Unconventional Path to Becoming an Eagle Squadron Pilot

A Little-Known Aspect of World War II History

by Jim Savage


While much has been written about the three RAF American Eagle Squadrons that existed from late 1940 until they were merged into the US Army Air Force in September 1942, little is known about one path traveled by a small group of young American aviators in their quest to become fighter pilots in those exclusive Squadrons. The many restrictions of the four Neutrality Acts enacted in the 1930s prohibited military training in the US for the benefit of any foreign country. This required a carefully constructed aviation training program, using civilian airplanes, as well as inventive recruiting practices and promises to circumvent those restrictions. Such a program was launched in Glendale, CA in early December 1940, a full year before the US formally became involved in World War II.  Although only 60 graduates of this program would serve in one or more of the RAF American Eagle Squadrons, five would become fighter Aces. They would become both household names and some of the earliest aviation heroes of World War II. This article tells the story of that unique and little-known piece of World War II aviation history.


In early December 1940, one year before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a new flight school named Polaris Flight Academy was created in Glendale, California. At the same time, the British government purchased three Spartan Executives from private owners in the United States. The Spartans were to be used as advanced trainers at Polaris for a new Royal Air Force program that would provide what would be referred to as “Refresher” flight training for experienced American pilots. The first small class of four students began training in December 1940. The program graduated 21 classes and was phased out in mid 1942, after the United States officially became involved in World War II.  

Although this program was short lived and is seldom mentioned in the many books that have been written about World War II aviation history, it represented a unique alternative to the U.S. Army Air Force for young American aviators to become military pilots. Of the 213 pilots who graduated from the Polaris Refresher program, 60 went on to serve in one or more of the three RAF American Eagle Squadrons, while many other graduates went on to serve in various RAF fighter and bomber Squadrons. Some of the well-known graduates of this small, unique and largely unknown program included Aces: Major General Carroll McColpin, Captain James Peck, Captain Forrest M. Cox, Lieutenant Colonel John Lynch, Major Don “One Man Air Force” Gentile and Colonel Steve “The Flying Greek” Pisanos. 


World War II began for most European countries when Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. During the first four months of the War, Germany had sunk more than 100 merchant shipping vessels bound for Britain. By June 1940, France had fallen to Germany and Hitler turned his attention to England. The Battle of Britain, a devastating air war for both sides, commenced July 10, 1940 and lasted through October 1940. Although the British eventually prevailed, they lost 544 pilots and 1250 aircraft, of which 1017 were fighters. These huge losses caused Winston Churchill to turn to the United States for help.

In 1935, 1936, 1937 and 1939, the United States had passed Neutrality Acts designed to limit the ability of the United States getting involved in future wars. The first three acts essentially prohibited the sale of anything that could be construed as wartime supplies. Two months after the invasion of Poland, the 1939 Neutrality Act was passed. It was referred to as the Cash and Carry Act of 1939 and provided some flexibility in selling certain war related goods and services to what was referred to as “belligerent” nations. The two basic requirements were that the goods had to be paid for in cash (not financed by the US) and the goods could not be shipped on US vessels. Prohibitions on military training for or by other countries on US soil that had been included in earlier Neutrality Acts remained in force. 

Political Reality

While the American public was divided regarding whether or not to support the British war effort, the Roosevelt Administration seemed to be willing to assist Churchill by looking the other way when creative ideas were hatched that could legally circumvent the underlying intent of the various Neutrality Acts. It would be even better if these creative ideas would help in winning over the hearts and minds of Americans still favoring a policy of isolationism. 

Two separate ideas surfaced that were eventually merged. The first idea was to create a single Squadron of Royal Air Force pilots consisting solely of Americans. The belief was that publicity associated with these “American Heroes” would generate support for the War in Europe amongst American citizens. This concept had previously been employed with great success during World War I with the Lafayette Escadrille, a group of American pilots who flew for the French. Even before the Battle of Britain, a number of Americans had already joined the RAF, so the foundation for staffing a squadron already existed. Since a symbol of America is the eagle, referring to this group of American pilots as an Eagle Squadron was a natural choice. Although it wasn’t legal for an American to be serving in the military of a foreign country, both the British government and the Roosevelt administration, for all practical purposes, looked the other way. 

