Bill Lightfoot was in his fourth year in a small Presbyterian liberal arts college in South Carolina in 1941 when he got his civilian pilots license. He decided to quit school and become an aviation instructor for he United States Government.
He first came to Tampa and signed on as a civilian instructor with Emery-Riddle, a private firm teaching young British aviators how to fly at Carlstrom Field In Arcadia, Fla.
When he arrived the base commander told Lightfoot he wasn’t old enough to be an instructor. He was 20 and to be a flight instructor one had to be 21. He waited a couple of weeks until his next birthday.
“In those days Arcadia was a town full of cows and cadets,” Lightfoot recalled. “They had just started to teach British cadets how to fly when I arrived. They soloed in Stearman PT-17 biplanes after 40 hours of flight time during a 10-week course where the aviators learned the basics of flight and some aerobatics.”
Since Carlstrom was run by Emery-Riddle, a civilian firm, the base wasn’t like the usual Army base. It was more like a country club with table cloths and china at chow time and no K.P. for soldiers.
Often on Sunday Arcadia residents would invite a young cadet to their home for Sunday dinner. It was the neighborly thing for a local family to do, treat a young aviator
far away from home, to dinner.
“The new part of the base was along the north side of the field. They had beautiful barracks for the cadets constructed just before the start of World War II,” he said. “The older World War I barracks were situated on the east side of the field.”
The first three classes Lightfoot taught were British. Then the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. From that point on he started training American pilots.
“There were 75 or 80 PT-17s (biplanes) at Carlstrom and an equal number of flight instructors. When the Americans first arrived, my original job was to teach the first couple of classes to be flight instructors so they could train the aviators that were coming.
“By 1943 the draft board was drafting a bunch of our pilots into the Army Air Corps. So several of us went up to Camp Blanding, north of Tampa, and joined the Enlisted Reserves,” Lightfoot said.
During the three years Lightfoot taught cadets to fly they never had a single aviation fatality at the field he recalled.
“They only had one close call while I was at Carlstrom. They wanted to give us some night flying. So an instructor and cadet went up at night and got disoriented in a cloud,” he said. “Because there were no navigation instruments in those PT-17s the instructor and his student bailed out of the plane when it was too low. Their chutes had barely opened when they hit the ground. Neither was seriously injured.”
Lightfoot was reassigned to multi-engine training school in Dallas, Texas and became part of the Ferry Squadron there.
“We learned to fly twin-engine C-46 and C-47 transports. We also flew B-24s, B-25s and B-17s.
“I flew my first B-17 bomber to Langley Air Force Base and gave it to one of my former students from Arcadia. He ended up in Europe flying the bomber in the 8th Air Force,” he said.
Lightfoot doesn’t recall if the young aviator survived the war.
He stayed with the Ferry Command for six months and then he was transferred to Reno, Nev. where he got acquainted with Curtiss Commander C-46 transport planes that could haul 12,000 pound of supplies or soldiers.
“I arrived at Reno about the same time as Gene Autry, the singing cowboy. Gene was a flying sergeant who ended up buying the twin-engine Lockheed he flew most of the time after the war,” Lightfoot said.
“I picked up a C-46 in the ice and snow in Fort Wayne, Ind. and flew it to Newark, N.J. We loaded the airplane and flew on to West Palm Beach and then south down the coast of South America. We left South America and flew to Ascension Island in the middle of the Atlantic and on to North Africa. From there we hopped across the Mediterranean and ended up in an airbase north of London.
“My copilot and I spent 10 days in London and then got a hop aboard a C-47 transport to Paris where we spent another three days sightseeing. We flew on to Malta, Tobruk, Abadan, Cairo and Calcutta. Eventually we reached Lulliang, China.
“Our job when we got to China was flying supplies, ammunition and soldiers from India to China to support the Chinese who were fighting the Japs in China,” he said. “I probably flew a C-47 over ‘The Hump,’ the Himalayas, eight times during the war. Lucky for us the weather was always good when we were flying ‘The Hump.’
“I had this one trip over ‘The Hump’ where I was flying copilot with a captain who was new. This was his first trip over the mountains. Coming back we couldn’t get any altitude coming over the mountains.
“One of our two engines got messed up and the cockpit was filling with smoke. The captain, who was at the controls, said, ‘What do I do now?’ ‘Feather the prop,’ I told him.
“‘Now what?’ he asked. “Call ‘May Day,’ I said. He did and the airfield at Myitkyna, Burma gave us a new heading so we turned toward the base at Myitkyina. We had to throw the 55 gallon drums of aviation gas we were hauling out the door of the airplane in order to gain enough altitude to make Myitkyina.
“The captain flew us into Myitkyina on one engine. He did a good job.”
Lightfoot spent the last eight months of the Second World War in China. After the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, he was sent to a disembarkation post in India until they got aboard a Navy ship and 3,000 soldiers spent the next 25 days at sea making it back to the U.S.A.
After being discharged in late 1945, Lightfoot got a job in Venice, Fla. teaching civilians how to fly private airplanes. He worked for J & J Aircraft in Venice for about 18 months.
Then he got another job flying for Prince Aviation in Tampa flying out of what became Tampa International Airport. He started flying C-46s once more when he switched to ASA, a commercial freight line based in St. Petersburg. He stayed with the firm for 15 years until it relocated to Miami. ASA couldn’t keep up with the competition and folded in the early 1960s.
After that Lightfoot went to work for Capital Airlines in Europe flying C-46s once more. He spent the next three years flying for them.
“When I came back from Germany with Capital Airlines I started flying DC-8. Capital didn’t want us old boys,” he said. “I went to work for an old friend of mine in New Jersey who was flying C-46s once more.
“When did you quit flying commercially?
“When I was 70, about 20- years ago. By then I had 15,000 hours flying time flying C-46s. My total time in all of the 50 different airplane I flew totaled 25,000 hours,” the ancient aviator said proudly.
In 2003 Lightfoot moved to Englewood to be closer to his daughter, Margaret Adorjan, a well known local realtor. He has another daughter, Pamela, who is also a realtor in South Carolina.
His wife, Carolyn, and both his sons, Bill and Bob are deceased.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, April 1, 2013 and is republished with permission.
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