61-Delta, USAF, Pilot Training Class, entry portal for 61-Delta Website 61-Delta, USAF, Pilot Training Class, entry portal for 61-Delta Website


These visual vortices, described as interesting and often spectacular aerial phenomena.

You've seen them in the sky...occasionally long after the aircraft is beyond the horizon...eventually they all fade from view... but not from memory.

You know the old saw: who's the best pilot you ever saw?
Well try this one: which is the best pilot training class the United States Air Force ever had?...
...If you don't know, it wasn't yours.

We of 61-DELTA know....... You're looking at our Home Page.

This is our story...Our history...Our contrail.

It is told from my perspective as an aviation cadet, if you were a member, yours may be somewhat different in the details.
Click here for some memories from student Officer Clem Clement.
I hope the words and pictures will trigger memories of some of the best days of your life. However, like contrails these memories are fading.
In fact,
There is no official USAF historical record documenting our training. That is why this page is necessary. Consider it our contrail.

We are all retired from active duty with the United States Air Force now. All of those who flew with the airlines are retired Captains now.
A dwindling number still fly just for the joy of flying.

One Hundred Six (106) of our brothers are no longer in our ranks.

However these men, their deeds and accomplishments, as well as those of all of our members remain in our minds, our memories...
...like the most persistent of high altitude contrails.

AUGUST 17, 1959

For most of the 508 young men of our class, it all began on the 17th of August 1959. Quite a diverse group. Some were already in the military ("prior circus"), some were flight seasoned and already rated Lieutenants in the Air Force, some were freshly commissioned from college ROTC or military academies with degrees in their folios, some going to OTS or OCS. Still others were raw teenagers fresh from high school. A few already had their pilot's license, but some, like myself, had never even flown in an airplane in their lives. Some members of the class were recruited by a slick TV recruiting message from the Air Force.
Personally I never saw that video. The USAF Thunderbirds recruited me. Specifically, after their airshow, "Left Wing" Bob Janca, a fellow Cleveland native encouraged me to go to the local recruiting office to take the necessary tests...and so it began. To get here all cadets had been thoroughly tested. The recruiters said we were the best and the brightest. But they had only measured potential. The meaningful testing was just about to begin.

For the aviation cadets, on this day we gathered together at Lackland AFB, Texas to begin a quest that would forever change our lives just as Aviation Cadet Charles Lindbergh had done 35 years earlier (except he had gone to Kelly Field). My first flight in an aircraft, was with other cadet selectees from Cleveland to deliver us to our fate. We were among the last classes of aviation cadets. Only 61-E, 61-F, and 61-G would follow. This narrative describes a few of my memories.
Those who went through as Student Officers should probably skip directly down to Primary Flight Training.

Pre-flight Training School they called it. We were the pilot cadets "redbirds", identified by the red band on our epaulets (shoulder boards). There was another group called the "bluebirds", they only wanted to tell the pilots where to go (navigators). They had blue bands on their epaulets.

There was also a group known as the upper class. They told all of us where to go.
Our lives were completely governed by the OTM (ATC Manual 50-2) We had to read and live by this book.
The first few days were just a blur. We were nothing but "green men" in green tuxedos"(fatigues). Bugles blowing "Taps and Reveille" . We saluted everything. As the under class, we were at the very bottom of the human food chain. Strange uniforms were issued, bush jacket, Bermuda shorts, pith helmets, everything from brogan boots to white gloves for some unknown reason. We would find out more about the uses of these white gloves when we endured our first "SMI"...Saturday morning inspection!

We were also issued 2 shiny metal tags with an odd notch on one end.
We were told about that notch, why there were two of these "dog tags", and that we had to keep them around our necks always!

A uniform of the day and a window setting of the day announced every morning.
We were introduced to a new outdoor recreation called "pick-pick".

We kept the old honored symbols trim and neat.

