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While many people on campus are aware that the U of M’s Air Force ROTC program is nicknamed “the Flying Tigers,” very few people know that the University’s first pilot training program actually took place during World War II under the auspices of the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA). The Civilian Pilot Training Program or CPTP operated at what was then-West Tennessee State Teacher’s College (WTSTC) from 1939 through 1944.

When the CPTP came into existence, the College was in the process of recovering from the Depression. While enrollment did not drop during the ’30s, the school’s appropriations did. President John Brister had to work very hard to ensure the school would survive on a tight budget. By the fall of 1937, Brister had begun the process of repairing and expanding the campus’ facilities, which were greatly neglected during the Depression.

Pauline Mixon was the only female pilot trainee to complete the elementary course of the College’s Civilian Pilot Training Program during the 1942-1943 school year.
Pauline Mixon was the only female pilot trainee to complete the elementary course of the College’s Civilian Pilot Training Program during the 1942-1943 school year.

In 1939, Hitler invaded Poland and it became clear that the U.S. might become involved in the war. The College, like many others, became concerned about its financial survival with the realization that enrollments would drop drastically if the U.S. officially entered the war. The Civilian Pilot Training Program was the first of several war training programs that WTSTC added to its curriculum in order to secure federal funding and ensure the College’s survival.

WTSTC’s Pilot Training Program was one of many such programs operated around the country under the auspices of the CAA. Early aviation pioneer and Memphian Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie helped create the forerunner of the national CPTP in Tennessee in 1937. Omlie convinced the Tennessee Legislature to pass an aviation act, which created a fuel tax as a funding source for maintaining airports and aviation education. Omlie worked to create a series of pilot training programs around the state with the funds from the legislation.

Germany and Italy initiated civilian pilot training programs in the mid-’30s that were created to provide a base of pilots for commercial flying. However, the programs were also intended to create military pilots if necessary. The same was true in the United States. The Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 authorized the creation of a national pilot training program that evolved into the CPTP. Omlie, who was an administrator for the CAA, was actively involved in setting up training programs around the country.

After the U.S. officially entered World War II in 1941, the CPTP became the War Training Service and all participating students were required to sign agreements to enlist in the armed forces upon graduation. The most famous participants in the CPTP were the Tuskegee Airmen. Over the course of the war, CPTP pilot training helped many African-American pilots gain entry into the Air Force and Army officer training programs. The program also trained female pilots who went on to serve as Women’s Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs). In its six years of existence, the program was responsible for training more than 400,000 pilots nationwide.

Glider pilot Conley Heaberlin makes a last minute check of his aircraft before a training flight. Heaberlin and his classmates in the Civilian Pilot Training Program’s secondary course completed flight training hours as well as ground school coursework.
Glider pilot Conley Heaberlin makes a last minute check of his aircraft before a training flight. Heaberlin and his classmates in the Civilian Pilot Training Program’s secondary course completed flight training hours as well as ground school coursework.

Dr. Charles E. Lane of the physics department was the first director of WTSTC’s Civilian Pilot Training Program. The program got off to a slow start because it was only funded to train 10 students per semester. Professor Emory Cook directed the program for the 1940-1941 school year.

The status of the program on campus changed dramatically when Professor Lamar Newport took over in the fall of 1941 and the program shifted to the War Training Service. During its third year, 30 students completed the elementary course and 39 students completed the secondary course. Elementary course students participated in basic ground school training. Secondary course students completed a more rigorous ground school training program and then were sent on to other flight schools to train as flight instructors and commercial pilots.

Newport introduced more rigorous training for his students so they would have a better chance of passing their final exams and become eligible for further pilot training. In his first semester directing the program, Newport’s elementary course students had a 100 percent pass rate on their final exam. In total, the program trained 47 Flying Tigers that year. Ten students completed the entire program in 1941 and 37 others completed the first or second half of training.

Three female students, Joy Jehl, Martha McKenzie and Agnes Walker, also completed flight training in the 1941-1942 school year before the CPTP became the War Training Service. Women were not admitted to the War Training Service for anything beyond the elementary course of study because of the requirement that graduates enlist. In the 1942-1943 school year, one female student, Pauline Mixon, completed the elementary course of study along with 66 male students who completed some portion of the coursework. Although exact numbers cannot be found, it is estimated that between 100 and 150 student pilots were trained for participation in World War II and/or as commercial pilots by the CPTP at WTSTC. The national War Training Service ended during the summer of 1944.

— by Frances Breland

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Last Updated: 1/8/13