One month after Pearl Harbor, Gatzner Wagoner’s 629-acre ranch in California’s Livermore Valley was taken over by the U.S. Navy. Old Gatzner wasn’t happy about it. They paid him $75,265—about $120 an acre.
On Wagoner’s sprawling piece of land, the Navy rushed to completion the Livermore Naval Air Station, one of several West Coast primary flight-training centers setup during WWIL.
Later, in the early fifties, that same 629 acres became the site for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. But when I reported in with my orders. October 1942, it was a bustling new air station boasting a variety of buildings, including a large aircraft hangar and two wooden barracks.
There at the Livermore NAS, I learned to fly.
I learned to fly in a Boeing-built Stearman N2S3, the Navy’s famed biwing trainer. Painted bright yellow, it was laughingly called “the yellow peril.”
Despite its nickname, the Stearman N2S3 was a strong, well-balanced plane—a military version of the biwing planes used in the ’30s and ’40s for stunt flying and crop dusting.
It had two open cockpits, staggered 34-foot wings, exposed radial engine cylinder heads and a cruising speed of about 90 knots, or 103 miles per hour.
You can still see these nostalgic flying machines, lovingly restored and maintained, at occasional air shows. Only last year, I went up for an aerobatics flight with a local pilot in his yellow Stearman, which he stores in a hangar at the Sonoma Valley Airport. We did a few loops and rolls and assorted maneuvers. The memories, they came flooding back.
Primary flight training took a total of thirteen weeks. If a student pilot failed any of the flight tests along the way, he washed out. That was it—an end to the time and money the Navy was going to waste on him.
After five weeks of ground school and twelve hours of in-the-air dual flight instruction, I went up for a sweaty check flight with sharply dressed Ensign F. G. Wolf. About an hour later, after I brought the Stearman in for a rough but solid landing, he scrawled in my manila flight jacket, “Safe for solo.”
At that point, I felt that he had one helluva lot more confidence in my readiness than I had.