British Flying Training Schools – “The seas divide, but the skies unite”
By Donna K. Keesling
The Texas Historical Commission’s marker at the former site of No. 1 British Flying Training School includes the school’s motto: “the seas divide, but the skies unite.” What were the British Flying Training Schools and why was there one in Texas?
Before the start of World War II, British Air Ministry officials recognized the need to establish Royal Air Force (RAF) training facilities outside of Great Britain based on their experience during World War I. During wartime, training would be difficult at best in a small country facing enemy attacks from the skies. They established facilities in Commonwealth nations, including Canada. In 1940, British government officials began discussing the possibility of training British pilots in the United States. The United States offered safe, open skies and much better weather than was found in Great Britain or Canada. But President Roosevelt had promised to keep the United States out of the war, so how was this going to work?
In March of 1941, Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act (1941) which set up a system that would allow the United States to lend or lease war supplies to any nation deemed “vital to the defense of the United States.” This bill was proposed by President Roosevelt in response to a request for aid from Prime Minister Winston Churchill and a desire to keep his campaign promise to stay out of the war in Europe.
Following the passage of the Lend-Lease Act, seven British Flying Training Schools (BFTS) were established in the United States. The schools, operated by civilian contractors, were dedicated to RAF flight training. More than 11,000 British pilots were trained at the schools.
The commanding officer, adjutant, chief flying instructors, and physical training instructors were RAF personnel. British flying regulations were adhered to around the airfield. RAF curriculum was used, but as the war progressed, instruction in night flying, instrument flying, and formation flying were added to the curriculum.
Each airfield that was to be used as a BFTS had to meet minimum requirements – one mile square in size, with two runways and a control tower. Hangars and maintenance equipment were provided for the training aircraft. In addition, emergency facilities, parachutes, and accommodation for ground instruction, administration, dormitories, dining halls and Link (flight simulator) training were required.
In June of 1941, No. 1 BFTS of the RAF was established with strong support from the citizens of Terrell, Texas. Approximately 2,200 cadets from the RAF and 138 U.S. Army Air Forces cadets were trained at No.1 BFTS during World War II.
Lancaster, California – in the far western corner of the Mojave Desert – was the site of No. 2 BFTS. Polaris Flight Academy, a civilian company under contract with the Department of Defense, had built and was operating War Eagle Field in Lancaster. The airfield was well-equipped for the BFTS purposes and included two large hangars, three runways, and a highly visible air traffic control tower. A fleet of Vultee BT-13 aircraft was available for training.
Two of the schools, owned by private companies, were established in Oklahoma. The Spartan School of Aeronautics, No. 3 BFTS, was opened in Miami, OK in June of 1941. In August 1941 No. 6 BFTS, called the Darr School of Aeronautics, was founded by Hal Darr in Ponca City, OK. More than 4,000 Royal Air Force cadets and several hundred American pilots trained at the Oklahoma schools.
No. 4 BFTS was based at Falcon Field in Mesa, Arizona. At No. 4 BFTS, in operation from June 1941 until September 1945, 27 courses (classes) – more than 2,300 pilots – were trained. The last two courses were cut short by the end of the war and the pilots returned to Great Britain without graduating.
The only BFTS to operate in the eastern part of the United States was No. 5 BFTS, located at Riddle Field in Clewiston, Florida. Between August 1941 and September 1945, approximately 1,325 cadets graduated from the training program at No. 5 BFTS.
In the late spring of 1942, construction began on No. 7 BFTS at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. The first course of cadets arrived on June 20, 1942 and began their training. Three weeks later, official notice was received that No. 7 BFTS would close so that it could be used to train US Army Air Forces flight cadets. The British pilots completed their primary phase of flight training and left Sweetwater in mid-August 1942.
The schools provided flight training from primary through advanced all at one location. The cadets began their 28-week training in a Boeing PT-17 Stearman. They progressed to the advanced trainer – a North American AT-6 Texan (known as the Harvard by the British). At some locations, the pilots also trained in a Vultee BT-13. As they completed each stage of training, they were promoted. After completing advanced training, they graduated and received their pilot wings.
