Duckworth’s Legacy

May 1, 1990
Many Air Force personnel have been honored over the years for saving lives, but there is one man who may be responsible for saving more people from injury or death than any other. He never saw combat, did not fly fighters, bombers, or helicopters, and was never in the air rescue business. However, his system of instrument training during World War II saved countless pilots and crews and earned him an honorable place in Air Force history. His name: Col. Joseph B. Duckworth.

To understand his unusual contribution to the war effort, picture pilot training before Pearl Harbor. We took primary training in PT-17s or PT-19s, basic training in BT-9s and -14s, and advanced training mostly in AT-6s. We learned all the flying fundamentals, then moved on to bombers, fighters, transports, or observation aircraft after graduation. However, one element was sadly lacking in our training: Few of us were really capable of flying solely on instruments, although we had been given a few hours of “needle, ball, and airspeed” instruction in the basic and advanced phases. Many brand-new lieutenants were killed soon after they won their silver wings because they ventured into bad weather and couldn’t handle it.

My first exposure to instrument flying amounted to three or four desultory hours of dual instruction during basic flying training at Randolph Field, Tex., in the fall of 1941. I completed the instrument portion of the flight check in the North American BT-14 by demonstrating my ability to make a few steep turns under the hood and managing to recover from the instructor-induced “unusual positions” without making either of us sick.

“Any questions, Glines?” the check pilot inquired after he had relieved his boredom by demonstrating his aerobatic prowess.

I had only one. “Sir, what are these two instruments that we’re supposed to keep caged all the time?” One looked like a compass, and the other had a small airplane on it.

“Don’t mess with those things, Glines! Keep those gyros caged. They’re for airline pilots.”

I didn’t realize it then, but neither the check pilot nor my instructor really knew how to use those two gyroscopic instruments–the directional gyro and the artificial horizon.

Today, this admonition seems ludicrous, but it shows how woefully ignorant we were about flying the gauges in those days. When I received my wings in Class 42-A at Foster Field, Tex., a month after Pearl Harbor, my Form 5 flight record showed only five hours of dual instruction on instruments in the air and eight hours in a Link trainer. Hundreds of pilots were lost at home and abroad during the early World War II years because of their lack of instrument proficiency. The weather in all theaters of operation turned out to be a far more dangerous enemy than the enemy.

Col. Joe Duckworth deserves eternal credit not only for realizing the need to improve instrument training but also for doing something about it. The lanky Georgian had enlisted in the Air Corps as a Flying Cadet in 1927 and received his wings and reserve commission at Kelly Field the following year. After graduation, he flew for Ford Motor Co. and the Curtiss-Wright Flying Service before joining Eastern Air Lines in 1930. While flying the line, he obtained a law degree from the University of Miami.

In late 1940, Duckworth returned to active duty as a major with 12,000 hours of flying time and a healthy respect for instrument proficiency. After the war began, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and assigned to the twin-engine flying school at Columbus, Miss., as director of training.

Years later, in an interview with George Ogles of Airman Magazine, Colonel Duckworth recalled the difficulties he faced. “The first shock I received was the almost total ignorance of instrument flying throughout the Air Corps. Cadets were being given flight training as if there were no instruments and then directed to fly an aircraft across the Atlantic at night. Losses in combat were less than those sustained from ignorance of instrument flying alone.”

The instruction of cadets was so unsatisfactory, Duckworth told Airman, that he wanted to cut their prized silver wings in half and “tell the cadet graduates that the other half would be given them if they survived six months.”

The gap in instrument training had already been identified by combat pilots as a major danger. The need for improvement was best summarized by an Eighth Air Force B-17 pilot in England who, according to Airman, wrote to a friend taking flying training at a Texas base: “For God’s sake, get all the instrument flying you can. It’s the difference between life and death over here.”

When he reported to Columbus, Colonel Duckworth’s first job was to reduce the students’ high accident rate. He did so by establishing what may have been the first Air Force standardization board to evaluate flight instructors and standardize their teaching methods. Night flying accidents were immediately reduced by forty percent; the overall accident rate also declined quickly.

It was instrument instruction that demanded the most attention. Between wars, most Army Air Corps pilots flew “contact,” taking off only when they could navigate by visual contact with the ground. During the Depression years, planes were too costly and scarce to risk flying at night or in marginal weather. Only a few Air Corps pilots were considered even halfway skillful at flying on instruments, although much experimentation with “blind” flying instruments [see “Flying Blind, ” September 1989 issue, p. 138] and radio navigation was conducted by Lts. Albert F. Hegenberger, Ira Eaker, and other Air Corps pilots in the early 1930s. The burgeoning airlines, meanwhile, took advantage of the advances the Air Corps was making. They forged ahead in their pilot training programs and improved the instruments and navigation and radio equipment in their aircraft in order to “make schedule” in any weather.

The system used initially in Air Corps pilot training schools was the “1-2-3,” or “needle, ball, and airspeed,” system. Students were taught to rely on three instruments–the turn indicator (needle), the bank or slip-skid indicator (ball), and the airspeed indicator. Clocks, when they worked, were used to time turns to predetermined headings on the magnetic compass. Basic and advanced trainers had directional gyros and flight indicators (artificial horizons) installed, but students were instructed to keep them caged to prevent damage.

