• Aviation's Climb


Year Book
Originally uploaded by TailspinT.

When the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917,
military aviation consisted of fewer than 1,200 men, some 250 airplanes, and 5 balloons under Signal Corps control to provide observation and courier service for infantry, cavalry, and artillery. By the Armistice the Army had received about 11,000 planes of the 27,000 ordered. Of these, some 7,800 were trainers, the majority the famous JN-4D (Jenny), of which the Army acquired more than 5,000.



A young man who enlisted in the Army as a flying cadet began training with two months in ground school at one of eight universities. He next went to an Army flying school for an eight-week course. If successfully completed, he received a pilot’s rating of Reserve military aviator (RMA) and a commission as a second lieutenant. During the war eighty-six hundred cadets graduated from primary schools in the United States.

My grandfather was one of those young men. Two months before the armistice he graduated, ready to go. But in December, just after the Great War ended he was discharged "for the convenience of the Service." The government was concerned about what might befall him when he walked out the gate with his back pay, the sixty-dollar bonus voted by Congress, so they also gave him transportation money at five cents a mile from the demobilization center to his home. He was informed that the railroads offered a reduced rate of two cents a mile if he bought his ticket within twenty-four hours, was told of dangers lurking in the city, and advised to go straight home.

This history, from the Kelly Field year book, puts the Army Signal Corp's ideas about aeroplanes in perspective. (Images are clickable to see enlargements).



by LT H. D. Kroll (1919)

THE magical development of aviation deserves recognition as one of the most remarkable achievements of the age. Automobiling, it is true, had also a remarkably rapid growth in popularity, once officially recognized as plausible, but when the great cost of experimentation in aviation is considered; aside from the element! of personal risk, the steady advancement from a stage of delicate experiment to one of scientific accomplishment is indeed worthy of the world's plaudits.

Although private experimentation had been going on along various lines of aeronautics for some years previous, no Government had ever regarded aviation as feasible or of any important military value until the United States Signal Corps began making exhaustive tests and trials with heavier-than-air machines in the early part of the 20th century. Even at that time the United States Government was too skeptical to invest much money in the exploitation of this new branch of warfare, and confined its experiments to the making of trial flights with civilian pilots.


In these early days flying was of course largely a matter of conjecture. There were few fixed rules or stereotyped axioms as to the handling or behavior of an airplane under various conditions and natural stresses. Therefore, in these first feeble efforts at the conquering of the air, many men laid down their lives in vain efforts to prove their contentions or to learn more about the various tricks of air currents and the way in which to avoid them.


Some of the attempted explanations and arguments pro and con concerning aviation which were published in these early days are interesting and show beyond doubt that the pilots of that time were giving serious thought to the difficulties encountered and to methods of overcoming same. Claude Grahame-White, the pioneer British flyer wrote the book on aviation early in the year 1911 in which he made reference to "air pockets" and in which he admitted that only exhaustive experimentation would solve the problems of flying. In this same volume he cautioned pilots against taking unnecessary risks by submitting their machines to "undue strains."

From 1911 to 1916 many fatalities occurred. The first member of the United States Army to lose his life in an airplane accident was Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, who was killed while flying with Orville Wright at Fort Meyer, Virginia, September 17th, 1908. At this time America was taking her first steps in aviation. Had she continued her efforts there is no doubt that she would have been a leader in aeronautics when the world war engulfed her, instead of an apt pupil subservient to the teachings of the Allies. However, lack of public interest and a consequent lack of funds, prevented this government from developing the Air Service as it should have done, and in 1912, France, always an interested spectator, forged ahead with an appropriation of $5,000,000 to put the Air Service in that country on a practical basis.



From that time on France far outdistanced America, and Great Britain later did the same. But the fact still remains that had it not been for America's pioneer experimentation, the wonderful success of the other nations in the air would have been impossible of accomplishment. But even with the wonderful strides that were being made, a great handicap still existed in the unconquered "tail-spin," the queer and unexplained antic which caused the death of so many experienced flyers.

Again it remained for America to step forward, explain the existing difficulty and effect a remedy. This was accomplished in 1917. when Mr. Sperry, the instrument maker, in an article on the subject, explained the cause of the tail-spin and the way to avoid it. He also explained how it was possible to come out of a spin in safety. After this pilots in general realized that the epoch of uncertainty in aviation was past, and from that time to the present flying has increased by leaps and bounds.



Shortly after Mr. Sperry's article was published Major John McDonnell, in charge of the Government Flying Field at Randolf Field, began a course of instruction in the tail-spin, and today pilots with little experience are every day executing it successfully and with little danger.

