The Great Air Race: Billy Mitchell’s Quest for American Skies


The dismal record of First Aero Squadron in Mexico confirmed the view of many in the higher ranks of the military that the aircraft were unsafe and unreliable. With Congress sharing this yellowish attitude, aviation remained an afterthought in military budgets. By the time the United States officially entered the war on April 6, 1917, the air component of the Army—still within the Signal Corps but soon to become the discrete branch of the military known as the Air Service— could muster only 35 pilots and 55 aircraft, of which “51 were obsolete and four were obsolete”, as Pershing later joked.

Billy Mitchell had learned fly in 1916, paying out of pocket for flying lessons as the army considered him too old to be a pilot at 36. He was among the first to realize how far the United States had fallen behind in aviation. In March 1917, a month before the country declared war on Germany, the War Department sent him to France to report on developments in the military use of aircraft. To this end he made repeated flights over the Western Front, first as a passenger in French reconnaissance planes, then as the pilot of a single-seat Spad bearing his personal seal – an eagle of silver on a scarlet disc his mechanic had copied. of a dollar bill. His first-hand observations informed the detailed reports he sent back to Washington and shaped the theories of air power he would test in 1918, when US Air Service squadrons finally went into battle.

Mitchell’s alarm about the state of American aviation was shared by a new federal entity, the Aircraft Production Board, as well as some members of Congress. The turning point came in late May 1917, when the French government wired an urgent call for planes and engines. After the council approved the request, military leaders quickly drew up plans to manufacture 20,474 new planes in just 12 months. Congress backed the program with the largest one-time appropriation — $640 million — in U.S. history to this point.

Within days of the French call, the production board commissioned two of the country’s top automotive engineers, Elbert J. Hall and Jesse Vincent, to design a new aircraft engine that could be used on a range of airframes. The men sequestered themselves in a suite at the Willard Hotel in downtown Washington and came up with the basic design in less than a week. Their design is heavily inspired by concepts developed by French, British and German manufacturers. Still, the Liberty engine was revolutionary, widely considered the most important American aeronautical advance of the war. Unlike most aircraft engines, which were handcrafted like fine Swiss watches, the 400 horsepower twelve-cylinder Liberty was expressly designed for mass production, with interchangeable parts that would make it easy to repair. Nearly 5,000 would be made by Packard and other automakers before the War Department ended production in March 1919.

But the War Department’s vow to “darken the skies of Germany with airplanes” would ultimately prove hollow. The Liberty engine was a rare achievement. Industrial policy or not, the country’s small aircraft industry simply did not have the capacity to meet the sudden demand.

To be fair, the industry would end the war in much better shape than it had started – production increased about 18 times from 1917 to 1918, leading to rapid improvements in airframe design, engines , instruments and manufacturing techniques. But the gains would come too late to make a meaningful difference in the air war. In the end, only a few hundred American aircraft – two-seat DH-4s based on a British design – would see combat on the Western Front.

The armistice of November 11, 1918 had a devastating effect on American aircraft manufacturers. Within months, some had closed while others struggled to survive. In Seattle, the Boeing Airplane Co. began manufacturing furniture and speedboats. Glenn L. Curtiss and a few other aircraft designers rolled out prototype commercial passenger aircraft, in the optimistic belief that scheduled air service would soon follow. He did, but not in the United States. By late 1919, several commercial airlines were operating in Europe, including one that carried passengers between London and Paris in converted Farman F-60 bombers (another was KLM, the Dutch carrier, which still flies today). In the months following the war, the threat of foreign domination was a recurring theme in aviation publications such as Flying and Air Service Journalwho in January 1919 published a front-page article under the headline “The United States Lags Far Behind Europe in Preparations for Air Transport”.

No one was more alarmed by the dismal state of post-war aviation in the United States than Mitchell and the “air-conscious” cronies who had followed him to staff positions in Washington. Adding to Mitchell’s frustration, the top post in the post-war Air Service had gone not to him but to Major General Charles T. Menoher, a sober-minded gunner with no flying experience; Mitchell would be his deputy. Nonetheless, Menoher was a capable leader whose experience as a division commander on the Western Front had opened his eyes to the possibilities of air power. He may not have Mitchell’s messianic fervor, but he shared his concern over the near collapse of America’s aircraft industry. “Government is virtually the only market for aircraft builders,” Menoher said in a statement to Congress on July 11, 1919, in which he asked for help in keeping them afloat. Otherwise, he warned, “within six months, all aircraft manufacturers will be out of the aircraft business and the government will have no source from which to obtain its aircraft and aircraft engines.”

Menoher was exaggerating, but there was no denying his broader point. Outrageous failures to purchase aircraft during the war had dampened public and congressional enthusiasm for government spending on new aircraft, especially now that the fighting was over. In the end, Congress only approved $25 million for the Air Service’s 1920 budget, less than a third of what Mitchell and Menoher had requested (and about 5% of its peak time). of war).

Mitchell and his Air Service colleagues were desperate for ways to prove the plane’s peacetime value. In the spring, Army pilots began patrolling for wildfires in California, an effort soon extended to Oregon. Aerial cameras and photography techniques developed for battlefield reconnaissance were promoted for commercial purposes, such as city mapping and real estate advertising. And in June, military pilots began conducting border patrols in Texas after several incursions linked to Pancho Villa, who remained at large more than three years after Pershing’s ill-fated invasion of northern Mexico.

But Mitchell, a natural showman, wanted to make a splash. And in September 1919, he announced his plan to make it happen: a transcontinental airplane race. The “endurance and reliability test” was sold to superiors as a “field exercise” and restricted to military pilots, who would compete on a voluntary basis and only if their commanders thought they were up to the challenge. Cash prizes were banned. But no one was fooled by his military appearance. The transcontinental race was a publicity stunt. Mitchell hoped a positive outcome would rally the public behind his goals in Washington and also locally, where the air service was pushing cities and towns to build airfields — or “aerodromes” — as an essential first step toward commercial air service. . It was a cheap industrial policy.

The “air derby”, as it was sometimes called in the press, was a bold and risky undertaking. More than 60 planes split into two groups – one in Long Island, the other in San Francisco – would take off for the opposite coast some 2,700 miles away, passing each other in the middle and vying for flight times and times passed the fastest.

The contest pilots, many of whom were veterans, had never attempted a journey of such unlikely duration, and for good reason. Like all aircraft of the time, the surplus DH-4s and the single-seat fighters they would fly were almost comically ill-suited for long-range travel – or arguably any travel. Open cockpits offered little protection from wind and cold. The engines were deafening and sometimes caught fire in flight. Primitive flight instruments were of only marginal value to pilots trying to keep their bearings in clouds and fog. But that was only part of the challenge. The route through the country almost entirely lacked permanent airfields – or any form of aviation infrastructure. There was no radar, air traffic control system or radio network. Weather forecasts were rudimentary and often wrong.

In the absence of electronic beacons or formal aeronautical charts, pilots would follow train tracks or compass headings that wandered drunk at every turn. Every hour or two – they hoped – they would land at one of 20 refueling stops between the coasts. Most of these “check stops” were makeshift grass or dirt airfields that had been hastily marked out and stocked with fuel, spares and other supplies, sometimes just hours before the start of the race.


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