Air University Review, May-June 1984

Billy Mitchell and the Great Transcontinental
Air Race of 1919

Dr. William M. Leary

GENERAL William "Billy" Mitchell climbed to the top of the mountain during the Great War and saw the shape of the future. A new world opened before him, an age in which "the destinies of all people will be controlled through the air." The dawning of this "aeronautical era" (Mitchell came to believe, with the passion of an Old Testament prophet) meant that the security--and greatness--of the United States depended on the creation of an air force second to none. Returning from France in March 1919 to take charge of the Air Service's Training and Operations Group, the flamboyant airman set out to preach the gospel of air power to the unenlightened.1

The essential first step along the road to aerial superiority, Mitchell argued, was an independent air force. At his urging, congressional supporters introduced legislation in midsummer 1919 to establish an expanded, unified air service modeled on Great Britain's Royal Air Force. But with powerful opponents arrayed against the scheme (Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, and President Woodrow Wilson all came out against independence), the reorganization bill seemed certain to fail.2

Undaunted by the dismal outlook on Capitol Hill, Mitchell counted on favorable public opinion to silence all opposition. With Congress scheduled to consider the unification proposal and military appropriations in the fall, he drew up an imaginative plan to focus national attention on aviation. To demonstrate the progress that aeronautics had made during the recent war, Mitchell announced that the Air Service would fly across the North American continent en masse.3

Mitchell's scheme was breathtaking. Although a number of aviators had flown across the United States since Cal Rodgers first accomplished the feat in 1911, the transcontinental trip was still a hazardous adventure. Landing areas were few and far between, especially in the western part of the country; aircraft instrumentation could be best described as primitive; and navigational aids and accurate weather information did not exist. Yet Mitchell wanted to race from New York to California. The Air Service insisted on the official designation of "Transcontinental Reliability and Endurance Test," but no one harbored illusions about the true nature of the event. As the New York Times announced, Americans were about to witness "the greatest air race ever attempted."4

Preparations went forward without delay. Air Service officers selected a route that would run from New York to Buffalo, skirting the Appalachian Mountains, then along Lake Erie to Cleveland before turning westward to Chicago and Omaha. Aviators would pick up the tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad at Omaha, continuing to San Francisco via Cheyenne, Salt Lake City, Reno, and Sacramento. The railroad route was compelling: it followed favorable terrain, supplies and equipment could be moved easily by rail to intermediate points, and the tracks--known to airmen as the "iron compass"--would serve as the primary navigational aid from Omaha to San Francisco.

In deference to the operational limitations of contemporary aircraft, which cruised at about 100 miles per hour and carried enough fuel to keep aloft for only two or three hours, Mitchell's planners established twenty refueling or control points along the 2701-mile route. Contest rules called for a minimum stop of thirty minutes at each point. Also, in the interests of safety, flying was restricted to daylight. Originally conceived as a one-way crossing, with contestants starting at New York and San Francisco, the Air Service responded to criticism and changed the event to a round-trip race--thus neutralizing the possible advantage of prevailing westerly winds.5

The starting date--8 October 1919--turned out to be opportune: Americans needed a diversion after a terrible summer of nationwide unrest and violence. Scattered racial incidents had culminated in a bloody Chicago race riot in late July. which left 36 dead. September saw the climax of postwar labor troubles, with a police strike in Boston and a bitter dispute in the steel industry. Two days before the air race was scheduled to begin, federal troops occupied Gary, Indiana, in an effort to quell mounting violence in the steel town. And all this came at a time when Woodrow Wilson hovered near death: the President,. in the midst of a raging national debate over ratification of the Versailles Treaty, had collapsed following a speech at Pueblo, Colorado, on 25 September.6

For a brief time, at least, people could put aside thoughts of the nation's ills and turn their attention to Roosevelt Field, Long Island. By early October, some 48 airplanes stood ready to start the great air race. A few esoteric models attracted considerable interest (a captured German Fokker and a twin-engined Martin bomber particularly stood out), but the bulk of the competing aircraft were staid DH-4s, a wartime biplane of British (de Havilland) design and American manufacture. The press speculated on the outcome of the contest. Preface favorites included Lieutenant Colonel Harold E. Hartney, former commander of the 1st Pursuit Group in France; Captain Field K. Kindley, fifth-ranking American ace; and Lieutenant Belvin W. Maynard, recent winner of the New York-to-Toronto race.7