Even until the latter part of 1916 the United States Army had but twelve pilots. When the ArmistIce was signed in November, 1918, the U. S. Air Service contained over 9000 qualified flyers in addition to Scores of bombers, photographers and observers. Thus is seen at a glance the remarkable development of the Air Service, for the rapid strides that were made by America were only similar to those made by the other great powers of the world. With practical!y nothing to build on, this Government alone developed in little more than a year one of the greatest of modern sciences.



In this development much of the credit must be given to the civilian instructors--men who early in the great game of aviation had staked their all on the success of their dreams, and who, now that the opportunity came to realize their greatest ambitions, threw away both money and national prominence to answer their country's call in her hour of need. Their work stands today as a growing monument to their patriotism and self-sacrifice. No more hazardous occupation was ever undertaken by man than the gradual instruction of raw recruits and their moulding into Air Service pilots by these heroic civilian pioneers of aviation. All honor to them therefore, the men who first opened the eyes of the world to the possibilitIes of air travel and who later by their own efforts, built from the flimsy structures of pioneer aviation one of the greatest and most valuable scientific achievements of modern times.

• A Day In The Life

Don't loose any sleep over it, you'll deal with it fine when it happens.

That's what we'd been told. But we'd still laid awake talking about just what we'd do if one of our six airplanes went down. We made every effort to minimize the risks with our focus on pilot selection, training, maintenance, and operation standards. Still, entropy, like Murphy's, is a relentless law.

Early in our career as barnstormers, friends back East had it happen. One of their plane's went down after an engine failure. We contemplated getting out of the business right then. But we knew that attitude, taken to the extreme, would mean we'd spend our lives under a bed, quaking in fear of unknown--and unlikely--events.


Later, when we decided we needed a longer season than Philadelphia's, we considered a business for sale on Maui. A promotional video showed picturesque but unforgiving twelve foot high sugar cane, volcanoes and lava. We kept looking. The wide beaches in San Diego attracted us from the beginning. Safety isn't an accident.

One night, out for dinner, we had a dry run. Cell phone rang, and when Kate answered she turned white. She regained some color as she said, "But, wait, we just locked our planes in the hangar." An air traffic controller was calling to say one of our planes had landed on a hillside near the cliffs of Pt. Loma. Turned out it was a Stearman with a big "RIDES" sign on the side. The owners had assured us they bought it just for fun. Turned out they were shooting promotional pictures for a ride business. Turned out they ran out of gas, for crying out loud. We got hit by a ricochet when the news reported: "A vintage biplane operating out of Palomar Airport crashed (sic) today on Pt. Loma while sightseeing."

So, on a rare Saturday off, about 1:30, when the phone rang in the office at home and a voice said, "This is CRQ tower. One of your biplanes went down over by the power plant," we dealt with it, just as we'd been told we would. I grabbed a jacket and cell phone and headed up the coast. Enroute I called Kate, on the way home from the gym, told her I didn't know anything except we had a plane down. She squeaked, "oh no," regained her composure and said she'd change clothes and call the airport. I had time to wonder where, and how, and what, and if, sorting through options and outcomes.

Cell phone rang again. Call from the airport said the plane was in the water. Plot sickens, options narrow, start to get the shakes from an overdose of adrenalin. Immediately, the phone rang again saying the plane was on the beach, everyone was fine, not a scratch. Pull off at a beach access spot and try to see it. Orange wings a mile or so away. Nobody here even aware of it. Back in the car.

North through Carlsbad almost to Oceanside, and after several wrong turns and double-backs find several fire trucks and rescue vehicles parked by some condos on the bluff next to beach access steps. Firemen look bored, see the "Biplane, Air Combat & Warbird Adventures" sign on the car and give me a thumbs up. I flash them a smile--maybe a grimace--and run down the steps to the beach.


A few people are milling around, some taking pictures. Guy says, "was this a publicity stunt?" Yeah right. See pilot Vic standing with a couple of people and I say "Hey, great job." Two men with him say, "Sure was, smoothest landing I've ever experienced." They say they'd asked Vic as they were headed north how the thing glides and could they land on the beach. Flying back south they learned. One says his Dad was an FAA inspector. Other says something about coming back again for a re-fly.

Three stories from three different observers on board the aircraft, but they all agree the #2 jug wiggled very briefly and then shot up over the wing and arced down behind them into the ocean. Engine continued to produce a little power. Vic, in his best airline captain voice, announced over the intercom that they probably should land on the beach instead of going back to the airport if that was okay. He checked the beach for surfers and sun bathers, and greased 'er on. Shut down, climbed out, and looked her over. Said he ran out of business cards and could have used a carton of brochures. Ho-hum.


