Byline: Ernie Pyle
The country's best-known war correspondent learned his trade as an aviation reporter.
- By Rebecca Maksel
- Air & Space magazine, November 2011
Courtesy The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana
(Page 2 of 4)
The 12-page newspaper, part of the Scripps-Howard chain, had been launched just 18 months earlier. Its editorial office, wrote Miller, was “a shabby, littered, ill-ventilated rectangle congested with secondhand desks [located] a few blocks from the White House.”
Although hired as a reporter, Pyle was soon also writing headlines and copy editing. By 1927 he was so bored that he asked Miller if he could try writing an aviation column in addition to his other duties. (He had developed a “veneration for aviators that was reminiscent of his [childhood] devotion to automobile racers,” wrote Miller.) After finishing his normal shift at about 2 p.m., Pyle would make the rounds of the airports and airfields, looking for stories. Then he would head home to write his column, and turn it in the next morning.
The first “D.C. Airports Day by Day” column appeared without a byline on March 26, 1928. After giving the day’s flying weather (“Gentle winds south and southwest up to 1000 feet”), Pyle described joyrides at three of Washington’s airfields: “Scores of passengers hopped off from Hoover Field, Capital Airport and College Park Field for short flights over the city. Hundreds of others, tempted by the ideal weather, lingered at the fields to watch the ships come and go.” He even worked in a little drama: Army pilot Ross Hoyt broke a propeller and smashed his undercarriage while landing in a plowed field, and Herbert Fahy, chief pilot at Capital Airport, was likened to the famous Lone Eagle: “Like Lindy, [Fahy] ate a sandwich as he flew, late in the afternoon. His plane, a Ryan cabin ship, almost a duplicate of Lindy’s Spirit of St. Louis, attracted many embryo fliers.”
The column was a success; by April, Pyle had his own byline, and in May 1928, he was relieved of his copy-desk duties and free to spend all of his time covering aviation.
“Pyle was finding his voice,” says Owen Johnson, a journalism professor at Indiana University who is editing a collection of the reporter’s letters. “Aviation was a pioneering world where things were changing, and that made it very exciting to write about. And Pyle did his best writing when he was excited about something. His letters make it clear that during this period, from 1928 to 1932, aviation was the center of his life.”
Just as Pyle would later describe the day-to-day life of the infantry to Americans on the homefront, he used his aviation column to portray the world of aviation to an air-minded public.
And the public was eager for details. Pyle wrote about flying in a twin-engine Fokker bomber and conducting searchlight tests; his trip in a Ford Tri-motor, flying at 156 mph over the Transcontinental Air Transport’s air-rail line between New York and Los Angeles; and what it was like to take a hop in a Pitcairn-Cierva Autogyro (“We went forward so slowly that you could hardly see the wings pass objects on the ground, but it seemed we were settling very rapidly. Very much like going down in an elevator”). He traveled to Cleveland and Chicago to cover the National Air Races, to Akron to report on the future of the zeppelin (“For long-distance hauling there is nothing in the world as fast, as safe, or as efficient”), and to St. Louis to attend a joint meeting of the Society of Automotive Engineers and the Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce.
While captivated by aviation, Pyle found publicity flights and endurance records distasteful; his heroes were airmail pilots. On June 30, 1929, he wrote a tribute to one: “Bill McConnell was in to see us yesterday. That name probably doesn’t mean much to you, for Mac hasn’t done bigger and better things in the publicity lines.