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  • Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

    The Makers

    by Mike Cox
    Mike Cox

    The two faux leather-bound publications look like high school annuals, but the story they tell has to do with war, not homecoming kings and queens, football scores, club activities, prom night or who became valedictorian and salutatorian.

    After earning their wings, the students whose mostly baby-faced photographs appear in “The Cadet,” a yearbook published during World War II at Bruce Field in Ballinger, went on to pilot the fighter planes and bombers that helped in defeating Nazi Germany, fascist-controlled Italy and the Japanese empire.

    In addition to the dozens of cadets in their fleece-collared flight jackets and leather headgear and goggles, the yearbooks feature photos of dark-jacketed Army officers and dozens of khaki-clad civilian flight instructors.

    Among them are R.C. and L.C. Maker, brothers who helped win the war without ever firing a turret gun, dropping a bomb or evading anti-aircraft fire.

    Okies who spent the rest of their lives in Texas once they got here, the Maker boys grew up on a farm near Clinton, OK. While neither made it past high school, that didn’t impede their business success.

    But flying defined them.

    When a barnstormer named Herman Spansky buzzed Clinton one day in 1938, the Makers hurried to see his plane when it landed.

    “He took off and dived down across the field and pulled up and landed [with a] real sharp turn to the left,” Red recalled. “Boy, that was something.”

    Taking off again, Spansky made another dive, pulled out of that and started another hard turn when the plane stalled and crashed.

    Maker and a bystander managed to unbuckle the pilot’s safety belt and pull him out of the airplane. He looked dead, but soon got up to assess the damage.

    Not long after the crash, a man hoping to sell a Piper Cub flew into Clinton. When the Makers showed up to admire his airplane, he asked if they wanted flying lessons. Two years later, both young pilots were licensed flight instructors running the Clinton airport.

    Maker happened to be flying over southern Oklahoma on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. While the death toll and damage to the U.S. Pacific fleet was staggering, the Makers soon experienced a smaller-scale disaster when a tornado destroyed their hangar and seven airplanes.

    The brothers ruled out rebuilding, mainly because they had been getting letters from all over offering jobs as Army civilian flight instructors. The proposition that seemed most interesting would take them to West Texas.

    Even before Pearl Harbor, readying for possible conflict, the Army signed contracts with nine civilian flying schools to train its fledgling aviators. By the end of 1941, 45 privately-owned military flying schools were in operation.

    Fred Harman owned one of those schools, and he hired the Makers. Son of a pioneer Dallas aviator and airport founder, Harman also had spent some time barnstorming and later as an airline station manager.

    Named for Ballinger civic leader R.E. Bruce, who helped convince the Army to build on a 640-acre cotton field at the edge of town, the airfield became operational in October 1941. The field had three paved runways extending 2,100 feet, four large wooden hangars, a flight control center, classroom buildings, barracks and other structures.

    The Makers traveled to Bruce Field, easily passed a flight test, and soon taught primary flying. Though civilians, the Makers wore uniforms and carried a second lieutenant’s rank.

    With an instructor-student ratio of one to five, cadets learned to fly in a Fairchild PT-19s, an open cockpit, two-seater, single-engine aircraft.

    Initially, cadets received nine months of training – three months of primary training (what the Makers taught), three months of basic instruction and three months of advanced schooling. When a pilot left Ballinger for further training, he had 65 flying hours. As demand for pilots grew, the Air Corps cut each training segment to 10 weeks and eventually nine weeks.

    “We’d have a hundred airplanes with students in the traffic pattern or out in the practice area without a tower and without any radios – and without even a light gun,” Red recalled. “We never ran into anyone.”

    By October 1944, with an Allied victory in sight, the Army began reducing the extent of its flight training and deactivated Bruce Field. The city repurposed it as Ballinger’s municipal airport.

    After the war, the Makers applied for flying jobs with Braniff Airlines. With both about to be hired, Roscoe changed his mind. As Red put it, “My brother just didn’t want to be [an airline] pilot. I don’t know why…”

    Where Roscoe went, Red went, so they bought 84 acres just west of Abilene. Bulldozing a 1,900-foot unpaved runway, they built a cinderblock hangar and opened Maker Brothers Flying Service. They taught flying, flew charters and took people up for joy rides.

    “We had a gull-wing Stinson, a Culver Cadet and a Stearman that we used for instructing,” Red remembered. “You got an hour of dual for $6 or you could go solo for $4.”

    To attract customers, one of the brothers would do acrobatic stunts over town. As soon as a crowd gathered, they’d sell rides.

    The Makers cashed out of their airport in 1950 and turned to other business ventures, including building two motels. Roscoe opened a hobby shop in Abilene and built some apartments. Red and his wife had a farm, invested in a travel agency and did contracting.

    Heart trouble finally grounded Redin 1988. By then, he had more than 8,000 hours of flying time. He died on Jan. 2, 2006; Roscoe followed him in death on May 18, 2012, two members of the Greatest Generation who never saw enemy fire but did their part to help win World War II.

    © Mike Cox - September 12, 2013 column
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