Most aviation enthusiasts have heard of the Eagle Squadrons of the Royal Air Force (RAF) that existed for a brief period of time during World War 2. A good percentage of those who have heard of the Eagle Squadrons know little more than the fact they consisted of American airmen serving in the RAF. There are also aviation enthusiasts who are familiar with the Spartan Executive, an art deco executive transport used by wealthy businessmen of the 1930’s. However, there are very few who understand how several Spartan aircraft and a small number of Eagle Squadron pilots came together through a unique set of circumstances to become a part of World War 2 aviation history.
Although only representing a small segment of the RAF, there were three squadrons; numbers 71, 121, and 133. They were formed in the year prior to the United States getting involved in the war and were all merged into the USAAF in September, 1942. A total of 244 Americans served in these three squadrons. Of particular interest to me is the fact that 19 of these men achieved the status of ACE, a level of recognition for having downed 5 enemy aircraft. Some of those 19 went well beyond that as double, triple and quadruple ACES.
Initially, there was a price to be paid for an American citizen joining the military of another country. At the moment they were sworn in, they forfeited their U.S. citizenship. For most, that would be restored once the U.S. entered the war, but for some, it didn’t happen until as late at 1970. Who were these soldiers of fortune? Obviously by the time they joined the RAF and were assigned to one of the Eagle Squadrons, they were already qualified pilots. Some saw war as inevitable for the U.S. and they wanted to choose their military career path rather than waiting to be drafted and then being assigned to wherever the U.S. military thought most appropriate. Others didn’t meet the strict criteria for becoming an American aviator due to being slightly too tall or slightly too short. Not having a year or more of college education, a U.S. requirement, provided another reason to consider the RAF. Still others were intrigued by the opportunity to fly Spitfires, generally considered to be the best fighter of the early 1940’s.
For fully qualified pilots who wanted to join the RAF, they would make their way to Canada or England and simply join. Many actually did so, even before formation of the Eagle Squadrons. They served with their British counterparts in regular RAF squadrons. For those less qualified aviators, a program was devised in the fall of 1940 that would circumvent the many restrictions of various Neutrality Acts that had been enacted in the USA during the 1930’s. Pilots with a minimum level of flying competence would enroll in one of three newly created “British Refresher Training” schools. One was in Texas, one in Oklahoma and one in California. For the remainder of this story, I will focus on the California school – – Polaris Flight Academy.
The underlying problem for the British was a lack of qualified fighter pilots. Many had been lost during the Battle of Britain and they were looking for methods, both large and small, to help resolve that issue. The Neutrality Act restrictions prohibited direct military training in the U.S. and direct use of military equipment. The “plan” that was devised was to have the British Government purchase U.S. civilian aircraft, keep them registered as U.S. civilian aircraft and train willing American aviators to fulfill roles of civilian ferry pilots delivering airplanes from Canada to Europe. That would free up current RAF ferry pilots for new roles in fighter aircraft.
For normal military flight training programs in that time period, three levels of airplanes were used. These consisted of Primary Trainers such as the PT-13, Basic Trainers such as the BT-13 and Advanced Trainers such as the AT-6. With the many available civilian airplanes already in the U.S., Polaris Flight Academy had no difficulty finding different makes and models of airplanes to satisfy the needs for Primary and Basic roles. The Advanced trainer presented much more of a challenge since it needed to be powerful, with retractable landing gear, flaps and a constant speed propeller. In 1940, the only real choices were the Beech Staggerwing and the Spartan Executive. The Texas school chose the Staggerwing and the Oklahoma school chose the Spartan Executive. Polaris also chose the Spartan and purchased three airplanes in December 1940 from existing civilian owners. The actual purchase was made by the United Kingdom Government and the airplanes were registered in the name of Polaris Flight Academy. These consisted of S/N 9, NC 17604, S/N 16, NC 17617, and S/N 17, NC 17630. Polaris began training with these civilian airplanes in early 1941 and the Spartans were used by them through the end of 1942. The following picture shows S/N 17 with Polaris markings in the Spring of 1941.