My early memories include the new phrases: "Every man a tiger"., "No guts..no glory"., "pip check !", "I'll have one mister !" and of course "the day the eagle defecates" (with the princely sum of $111.15 every month). The Lackland water tower; the capacity of which was exactly 'one' Texas jelly bean. It also included the new world of air force acronyms like SMI and "SAC, TAC, ADC, MAC", (ATC and SIE). The former, the fighting commands of USAF, the latter including self-initiated elimination. The Air Force was motivating us to develop aggressiveness and self confidence. Extensive training in things military and above all, the adherence to the six articles of

Here are some other random memories of those days at Lackland: Friday night parties (sounded like fun, but was just cleaning the barracks)!
...Saturday parades...white gloves...on the parade ground...the soul stirring march music of the "Band of the West"

...the confidence course...the parachute jump tower...the native American DI's who advised that nobody was going to yell "Geronimo" while jumping...U-Boat commanders firing torpedoes..."tigering" an upperclassman in the middle of the night...or just "short sheeting" him...a night at the Cadet Club...the ladies "bussed in" from local colleges to mix, dance, socialize, or whatever.

The Aviation Cadet Program was unique. If you could pass the entrance tests, no college degree was needed to enter this program. In fact if you could pass the tests, you also had the option of attending the Air Force Academy. But that option put the pilot training four years farther into the future. We were here because we wanted to fly...NOW !

This was a program with a tradition and history that went back before Charles Lindbergh, probably back to the first military flight school in 1909. We were privileged to be in this program that had trained most of our World-War II and Korean War pilots and navigators.
The "Flying Tigers"...the Army Air Corps...the Tuskegee Airmen...what a glorious history of achievement to be a part of. We were aware of our small place in that lineage, we had "Esprit de corps" before they defined it for us. Our world was run, as it always had been, by a group called upper classmen. They were self described as "H & T". This was a world of regulations (ATC Manual 50-2, all 50 series regulations).

For aviation cadets, extreme mental indoctrination they called it, not to be confused with hazing.

Hazing had been defined for the cadet corps by an Act of Congress, April 19, 1910.

We were tested regularly on our memorized "cadet knowledge".

The most dreaded words were: "I'll have one mister!". That meant surrendering a demerit slip from our breast pocket...not a good thing!
We ate three "square meals" each day. There were seemingly continuous inspections (Many of which involved inspectors wearing white gloves), demerits "awarded" for anything not according to regulation (delinquencies).
Corrective tours (tour ramp) "awarded" for excessive demerits (any over six (6).
There was also something called "Six (6) and twelve (12), and something called a "Commander's Award". This was not as desirable as it might seem. It was in fact, 26 demerits, 72 corrective tours, and 3 months restriction to base. For some there never was an "open base".

This week-end activity was called the "Tour ramp" (one hour marching for every demerit over the allowed). We marched at quick cadence (120 steps per minute) for fifty (50) minutes. A maximum of six could be walked off, three each on Saturday and Sunday.... at least we didn't have to carry rifles...for good reason probably!
...and for motivation on the tour ramp...the RF-84-F low passes by a former cadet who knew the drill all too well!

We were strengthening our emotional balance while practicing self-discipline. Any award you got meant trouble. It was aptly named a "tiger" program.

Why the fast pace?...Historically, the aviation cadet program was necessary in order to "ramp up" in short time, the production of fully qualified aircrews in time of war or national emergency. We weren't in a war then, but there was another reason...

We didn't fully understand it at the time, but we were four years behind the ROTC and service academy graduates in matters military. Their indoctrination was more rigorous and thorough. We would ultimately have to compete with them for promotions, service schools and assignments. We had 90 days to catch up. However, It was here in this environment that the close bonds of friendship were being forged. We didn't know they would last a lifetime. We were just helping each other to achieve our mutual goal: those Silver Wings. It was not easy.

After six weeks we became the upper class and life relaxed just a little. The only real difference was that we were now indoctrinating the lower class. Our motivation and Esprit de corps was clear and visible to the underclassmen. Everywhere we marched in formation, we sang. Often it was to the historic marching ditty; "I've got sixpence".
However, by that time quite a few of the class had given up. (SIE).
The rest of us kept looking up at those jets in the Texas sky.

We wore the youthful cloak of immortality and our minds were not clouded by doubt.

NOVEMBER 18, 1959

Primary Flight Training. Now the fun begins. In November, 1959 the Air Force had six civilian contract primary flying training bases. Bainbridge and Spence Air Bases, Georgia; Bartow and Graham in Florida; Malden Air Base in Missouri, and Moore Air Base, Texas. When we arrived the skies were filled with airplanes. We would soon be in them, and actually flying.

