On the afternoon that I strapped myself in the cockpit of the Stearman, carefully went through the startup checklist, taxied to the end of the strip, revved the engine, checked the mags, turned back into the wind, stared down the runway and eased the throttle forward for my first solo takeoff, I don’t think I had spit enough to swallow.
Once I cleared the end of the runway and began to climb, however, I was scared but in control.
In the weeks ahead, I certainly had my share of problems. At that point, most of us did. My earliest flight records contain several painful notations from instructors. “Pulls back on the stick in turns.” “Doesn’t control his slips well enough in small field procedure.” “Excessive speed in his glides.” “Poor use of rudder in climbing turns.” “Wingovers too steep.” “Permitted wind to drift him back over the pylons.” “Taxiing too fast.”
One stiff-necked Ensign named J. J. Hanley wrote in my flight jacket, “Cadet Mayo does not cooperate as he should. In another few months of Naval training he should be more cooperative.”
With damned good instruction and more experience in the air, I did smooth out my handling of the Stearman. I gained more confidence. And I passed my check flight tests for takeoffs, precision landings, spin recovery, emergency control, crossovers and other categories, up and down the line.
I was especially pleased with an evaluation by Lieutenant John Sciarrino, a senior instructor, following my check in night flying. Giving me two thumbs up, he wrote in my flight jacket, “Handles plane extremely well in all phases. Take-offs very good.”
In the final weeks of primary training we concentrated on aerobatics. We practiced and practiced a routine of snap rolls, barrel rolls, tight loops, hammerhead stalls, lazy loops, Immelmens and spins.
In flying a Stearman through a lazy loop, I thought it was fun to see the ground replace the sky momentarily and then to come out with wings level in the spot I departed. I found aerobatics exhilarating. But I soon learned that flying a full routine of snap rolls, tight loops and such was a gut-wrenching, demanding, physical experience. It required intense concentration and ability to endure high “G” forces. I was able to do it.
My favorite maneuver was an Immelmann—a combat maneuver invented by the German ace Max Immelman during World War I. You pick up speed and pull back sharply on the stick, shooting almost straight up and over, until you’re flying upside down. Then you quickly roll the plane horizontal, so you end up facing the opposite direction from the start.