The original Top Gun Pilot celebrates Aviation Cadet history at Eureka museum

Thursday, January 17, 2013

When he was 19 years old, Errol Dwight Severe was sworn into the Aviation Cadet pilot-training program at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Culled from more than 35,000 applicants, he was one of 400 airmen who started the course, which so intense, only 82 graduated at the end of the 15 months.

"Most washed out," he said.

Severe, one of the 82, is the founder of Aviation Cadet World, which celebrates the era when boys out of high school could train to become fighter pilots.

Last week, he took Eureka Springs and Green Forest educators through the site, which immerses visitors in the program that trained pilots who fought in World War I through Vietnam.

"We built the air arm of this nation," Severe said.

Open for tours by appointment during the winter, the site tour includes a simulation hangar. Inside is a Convair T-29, a flying classroom for navigators in the 1950s and '60s that visitors can walk through.

The principals also climbed into the cockpit of a F-105 fighter bomber, and learned about Severe's latest acquisition: three NASA consoles from Kennedy Space Center. Used for back-up in Firing Room 3, the consoles are programmed to allow visitors to control a simulated shuttle launch.

"You are always looking for a good field trip," said Barry Hardin, principal of Green Forest High School. "I'm looking at this from the standpoint of math class, history class and science class."

Visitors sign in for the flight control simulation at the actual desk that shuttle crews signed in on for the Return to Flight mission two years after Columbia. Severe got the desk and the consoles from government surplus in Little Rock.

"Anything that comes in that is spacey or aero, they call us," he said.

The site tour starts in the Aviation Cadet building, which contains displays of aviation history and Aviation Cadet photos and memorabilia. Severe, whose career spanned airplanes to jets, joined as a teenager in 1960, when the program was starting to wind down.

Named for his mother's favorite movie star, Errol Flynn, and her favorite general, D.D. Eisenhower, Severe flew his first plane, a J-3 Cub, at age 16. Graduating from high school in Hope, N.J., in 1957, he tried college for a semester, then applied for the Aviation Cadet program.

Severe sat a three-day exam, passed, and was accepted into the program. He took his primary flight training at Bainbridge Air Base, Ga., and basic training at Vance Air Force Base in Enid, Okla.

"It was hell," he said. "You had to want to fly more than you wanted to eat."

He spent his military career flying refueling tanker planes, then went to work as a pilot for Delta. When he retired, he wrote a book on the Aviation Cadet program titled "The Last of a Breed." The program ended in the 1960s when the military decided that all pilots had to be officers and college graduates.

"They traded inspiration for motivation," Severe said. "We were inspired to fly. We had to fly."

To preserve the program's history, he and spouse Beth Severe -- who he met near the end of his basic training in Enid -- opened the Aviation Cadet Museum in 2001. Located next to the Silver Wings Airfield off Highway 23 north, it grew into Aviation Cadet World with the addition of the simulation hangar and continues to grow with the addition of new buildings and programs. Severe plans to offer flight instruction and a course in airplane construction.

"We are going to have a Vietnam War hangar," Severe said.

The site also contains a railroad museum and a narrow gauge railroad operated by Brian Waller, the computer tech for the simulation computers. Brian's grandfather, Butch Waller of Eagle Rock, is retired Air Force, and also volunteers at the site. The train, formerly used to transport ore in a mine, was acquired a year ago from Pioneer Town, Calif., where it had been used on a movie set.

"It took us all winter to put it in," Butch Waller said. "We had to lay the track and we redid the engine and the car. We gave rides on it all last summer."

The train travels around a 600-foot circle, taking visitors to the airplanes displayed near the front gate: the F-100 "Hot Lips" flown in Vietnam, the F-150 that Top Gun pilots flew, a T-33 and T-34 like Severe flew in basic training. Standing in front of an F-105 Thunderbird supersonic fighter bomber, Severe talked about the time he was up with an instructor who suggested they do an Immelman maneuver.

"You come out of the top of the loop and are supposed to roll over," he said, demonstrating the motion with his hand. "Instead, we did a Lomcevak -- tumbled end over end."

Aviation Cadet World is located at 39 County Road 207. From Eureka Springs, take Highway 23 north for approximately three miles, turn right on County Road 266 (just past the Leatherwood Creek Bridge), continue on the paved road approximately 2.5 miles to the T-intersection with CR 207, and turn left. The two-lane road is paved all the way.

Or take CR 207, the Onyx Cave road, from Highway 62 East. Aviation Cadet World is just past the T-intersection with CR 266. To reserve a tour, call 479-253-5008.

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