Exceptionally low tide had left a hard beach smoother than many runways. But the tide would come back in and it was going to be exceptionally high. Mechanic/pilot Skip arrives and we discuss how we're going to get the bird out of here, what we'll need to do to take it apart, etc. Four of us pushed it south a couple hundred yards, and then decided we'd better scout ahead to determine if the ramp where we were headed would work.

Walked and walked and walked down the beach. No ramp. Walked and walked and walked back up the beach. These boots were NOT made for walkin'. Three o'clock.


Decide to reconnoiter north but by car. Drove along the oceanfront condos, got trapped by multiple "No Left Turns" and one way streets and ended up a long way from anywhere. Discovered a gate and driveway that seemed to lead down to a sand road out to the beach. No response in the call box at the curb. Left a probably incomprehensible message.

Back to the plane and see Channel 8 cameraman interviewing some animated surfer gesticulating wildly. Obviously the plane plummeted from the sky, practically knocking him off his surfboard while narrowly missing school children, a nearby orphanage, and the nunnery. Vic's standing back looking bored. Says they interviewed him too. It went fine. 11 o'clock news carries it, and he was right. We hear later that the piece was on in Chicago and Columbus, Ohio. Musta been a slow news day. Surfer dude's story ended up on the cutting room floor.

Kate arrives, breathless. Passengers get a handshake and pilot gets a hug. After giving her bird a careful once over and close look into the crankcase she says she's going to take the passengers back to the airport and their car. On the way back, "I was probably babbling," she says afterwards. She gives them each a logo jacket, offers them a re-fly, any ride they want, and they decide the warbird would be fun. They're so tickled about the whole thing they came back down to the beach to see how things are going. They decided to avoid the limelight and never let on to the camera crew they were the passengers. Petrol Pat, student rocket scientist, ex-gas passer or the FBO, and current hangar rat/plane loader exclaims, "This isn't a job, it's an adventure." Atta boy, smell the roses.

Skip and Susanne drive up the beach in their 4-wheel drive SUV. They reached through a gate, took one bolt out of the actuating arm of the multi-thousand dollar security barricade, and drove in. We turn the plane around, tie a rope to the tail and trundle up the beach.


Over the waterline above the high tide mark, and then up a creek bed to a paved blacktop driveway with a huge looping turnaround. And best of all, no curbs. Couldn't have been easier. Turns out we're at the house with the gate with the driveway with the call box with the unintelligible message. And it turns out that the man who lives in the house with the gate with the driveway with the call box with the unintelligible message is a pilot we know from the airport. (He made a fortune from a reflective dog collar--an idea that came to him, he freely admits, sleeping off a drunken stupor on a beach in Baja.)

How we gonna get this thing outta here? Replace the engine and fly it out? Is it legal> Is it smart? Tow it up to the airport in the wee hours? Can we get it outta here with the wings on? Can we get the wings off and back to the airport without tearing them up? What will we use to move the airplane? Put the tail in a pickup and drag it? Will it fit on a car trailer? Is a flat bed too expensive? Does it matter? Larry calls Chief of Police, a pilot, (nice to have those kinds of friends--both of 'em) and explains the options. Chief sez don't ask me anything to which I have might have to answer no. Safest option seems to be truck it back to the airport, sans wings.

But how do you take the wings off a biplane with no overhead rafters, hoists or cranes? A host of helpful friends, numerous vehicles, collective thinking, care, and muscle is how. Just like the old days. Skip, and the gathered multitude, plunged into the "loosen everything up" first step, while schemes were hatched for actually removing everything without damage. The sun sets. Plan A is prop up lower wings, remove uppers. But how to reach them with lower wings in the way? Plan B is prop uppers, remove lowers, back pickup under uppers, lift them down. Parts are removed, labeled and neatly laid out for transport to the airport. Oh-oh, forgot to call for a truck. No sweat, be there in 90 minutes.

More pilots and friends arrive. Beginning to look like a hell of beach party. Matt and Candy arrive with gear and beer. Fun to have a Marine fighter pilot helping take the wings off the ancient relative of his supersonic steed. Full moon rises. Funny how the important things in life turn out to be simple: good friends, a paved driveway, a full moon, hot coffee. Numerous heroes pop in and out of the scene. Nelson from Shimoda Aircaft offers to carry wings back to the airport in his pickup. (His dog Chance--as in Nothing By--pees on the tires for good measure). Donnya, like her eager doggies Rudder and Tailwheel, runs here and there reaching tools, pulling nuts and bolts. Bronco and Biggles arrive after their dogfight flights and add competent advice and muscle. Eric and Mickey pulled (and pushed) their weight. Even a groupie tow truck driver hung around and offered his substantial girth and strong back.

