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Southern Airways of Texas, Inc…Where It All Began!

Posted 5 years 78 days ago ago by Randy Rowles

In early September 2018, I attended the Southern Airways of Texas, Inc. Annual Reunion in Mineral Wells, Texas. Southern Airways of Texas, Inc. held the government contract to train the helicopter pilots who would fly and fight in the Vietnam War. More affectionately known as Southern Airways, they conducted pilot training at the U.S. Army Primary Helicopter School located at Fort Wolters, Texas from 1956 to 1973.

The group of attendees at the reunion consisted of Southern Airways Instructor Pilots, Test Pilots, and their family members. Additionally, many previous Army pilots that had completed primary helicopter training at Fort Wolters were also in attendance. My role in attending the reunion was to provide a short briefing on the current state of the civil helicopter industry.

During the development of my briefing for the group, I took the time to learn more about Southern Airways as a company to find relevance to today. After a few days of research, my initial takeaway was simply “Wow”! They conducted pilot training, academics, flight simulation, and fleet maintenance; all standard tasks of the current helicopter training industry. However, then it hit me…most of this had never been done before!

A picture I found during my research showed a TH-55A training helicopter fuselage, known today as the Schweizer 300, configured with a TV monitor mounted in front of the pilot seating position. This device would show a film from the pilot’s perspective, and the student would manipulate the controls as if flying the helicopter. Other teaching techniques were just as creative and based upon the success rate of the students, very effective!

During the 17-years Southern Airways conducted Primary Helicopter Training at Fort Wolters, the following occurred:

  • 40,000 students from 33 different countries trained
  • 500 helicopters in-flight simultaneously
  • 75,000 flight training hours monthly
  • 600 primary helicopter student graduations monthly
  • Total flight training hours conducted: 5,600,000 
The helicopter training industry today owes a great deal of gratitude to the men and women of Southern Airways. Their ingenuity, tenacity, and creative methods provided a foundation in which to build upon. However, none of their accomplishments went without personal loss.

My research led me to a gentleman whose father was an Instructor Pilot with Southern Airways from 1967 to 1969. He wrote about his time at Fort Wolters, and his perspective of his Father during that period. Within his writings, I discovered a story about one of his father’s students that had been killed in Vietnam. He remembered how this tragedy played out time-and-time again during his father’s time there, and how his father would deal with each loss. 

What I came to realize was that every person that served this great Country during that time at Fort Wolters lost friends, acquaintances, and in many cases…pieces of themselves.

Although much has changed in the helicopter training industry over the past 50+ years, there is no question that the footprint of our industry was cast there. So, to all of those that served Southern Airways and our Great Country, I humbly say…Thank You!    

About Randy:  Randy Rowles has been a FAA pilot examiner for 20 years for all helicopter certificates and ratings. He holds a FAA Gold Seal Flight Instructor Certificate, NAFI Master Flight Instructor designation, and was the 2013 recipient of the HAI Flight Instructor of the Year Award.  Randy is currently  Director of Training at Epic Helicopters in Ft. Worth, Texas.