Complicating the story somewhat was the Lend Lease Act that was passed in March 1941. This Act eliminated some of the restrictions associated with earlier neutrality acts and now made it possible for schools like Polaris to train British citizens using military aircraft. Those changes were somewhat slow in coming but by late summer of 1941, Polaris had started training British pilots using PT-19’s, BT-13’s and AT-6’s. These military aircraft wore USAAF and not RAF or U.S. civilian registration numbers. By summer of 1942, another major change had been made and all new students were USAAF cadets. Existing British students and other American aviators that were part of the initial programs, completed their training by the end of 1942. In December 1942, the three Spartan Executives were transferred to the RAF Ferry Command in Montreal, Canada and they were reregistered as military aircraft with registration numbers KD100, KD101 and KD102.
Many of the American graduates from Polaris did not go on to become civilian ferry pilots as was originally envisioned when the program was conceived. Actually, most made their way to England through an underground network of enablers and became members of one of the RAF Eagle Squadrons. The following pictures shows a group of Polaris graduates who traveled to England together in the Spring of 1941. All nine of the members had gone through the Polaris training together and they made their way to England and joined the RAF as a group.
What is interesting about this picture is of the nine individuals shown, one (John J. Lynch) became a double ACE with 13 destroyed aircraft, one (James E. Peck) became an ACE with 6 destroyed aircraft and one (Donald W. McLeod) nearly became an ACE with 4 destroyed aircraft. These nine officers completed all of their training at Polaris Flight Academy at a time when the only Advanced category airplanes were Spartan Executives. At this point, we have clear evidence linking Spartan Executives to not only pilots of the Eagle Squadrons, but also to specific Eagle Squadron ACES.
I am fortunate to have a copy of the complete log books for Forrest M. Cox, center, top row. In his case, the log books document the completion of 17 hours of advanced training in the Spartan Executives. His flight time is split fairly evenly between the three different airplanes that were available. While it is certain all of these pilots flew one or more of the three Spartans at Polaris for their advanced training, the probability that all of these pilots flew in each of the available advanced trainers seems quite high. However, unless and until I can find copies of their log books, that second point remains an intriguing point of speculation.
As mentioned in the early part of this story, 19 of the 244 Americans who were members of the three Eagle Squadrons became ACES. In addition to the ones mentioned above, two others were graduates of Polaris Flight Academy. These include Steve Pisanos with 10 destroyed aircraft and George Carpenter with 14 destroyed aircraft. Both of these individuals were at Polaris in late 1941, at a time when both Spartan Executives and AT-6’s were both being used for training. Again, without log book proof, it is impossible to know with certainty whether or not they flew in any or all of the available Spartans.
As the owner of Spartan Executive S/N 17, I have learned there is a definite connection to Spartan Executives, the RAF Eagle Squadrons and some of the ACES of the Eagle Squadrons.
Although an exact number is unknown, the ranks of the 244 American pilots who served with the three Eagle Squadrons were well populated with graduates from Polaris Flight Academy. At least 4 of the 19 Eagle Squadron ACES and one near ACE were graduates of Polaris. It is virtually certain that 2 of the ACES and the one near ACE received their advanced flight training in a Spartan Executive. It is plausible that 2 additional ACES received some of their advanced flight training in a Spartan Executive.
The research to locate additional log books or other reliable documentation from Polaris trained ACES continues, so with a bit of luck, this isn’t the end of the story. Even without additional information, it is clear the three Spartan Executives used as advanced trainers at Polaris Flight Academy played an integral part of Eagle Squadrons and RAF ACE history during World War 2.
As a footnote to this history, all three of the Spartan Executives were transferred to the RAF Ferry Command in Montreal, Canada in late December 1942. They served as light executive transports through the end of the War. The following picture is a recreation of what S/N 17 would have looked like with RAF markings while based in Canada.
After the War, they resumed their role as civilian aircraft in the USA, wearing their original registration numbers of NC17604, NC17617 and NC17630. NC17604 was destroyed in the early 1950’s, while the other two still survive. NC17617 is currently undergoing a restoration and the other, now wearing registration number NC17634 is currently airworthy and is regularly shown at major air show events in the USA. The following picture taken in 2018 shows the two survivors from a brief moment in time when they were serving as Advanced Trainers for a small number of young Americans who would go on to serve in one of the legendary Eagle Squadrons of the RAF and for a few who would go on to achieve the rare status as a World War 2 ACE.