Bill Mason: Last Living Instructor from Tulare’s Rankin Field

Bill Mason is the last known living flight instructor from Tulare’s Rankin Field, where WWII pilots were taught to fly. Mason paid a visit to Rankin Field and the Tulare Historical Museum just prior to the New Year. Nancy Vigran/Valley Voice

He’s not a Tulare native, nor did he live in the area that long, but Bill Mason did play an important role in Tulare’s history and that of World War II.

When Tex Rankin, an aerobatic pilot, barnstormer, air racer and flight instructor, opened a flight instruction school in Tulare in 1940, the 20-year-old Mason, an aircraft mechanic, followed his brother, Sammy, up here from Southern California. The two had previously been working for Rankin in his Van Nuys flight school.

The new school opened under contract with the War Department, training US Army Air Corps cadets to fly. The Rankin Aeronautical Academy, Inc. stated operating on Mefford Field, a few months prior to Rankin Field’s completion.

Following Pearl Harbor, the need for training became much higher. Mason, who had learned to fly from his brother, quickly filed more flight hours in order to be promoted to a Level 1 instructor at the age of 21. As many instructors as could be found, were needed.

“We were civilian instructors teaching the cadets,” he said. “Classes contained five cadets, which took about two months to graduate to move on to the next course. Teaching was pretty intensive.”

“When the word came down about the bombing [of Pearl Harbor], we were all shocked,” he said. “Sometimes you were at a low ebb. But, everyone was into it up to their necks, trying to solve the problem.”

Mason sited the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo as lifting the spirits in the war effort.

With the increased use of the school, more local airfields were utilized for teaching including Hunter Auxiliary Field in Exeter, Tipton Auxiliary Field, Strathmore Auxiliary Field, Tulare Auxiliary Field and Trauger Auxiliary Field in Strathmore.

The flight school closed in 1945, following the end of the war. Ten thousand cadets had graduated in some four-and-a-half years of the school’s operation.

While Sammy Mason stayed in aviation and went to work for Lockheed, Bill Mason wanted to spend time at sea.

He was actually drafted after the war, but following, he went on to work on ships, which were his first love. He worked his way up to becoming a chief mate for Standard Oil.

After his retirement, he and his wife, Elizabeth, traveled around the world on a freighter.

On that British ship, the couple were two of a handful of passengers, and spent 103 days at sea. They boarded the ship in France, traveled through the Panama Canal on to Tahiti, and the Orient, Mason said.

During its time, Tulare’s Rankin Aeronautical Academy used PT-17 Stearman as its primary craft – the only aircraft Mason flew. He later went on to purchase his own plane, Big Red, and his wife was his co-pilot.

During his visit to Tulare, Mason visited with Gerry Soults, who now lives in Visalia, but worked at Rankin as secretary to the captain in one of the hangers.

“Rankin Field wasn’t even there, when I was,” she said.

While the two do not really remember each other, they have other memories of the times of Rankin Academy and the war in common.

Before his most recent visit to Tulare, Mason last visited the city in 1991 for the last Rankin Field reunion.

“Time has changed,” he said. “It’s all too much and different now.”

4 thoughts on “Bill Mason: Last Living Instructor from Tulare’s Rankin Field

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  1. I loved the article you wrote on Bill Mason. He has been a long and dear friend.
    I got to ride a couple of times in his 1941 Boeing Stearman, what fun.

  2. In 1993 I was having a Stearman restored and wanted a check out before flying my restored plane. Bill offered to check me out in Big Red, his personal plane. He did that, and we have become good friends. He is now 97 years old and I see him often.

  3. Is Bill still alive? I would love to talk to him about his time at Rankin, as my father in law was also an instructor there. If Bill is still with us Dianne or John from the comments made read this and still see him, please ask if the name Morell (Morey) Austin rings a bell. It would be a dream come true for me to know more about Morey, as I only met him once before he passed. I live in Nampa, ID

  4. My father. Theodore S. Brooks from Beaver Falls, PA, was a civilian instructor at Rankin for 18 months, 1943-44. I would appreciate hearing from anyone who has pictures or documents that contain reference to him.

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