The Liberty Gazette
June 14, 2016Ely Air Lines
by Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Mike: Welcome to Terrell, Texas, where the city’s new Major William F. Long Terminal Building at the Terrell Municipal Airport was designed to look much like the original air traffic control tower and operations building built here decades ago. Inside, the shape of the Great State of Texas spreads out across the floor, and depicted within its boundaries, drawn to scale, are all the British Isles.
75 years ago the skies above Terrell and north Texas came alive with war machines. Their engines droned, burped, coughed, wheezed and roared as they were flung and plunged through the air with ever increasing levels of skill. New military aviators were being born - and not all of them were Americans.
Before the bombing of Pearl Harbor the United States maintained the appearance of neutrality, but behind the scenes, not so much. U.S. citizens traveled to Canada, enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), and continued on to Europe to join the fight against the evil of the day. Some joined Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) which placed them into the Eagle Squadrons - made up entirely of our boys - while others joined the ranks of the French Air Force. In China, they joined the famed Flying Tigers to fight against Japan, and later this volunteer war pilot contingent morphed into the American Volunteer Group (AVG). Altogether, these volunteer pilots shot down many enemy aircraft even before we officially declared war.
Conversely, British soldiers were discretely sent to Canada, decommissioned and stripped of all insignia. Handed new Canadian passports, they boarded trains for destinations within the United States to learn to fly. Six training facilities were established, the first and largest of course being in Texas - specifically, Terrell. And so we welcome you to Terrell, the airport built for training British pilots.
The 1st British Flying Training School (1st BFTS) wasn’t widely known, at least not prior to the United States’ entry into the war, but in 1939 plans were already set in motion to create training bases in Britain’s overseas commonwealth nations and in the United States. The Chambers of Commerce of Terrell and Kaufman helped the efforts to select the site for the school. Then two auxiliary airstrips were constructed nearby to relieve air traffic congestion.
The citizens of Terrell welcomed the cadets, whose motto was, “The seas divide but the skies unite.” The community and the young soldiers benefited from each other’s cultural influences so that even 71 years after the war ended, ties remain.
Through the mill, civilian instructors gave classes of cadets 20 weeks of ground and flight training in basic airmanship, navigation, meteorology and flying on instruments. In all, the 1st BFTS minted about 2,200 British pilots, and another 130 U.S. pilots as well.
This unique history of the people and the school is preserved and open to the public at the 1st British Flying Training School Museum at Terrell Municipal Airport. Major Long of Dallas ran the school and so the new terminal building bears his name. The design on the floor quotes one of the British flyers when he began flight training at Terrell: “This place is bigger than all of England.” He was partly right - it’s a lot bigger.