As the Eagle Squadron concept was beginning to take hold, a second idea surfaced. With the large number of RAF fighter and bomber pilots who were killed in the summer of 1940, the British were looking for creative ways to find replacements. The concept was to create several civilian schools in the US to provide “Refresher” training to licensed pilots, using civilian training aircraft and civilian flight instructors. The airplanes would be purchased by the British under the Cash and Carry provisions of the 1939 Neutrality Act and the graduates of the program could be used in non-RAF positions such as testing and ferrying aircraft to free up existing RAF pilots for combat duty.  Candidates for this program would be identified and screened by an organization known as the Clayton Knight Committee. While the optics of the program were in compliance with US laws and Neutrality Act provisions, the reality was much different. Candidates accepted into the program were well aware that at the completion of the program, they would travel to England and be commissioned as Pilot Officers in the RAF. The Clayton Knight Committee’s success in identifying qualified candidates enabled the Eagle Squadron concept to expand from a single squadron to three. 

The British Refresher Training Program at Polaris Flight Academy – The Early Classes

In November 1940, the British were successful in setting up three civilian training schools in the US. One was in Dallas, TX, one in Tulsa, OK and one in Glendale, CA named Polaris Flight Academy. The remainder of this paper will deal with the Polaris school. 

Although the Polaris arrangement was officially portrayed as a civilian program, it would be structured along the lines of the normal RAF training concept of “Elementary” and “Advanced” training.  This was different than the U.S. military three phase concept of primary, basic and advanced training. Aircraft requirements specified for the Polaris program included  basic airplanes such as Stearman biplanes, an instrument trainer and  advanced trainers with a high horsepower engine, controllable pitch propeller, flaps and retractable landing gear. A Link trainer was also required.  Numerous civilian aircraft were available that could be used for the elementary and instrument requirements.  The challenge was finding non-military advanced trainers. To fulfill that role, Polaris chose the Spartan Executive, a low wing, all metal, cabin monoplane and the British government purchased three of them from private US citizens. Three Stearman biplanes were also purchased for the elementary portion of the course, one Ryan ST-A for use as an instrument trainer and one Link ground trainer. 

Spartan Executive s/n 17 in 1941

The first class, known as Squadron 1, consisted of four individuals. It began December 6, 1940 and concluded February 14, 1941.  Three of the graduates – Carroll McColpin, Thomas McGerty and Thomas Wallace all became members of one of the three Eagle Squadrons. Although it is not known how many hours of training were provided to each of the pilots in this initial squadron, records available for subsequent squadrons show a range of about 70 to 90 hours. About a third of the training hours were in the “advanced” category. Carroll McColpin was one of the early success stories of the Refresher training program. After being commissioned a Pilot Officer in the RAF, his success as a fighter pilot enabled him to achieve Ace status prior to Pearl Harbor. He eventually became a Double Ace and after the Eagle Squadrons were merged into the USAAF, McColpin had a full career in the United States Air Force, retiring as a Major General. 

Carroll McColpin in 1941

Squadron 2 was formed December 27, 1940 and five of the seven graduates joined one of the Eagle Squadrons. Squadron 3 was another small class with only four members, but all ended up in one of the Eagle Squadrons. Squadrons 4, 5 and 6, like most of the earlier Squadrons had many graduates who moved into one of the Eagle Squadrons.

Polaris Refresher Squadron 4. Bottom row, left to right: Chief Instructor Garland Lincoln and instructors Bob Theobald, Hank Reynolds, Pete Callagy and Frank Argall. Second row, left to right: Stephen Crowe, Al Straul, Howard Coffin, Hugh McCall, Pete Steele, George Bruce and Eddie Streets. Spartan Executive “advanced trainer” in background.