The morning of 8 October dawned clear and cool with a fresh northeasterly wind. More than 2000 spectators showed up for the day's festivities. The 22d Infantry Band provided music, while ladies of the War Camp Community Service passed out sandwiches and coffee to contestants and guests. Assistant Secretary of War Benedict Crowell, a friend of the Air Service and supporter of unification, represented Secretary Baker, who tactfully had found better things to do. Billy Mitchell, of course, had come from Washington, where he had been testifying in support of a separate air force before House and Senate committees.

Shortly before 9:00, the throaty roar of a dozen engines caught the crowd's attention, Starting honors went to Commodore L. E. O. Charlton, British air attaché, who was participating as a courtesy. But Charlton's Bristol fighter developed engine trouble, and Lieutenant J. B. Machle, next in line, took off first at 9:13. Conforming to rules, Machle rose to 1000 feet and circled the field before setting course for he first control point at Binghamton, New York.

Departures were routine until it came time for Lieutenant Maynard to leave. As he prepared to start the 400-hp Liberty engine of his DH-4, the flier's dog, Trixie, ran up to the airplane, barking and jumping with excitement. Maynard climbed down, picked up the Belgian police dog, and hopped back on board. He took off with the obviously delighted Trixie hanging over the side of the open cockpit. The crowd cheered with pleasure.

Secretary Crowell took advantage of a lull in the proceeding to speak with the press. "It is beyond dispute," he said, "the greatest aerial contest in the world." Pointing out that the United States lagged sadly behind Europe in the development of aeronautics, Crowell voiced the hope that the race "will awaken people" to the need for increased American effort in this critical area.

The secretary then decided to get into the spirit of things and asked to be taken up for a ride. Mitchell promptly made the necessary arrangements. Sporting borrowed goggles and a leather coat, Crowell waved to the crowd as he clambered into the cockpit of a Curtiss biplane. The aircraft axied to the edge of the field, turned into the wind, and began its takeoff run. Just as the wheels left the ground, the engine failed. The Curtiss stalled to the right, a wing tip struck the ground, and the aircraft turned over on its back. After a moment of stunned silence, the crowd rushed out onto the field. Crowell and pilot M. G. Cleary emerged from the wreck, shaken but uninjured, "That's the shortest flight on record," Crowell quipped to reporters, The secretary said that he was ready to go up again, but unfortunately, a "pressing appointment" in the city prevented his making another flight. Assuring Captain Cleary that the accident was not his fault, he posed for a photograph with the embarrassed aviator before hastily leaving the field.8

There was a good deal less excitement in San Francisco, where a small group of fifteen contestants stood ready to depart. Even the weather--seasonal low clouds and fog--seemed in keeping with the subdued mood. Although few in numbers, the West Coast contingent did boast several noted fliers, including Major Carl Spaatz, assistant air officer for the region; Major Dana Crissy, commander of Mather Field at Sacramento; and Captain Lowell H. Smith, who had flown for Pancho Villa in the early phases of the Mexican revolution. Colonel Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, destined to lead the Army Air Forces in World War II but at that time in charge of military aviation on the Pacific coast, joined a group of local officials to bid farewell to the airmen.9

The end of the first day saw Lieutenant Maynard--dubbed the "flying parson" by the press because he had left a Baptist seminary in 1917 to join the Air Service clearly in front. Maynard reached Chicago by dark, a distance of 81 0 miles from New York, while his three nearest competitors spent the night in Bryan, Ohio. These were the fortunate ones. Eighteen fliers failed to get beyond Buffalo.

