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Robert H. Hinckley, (right) with Orville Wright

Robert H. Hinckley, shown at right with Orville Wright, was the second chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority. Hinckley was the force behind the Civilian Pilot Training Program.


Piper J-3 Cub

The Piper J-3 "Cub" was used to by the Civilian Pilot Training Program in large numbers to introduce civilians to aviation.


CPTP instructor and students studying map

Instructor and students studying map. Civilian pilot training school. Meacham Field, Fort Worth, Texas, 1942.


CPTP students

Civilian Pilot Training Program students at Congressional Airport. Rockville, Maryland, 1941.

Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP)


In the years immediately preceding World War II, several European countries, particularly Italy and Germany, began training thousands of young people to become pilots. Purportedly civilian in nature, these government-sponsored programs were, in fact, nothing more than military flight training academies.


The United States was initially slow to respond but the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 contained language authorizing and funding a trial program for what would evolve into the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP). President Franklin D. Roosevelt unveiled the program on December 27, 1938, announcing at a White House press conference that he had signed off on a proposal to provide a needed boost to general aviation by providing pilot training to 20,000 college students a year.


Following the precedent established by the Europeans, the CPTP was established as a civilian program but its potential for national defense was undisguised. The program started early in 1939, with the government paying for a 72-hour ground school course followed by 35 to 50 hours of flight instruction at facilities located near eleven colleges and universities. It was an unqualified success and provided a grand vision for its supporters—to greatly expand the nation's civilian pilot population by training thousands of college students to fly.


The military establishment was initially unenthusiastic about the CPTP concept, quite unimpressed by any program initiated and administered by civilians. Congress, too, was split along mostly party lines as to the value of the CPTP. Isolationists branded the program as provocative saber rattling that threatened the nation's neutrality; others slammed it as a New Deal pork-barrel waste of tax dollars, while supporters touted the positive impacts on the aviation industry and the defense value of a vastly enlarged base of trained pilots.


After the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939 triggered World War II, the military value of the CPTP became obvious, even to the program's detractors. The United States started to evaluate its ability to fight an air war and the results were appalling. Pilots, instructors, and training aircraft were all in short supply. Acknowledging the shortage of trained pilots, both the U.S. Army and Navy reluctantly waived certain “elimination” courses for CPTP graduates and allowed them to proceed directly into pilot training.


The U.S. Army (which included the Air Force at the time) deemed the situation to be so grave it proposed that private aviation be suspended and all pilot training (most notably the CPTP) be brought under the control of the military. The December 13, 1940, issue of American Aviation Daily carried this account of the Army's intentions:


“Preliminary plans are understood to be already drafted by the Army to ground all private flying in the U.S. for the duration of the national emergency.…The Army will take over all training (including CPTP).”


The Army's proposal met with stiff resistance. Just two weeks after the American Aviation Daily article appeared, 83 companies with a vested interest in general aviation organized the National Aviation Training Association (NATA). The NATA members recognized that, if left unchallenged, the Army plan would, for all practical purposes, ban private aircraft from the nation's skies. The NATA and other aviation interests blunted the Army's bid with an effective lobbying campaign in Congress. Their actions not only saved the CPTP, they may have saved the entire general aviation industry in the United States.


The result was a revitalized CPTP and an expansion of its curriculum to a larger segment of the nation's colleges and universities. By the program's peak, 1,132 educational institutions and 1,460 flight schools were participating in the CPTP. Institutions such as the University of Michigan; Georgia Institute of Technology; Pomona Junior College; San Jose State Teachers College; and most notably, the Tuskegee Institute, all included the CPTP in their curricula.


The inclusion of Tuskegee Institute in the ranks of CPTP participants, along with Hampton Institute, Virginia State University, and Howard University, helped open the doors for the first African-American military pilots. The onset of World War II and political pressure combined to compel the U.S. Army Air Corps to employ African-Americans as officers and pilots—the majority were graduates of the CPTP.


The decision to train civilian pilots also produced an unexpected, but welcome, side effect on the general aviation industry. As it turned out, the United States faced just as large a shortage of training aircraft as it did civilian pilots. The federal Civil Aeronautics Authority (predecessor of the Federal Aviation Administration) regulations required a CPTP-participating flight school to own one aircraft for every ten students enrolled in the program.


Furthermore, the requirements specified for these aircraft narrowed down the field to only several models in production at that time, with most flight schools preferring the tandem-seat configuration of the Piper Cub. Seizing the opportunity unexpectedly thrust upon them, several light aircraft manufacturers quickly filled the market void with CPTP-compatible aircraft of their own, such as the WACO UPF-7 and the Meyers OTW biplane. Aeronca and Taylorcraft also produced tandem versions of their existing side-by-side seating airplanes.


After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entrance into World War II, the CPTP changed forever, including the name. The Civilian Pilot Training Program became the War Training Service (WTS) and, from 1942 to 1944, served primarily as the screening program for potential pilot candidates. Students still attended classes at colleges and universities and flight training was still conducted by private flight schools, but all WTS graduates were required to sign a contract agreeing to enter the military following graduation.


The CPTP/WTS program was phased out in the summer of 1944 but not before 435,165 people, including hundreds of women and African-Americans, had been taught to fly. The CPTP admirably achieved its primary mission, best expressed by the title of aviation historian Dominick Pisano's book—“To fill the skies with pilots.”


—Roger Guillemette




Bilstein, Roger E. Flight in America, From the Wrights to the Astronauts. Revised Edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Pattillo, Donald M. A History in the Making - 80 Turbulent Years in the American General Aviation Industry. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998.

Pisano, Dominick. To Fill the Skies with Pilots: The Civilian Pilot Training Program, 1939-1949. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Strickland, Patricia. The Putt-Putt Air Force: The Story of the Civilian Pilot Training Program and The War Training Service, 1939-1944 Washington: Dept. of Transportation/Federal Aviation Administration, Aviation Education Staff, 1971.


Online Sources:

“Meyers OTW-145.” Sportsman Pilot Magazine, Spring 2000. http://www.sportsmanpilot.com/sportsman_pilot_articles/essey_kurppenbach.htm

NATA's Place in History, National Air Transportation Association. http://www.nata-online.org/1WeAre/20history.htm

The Tuskegee Airmen, Facts & History. http://www.branden.com/tuskegee/facts.html

Tuskeegee Airmen, Inc. http://tuskegeeairmen.org/


Educational Organization

Standard Designation  (where applicable

Content of Standard

International Technology Education Association

Standard 4

Students will develop an understanding of the cultural, social, economic, and political effects of technology.

National Center for History in the Schools

US History

Era 8

Standard 3

The causes and consequences of World War II