Reuniting With an Old Friend

When World War II began, America found itself in desperate need of more bodies to join the armed forces. The demand for more pilots was no different. Pilots would be taking to the skies in large formations of aircraft of every type. While today we look back and pay tribute to the brave souls who flew daring combat missions, one group who does not always get the spotlight is the group of aviators who trained those combat crews: the flight instructors. 

When Jim Busha, EAA’s vice president of publications, marketing, and membership, alerted me to the chance of talking to one of those who conducted the training, I saw it as a rare opportunity. When World War II veteran John Brebner walked into the hangar where we would conduct our interview, I was immediately impressed with him. He seemed like he could easily still teach flying even while being well into his 90s. As we sat down and chatted, I felt more like I was having the rare opportunity to get a ground school lesson from a WWII flight instructor than I was conducting an interview for our Timeless Voices program. We started with some background on his family, and then he talked about joining the USAAF and the dangers of flight training during the war. “The day I was prepared to solo, I held short for a landing aircraft. As the plane landed, the student made an error and cartwheeled the plane down the runway. My instructor ran into the burning wreckage and dragged him out of it.” As John’s instructor proved, heroism existed on the home front as well. 

After John earned his wings, he was assigned as an instructor, and taught primary and basic training. He flew aircraft like the BT-13, PT-19, and of course the legendary North American T-6 Texan. “The T-6 was really the plane we all wanted to fly. Because it was basically a fighter. The next step after the T-6 would be to something like a P-40,” John said.

John spent his war time at USAAF bases all across the southern United States as he prepared men for combat. It was never lost on John that training for war was serious business. “I tried to be supportive, but firm for these guys.  I had to remember they were about to go to war.”

As we spent some time in the hangar that housed our T-6, I could see the look in his eye as he would stare at it. It was an old war buddy he had not seen in some time. I asked John when the last time he was up close to a T-6. His response was, “Well, let’s see. Probably 1945.” With that, we were on our way to the trailing edge. I told him, “If you feel comfortable, you are welcome to go ahead and climb on in.” Comfortable was not even the correct word. He was in fact, right at home. Just as graceful as he would have during the war, John climbed up with little effort. In fact I would argue that muscle memory took over and his body knew right where to go. He walked up the wing walk and placed one foot on the step as he began to look over the aircraft. Standing there looking up at John, I could see he was in his element. Those steps he took up that wing transformed him into that 21-year-old instructor pilot all over again. 

John’s visit was a much-needed reminder of just how much power these WWII aircraft have. I am not talking about horsepower under the cowling, but the power they have to rekindle the emotions of someone from decades ago. All of us here are proud to get to play a small role in providing the stage for these reunions. 

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