Plan B works fine. Scary, propping the wings with a tall step-ladder and couch cushions, knowing the expense of carelessness or bad planning. But the wings (and helpers) are unscathed. Plane sits forlorn in the moonlight, missing a cylinder, dripping dew, looking ungainly with only a center section hinting at airfoil and flight.

And so we waited. Seems the flatbed tractor trailer had been called out to retrieve an RV that rolled over on I-15. Their off pavement landing had been much more consequential, apparently. The process of turning it back over, loading it, driving back, and unloading it was slower than estimated. Repeated calls always produce "he'll be there within a half hour." We stand around in the growing chill, growing bored, growing hungry. Enjoying the full moon, thanking our lucky stars. Two wings, flying wires, fairings, and ladders are pickup-trucked back to the airport. Matt and Candy are back with pizza. Amazing how a slice of pizza can cheer you up.

Finally, a huge diesel tractor pulling an ingenious tilting trailer with sliding wheels arrives. Drivers swings around bouncing through the creek and weeds, backs up, stops, pulls the trailer wheels toward the tractor, neatly dropping the back end on the ground. We rig a bridle to the landing gear. They winch the aircraft onto the trailer, and level the bed. We lift on the two remaining wings and gently nestle them in cushions and blankets and strap them down behind the fuselage. Driver comments the truck will easily go 80 fully loaded. I comment the plane will fly at 40. Helper sez don't worry, he's been driving this big Class A rig for two months. Oh, goody.

Parade back to the hangar is uneventful, drawing little attention. Odd feeling of skulking back from a crime. Airport is quiet. Cold blue runway lights are offset by golden moon and warm hangar lights. The beacon winks, bored, in the background—seen all this kind of thing before. Wings are carefully stacked in the back, fuselage looking paraplegic next to her sister ship. Cub nestled in the corner looks on, bemused at the fuss. Lower the hangar door, turn out the lights. 10:15.

The end of another day in the life of a barnstormer.

• The Reunion

This one is a bit different from our usual posts here, but it seems to belong somehow.

Autumn leaves rustling, together to the appointed place,
the old warriors come.

Pilgrims, drifting across the land they fought to preserve.
Where they meet is not important anymore.
They meet and that's enough for now.
Greetings echo across a lobby.

Hands reach out and arms draw buddies close.
Embraces, that as young men they were too uncomfortable to give,
too shy to accept so lovingly.

But deep within these Indian Summer days, they have reached a
greater understanding of life and love.
The shells holding their souls are weaker now,
but hearts and minds grow vigorous, remembering.

On a table someone spreads old photographs, a test of recollection.
And friendly laughter echoes at shocks of hair gone gray or white, or
merely gone.


The rugged slender bodies lost forever.
Yet they no longer need to prove their strength.

Some are now sustained by one of "medicines miracles," and even in this fact, they manage to find humor.

The women, all those that waited, all those who loved them,
have watched the changes take place.

Now, they observe and listen, and smile at each other; as glad to be
together as the men.

Talk turns to war and planes and foreign lands.
Stories are told and told again,
reweaving the threadbare fabricate of the past.

Mending one more time the banner of their youth.
They hear the vibrations, feel the shudder of metal as engines whine and whirl, and planes come to life.


These birds with fractured wings can be seen beyond the mist of clouds, and they are in the air again, chasing the wind, feeling the exhilaration of flight close to the heavens.

Dead comrades, hearing their names spoken, wanting to share in this
time, if only in spirit, move silently among them.
Their presence is felt and smiles appear beneath misty eyes.
Each, in his own way may wonder who will be absent in another year.

The room grows quiet for a time.
Suddenly an ember flames to life. Another memory burns.
The talk may turn to other wars and other men, and of futility.

So, this is how it goes. The past is so much present.
In their ceremonies, the allegiances, the speeches and the prayers,
one cannot help but hear the deep eternal love of country they will
forever share.

Finally, it is time to leave.
Much too soon to set aside this little piece of yesterday,
but the past cannot be held too long, for it is fragile.

They say "Farewell" . . . "see you another year, God willing."
Each keep a little of the others with him forever.

-Rachel Firth