At these bases a group of highly experienced civilian flight instructors would:

1. Show us new uses for our flight caps.
2. Convince us we had no business operating any kind of machinery, let alone something with a whirling propeller.
3. Regale us with war stories the like of which we now occasionally tell.
4. Show us what precision aviation was all about.
5. Shape us into fledgling air force pilots.

We were joined here by the USAF Student Officers and twenty Allied Nation classmates from Turkey, Venezuela, Pakistan, Iran, Ethiopia, Germany, and Bangladesh.

Here's NAVAJO Flight 61-D-A Bainbridge AB.

Quite a few of our brothers did not advance from pre-flight. The "want-to" weeding out process had cut our numbers considerably. The change from a military base to small civilian contract schools was designed for a sudden change of emphasis from things military, to flight discipline. Primary would weed out more who did not have the necessary skills or who could not conquer airsickness. And still more S.I.E.'s. The Moore AB Yearbook quoted what proved to be the whole class motto; "For many are called, Few are chosen...."

I had never been in the cockpit of an airplane, and since I'm left handed, I wondered about the left hand drive version of the Link trainer, and the airplane. My very first visit to the Link cleared that up. Left hand...throttle, right hand...that stick thing between your legs. One version fits all, prepare to become ambidextrous, or else.

Climbing into the T-34 cockpit the first flight was like climbing onto a bucking bronco in that we had no idea what was going to happen next. The transition from simulation of flight to actual flight was exciting to say the least.

We prepared for the first flight as much as possible. Academics taught us the aircraft and its' systems. The "Link" sessions simulated the flight. We practically memorized the Dash-1. My roommate and I spent hours in the aircraft giving each other "blindfold" cockpit checks. We knew where every switch and gauge was located while blindfolded. We also memorized and tested each other on all checklist and emergency procedures.

We were ready to fly!

My first T-34 flight with a kindly old looking white haired (not so old...just a premature family trait) instructor named Mr. Earl Lucas.... was a real awakening. I was doing pretty well through his aerobatics, (probably a mild shade of green) until Mr. Lucas started his descent to RTB. It involved doing what he called "clearing turns", making certain another aircraft was not directly under us and out of view. Suddenly we were inverted, going down at a 45 degree angle, rolling back and forth from one wingtip to the other as fast as the T-34 would roll. Well...tear off the earphones and get ready for a new c--t cap...cause this one found that new use.

It is said that anyone with good vision and reasonable coordination can be taught to fly given time. However here the name of the game was "you don't have much time." Some say it was like trying to get a drink of water from a wide open fire hydrant. We were in a crash course of academics, military training, sessions with the "Link ladies" and physical conditioning training in the unique style of "Coach Hardee". As if this were not enough, now we were learning how to fly. We were now learning what they meant by "Every man a tiger!"

To help motivate us we had to wear our baseball flight caps backwards until our first solo. We rode the D'ville bus each day to the auxiliary field for T-34 flights (unless we took the first flight). We received about 9-10 hours of flight instruction in the venerable Beech T-34 "Mentor" primary trainer aircraft. Then our instructors told us we were ready to solo. And we did. If you didn't solo before 15 hours, you wouldn't do it in the air force. With tight syllabus training schedules to keep...slow learners were history quickly.


Performance wise, the little T-34 weighed about the same as a Chevrolet (2900#), but was capable of a top speed of 190 mph, and was fully aerobatic. Fortunately it was an extremely stable and forgiving air machine, it had to be.

Three new things happened here. Check rides, Pink Slips, and Elimination rides entered our vocabulary. Suddenly the solo rides of boring holes and sight seeing turned into actually practicing stalls, spins, chandelles, cuban 8's, lazy 8's, Immelmans, cloverleafs, loops, rolls, etc.
Not only were they teaching us to fly, they were going to evaluate everything we did in the process. Every dual flight brought tight critique and grading on check flights was critical to continuing. The expected standards were high...unattainable for some.