While all of the Polaris Squadrons produced a good number of successful fighter pilots, Squadron 7 stands apart from the others. There were 9 graduates in the class, they traveled to England as a group and were all commissioned as Pilot Officers as a group. Eight of the nine became members of one of the Eagle Squadrons. Don McLeod became a near-Ace with 4 aircraft destroyed, Jim Peck became an Ace, John Lynch became a Double Ace and Forrest Cox became a Triple Ace. Prior to graduating from the Polaris Refresher program, the most powerful and advanced aircraft they had trained in were the three 450 HP Spartan Executives. Each member of this Squadron traveled to Canada where they took and passed a check ride in a 450 HP Yale trainer. After arriving in England, they were flying single seat Hawker Hurricanes after as little as two or three hours of additional training in a Miles Master or Harvard. 

Polaris Refresher Squadron 7. Squatting in front – Jim Peck. Standing left to right: Lewis Loudin, John Lynch, Robert Sprague, Kenneth Holder, Don McLeod and Hugh Brown. On wing left to right: James Coxetter and Forrest Cox. Spartan Executive “advanced trainer” in background.

Squadrons 8, 9, and 10 were the last classes before the winds of change arrived. As with earlier classes, all of their training at Polaris had been conducted in civilian airplanes that had been there since the Refresher program started in December 1940. In the first 10 months of the program, 77 pilots had been successfully trained in the first 10 Squadrons at Polaris and 36 had or would become Eagles. Four of those 36 would achieve Ace status. 

Lend Lease Act – March 11, 1941

The US Congress finally loosened the restrictions associated with the Neutrality Acts when they passed the 1941 Lend Lease Act. After passage, it was possible for the British to begin training British RAF pilots in the US using US military training aircraft. General Henry “Hap” Arnold subsequently allocated 260 BT-13s and 285 AT-6s to the British for training purposes. 

Polaris Flight Academy added a second training program in June, 1941 for training British pilots. The program initially was begun in Glendale, CA, but was moved to War Eagle Field in Lancaster, CA by the end of July, 1941. Only military aircraft such as the BT-13 and AT-6 were used for this program. Once the aircraft needs of the new program had been satisfied, BT-13s and AT-6s became available for Refresher training program use. 

Polaris Flight Academy – Squadrons 11 through 21

Squadron 11, formed on July 28, 1941, was the first of the Refresher training Squadrons to begin using the US military training aircraft that had been made available to the British. G. B. Fetrow, a graduate from Squadron 11 flew the following aircraft in training:  Ryan ST-A, 6.1 hours; Stearman, 30.3 hours; BT-13, 18.2 hours; AT-6, 1.3 hours; and Spartan Executive, 5.5 hours. Fetrow and four others from Squadron 11 went on to serve in an Eagle Squadron.

Squadron 12 had moved away from the Spartan Executives for most of the training process. This Squadron had 10 graduates and 5 served in one of the Eagle Squadrons. The logbook of Dominic “Don” Gentile, shows he only flew one of the Spartans a single time and that was for a cross-country flight near the end of his training. Don went on to achieve much fame when he was referred to as a “One Man Air Force” by General Eisenhower due to the large number of aircraft he had destroyed. 

Don Gentile in 1942

Squadrons 13 through 15 produced 24 graduates, with 10 of them going to Eagle Squadrons. 

Squadron 16 was the last Squadron to be formed before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. By the end of December, the Refresher training program was relocated to War Eagle Field in Lancaster, CA. after all non-military flying was banned in the Glendale, CA area. Spiros “Steve” Pisanos was one of two graduates from Squadron 16 to become an Eagle Squadron member. He also became a World War II Double Ace. Similar to Don Gentile from Squadron 12, most of his advanced training was conducted in military aircraft, with his time in a Spartan Executive being limited to cross country flights.