The schools closed in mid-September 1945. The Defense Plant Corporation sold some of the facilities or conveyed ownership of the school sites to local governments.
The buildings of No. 1 BFTS were incorporated into an industrial site, including the original hangars. Metal rods, originally used as tie downs for the aircraft, are still visible.
After the war, the use of War Eagle Field (renamed Mira Loma Flight Academy in 1944) for aircraft slowly decreased. The property was transferred to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in the 1950s and became a detention facility in 1983. It was closed in the mid-2000s and is now mostly vacant. Remnants of its days as No. 2 BFTS are still visible including the aircraft hangars and air traffic control tower.
Falcon Field, site of No. 4 BFTS in Mesa, AZ is still an active airport. Two of the original hangars are still used.
Little remains of No. 7 BFTS at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, TX except the original hangar. It is now home to a museum about the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) who also trained there. See The Pursuit of History article about the WASP here: The WASP – First American Women to Fly for their Country.
Historian Tom Killebrew maintains that one of the lasting contributions of the BFTS was “the close ties that developed between the young Englishmen who journeyed so far from home and the Americans who befriended them. These friendships endured after the students’ flight training ended, continued throughout the war, and existed long after the end of the war.”
In October 2003, the No. 1 British Flying Training School Museum was established at the Terrell Municipal Airport – the site of No. 1 BFTS – in Terrell, Texas. The museum was started by cadets to celebrate their friendships with the people of Terrell and to remember the twenty men who died in training. Logbooks, training materials, WW II memorabilia, and uniforms from the cadets of No. 1 BFTS are part of the museum’s collection. Visit the museum’s website at https://www.bftsmuseum.org/ for more information.
RAF students who died while in training at the British Flying Training Schools were buried in the United States, in accordance with British policy. Twenty-three British RAF cadets perished in training accidents at Falcon Field in Mesa, AZ. They are buried in the Mesa Cemetery and honored every year at a Remembrance Day ceremony at the cemetery.
The twenty-one British cadets who perished during training at No. 5 BFTS are buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Arcadia, Florida. On Memorial Day a service coordinated by the Arcadia Rotary Club and the local American Legion is held to honor the pilots.
Tom Killebrew sums up the impact of the BFTS program as follows: “On the international level, the British Flying Training Schools program was part of one of the greatest cooperative ventures ever undertaken between nations. Aircrew training, along with other cooperative ventures such as lend-lease, cemented the alliance between Great Britain and the United States that transcended national interest and continued after the war, through the cold war, and exists to this day.”
 “No. 1 British Flying Training School,” The Historical Marker Database, accessed October 24, 2023, https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=97637.
 “Lend – Lease Act (1941),” National Archives, accessed October 24, 2023, https://www.archives.gov/milestone-documents/lend-lease-act.
 “History of 5BFTS,” Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, accessed October 24, 2023, https://commons.erau.edu/bfts-clewiston-history/.
 “4 British Flight Training School,” American Air Museum in Britain, last updated February 22, 2021, https://www.americanairmuseum.com/archive/unit/4-british-flight-training-school.
 “History of 5BFTS”.
 John Lee Pattison, “From Airfield to Prison, how a corner lot in California’s Desert was essential to victory in Europe,” Lancaster Museum of Art and History, July 27, 2022, https://www.lancastermoah.org/single-post/from-airfield-to-prison-how-a-corner-lot-in-california-s-desert-was-essential-to-victory-in-europe.
 “Royal Air Force in Oklahoma Collection,” University of Central Oklahoma, accessed October 24, 2023, https://library.uco.edu/RAF-collection.
 Tom Killebrew, The Royal Air Force in American Skies: The Seven British Flight Schools in the United States during World War II (Denton, Texas: University of North Texas Press, 2015), 177-180.
 Pattison, “From Airfield to Prison, how a corner lot in California’s Desert was essential to victory in Europe”.
 Killebrew, The Royal Air Force in American Skies: The Seven British Flight Schools in the United States during World War II, xiii.
 Killebrew, xiv.