Twenty more hours of instruction, solo and check rides in the T-34 prepared us for the ride of our life. Our first flight (dollar ride) in the T-37 "Tweety Bird" jet trainer. We were among the first bases to use these noisy little jets. Farewell to canopies that could be open in flight, mixture settings, rpm settings, inches of throttle and magneto checks.
However, this T-37 cockpit...was a little more complex

For perspective on the jet age we were joining, this was only a mere twenty years after the first experimental jet aircraft ever flew. (The Luftwaffe's HE-178 August, 1939)

The T-37...Our First Jet

Well, not all of us got to fly jets just yet, some of the bases still were using the propeller driven T-28 "Trojan" as the second primary trainer. They were caught in the Air Force's transition to the all jet force. The T-28's were the last primary non-jet trainers. Their Wright engined machine (800 HP) pushed them to around 280 mph, but sounded like the world's noisiest tractor.

In either case, it was a major leap in performance. We finally got to wear those shiny white "brain buckets" hooked up to a real aircraft. It was here, after soloing, that we began to get a little cocky....(Picture Tom Cruise in 'Top Gun') But then how should a teenager, or near teenager, who just soloed a jet aircraft have felt in 1959 ?, or even now for that matter.
We could now add an old tradition to our flight suits; the pilot's scarf. The magic words became "Why yes, I do fly jets".

At Bainbridge our green tuxedos (flight suits) sported this "Have Jet-No Sweat" patch:

Not having jets prompted a slightly different tack at the T-28 bases. The exact origin is unknown, but cadets at Spence AB, designed the following "61-Delta Flight Patch". This patch was also worn later by the 61-Delta Cadets at Reese and Vance AFB in basic flight training. Were we the original "Rapid Rabbits"?

This is a scan of the original patch:

You may have wondered about the 61-Delta Patch...
You may not have worn this patch.
Since there were 11 separate training bases and countless different Wings and Squadrons, each having its' own patch; it was necessary to select the
one that best speaks to the spirit of the whole 61-Delta Class experience.

By acclamation this has become our class emblem, and we all wear it with pride:

If you're wondering;
It is politically correct since he's lifting "a toast to the host of those who love the vastness of the sky!"

But, back to the flying. The pure lack of propeller and inside the cockpit engine noise and vibration, combined with the raw power was awesome. The fun 400 mph T-37 shown landing here in a Keith Ferris painting, was like nothing ever before strapped to our backsides. To a man I'm certain we'd all want one of these in our own personal hangar today. So well suited to the task, that it flew for 50 years, training 78,000 USAF pilots. The last flight was June 17, 2009.

Remember your first spin in the T-37?; this is not an airplane, its a slippery top with wings. Also introduced here was the concept of "hooded" or instrument flight. It took some getting used to, but after all this is an all-weather world. We also had to train on how to use the ejection seats. On many solo flights we helped train control tower operators by requesting "practice" DF steers.
Not long after solo came a concept called
Buddy (team) rides, that usually redefined the outer edge of the envelope..... I wonder if they still let two students fly together?

As for the "tractor drivers" (we all knew the T-28's were manufactured by International Harvester, or was it John Deere?), they probably became better pure stick and rudder pilots due to the power and torque of the T-28. However we did feel they exaggerated that point just a little with their "spot landing" challenge. In either case, if you could fly the T-37, or the T-28, you knew you were a pilot. In all we logged about 30 hours time in the T-34 (logging 88 landings in my case). In the T-37, we logged about 65 hours dual, 35 hours solo, with a total of 203 landings. We packed up with about 130 hours total time in our logbooks. Leaving primary we were told: You can fly, but now we're going to make a military aviator out of you.

By the end of primary, the aircraft was no longer just a flying machine that we climbed into, it was rather an extension of our bodies, our will.

We were not just in a flying machine...we were one with the machine.

Like the members of our class, these primary bases are all retired from the Air Force.

JUNE 14, 1960

Basic Flight Training

Some of us had more "interesting" trips from primary to basic training bases...Clem and Jay Do Texas

Only Vance AFB, Oklahoma remains active of the five bases we went to for basic flight training. Gone are Laredo, Webb, and Reese AFB, Texas. Gone too is Craig AFB, Alabama.

At these bases we flew the Lockheed T-33, the "T-Bird". This was one of Clarence Kelly's Lockheed "Skunk Works" early jet designs.


The "T-BIRD"

However, fortunately not all T-33s are in museums.

