Friday, 8 January 2016

Pilot training in the Luftwaffe - flight discipline, pilot culture and the development of procedures and check lists - "Why Air Forces Fail " (2)

“Mister Steinhoff, you might be a hero but your instrument flying is lousy!”

 (US instructor to Oberst Johannes Steinhoff -176 aerial victories - after a jet training sortie post-war)

The Germans have a reputation for being orderly and efficient in everything they do. In reality they were/are probably very far from this idealised image. (2015's VW scandal and Merkel's recent decision making in the current European migrant crisis are good and very recent examples of this 'indiscipline' !) This is especially true of flight training and attitudes to flying in the war-time Luftwaffe. Although the Germans started the war with a cadre of well-trained, even experienced pilots, training was to become " the Luftwaffe's greatest failure.." (James S. Corum in 'Why Air Forces fail' p219) In general terms it is probably true to say that the majority of Luftwaffe pilots were technically rather poorer than their counterparts in other air forces, certainly in comparison with USAF, RAF and even Soviet pilots the longer the war continued. As the war progressed the large disparity in training time between Allied and German schools grew - Corum goes so far to state that by 1944 ..." replacement pilots in the Luftwaffe were so poorly trained they did not need Allied fighters to bring them down in large numbers.. " ('Why Air Forces Fail' p221).  Inexperienced or poorly trained pilots could not cope with engine failures, rough field takeoffs or landings, bad weather or heavy cloud cover..

The problem with pilot training in the Luftwaffe from the outset was linked to that of culture and discipline. Two studies look at aspects of indiscipline in flight training and pilot culture in the wartime Luftwaffe. Ernst Stilla's PhD doctoral thesis on the "Luftwaffe in the battle for air supremacy over Europe" looks at the factors in the defeat of the Luftwaffe in the defensive battles in the West and over Germany, with particular consideration given to research and production, technical development and " human factors", such as pilot training. Elsewhere US academic Roger Bohn's study 'Not flying by the book' looks at the adoption of better flying methods and procedures, especially check-lists during WWII and post-war up to the adoption of the Standard Flying Procedure system and is a very useful read for non-linguists as it exploits parts of Stilla's dissertation. The 'human factor' in flying is of course an important cause in accidents - the wartime Luftwaffe lost literally thousands of aircraft through non-combat causes. In February 1944 alone over one thousand Luftwaffe aircraft were lost in accidents, a good proportion of which were " considered due to inadequate training.." (Boog quoted in Isby 'The decisive duel'  p361)..

Faced with the development of increasingly more complex aircraft during WW II and the training of huge numbers of new pilots to fly them, some air forces recognised that standardised procedures and check-lists had to be drawn-up to maintain and increase military effectiveness. Few air forces though did this. The Luftwaffe certainly did not, and the 'culture' of this organisation simply would not have allowed it - quite the opposite. Accidents and surviving them were almost a badge of honour for the pilots. This had little to do with the intensity of the war in the air - Werner Mölders noted as early as 1935 in his diary that there were very many accidents due to lack of discipline, and Galland's biographers noted that accidents among the 'macho' German fighter jocks were a daily occurrence in 1938.

Pre-war, in Spain, and during the early years of WW II, the Luftwaffe was heavily dominated by individualistic fighter pilots. While experienced pilots valued their 'autonomy', free of the constraints of 'rigid discipline' and had developed their own 'flight craft' and decision-making skills to fall back on, newer pilots did not have this luxury.  Accidents " were common and accepted .. there were few procedures, no checklists and little written documentation.." (Roger Bohn -see below) Gunther Rall's account of converting onto the Luftwaffe's standard fighter - the Messerschmitt Bf 109-  is revealing - while he had almost 200 hours of flight time,  he was operating without any checklist, not even a simple memorised checklist as used in the RAF. The Bf 109 may have been one of the best fighter aircraft in the world in 1940, but it was a pretty unforgiving machine;

