On a cool, rainy day in the spring of 2012, I joined an elderly woman and her niece and nephew at a rural cemetery in north central Iowa, not far from the Minnesota state line. She was the surviving sibling of Aviation Cadet Glenn McKean, who died in an Army Air Corps flying school accident 70 years earlier. I had come to Iowa to meet with the family members and to honor McKean's sacrifice for his country by my visit to his gravesite.
A few months before my trip to Iowa, I had published the biography of Don Beerbower, a major American ace in World War II. He and Glenn McKean were best friends. They had met at Iowa State College in September 1940, when both students enrolled in the two-year creamery operator's course.
Sensing the likelihood of America going to the war, Don and Glenn made a decision in the fall of 1941 to talk to Army Air Corps recruiters about the aviation cadet program. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the second-year students enlisted at Fort Des Moines. Over the winter and spring of 1942, the newly minted cadets completed preflight training and primary flying school before reporting for duty at Kern County's Minter Field on May 28.
The Army had developed the Air Force Basic Flying School near Bakersfield into the largest training facility of its type on the West Coast. It was home to 7,000 personnel. Nine auxiliary landing strips accommodated the many student pilots practicing in the BT-13 Valiant. Army officers pushed the men hard. The fast pace tired students and instructors; in some instances, this produced serious consequences.
On June 8, Don Beerbower hurried a letter off to his brother describing the cadets' daily routine: "It's 5:50 a.m. I've had breakfast and have my room cleaned up. We'll drill for an hour, then athletics for an hour, link trainer for an hour and then ground school till noon. From 1 to 7 we'll be on the flight line. That's our daily schedule, Sundays and all. ... Glenn is getting along okay. I saw him for the second time since we got here. He was at the mess hall this morning. We just don't have a spare minute to look up anyone. It's time for drill now!"
The next morning was a perfect day for flying; the ceiling and visibility were unlimited. Second Lt. Ralph Robedeau had been in the air since 7:30 a.m. with three of his four students. McKean's turn came at 10:30 a.m. After Glenn checked the fuel and found it sufficient for the hour of dual training, they took off. A light wind blew from the northwest, and the temperature lingered at a mild 76 degrees as they began practicing in the vicinity of the Famosa air strip. At 10:55 a.m., student pilot Paul Kilpatrick made the following observation: "Shortly after takeoff from Famosa field and while at about 400 feet altitude, I noticed an airplane descending quite rapidly. It was at an altitude of approximately 400 feet and about one and one-half miles away. Its path of descent was at an angle of about forty-five degrees. The nose did not seem to be sufficiently down for a steep glide and the wings seemed to flutter from side to side. This condition continued until the airplane struck the ground. The airplane did not go into a spin."
Ralph Robedeau and Glenn McKean died instantly as their BT-13 slammed into the ground belly first 3 miles northwest of the Famosa strip.
When Don Beerbower learned of Glenn's sudden death, it shook him to his core. He wrote in his diary: "My best friend and Buddy, who I had gone to school with, joined up with and had been with from the start, was killed after only 2 weeks at Basic. He was a good flyer and a great guy. It was a dark day when he and his instructor crashed."
On June 12, investigators concluded the accident was the result of pilot error. Large, congested training bases experienced numerous individual accidents and mid-air collisions. Many BT-13s shared the airspace around Minter Field's auxiliary landing strips. An instructor pilot had a difficult job. He was tasked with teaching students a variety of different procedures while at the same time monitoring the heavy traffic in the area. During the war nearly 15,000 aircrew members died in flying mishaps.
Nine days after Glenn's death, Don wrote to his brother saying, "Two more got it today. These planes are so darned heavy, 4,500#, and are underpowered for the weight, 450 H.P. They can stall or spin without hardly any warning."
Don Beerbower graduated from advanced flying school at Luke Field, Ariz., on Sept. 29, 1942. A future triple ace and squadron commander, the 22-year-old major died strafing a German airdrome in France in 1944, leaving behind a wife and daughter.
Glenn McKean's casket was transported by rail to Iowa, and then to his parents' farm house. His body remained there overnight. The following morning, after a brief family service in the front yard, Glenn made his last trip to his hometown, Dolliver, Iowa. His was the first war death in the area. Fresh flowers were in abundance at the white clapboard Methodist church a short distance from Glenn's high school. The pews overflowed with neighbors, friends and his extended family, all subdued as they paid their last respects. After the service, a color guard escorted the remains to a quiet country cemetery where the aviation cadet was buried in the McKean family plot.
The legacy of Minter Field is one of triumphant success. The Air Force Basic Flying School provided critical wartime training for thousands of pilots. But it came at a cost to young men like Glenn McKean and his family. It serves us well to honor their memory.
Paul M. Sailer, who lives in rural north-central Minnesota, is the author of "The Oranges are Sweet."