The eastern half of the transcontinental route was strewn with debris. Commodore Charlton, who had departed after engine repairs, wrecked his Bristol fighter during an emergency landing near Ithaca, New York. Lieutenant George McDonald's DH-4 suffered a similar fate when he was forced down in Pennsylvania. Lieutenant D.G. Gish and his observer, Captain Paul de Lavergne, French air attaché, narrowly escaped death when their aircraft caught fire over Livingston County, New York. Neither had a parachute; Gish managed to crash the DH-4, his only alternative, before flames reached the cockpit. The intrepid de Lavergne transferred to a Martin bomber, piloted by Captain Roy Francis, and resumed his trip across the country.

Sergeant W. H. Nevitt, observer in a de Havilland flown by Colonel Joseph Brant, was not so lucky as Gish and de Lavergne. Engine trouble forced down Colonel Brant near Deposit, New York. The airplane crashed on landing, and Nevitt was killed.

Meanwhile, the racers eastbound from San Francisco managed to cross the treacherous Sierra Nevada Mountains without incident. Eleven of the fifteen fliers reached Salt Lake City by afternoon. There, due to poor field conditions at the next control point, they were held overnight. But the first day had brought tragedy to this group also. Major Crissy and his observer, Sergeant Virgil Thomas, arrived over Salt Lake City in late afternoon shortly after 5:00. Crissy circled the field, waving to the crowd that had gathered to greet the airmen. All seemed in order until the final approach. Crissy came in at an abnormally steep angle. The aircraft stalled and them plummeted to the ground. Both occupants were killed.

On Thursday, 9 October, Maynard left Chicago at first light. Encountering severe turbulence en route to Des Moines, he became airsick for the first time in his flying career. At North Platte, Nebraska, he met and exchanged greetings with the eastbound leader, Captain Lowell Smith. Maynard continued on to Cheyenne, while Smith spent the night in Omaha. The "flying parson" ended the day with a lead over Smith of 236 miles, or a little more than two hours' flying time.

Casualties continued to mount behind the leaders. Rainstorms east of the Mississippi caused numerous forced landings, and four aircraft suffered major damage. Lieutenant A. M. Roberts and his observer survived an especially close brush with death. In an effort to make up for lost time, Roberts chose the direct route, over Lake Erie, between Buffalo and Cleveland. His engine failed, and he had to ditch in the lake. Luckily, a passing freighter saw the crash and picked up the two men.

Snowstorms over Wyoming led to a fatality in the west. Lieutenants E. V. Wales and William Goldsborough were en route to Rawlins f rom Cheyenne, flying close to the ground below low clouds, when they encountered a snowstorm. Wales lost forward visibility. Suddenly, a mountain loomed ahead. Wales threw the aircraft into a violent turn, stalled, and dove into the ground. Lieutenant Goldsborough emerged from the wreck with serious injuries but managed to walk three painful miles for help. His effort was in vain. When rescuers returned to the aircraft, they found Wales dead.

The third day of the race began with problems for Lieutenant Maynard, who had hoped to arrive in San Francisco by sundown. Frosty overnight temperatures at Cheyenne resulted in an ice-clogged overflow pipe, which, in turn, caused the engine to overheat on starting, damaging the radiator. Sergeant William E. Kline, Maynard's observer-mechanic, made the necessary repairs, but the job took five hours. Maynard ended the day at Saldura, Utah, three control points and 518 miles from his final destination.

Meanwhile, Captain Smith continued to lead the eastbound contingent, with Major Spaatz and Lieutenant Emil Kiel in hot--and acrimonious--pursuit. Kiel arrived at Des Moines twenty-four minutes before Spaatz. When the major landed, he protested that Kiel had left Omaha, the previous control point, two minutes before the required thirty minutes for stopovers. The officer-in-charge honored Spaatz's complaint and forced Kiel to wait an additional two minutes at Des Moines. Shortly before nightfall, Spaatz and Kiel caught up with Smith at Bryan, Ohio. New York lay only 560 miles away, and they would have the advantage of the early rising sun, Maynard's lead in the west had vanished.

Unfortunately, the third day of the race also saw three serious accidents and one more fatality. Major A. L. Sneed, piloting a DH-4 short of fuel, made a very hard landing at Buffalo. The aircraft bounced high in the air and then smashed down on its nose. The observer, Sergeant Worth C. McClure, catapulted out of his seat, suffering a broken neck.