" ...its spindly narrow-track undercarriage is actually much too weak to cope with the enormous torque, rate of yaw, and turbulence of the airscrew. Take-off accidents are therefore commonplace, not just in the training schools, but also among front-line units... And once in the air the pilot still has his hands more than full: the undercarriage must be retracted...before a certain airspeed is reached, engine and propeller have to be set manually to cruise, the flaps cranked up by a large hand-wheel....and the now tail-heavy bird....trimmed for level flight..... [A few moments later].... frantically carrying out in reverse order everything that they had somehow successfully managed to do at take-off. It is advisable under such circumstances not to mix up, let alone forget, any of the actions described above, for the Messerschmitt is no docile carthorse, but a highly-strung thoroughbred. If the propeller pitch is not reduced in time, any attempt to go round again will end in a crash beyond the airfield perimeter. If the undercarriage has not been lowered, because the pilot has never before needed to lower an undercarriage in his life, he'll at least get down on the field, but in a resounding belly-landing .... But even then the Messerschmitt still has a few more tricks up its sleeve. If the stick is not held firmly back after touchdown, or if the pilot tramps a little too heavily on the brakes, a somersault is almost inevitable...."

It is striking to note that high accident rates in the Luftwaffe were mostly not the result of combat. In his study Ernst Stilla (see below) quotes Milch who - in early 1943 - complained to the leadership about 'declining aviation discipline' and highlighted loss rates during transfer (long-distance change of base) flights, which had risen to some 20% damaged or destroyed (during the period May-September 1942). In comparison overall American losses during transport flights from the US across the Atlantic Ocean in September 1944 - a journey of several thousand kilometres - were just six aircraft out some 1,200!

In retrospect, the situation cried out for checklists and standardised procedures but Luftwaffe commanders saw little or no use for such developments - one Luftwaffe General, Walther Wever, had famously died in 1936 piloting his own aircraft, having forgotten to remove the external gust locks. The Wever crash was the putative spur to the USAF’s invention of aviation checklists. But this crucial aspect in the management of technological change in aviation was entirely neglected by the Luftwaffe. The 'technology' was not even "classified" and could have been copied easily. In the US, 'Life' Magazine ran an article on the B-17 checklist in 1942, and by the mid-war years American aircraft shot down over Germany carried checklists in various formats.

One important area where the Luftwaffe also and critically failed to adopt 'best practise' was in the area of instrument training. The Luftwaffe was primarily a "fair-weather" air force in 1940, and it remained such throughout the war. Only the desperate expedient of putting bomber pilots trained on instruments into fighters from spring 1943 - the so-called wilde Sau fighters - enabled the Luftwaffe to deploy fighter aircraft to intercept bombers in bad weather. The day fighter arm was troubled by bad weather through the war. As General der Jagdflieger this was one of Adolf  Galland's biggest mistakes according to Caldwell;

 " ..he did not realise the need for instrument training for single-engine day fighter pilots until it was too late. His attitude was typical of the macho prewar  fighter jock. Fight over the Reich? Against planes that fly in clouds? What nonsense! "

This was an area where Luftwaffe pilots were at a severe disadvantage as the air war intensified as Steinhoff pointed out;

  “..very frequently fighting took place over long distances above cloud cover, and the completely disoriented fighters had to go below the deck and attempt to land wherever they could. Together with insufficient navigational aids, this resulted in many additional losses and a wide scattering of our aircraft. "

By late 1943 the Luftwaffe had lost most of its original complement of pilots. In the first six months of 1943, Germany lost 1,100 fighter pilots, which was about 60% of the number at the start of the year. It lost another 15 percent in each of July and August. It is interesting to note that of the 100+ Luftwaffe 'aces' credited with over 100 victories during WW II only eight of them started their flying career after 1942. The high pilot losses had two disastrous effects. First, even if they had been well trained, newer pilots were inexperienced and inevitably sustained more accidents and combat casualties than the pilots they replaced. Aside from the fact that the Luftwaffe's leadership expected every campaign to be a short one and for many of them stripped training schools of experienced instructors, pilot training programmes in the Luftwaffe were heavily curtailed. Already in early 1944, the Luftwaffe fighter pilot training was shortened to an average of 160 flight hours. A few weeks later, it was further shortened to only 112 hours. Finally, in the spring of 1944, the B flight schools were disbanded, and the pilots were sent into first-line service directly after A schools. The condition for the A2 flight certificate included a basic training of sixty training flights with a total of 15 flight hours. Meanwhile, the average USAAF or RAF fighter pilot's training consisted of 225 flight hours. German survival rates correspondingly reached a nadir. During the first five months of 1944 Luftwaffe fighter units underwent a complete turnover of pilots so that the German achievements in production during 1944 were entirely hollow.