Steve Pisanos in 1942

Squadron 17 was the last to have graduates join Eagle Squadrons and they had two. Once the US had entered the war, the underlying reasons for having a Refresher program and Eagle Squadrons vanished. The Refresher program continued through four more Squadrons, numbers 18, 19, 20 and 21. The final class graduated in June 1942 and by September 1942, the three Eagle Squadrons had been merged into the USAAF. 

The Spartan Executives – After the Polaris Refresher Program

The three Spartan Executives purchased by the British in 1940 that served as advanced trainers in the Polaris Refresher program were all reassigned to the RAF Ferry Command in Dorval, Canada at the end of 1942. Their civilian registration numbers were finally changed to RAF military markings to reflect their true ownership and the military role they had been performing since December 1940. NC17604 became KD100, NC17617 became KD101 and NC17630 became KD102. They served as light transport aircraft throughout the remainder of the war. The following recent photo depicts what S/N 17 might have looked like wearing the RAF registration of KD102, while based in Dorval, Canada.

Did the Eagle Squadrons, the Polaris Refresher Program and the Spartan Executives fulfill their objectives?

Beginning with the Eagle Squadrons, I believe the answer is yes. Both during the War and now, the Eagle Squadrons and the men who served in them have been viewed in the same manner as the Lafayette Escadrille of World War I. The men who served in these Squadrons truly represented the best of the United States in the eyes of the British by risking their lives for a worthy cause, well before their home country had officially entered the War. The fact that 20 of the 244 total Eagles became Aces is clear evidence these Squadrons were not simply public relations gimmicks. 

Moving to the Polaris Refresher Program, the answer is once again, yes. Without the benefit of military trainers and military instructors, the program graduated 213 pilots with the skills necessary to serve in the wartime environment of the RAF. Sixty-one of the 244 total Eagle Squadron pilots were trained at Polaris. Of those 61, six went on to achieve Ace status during World War II. 

Finally, was the Spartan Executive, a civilian executive transport, effective in teaching pilots the necessary skills to enable them to quickly transition into fighter aircraft?  Based on the actual experiences of the Polaris graduates who joined the RAF, the transition into a single seat Hawker Hurricane or Supermarine Spitfire normally only took a few hours of additional training in either a Miles Master or a Harvard. Once again, the answer is a definite yes. 

Legacy of the Polaris Spartan Executives

After the war, the three Spartans were returned to civilian ownership in the US. Today, S/N 17, once flown by Polaris as NC17630, is now registered as NC17634. It is the only airworthy example from the three Spartan Executives that flew at Polaris Flight Academy 80+ years ago, successfully training a small and unique group of young American dreamers for service as RAF pilots during the early days of World War II.  Eagles, Aces and Spartan Executives – – truly a little-known aspect of World War II history.