On Saturday, 11 October, the end of the first phase of the Transcontinental Air Race proved anticlimactic. Maynard left Saldura at first light, found ideal weather en route, and arrived in San Francisco without incident at 1:12 in the afternoon. On hand to greet the slender, bespectacled aviator, who had just set a new transcontinental speed record, was the chief of the Air Service, Major General C. T. Mehoher, who was accompanied by Colonel Arnold and a small group of officials and spectators.

Maynard had won because the eastbound fliers had run into trouble. Smith, Spaatz, and Kiel left Bryan at dawn, headed straight into threatening weather. Captain Smith, battling rainstorms, could not find the airfield at Cleveland. Coming down to ask directions, he damaged the landing gear and propeller of his de Havilland. Repairs took five hours, putting him out of contention.

Spaatz and Kiel located Cleveland without difficulty, but minor mechnical problems plagued their journey. In late afternoon, Spaatz arrived at Binghamton, where he encountered a brief delay. Kiel, who landed shortly after Spaatz, was asked to delay his departure until ten minutes after the major left, in deference to his senior. Kiel refused, and both men took off at the same time. Spaatz gained the lead en route to New York, but he landed by mistake at the Hazelhurst airport, adjacent to Roosevelt Field. Discovering his error, Spaatz took off immediately. It was too late. Kiel beat him to Roosevelt by twenty seconds.

Mercifully, the day had been free of serious accidents.

Sunday, 12 October, offered twenty-four hours of rest under contest rules and provided time to take stock of the past week's events. A majority of contestants had yet to complete the one-way crossing, and the race already had claimed five lives (seven, if the deaths of two fliers en route to the starting point were counted) and produced numerous injuries. The press tended to be philosophical about the losses. "Man," an editorial in the New York Tribune announced, "is compelled to pay the toll to a nature which is jealous of his progress." But some of the participants took a less detached view. Major Spaatz, destined to become the first chief of staff of the United States Air Force in 1947, opposed continuation of the race. No further useful purpose, he believed, could be served by going ahead. If the War Department insisted, then the fliers should return at a leisurely pace via a less hazardous southern route. Lieutenant Kiel was even more outspoken. "No one," he told a reporter, "can make me race back to California . . . . The train will be good enough for me." The American Flying Club urged Washington to call an end to the contest.

The War Department remained unmoved. The Army was the Army. Orders called for a double crossing of the continent, and orders would be obeyed.

Lieutenant Maynard resumed his flight in accordance with contest rules (not counting Sunday, forty-eight hours after his arrival) on Tuesday afternoon, 1 4 October. Spaatz got under way from New York the next morning, followed by Captain Smith. Lieutenant Kiel, who did not receive a train ticket from his superiors, complained that his aircraft needed extensive repairs and delayed his departure.

Monday and Tuesday had been marked by a number of accidents, as stragglers completed the first leg of the race. Wednesday, 15 October, however, brought fatalities. Lieutenants French Kirby and Stanley C. Miller experienced an engine failure near Evanston, Wyoming. Their aircraft stalled during an attempted deadstick landing, and both men died in the resultant crash.

The demise of Kirby and Miller produced the first severe public criticism of the air race. The Chicago Daily Tribune led the way, terming the contest "rank stupidity." Even Congressman Fiorello LaGuardia, one of the Air Service's staunchest supporters, spoke out in opposition. The casualties, he noted, were out of all proportion to those that might be expected in cross-country flying.10

This growing hostility stung Billy Mitchell, architect of the contest, and he responded in testimony before Congress. The blame, he argued, lay with the de Havillands, aircraft that had been foisted on a reluctant Air Service by Washington officialdom. The DH-4 (all of the fatal accidents had involved this type) had an unprotected gasoline tank. Moreover, the tank was placed in a hazardous location behind the pilot; during crash landings, pilots were likely to be crushed between the tank and the engine. Mitchell left the distinct impression that the race would have been much safer if different aircraft had been used.11