As Bob Goebel pointed out in his memoir 'Mustang Ace', all fighter pilots - certainly all US P-51 pilots - could probably fly well. But while only relatively few could shoot well, in the Luftwaffe, Nachwuchs or new growth pilots-at the controls of their high-powered and heavily armed Bf 109s-could do neither. In his two volume history of the leading Luftwaffe Defence of the Reich fighter Geschwader JG 300, Jean-Yves Lorant noted that " ..the average life expectancy of a JG 300 pilot for the last year of the war amounted to just 11 hours of flying - barely four sorties..including check and ferry flights.." So while there was almost no fuel for training, there were plenty of aircraft, so the Luftwaffe kept sending pilots up to be slaughtered. Bohn argues that better training procedures could have prevented many deaths and at the very least would have facilitated the rapid training of large numbers of new pilots. In the end, improvisation and then desperation dominated. The ideological image of the fanatical fighter - which led to the creation of 'specialist' ramming units - had increasingly overtaken professional capabilities and skills. Little thought was given to the pilots' lives.

With the post-war establishment of the Bundesluftwaffe ,German vets were sceptical and ambivalent towards American training procedures, once again highlighting the war-time Luftwaffe's indifference to training and accidents; despite good language training, the German pilots had difficulty adapting to American  training procedures -  learning by rote, repetition, and precise implementation of standard check lists. This was in stark contrast to the experiences of the German veterans. The longer the war had lasted,the shorter and less professional the German pilot training had become. Shortages of fuel due to bombing and Soviet recapture of oil fields also forced reductions in flight training hours with dramatic consequences.
Günther Rall gives a balanced evaluation, writing many years after his retraining.Here is his colourful comparison of checklists with Catholic religious rituals.

" ...Then, on 19 Sept 1956, I am at last once again strapped into a proper aircraft: a North American T-6.... And on my knees, for the first time in my flying career, I have a check-list. On this the Americans have set down, step by step, every action that has to be taken to get the T-6 into the air and then back down again. The list is arranged in handy sections and anyone who doesn't carry out all the moves and checks in exactly the right sequence is automatically flunked, despite the fact that he might be a hundred times more efficient by doing things in his own individual way. Procedures and checks do for US pilot training what the rosary and litany do  for the devout Catholic -- more in fact: if employed with sufficient ardor, both will get you into heaven, but only the former will return you to earth afterwards. It takes some little while before I learn to appreciate the benefits of this system that at first sight seems so rigid and stupid. Anyone who knows his procedures and has the acronyms in his head to call them up, can hardly go wrong even in the most difficult situations..."

..and that last sentence is -in a nutshell- why there is a Standard Flying Procedure today....

Sources for this blog post;

James S. Corum in " Why Air Forces Fail - The defeat of the Luftwaffe 1935-45 "

Ernst Stilla's PhD doctoral thesis on the "Luftwaffe in the battle for air supremacy over Europe" is entitled Die Luftwaffe im Kampf um die Luftherrschaft. Entscheidende Einflussgrößen bei der Niederlage der Luftwaffe im Abwehrkampf im Westen und über Deutschland im Zweiten Weltkrieg unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Faktoren „Luftrüstung“, „Forschung und Entwicklung“ und „Human Ressourcen“ and is available as a PDF download from the University of Bonn's website here

US academic Roger Bohn's study 'Not flying by the book' on the implementation of check lists and procedures in the world's air forces