DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – New documents have come to light indicating one of the most famous men in history, U.S. President John F. Kennedy, learned to fly at an Embry-Riddle seaplane base in Miami during World War II. The training took place over 10 days in 1944.
The findings, verified by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Archivist Kevin Montgomery, have been corroborated by presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, author of the forthcoming book, “American Moonshot: JFK and the Great Space Race.”
“I would call it a fact that JFK trained to fly with Embry-Riddle in Miami,” said Brinkley, Ph.D., a professor of history at Rice University.
The story of how Kennedy started flight lessons in Miami began on a starless night in August 1943. Navy Lieutenant Kennedy was commanding PT-109, a motor torpedo boat that was patrolling the straights in the Solomon Islands, waiting to attack a Japanese naval convoy when an unseen enemy destroyer broadsided the much smaller patrol boat, sinking it and scattering the crewmembers into the water and wreckage.
The report of the catastrophe, the harrowing rescue, and Kennedy’s heroism quickly appeared in newspapers across America, and eventually this story would help propel him into politics and ultimately into the presidency.
When Kennedy returned to the states, he was assigned to the Navy’s Submarine Chaser Training Center in downtown Miami as an instructor in March of 1944, while waiting for back surgery from injuries he received in the PT-109 accident.
At this time, Embry-Riddle was training thousands of American and British military aviators at a half dozen airfields in south Florida for the war effort.
But school founder John Paul Riddle still had his original Miami flight school and charter service location – a small seaplane base on Biscayne Bay – that had opened in 1939 to train anybody who wanted to learn to fly through the Civilian Pilot Training Program.
“From the location of the sub chaser center, also on the edge of Biscayne Bay, Kennedy would have been able to see Embry-Riddle aircraft taking off from the seaplane base across the bay,” said Montgomery.
Nobody knows how this war hero from a storied family ended up at the front desk of the flight school asking about flying lessons or what motivated him to learn to fly seaplanes. He was an avid sailor from a young age, and at this time, his older brother was flying land-based PB4Y Liberators from England on anti-submarine missions.
Mining History for Clues
The facts of Kennedy’s flight training in Miami had been lost to time until Embry-Riddle’s Dean Emeritus Bob Rockett began chasing down an anecdote almost 15 years ago that Kennedy had taken flight lessons at Embry-Riddle’s seaplane base when he was in the Navy during World War II.
In 2004, Rockett, then dean of the University’s Heritage Project, spoke with Helen Hassey, a pioneering aviator who had been a flight instructor at the Embry-Riddle seaplane base in the 1940s.
“She told me about the day Kennedy appeared at the base in Miami for flight lessons,” said Rockett. “We didn’t have any information about this in our archives. In trying to verify Helen’s story, I contacted the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. They told me they had no record of JFK ever taking flight lessons.”
No additional information could be found on the Kennedy-seaplane story until 2016, when Rockett and Montgomery learned about authenticated pages from a flight log signed by Kennedy on a website for the Shapell Manuscript Foundation, an organization based in Israel that researches and collects original manuscripts and historical documents, including of American presidents.
“The flights recorded in the log took place over a 10-day period in May of 1944, in Miami, in Piper Cub seaplanes, the same type of aircraft used at the seaplane base,” said Montgomery. “I cross-checked the airplane tail numbers from Kennedy’s flight log entries with photographs of our seaplane fleet in the archives and found a match.”
Montgomery and Rockett were now convinced the story was true, but they still needed supporting evidence.
A chance Facebook message in spring 2017 to the Embry-Riddle Eagle Alumni Center from Bambi Miller at the Piper Pilot Shop in Vero Beach, Florida, led to the final puzzle piece.
“I got the message from Bambi and spoke with her,” said Alan Cesar, a communications specialist and writer for Embry-Riddle’s Alumni Magazine, Lift. “She told me a customer had come in and told her a story about learning to fly at the seaplane base during World War II. She has become something of a celebrity at Piper.”
The “celebrity” is 98-year-old Corinne Smith, who, at an early age was inspired by the idea of becoming a pilot. She moved to Miami after college in 1941 and started flying lessons at the seaplane base, which at the time had about a half-dozen Piper Cubs on floats. A job there as a secretary helped her pay for training. Smith completed her first solo flight in July 1942, and eventually earned pilot certificates for both land-based aircraft and seaplanes. She eventually became an instructor pilot and head of the flight simulation department.
Montgomery and Cesar visited with Smith, and she gave them a copy of her flight log from May of 1944 for the Embry-Riddle archives.
“Corinne’s log revealed that two of the tail numbers recorded in her log book matched those in Kennedy’s flight log, and in one instance, she flew the same aircraft on the same day as JFK,” Montgomery said.
With all the evidence in hand, Montgomery contacted Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley. After examining the documents, Brinkley was convinced the Kennedy flight logbook was authentic and that it proved Kennedy had indeed trained with Embry-Riddle.
“JFK was staying in Palm Beach at his father’s home during the same weeks shown in his log book,” said Brinkley, co-author of “JFK: A Vision for America,” which was published for the centennial of Kennedy’s birthday in 2017. “He had a love of aviation and coastal areas, so it all makes sense. I would call it a fact that JFK trained to fly with Embry-Riddle in Miami.”
Thanks to a small handful of people at Embry-Riddle, and a 1944 flight log from alumna and seaplane pilot Corinne Smith, a decades-long legend has been confirmed.
In the course of just 10 days in May 1944, Lieutenant John F. Kennedy would go from his first flight lesson to a solo flight. The flight log ends there. Records indicate Kennedy left just days later to travel to a Naval Hospital in Massachusetts for back surgery.
According to Brinkley, he abruptly stopped taking flight lessons once D-Day occurred on June 6. Kennedy would subsequently retire from the service, run for congress and eventually become the 35th President of the United States.