Air Force pilots return to their training grounds: Texas Fly-In hosts a mini-reunion

Thousands of U.S. Air Force pilots earned their wings at Hondo Field in Texas when it was a major training base in the 1940s and 1950s. Any graduate of the rigorous program will tell you that the year spent learning to fly “the Air Force way” was a special time in their lives.

Paul Kalisch of Aurora, Colo., agrees.

“The experience at Hondo in 1955 was the most fun I ever had,” he said earlier this month, just after returning from the Texas Fly-In, where he and several of his classmates had an “unofficial” reunion.

Kalisch, whose class was the last to fly the T-6 Texan trainer, contacted several of his classmates to arrange the mini-reunion of Pilot Training Class 56-O.

Joining Kalisch were Al Hockley, Joe Flanigen, Steve Cease, Jim Richards and Bob Roberts.  

Quite unexpectedly, the six found another classmate, Harold Oaks. “He was a volunteer with EAA and he was a student officer in our class,” Kalisch reported.

The mini-reunion followed on the heels of an official reunion last March in Tucson that attracted 86 classmates.

Catching up with his classmates, whether at an official reunion or the return to Hondo, was a great experience, Kalisch said.

“We were telling ‘war stories’ and ‘can you top this,'” he said. “As one would relate a flying tale, another one would think of his experience. Then there was a lot of ‘do you remember so and so…remember when he did so and so.’ Of course the poor guy was not there to defend himself, so the stories got kind of wild.”

Kalisch learned to fly in a Piper J-3 Cub before joining the Air Force. He thought that would give him an edge. “They were using the same airplane that was slightly upgraded with a bigger engine and wing flaps, so I was the first one to solo,” he recalled. “However my instructor told me to forget everything I knew and I would have to go through the minimum hours the Air Force way before I could solo.

“The T-6 was the highlight of the experience for all of us,” he continued. “It was big, intimidating and noisy.

The airplane had a reputation for ground looping. It had lots of torque on takeoff, requiring lots of rudder to keep it going straight.”

There were several T-6s at the fly-in. “We took a photo in front of the one that looked the most like the ones we had,” he said, noting “actually the ones at the fly in were SNJs, which is the Navy version, but it is almost the same.”

A lot of the talk, of course, was where classmates went after their time in Hondo. “Some of us went on to be airline pilots, some stayed in the Air Force and some quit flying,” said Kalisch, who stayed in the Air Force 10 years, then went to work for Continental Airlines, retiring as a captain. Two of the others attending the mini-reunion, Roberts and Cease, also flew for the airlines.

One of the highlights of the reunion was a visit to the Flightline Cafe in Hondo, where the owner has collected yearbooks and pictures from various classes over the years. The six also toured the old base, trying to locate any buildings that were there when they were. They didn’t find any.

They hope to get another chance next year when they meet again at the Texas Fly-In.

“We talked about coming back next year and perhaps having more people, including some of the student officers and also wives,” Kalisch said. “Wives were invited this time, but none chose to come.”

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