Mitchell's attack on the favorite whipping boy of the Air Service, the "infamous flaming coffin" of World War I, did not pass unchallenged, As Lieutenant Maynard and others would later point out, the plane's record was a good deal better than its reputation. The DH-4 had a pressure-feed (rather than a gravity-feed) fuel tank that lacked the rubber covering of tanks in some other aircraft and could explode when hit by a bullet. But pressure-feed tanks were common in airplanes flown during the Great War, nor was the absence of a rubber coating unusual. Certainly, the placement of the tank was unfortunate, and the British corrected this in the DH-9. Yet, again, this basic design was not remarkable. About half of the war's combat aircraft had tanks located behind the pilot, including the famous Spad and Sopwith Camel. Thus, although the DH-4, like the B-26 of World War II, did have detractors and skeptical critics, many fliers swore by the airplane.12

In any event, none of the five fatal accidents could be attributed to design problems. Modern accident investigators--perhaps too easily--would likely have singled out pilot error as a major factor. Two incidents (Crissy and Sneed) clearly were due to poor landing technique. Two others (Kirby and Brant) occurred on deadstick landings. Engine failure was an everyday event in 1 919, and pilots were expected to come down safely in such circumstances. Lieutenant Wales's accident, it it happened today, would likely be blamed on poor judgment: the pilot had flown into weather conditions beyond his ability to handle.

Mitchell had wanted publicity but not the kind that followed the latest fatalities. Nevertheless, the race continued. It seemed almost like a matter of pride for Mitchell--perhaps not personal pride, but pride in the Air Service.

On 16 October, fate turned against Lieutenant Maynard. A broken crankshaft forced him down forty miles west of Omaha. The "flying parson" needed a new engine. Even if he could find one, normally it took about three days to make the necessary repairs. But Maynard was a resourceful and determined young man. He located a Liberty motor in Omaha, courtesy of Captain Roy Francis, whose Martin bomber had crashed earlier in the week. Although the airplane had been demolished, one of its engines had escaped damage, Francis had the engine trucked to Maynard and arranged for searchlights so that the repair crew could work through the night Sergeant Kline, in charge of the engine change, performed a minor miracle: the airplane was ready to fly in eighteen hours.

Captain Lowell Smith, an equally determined individual who had become the westbound leader, ran into problems also. On the evening of 1 5 October, his aircraft was destroyed by fire in Buffalo when lanterns being used by mechanics ignited a wing. He received permission to continue the race if he could find a replacement aircraft. Prospects seemed dim until Major Spaatz arrived on the 17th. It took only a little pleading before Spaatz agreed to turn over his DH-4 to the eager captain. Happily, Spaatz bowed out of a race which he now considered pointless. Smith, who later would lead the first round-the-world f light in 1 924, went on to conquer wind and weather, becoming the first West Coast flier to complete the round trip when he arrived in San Francisco on 21 October.

Maynard, however, had already won the race. The lieutenant had no serious problems after Omaha and landed at Roosevelt Field in the early afternoon of Saturday, 1 8 October. More than 1 000 people turned out for the victory ceremony, including the aviator's wife and two young daughters. The girls seemed especially happy to see Trixie, surely the first dog to make the double crossing of the North American continent by air. When asked to explain his success, Maynard credited Sergeant Kline's mechanical feats, good luck, and the fact that he had relied extensively on his compass for point-to-point navigation. General Mitchell took the opportunity to announce that Maynard's arrival marked the end of America's isolation. The race, he said, amply demonstrated the capability of air power. Maynard, collecting his family and Trixie, headed for home. Three years later, on 7 September 1922, the young pilot would meet his death while stunt flying at a county fair in Rutland, Vermont.13

Although the Great Transcontinental Air Race disappeared from the front pages of the nation's newspapers with Maynard's arrival in New York, the contest continued. By the time it officially ended on 31 October, thirty-three aircraft had completed a one-way crossing and eight had made the round trip. While accidents continued during the final stages of the race, there were no more fatalities.

