Lessons from the cockpit
Monday, November 25, 2013
While the drums of war beat forth a deafening rhythm in 1943, high school senior Gilbert Schanzmeyer thought his draft number could soon be chosen and land him in combat as a member of the infantry.
“I sure didn’t want to get drafted into the infantry; that’s all rough kind of stuff they had to endure,” laughed Schanzmeyer, 88, Jefferson City.
With an older brother already serving in the military, the graduate of Meta High School decided if he was going to serve, he would rather do it from the cockpit of a plane.
Enlisting in the U.S. Army Air Corps, Schanzmeyer believed his decision to enlist might also offer him the opportunity to become a commissioned officer.
The young enlistee began his two-year training cycle by completing basic training in Texas, then on to locations in Arizona and California to complete aviation courses taught under the authority of the Western Flying Training Command.
After finishing gunner training and much of his pre- flight training, Schanzmeyer was in his Basic Pilot Training School in Merced, Calif., when he discovered the possible dangers that could arise even in a training environment.
As the veteran explained, he and a group of several dozen fellow trainees were practicing landings in AT-6s — a small trainer aircraft — when an incident on the runway nearly resulted in the loss of his life.
“There were probably 200 to 300 planes practicing a landing sequence and we were to be no closer than 500 feet apart,” Schanzmeyer said. “We were supposed to concentrate on the aircraft in front of us; you weren’t supposed to have to worry about any planes outside of the (landing) pattern.”
On his approach to the runway, the young aviator noticed an airplane in his peripheral vision at the same altitude and on a course to collide with his aircraft.
“I shoved the stick forward so hard that I thought I was going to break it,” Schanzmeyer exclaimed. “My plane dropped so fast that some of the oil that leaked from the back of the engine flew up and hit the top of the canopy inside my plane.”
Schanzmeyer’s quick response avoided the collision and he later learned that the aircraft that nearly struck him was piloted by the air inspector — the officer responsible for the safety of the airfield.
When he returned to the operations building to check in his plane following the training exercise, the tense airman was instructed to report to a room within the building.
“They were pretty strict about safety and accidents and I thought for sure I would be kicked out of the program.”
Reporting as instructed, Schanzmeyer describes the next 15 minutes consisting of the air inspector “chewing me up one side and down the other.”
The verbal barrage finally reached a pause, at which point Schanzmeyer respectfully asked, “Sir, what should I have done?”
The meeting ended with the inspector telling the inexperienced pilot that he was thankful Schanzmeyer noticed his aircraft, and that his quick response helped avert a potentially deadly collision.
Schanzmeyer finished out his training as a B-25 bomber pilot at Douglas, Az., and he earned his “wings” and commission as a second lieutenant on Aug. 4, 1945. For a short time, he trained Chinese pilots who would help fight the air war against Japan. However, Japan soon surrendered and Schanzmeyer’s aviation skills were no longer required.
Discharged in September 1945, he returned to Meta and entered the car dealership business with his father and brother. He also joined the Air Force Reserve and was honorably discharged in 1972 at the rank of major. In 1974, he and his brothers purchased the DeVille Southwest Apartments and the following year sold out of the car business.
Retired with Helen, his wife of 62 years, Schanzmeyer says the two years he spent preparing for combat were full of intense moments that helped erase many of his youthful perceptions.
“They really pushed us to the maximum to get us through the training because they knew that the country needed pilots to help fight the war,” he said.
“For someone from Meta who was only 20 years old at the time I was discharged,” he added, “it was truly an experience where I learned more than ever believed possible and that forced me to grow up quickly.”
Jeremy P. Amick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
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