for two years to MATS at Great Falls, Mont. From there, in March 1954, he went to Brookley AFB, with the 2850th Air Base Wing, then as test pilot for the base and transient section of the Mobile Air Materiel Area Headquarters. It was from this last post that he was retired to close the era of flying sergeants in the Air Force.

This recital of nostalgic history had taken a couple of hours. By now we’d eased our way across Tampa Bay. Sergeant Holmes reached behind him to cut off the outboard motor.

“Throw out the anchor, boy,” he told me. “Have a beer and drop a line. This is the life for me now. I’ve got it made. No more airplanes for me.”

From across the Bay, out of MacDill, a new flight of bombers – swept-wing B-52s this time – pulled themselves into the clear blue afternoon sky. Holmes, who only a moment before had denied any further interest in anything that flew, let his sharp hazel eyes follow the bombers until their silver sides blended out of sight into the haze of the horizon.

He looked toward where I was sitting in the bow, watching him eye the disappearing jets.

“Yeah,” he grinned. “I guess I’m too old to change.”

About the Author

Jim Winchester is by now well-known to readers as a frequent writer for Air Force Magazine. His most recent article here was last month’s “Unbreakable Jug.” He also wrote, for the October issue, “SAC’s Saboteurs.” A veteran newsman, Mr. Winchester works in New York City, where for some time now he has been connected with King Features as a writer.