The human cost--seven lives--had been high, even during a period when flying could be an extremely hazardous business. The Air Service lost seventy-four aviators in cross-country operations during 1919 at a rate of one man killed every 274 flying hours. But fatalities in the air race occurred at the rate of one per 1 80 hours. Put another way, losses in the race fell just one short of the number of Americans killed while serving in France with the Lafayette Escadrille during twenty-two months of combat.14

And what was accomplished?

The announced purpose of the contest was to test the reliability and endurance of Air Service equipment. The race certainly demonstrated that the aircraft of 1 91 9 were far from reliable and that endurance was more human than mechanical. But these results could have been obtained in a far less costly manner.

Mitchell, of course, had had other motives. He had wanted to create a congenial climate of public opinion so that Congress would approve plans for unification and vote substantial appropriations. His scheme did not work. A separate air force remained years away; in 1920, Congress would slash Air Service tunds to the bone.15

Mitchell failed to realize his objectives through the transcontinental race, and even more bitter disappointments lay ahead for the outspoken airman. Still, while historians may call into question the effectiveness of Mitchell's role in promoting the needs of the Air Service after World War I and during the 1020s,16 his compelling vision of the future of aviation was vindicated in time . In the final analysis, General William "Billy" Mitchell proved to be the prophet of air power for the United States.

University of Georgia, Athens

Notes

1. See Wesley Frank Craven and James Lea Crate, TheArmy Air Forces in World War II, 7 vols. (Chicago, 1948-1958), I, pp. 24-25, and Alfred F. Hurley, Billy Mitchell: Crusader for Air Power (New York, 1964), pp. 39-40. The quotation is from General Mitchell's Winged Defense (New York, 1925), p. 3.

2. Hurley, pp. 45-51.

3 Isaac Don Levine, Mitchell: Pioneer of Air Power (Cleveland, 1944), pp. 191-92.

4. New York Times, 8 October, 1919

5. Details of preparation can be found in File 373, "Transcontinental Reilability Flight," Army Air Forces, Central Decimal File, 1917-38, Record Group, 18, National Archives; and Office of Director of Air Service, "Report on First Transcontinental Reliability and Endurance Test," 5 February 1920, Air Service Information Circular, vol. I. See also Ray L. Bowers's excellent article, "The Transcontinental Reliability Test," Airpower Historian, January 1961 pp. 45-54, and April 1961, pp. 88-1 00.

6. the turbulent postwar period is detailed by Burl Noggle, Into the Twenties: The United States from Armistice Normalcy (Urbana, 1974).

7. New York Times, 8 October 1919.

8 Details of the race, except where notes, are taken from the New York Times, 9-31 October 1 919

9. San Francisco Chronicle, 9 October 1919.

10. Chicago Daily Tribune, 18 October 1919; New York Times, 18 October 1919.

11. U.S. House of Representatives, Subcommittee No. I (Aviation) of the Select Committee on Expenditures in the War Department, Hearings, 66th Congress, 1st Session (Washington, 1920), pp. 2644-50

12. See testimony by Maynard and Major James A. Meissner, ibid., pp, 3657-64, 3773-78.

13. On Maynard's death, see the New York Times, 8 and 12 September 1922.

14. Bowers, pp. 97-98.

15. Despite claims by Levine (Mitchell, p. 192) and others, the air race did not make a major contribution to the later establishment of the Post Office's transcontinental air mail route.

16. For a sharply critical treatment of Mitchell's activities, see Thomas Worth Walterman, "Airpower and Private Enterprise:Federal-industrial Relations in the Aeronautics Field,1918-1926, doctoral dissertation, Washington University, 1970.


Contributor

William M. Leary (Ph.D., Princeton University) is Associate Professor of History at the University of Georgia. Last summer he served as a Visiting Professor at the National Air and Space Museum. Dr. Leary was with the Air Force at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, during the Korean War. He has written extensively on America aeronautical activity in East Asia and is author of Perilous Missions (University of Alabama Press, 1984), covering Civil Air Transportation and CIA covert operations in Asia. Soon to be published is his latest book, To Conquer Time and Space, an account of the early years of the U.S. Air Mail Service.

Disclaimer

The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.


Air & Space Power Home Page | Feedback? Email the Editor