Duckworth developed what he called the “full panel,” or “attitude,” system, whereby the two gyro instruments were used in conjunction with the three basic instruments plus the magnetic compass, the rate of climb indicator, and the clock. He devised the “A” pattern, “B” pattern, and ascending and descending vertical “S” pattern, all of which required timed turns, climbs, and descents to predetermined headings and altitudes. Students were required to make takeoffs under the hood, a feat that amazed everyone when first demonstrated. He composed a course syllabus and trained an experimental group of pilots who began teaching the new method to the school’s instructors.

“The response exceeded Colonel Duckworth’s fondest hopes,” noted Airman’s report. “Every pilot who studied the full-panel system immediately became its enthusiastic booster. Word soon filtered through the AAF that ‘The Duck’ really had something.”

Duckworth wanted to be sure his system was worthwhile. He asked the Training Command to select from other advanced flying schools eight cadets who had scored highest during their instrument training using the “partial panel,” or 1-2-3, system. Selected from the Duckworth program were the eight graduates who had shown the least proficiency using the full-panel system. The sixteen cadets were then given check rides by impartial instructors who had not been involved in the project. The worst Duckworth system graduate scored higher than the best graduate of the 1-2-3 system.

As Colonel Duckworth later recounted the story, word about the success of the full-panel system was quickly relayed to Lt. Gen. Barton K. Yount, Commander of the Training Command. He contacted Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, who flew to Columbus in late 1942 and was briefed by Duckworth. In January 1943, Colonel Duckworth and his volunteer assistants–Capts. George C, Cooke and Christian B. Walk and Lts. Arlyn S. Powell and Roy W. Ferguson–were ordered to Randolph Field on temporary duty.

Working night and day, we trained, tested, and wrote,” Duckworth recalled. Within sixty days, the Army Air Forces published its first manual on instrument flying as a Technical Order. Colonel Duckworth and his dedicated volunteers had officially introduced precision instrument flying into USAAF’s flying training curriculum.

Meanwhile, a field at Bryan, Tex., intended originally to be an advanced single-engine flying school, had a sudden mission change. It became a school for instrument instructors. Colonel Duckworth, the originator of the “attitude system” of instrument flying, became its commander. The instructors who had helped write the instrument manual and volunteers who had trained with them at Randolph enrolled their first class at Bryan in March 1943, flying North American AT-6s. Most of the students for the ensuing two years were instructors assigned to basic and advanced flying schools in the Training Command. They were ordered to Bryan for thirty days of TDY. Upon graduation, they returned to their bases and started local instrument instructor schools in order to spread the word about the full-panel system as rapidly as possible.

The flying part of the course at Bryan was divided into thirds–one third was with a Bryan instructor, another devoted to instructing and acting as safety pilot for a fellow student, and the final third under the hood, flying the radio range and making practice approaches. Automatic direction-finder equipment was installed and P-40 external fuel tanks were added to give the “Sixes” improved navigational capability and extended range. Ground school consisted of navigation refresher classes, instrument flying problems, and learning instrument procedures by “flying” the Link trainer.

Colonel Duckworth was one of those World War II commanders who was the right man for the job at the right time. Well-liked by instructors, students, and enlisted personnel, he visited the flight line every day to chat with students and line personnel. He wore no rank on his flying suit and would sit casually with students waiting for their flights. At first, they were usually unaware of the identity of this slim, gray-haired, fatherly man who asked what they thought of the course and how it could be improved.

Colonel Duckworth flew the AT-6 daily, especially when the weather was below minimums for student flying. While the students watched, he would fire up his AT -6, take off, disappear into the overcast, fly a pattern and return–solo.

In addition to founding the school for flying instructors, Colonel Duckworth established an instrument trainer instructor course for Link trainer instructors. The enrollees came from USAAF bases throughout the country and returned to their bases as department heads. When Duckworth found that many ground school and Link instructors had never been in an airplane or had never heard a radio range in flight, he had a Beech AT-II modified with six stations for the trainees. Each station had its own instrument panel and headset so that during flight the sounds of a radio range could be heard as the pilot maneuvered on the low-frequency radio range and practiced instrument approaches.

The result of the training at Bryan and the spread of that training throughout the USAAF was a greatly reduced weather-related accident rate worldwide. There are thousands of pilots living today who completed the Duckworth-inspired instrument course to earn their wings during World War II. Many probably don’t realize how fortunate they were to have been taught the full-panel, or attitude, system from the beginning.

Colonel Duckworth left the Air Force briefly in 1945 to become Director of the Safety Bureau of the Civil Aeronautics Board. In late 1946, he returned to active duty with a regular Air Force commission. He retired in 1953 from Hickam AFB, Hawaii, where he was the base commander.

In 1963, on the twentieth anniversary of Bryan’s opening, a reunion of former instructors was held, during which a tribute from the Air Force’s Chief of Staff summarized Duckworth’s accomplishment: “Few men have done more to promote safety of flying. . . . Your contributions have been of inestimable value to the United States Air Force.”

Col. Joseph Duckworth, the “father of modern-day Air Force instrument flying,” died several years ago. All who took his training course at Bryan and subsequently survived some unforgettable encounters with bad weather gave much, possibly our very lives, to this man.

C. V Glines is a regular contributor to this magazine. A retired Air Force colonel, he is a free-lance writer, a magazine editor, and the author of a number of books. His most recent article for AIR FORCE Magazine was “Eighty Years at College Park” in the January 1990 issue.