Spartan Executive s/n 17 as it looks today

Appendix:       Squadron Rosters for the Polaris Refresher Training Program

Squadron 1                 12/6/40           2/14/41

            Carroll W. McColpin              Eagle – Double Ace

            Thomas McGerty                    Eagle

            Edward F. VanDoren   

            Thomas Wallace                     Eagle

Squadron 2                 12/27/40        4/14/4

            John Campbell                        Eagle

            Donald Geffene                        Eagle

            William Geiger                        Eagle

            Mel Hoar         

            Woodrow Hopkins

            Robert Mannix                        Eagle

            Wally Tribken                          Eagle

Squadron 3                 1/27/41           4/4/41

            Clarence Martin                      Eagle

            O. R. Scarborough                   Eagle

            John Warner                            Eagle

            Jack Weir                                  Eagle

Squadron 4                 2/17/41            4/26/41           

            George Russell Bruce

            Howard Coffin

            Edward Crowe

            Hugh H. McCall                        Eagle

            Edward Steele

            Albert Strauel 

            Edward Streets

Squadron 5                 3/17/41            5/14/41

            Forrest Dowling                      Eagle

            Willis A. Fawcett 

            Fred A. Grave

            Marion E. Jackson                  Eagle

            Thomas Loving

            William T. O’Regan               Eagle

            Robert L. Pewitt                      Eagle

            Arthur F. Roscoe                     Eagle

Squadron 6                 4/7/41             6/8/41

            Richard E. Carlson

            Lawrence A. Chatterton      Eagle

            William Christine

            Thomas Chvorniak

            Tony A.  Gallo                          Eagle

            Robert Knowles

            Robert S. Muuller                  Eagle

            Eugene Thacker

            Richard VanElten

Squadron 7                 4/28/41           7/2/41

Hugh C. Brown  Eagle

Forrest M. Cox                           Eagle – Triple Ace

            James G. Coxetter                    Eagle

            Kenneth K. Holder                   Eagle

            Lewis Louden

            John J. Lynch                               Eagle – Double Ace

            Donald W. McLeod                    Eagle

            James E. Peck                               Eagle – Ace

            Robert Sprague                            Eagle

Squadron 8                 5/12/41            8/2/41

            John M. Bennett

            Edwin H. Bicksler                         Eagle

            William M. Bishop

            R. W. Hooper

            Henry H. Hay

            J. P. Jordan

            Joseph M. Kelly                              Eagle

            Edward Manning

            Leo Nomis                                        Eagle

            T. R. Powell

Squadron 9                 6/9/41              9/6/41

            James A. Baraw

            Carl O. Bodding                                Eagle

            Arthur E. Crane

            Leck M. Evans

            Richard G. Hayes

            William B. Inabrinet                      Eagle

            Harry Kelly Jr.

            Jackson B. Mahon                           Eagle

            Frank G. Zavakos                             Eagle

            Clair Waterberry

Squadron 10                7/7/41              10/12/41

            Frank R. Bayles

            Thomas L. Donahoo

            Donald J. Hall

            E. R. Jensen

            W. K. Johnson

            D. W. Jones

            W.W. Lomas

            T. W. Prentice

            Michael L. Simon

Squadron 11                7/28/41            11/5/41

            E. W. Crane

            G. B. Fetrow                                       Eagle

            P. R. Frabun

            R. M. Gibson

            Fletcher Hancock                             Eagle

            Joseph F. Helgason                          Eagle

            Jack L. Kearney                                  Eagle

            D. L. Martin

            J. K. Neuwald

            R. J. Ross

            George Teicheira                               Eagle

            Glenn H. Williams

Squadron 12                8/18/41            11/3/41

            D. M. Brown

            Robert W. Findlay

            Dominic “Don” S. Gentile              Eagle – Multiple Ace (20+)

            James A. Harris

            Loudan A. Herr

            Alfred H. Hopson                               Eagle

            Gene P. Neville                                   Eagle

            Julian Meadowsborne

            William D. Taylor                               Eagle

            Gilbert G. Wright                                Eagle

Squadron 13               9/5/41 1           11/22/41

            J. W. Berry Jr.

            J. P. Cousidine

            G. B. Gatliing

            R. E. Morgan

            Fred Prue

            Glen J. Smart                                        Eagle

            Fonzo D. Smith                                    Eagle

            E. W. Weyle

Squadron 14               9/29/41            12/13/41

            Ernest D. Beatie                                  Eagle

            D. K. Cameron

            P. O. Gaughenbaugh

            A. J. McCormick

            R. L. Priser                                            Eagle

            John T. Slater                                       Eagle

            R. E. Smith                                            Eagle

            Gordon H. Whitlow                            Eagle

Squadron 15               10/21 & 11/10/41      1/12/42

            H. H. Barnes

            Arthur Elder

            G. L. Ellsworth

            Victor J. France                                    Eagle

            W. P. Gray

            A. J. Seaman                                         Eagle

            Andrew J. Stephenson                       Eagle

            F. W. York

Squadron 16               11/24/41                     1/26/42

            J. N. Erickson

            M. Gilormini

            M. M. Goin

            H. J. Greenway

            Pete Gring

            R. L. Hage

            H. Huntington

            C. M. Kirschner

            S. L. Minis

            Kenneth D. Peterson                          Eagle

            Spiros “Steve” Pisanos                     Eagle – Double Ace

            Raymond. Ziesmer Jr.

