by P. T. Deutermann
In his latest novel, The Nugget, author P. T. Deutermann—himself a former Navy commander—tells the tale of a novice naval aviator who grows into a hero in a gripping World War II adventure. Keep reading for a look back on Deutermann’s naval training and his first encounter with a “nugget.”
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I first heard the term “nugget,” when I went to Pensacola as an Academy midshipman for what was called aviation summer. Instructor pilots would exchange stories at the Officers Club about some of the hair-raising things nuggets had done to them as they went through advanced training. A nugget was defined as a brand-new naval aviator who’d just received his wings of gold and was now enrolled in advanced flight training. One of the best was the story of an instructor who was known for a stunt involving the training aircraft’s control stick back in 1940, just before the war. In a typical trainer, the instructor sits in the rear cockpit while the student sits up front. Each cockpit has a duplicate set of controls, so if the instructor feels he has to take control, he can throw a switch and disable the controls in the front cockpit, and thus stop whatever stupid thing his nugget was doing that was about to kill them both.
This particular instructor would sometimes be assigned an overconfident nugget, and he had a cure for that. When the nugget started getting cocky, the instructor would praise the student, then slide back his canopy, unscrew his control stick from the control column base, show it to the nugget, and then throw it out of the plane. He’d secretly stashed a second stick next to his seat, which he would quickly screw back into the column base. The horrified nugget would then think he had the only control stick and was now going to have get the plane back to base all by himself. The instructor would let the nugget sweat it out for a few minutes before revealing the lesson.
Well, one nugget got wind of this stunt and arranged a little payback. Even in advanced training, the student was always required to do the preflight of the trainer aircraft. He would then go back into the ready room and report to the instructor that the plane, usually a single-engine prop plane, was ready for the training hop. But: during his preflight inspection, he had moved the instructor’s hidden reserve control stick to the front cockpit.
Sure enough, at some point during the hop when the nugget started bragging a little about how well he’d done the last maneuver, the instructor went through his usual spiel, opened the canopy, and threw out his stick. The nugget then rolled his canopy back – and did the same thing. The astonished instructor quickly reached for his spare stick only to find it wasn’t there. As far as he knew, they were now both flying in a plane with no control stick. The nugget of course had thrown out the spare. This time it was the nugget who let the instructor sweat for a few minutes before revealing that he did in fact have a stick, and would now proudly take the instructor back to the base.
That was the last time the instructor ever threw his stick out of the plane. The nugget went on to become a famous carrier fighter pilot during WWII, and much later, a vice-admiral.
P.T. Deutermann is the acclaimed author of many previous novels based on his experiences as a senior staff officer in Washington and at sea as a Navy Captain, and later, Commodore. His WWII works include Pacific Glory, which won the W.Y. Boyd Award for Excellence in Military Fiction, Sentinels of Fire, The Commodore, Ghosts of Bungo Suido, and The Iceman. He lives with his wife of 50 years in North Carolina.