Click on the photo to view a one minute video of a restored T-33 in the air...

It was heavy (15,100 pounds), and under-powered (4600 pounds of thrust from the single J-33-A-35 engine) It was sluggish on the controls compared to the T-37 and T-28's. The sluggish feeling due in part to the giant twin 230 gallon tiptanks sitting about 20 feet each side of the pilot. (ours were painted international orange to help us see each other I guess) That's 1500 pounds out there on each wing tip. The tanks were necessary to provide enough fuel for the duration of training sorties.

However, it was faster than any plane we had yet flown. It could hit 580 mph (Mach .8) (it took a while to get there, and there was only one usable throttle position... {bttw -b___s to the wall}...and no afterburner.)
A "toboggan", century series in-flight refuelers will recognize the term, also helped reach top speed.
I can assure you I was never able to catch Boeing's 'heavies' climbing out of McConnell AFB.

Originally designated the TF-80C, the T-33 was a close relative of the P-80R that set the world's speed record of 623.753 mph in June, 1947. It could also be a more unforgiving aircraft. In fact, it was a two place version of the same basic airplane as the P-80 "Shooting Star" in which the leading American Air Ace of all time, Major Richard Bong, was killed in a crash while testing..
The T-33s' predecessor, the P-80 and its' later designation F-80C, served as our first jet combat fighter-bomber in the Korean War.
Lockheed cut the F-80 basically in half and inserted about 35 inches into the fuselage to accommodate a second cockpit. They also took out the six .50-cal. machine guns. The T-33 was still in production when 61-D started our training.

For a rough performance comparison, the F-86A of Korean War fame, weighed 13,800 pounds and was powered by the J-47 engine producing 5,200 pounds of thrust. The F-86 enjoyed a performance advantage due to its' swept wings.
Still, it would have been interesting to fly the T-Bird sans those tip tanks !

The instructors here were all USAF Officers. They did not have the vast flying experience of our "fatherly" primary civilians. But they knew the T-Bird, and they showed us how to fly her. In acrobatics, on instruments, and in formation we flew daily sorties. Our formations went from "same way-same day"... to demonstration team quality, or so we thought. Some of us have captured the moment on film to prove it. Our acro, navigation and instrument flying was at its' best. This flying was designed to smooth out the rough edges, but it also introduced some new ones. We began to really explore the prohibited outer edges of the T-33's envelope while out on solo sorties.

Do you remember your first T-33 night solo ride?...I do. It was the darkest night in all recorded history. High overcast, no moon, no stars, no ground lights to speak of. Climb on up as high as you can...say to 40,000 feet and turn off all the cockpit lights....Can you say "Temporary spatial disorientation?"...It was here in that instant, that instrument flight and navigation aids took on a whole new meaning.

However, my most vivid memory of the T-bird.......
...there I was......climbing straight up...suddenly looking at the yaw string pointing away from me toward the sky. I knew immediately something was wrong...airspeed...pegged on the minimum...zip! (I think they now like to use the term "departure" to describe what happened next.)
Good thing I'm solo...this vertical recovery... turned hammerhead stall... turned (oops, forgot to kick in the rudder) falling backwards toward the earth going to nearly inverted, would have earned a "pink slip" for sure.
It was here that the advice "let go of the stick, and it'll eventually fly by itself"...(altitude permitting) came to the rescue. With the sudden negative "g" situation I was too busy pushing on the canopy with both hands to keep myself inside the cockpit, let alone try anything to recover. And where the hell did all this floating dust and debris come from...don't they ever clean these airplanes out?

Then as I (and my accompanying 7 tons of aluminum) fell tail-first toward the earth, watching the altimeter unwind, I recognized that I'm probably outside the flight envelope...(a bad enough situation, but at least I haven't flamed-out!). I knew I had to do something. Fortunately I did the right thing....nothing!
And what the heck would I have done? We practiced stall recognition and recovery of many kinds, but never anything quite like this situation! Looking back, I'm pretty confident no instructor would ever want to intentionally demonstrate this maneuver!
Clarence Kelly's inherent built-in design for flight stability saved the day. Made myself two...make that three mental notes:
1."The T-33 yaw string must always point toward the pilot. Otherwise you have become an aircraft "rider" and you will
NOT enjoy the next few seconds of the ride."
2. The lack of proper airspeed and/or altitude will probably ruin your whole day.
3. Pay more attention to ATC Flight Supplements regarding improperly executed "over-the-top" maneuvers.
...looks like someone else tried this before!