Squadron 17                12/8/41           2/9/42

            Robert A. Boock                                  Eagle

            Richard G. Braley                               Eagle

            Louis A. Daly

            Sherman Pruitt

            Leroy A. Shreiner

            Donald A. Weidenhauser

            W. C. Ward

*For the 17 Squadrons formed before the US officially entered WW II, the British Refresher Training Program at Polaris Flight Academy graduated 143 pilots. Sixty would serve in one of the three RAF Eagle squadrons and six would achieve Ace status.

Squadron 18               1/5/42             3/30/42

            C. P. Almond

            M. L. Armstrong

            C. M. Blankeney

            J. E. Dittus

            L. F. Hays

            R. P. Heckman

            J. Klaas

            O. H. Krause

            C. Moore

            G. Parrish

            J. Regan

            C. D. Schluter 

            R. Simon

            F.  Trafton

            C. H. Tucker

            R. West

Squadron 19               2/2/42             4/20/42

            E. C. Baker

            O. R. Brown

            W. Callaghy

            M. Crocker

            W. C. Dabney, Jr.

            H. B. Gouce

            M. W. Haskell

            F. J. Kinsel

            D. W. Koon

            P. S. Kuhns

            J. D. Leadingham

            L. L. MacFarlane

            W. W. McLatchy

            F. D. Merritt

            M. R. Mitchell

            N. D. Munson

            W. Roper

            J. P. Thomas

            D. E. Wilkes

            V. W. Williams

Squadron 20               3/2/42             5/18/42

            W. A. Anderson

            M. R. Bridges, Jr.

            B. O. Byers

            F. D. Clausen

            R. W. Cresswell

            C. Danges

            G. W. Heater

            A. H. Elliott, Jr.

            F. J. Englert

            D.K. Einery

            B. A. Gallagher

            F. R. Kayde

            F. R. Huntsinger, Jr.

            Michael Kornuta

            L. S. Leland

            R. W. Murphy

            L. H. Nobley

            H. G. Roberts

            Harry Smith

            Ed Tray

            G. C. Urie

            D. S. Whittaker

Squadron 21               April 1942 – June 1942 (estimated)

            Don Barbee     

            William L. Braun

            David C. CurrieFred 

            C. Hill

            William B. Irvin

            Noel Jack Jones

            H. D. Kelly

            Niceto Metal

            Howard F. Powders

            Murrey Robertson

            G. C. Scott

            P. Farr Smith

**For all of the 21 British Refresher Training Program Squadrons at Polaris Flight Academy 213 pilots graduated. Sixty would serve in one of the three RAF Eagle squadrons and six would achieve Ace status.


Federal Aviation Administration records for: Spartan Executive serial numbers 9, 16 and 17; Stearman serial numbers 5011, 5013 and 5034; and Ryan ST-A serial number 149.

Personal records of Polaris Academy Refresher Course flight instructor Louis “Bud” Francis Foster Jr. from the C.E. Daniel collection.

Polaris Flight Academy Refresher Course “Squadron Books” for units 16 and 21.

U.S. Neutrality Act of 1939

U.S. Lend Lease Act of 1941

Personal logbooks and flight records of Carroll W. McColpin, Spiros “Steve” Pisanos, Dominic “Don” Gentile, and Forrest M. Cox.

Flight records for Leo Nomis – Eagles of the RAF by Philip D. Caine

Listing of 244 Eagle Squadron pilots – Eagles of the RAF by Philip C. Caine

One Man Air Force by Don S. Gentile

The Flying Greek by Col. Steve N. Pisanos, USAF (Ret.)

So far from Home by Robert B. Kane

The Royal Air Force in American Skies by Tom Killebrew