I'm not certain what Bill Nelson's most vivid memory is of the T-Bird. But the question most asked at the time was "Other than that Bill, how did the check ride go ?"
(Power failure on takeoff...crash landing...under the hood on an instrument check ride)

In all, another 115 hours of flying and our quest was completed. The pace and intensity of the program was such that we didn't realize how much fun we were having until it was over. So intense were the impressions, that even today I can close my eyes and still revisit the smell of the hot exhaust vapors of burned JP-4 crowding the cockpit and the entire flight line while starting engines. Strong indeed, I still recall the feeling of pride, glimpsing the Enid grain elevators off the wing while leading a flight of four shining silver aluminum steeds as we headed for initial to land returning from a tight formation training flight.

So intense that in my minds eye, I can still...almost see my wingman.......my classmate....

By the end of this training, we were ready to transition to any aircraft in the USAF inventory.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank our instructors. At all levels. They gave us motivation. They shared with us the sum of their experience. They showed us the wonder of mastering flight that has lasted our lifetime.

Although that was indeed their job...they inspired us.

We owe them a debt of gratitude. Thank you one and all.

The program was best summed up by this quotation in the Laredo Classbook:

"Great trials seem to be a necessary preparation for great duties."
--E. Thompson

On graduation day, November 30, 1960, only 252 members of 61-D had the coveted Silver Wings of a United States Air Force Pilot pinned on their uniforms. A few had washed back to graduate with a later class, some had gone on to other USAF specialities, one had died, the rest of the best, had either washed out or SIE'd.

Those shiny new Wings of Silver signify membership in one of the most exclusive fraternities on earth. Our brothers are Eddie Rickenbacker, Charles Lindbergh, Billy Mitchell, Jimmy Doolittle, Claire Chennault, Richard Bong, Robert Hoover, Chuck Yeager, Curtis Lemay, Barry Goldwater, Hap Arnold...and a President named George W. Bush.
These men and a legion of others...whose deeds and blood...have made this America's most precious ounce of Silver.

However, it wasn't the end, it was really just the beginning.

Most of the class went on to serve as operational pilots with USAF, some returned to fly with their Air National Guard or Reserve Units.

All went on to greater accomplishments.

Our peacetime efforts in every major command helped win the cold war.....Our combat tours, were in the most controversial and least popular war the United States has ever fought. As a result, our accomplishments may never be fully documented, recognized or appreciated.
Many, about 100, separated after their initial tours and went on to fly for virtually every major air carrier. The chances are good that you've flown a commercial airliner with one of our class in the cockpit. Conley "Buzz" Nelson jumped ship to the USCG after flying B-47's for four years. Nine went on to fly as corporate pilots.

One class member flew with the USAF Aerial Demonstration Team, the Thunderbirds.
Several classmates returned to Vietnam on subsequent tours. A few even remained to help regain USAF glory in Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

We flew, fought, and some paid the supreme price.
We lived the motto "NO GUTS...NO GLORY".
To our brothers who gave all, we dedicate this memorial...
Those whose names are on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall are linked on our page of
Fallen Brothers.

Although this account tells mainly of our flying, we were trained as Officers...leaders...in peacetime, or in time of war.
The class produced six (6) general officers. At one time 61-D classmates were Commanders of the 8
th Air Force, the 22nd Air Force, and the Alaskan Air Command, (11th Air Force) ...simultaneously!

It was Nobel laureate Sir John Eccles, who wrote, "Without memory, we are hollow persons, not only empty of a past, but lacking a foundation upon which to build a future. We are what we remember."
Although the details are fading, this history is the collective memory of good men in a challenging time.
We of 61-Delta are very unique in that we remember the outstanding group of young men in our pilot training class, and that we've put our class back together the way we have. Few non-combat units have been capable of doing this. We have kept old friends together with a closeness that is all but disappearing in this era. We have enjoyed reuniting and remembering with classmates every two years beginning in 1973.


SOooo.......which is the best pilot training class the U.S. Air Force ever had?........You're looking at us.