The First Test Pilots
At old McCook Field, the art of flying became a science.
- By Stephen Joiner
- Air & Space magazine, November 2013
National Museum of the USAF
(Page 3 of 5)
The students and staff at McCook were a Who’s Who of early aerospace. The legendary Jimmy Doolittle was in the class of ’23. Leigh Wade was a McCook test pilot before setting out in 1924—with seven other Army pilots—on the first round-the-world flight. Stanford-educated John Macready was chief test pilot for the Air Service from 1920 to 1926, during which time he won the Mackay Trophy for aviation achievement three times. He even designed the first aviator sunglasses, working with Bausch & Lomb to come up with a shape and tint that could protect a pilot’s eyes in the thin air at high altitudes.
In her biography of her father, Sally Wallace described his first day at McCook. Escorted by the officer in charge to observe the test of an experimental vehicle, Macready watched in horror as the aircraft stalled at 700 feet and spiralled in, exploding in flames and burning the pilot beyond recognition. “As you can see,” the unfazed officer next to him said, “we need replacements.”
No test pilot flew as many flights as “Mac” Macready, and under conditions as strenuous. In the 1920s, the development of pressurized cockpits was still a work in progress. The McCook engineers welded an airtight steel barrel incorporating flight controls, an altimeter, and a six-inch glass porthole into the open cockpit of a de Havilland DH.9. Sealed inside, Macready, hunched in what he termed “a metal coffin,” would take it aloft.
The Engineering Division was always eager to find new applications for airplanes, and when a Cleveland park system employee wondered if the job of spraying trees with insecticide couldn’t be done better by a hydrogen dirigible—or even a newfangled airplane—the idea drifted through the Department of Agriculture and ended up at McCook. Soon, a hand-operated hopper with the capacity for 100 pounds of lead arsenate poison was mounted on a Curtiss JN-4. With the hopper’s designer in the observer’s seat, Macready flew the Jenny at 80 mph, 35 feet above a grove of catalpa trees infested with caterpillars. The insecticide was dispensed in six passes, coating the trees and killing the pests. The science of cropdusting was born. As Macready landed, ecstatic Department of Agriculture observers swarmed the airplane. Today aircraft spray 71 million acres of cropland each year.
Collaboration between the public and private aviation sectors was practically invented at McCook. When he retired in 1954, Gene Eubank was the oldest active pilot in the Air Force. Thirty years earlier, he had been a McCook test pilot assigned to bombers and large aircraft. Eubank had been flying border patrol missions against Pancho Villa’s bandits when Billy Mitchell spotted him and brought him to Dayton.
In an Air Force oral history interview in 1982, Eubank described the daily life of a McCook pilot. Being the first to fly airplanes made by U.S. manufacturers was considered a perk for military test pilots, who at the time had no counterparts in private industry. While testing the XB-906, an all-metal design by McCook engineer Bill Stout that evolved into Ford’s famous Trimotor, Eubank would frequently visit Detroit. “If there was anything to go to the factory to make a suggestion about...I was the one,” he said. McCook pilots were treated like celebrities, the astronauts of their day. “Mr. Henry Ford had me to lunch with him,” Eubank recalled. “Mr. Ford’s chief engineer, Mr. Henry Mayo, came down to the train and met me, then took me to his private club and put me up, then put me back on the train when I went back to Dayton. Now, that was the accord that a young aviator got from the top people in this country.”
Mac Macready enjoyed similar respect from industry leaders. Anthony Fokker, the Dutch-born aviation manufacturer who had moved to the United States in 1922, was a frequent houseguest at Macready’s Dayton residence. Sally Wallace recalls the day in 1925 when Fokker invited members of her mother’s bridge club for a flight on his new T-2 transport. Many of them had never flown before, but this game group of young Jazz Age women unanimously accepted the dashing Fokker’s offer and took to the sky. Macready piloted the T-2 while Fokker schmoozed with the bridge club in the cabin and passed around a box of chocolates.
World War I had shown military strategists that altitude was advantage. Pre-war maximums averaging 8,000 feet were quickly surpassed by aircraft like the Fokker D.VII, with a ceiling above 20,000 feet. The limiting factor was not human physiology but the engine. The Liberty-12, a revolutionary water-cooled, 12-cylinder powerplant developed at McCook, delivered 400 horsepower at sea level but less than 90 in the oxygen-starved environment above 25,000 feet. So McCook engineers, working with General Electric, developed a turbo-supercharger to sustain horsepower at high altitudes, and applied it to a Liberty-powered LUSAC 11 fighter. Rudolph “Shorty” Schroeder made the first few high-altitude tests. On his last attempt, his oxygen supply faltered at just over 33,000 feet. Momentarily lifting his goggles in the open cockpit to adjust the flow, his eyeballs were quick-frozen and he lost consciousness. After the airplane plunged six miles in two minutes, the sound of the nearly empty fuel tanks contracting in the higher air pressure at lower altitudes jarred Schroeder back to consciousness, and he was able to glide the airplane to a landing.
Mac Macready took over the high-altitude program and made 50 flights above 30,000 feet in the LUSAC. On September 18, 1921, he was well above that when teardrops in his eyes turned to icicles and ice formed in his oxygen flow. “At this point, his mind began to grow fuzzy,” his daughter wrote. “Glancing at the airspeed indicator he was surprised to see that it read only 65 miles per hour.” It took a long moment before he realized he’d been peering at the tachometer displaying 6,500 revolutions per minute. “He told himself ‘I’m losing it,’ ” Wallace writes. Her father had enough altitude experience to know that a lagging thought process and a fizzy sense of euphoria were symptoms of deadly hypoxia. Nevertheless, he nudged the biplane up past 34,000 feet, where, in the thin air, it dangled more than flew, refusing to climb further. “Mac took a look around for the first time,” Wallace writes. “The sky was a dazzling white, almost blinding in its intensity.... He was higher at that moment than any man had ever been before.” Macready circled the LUSAC down to McCook in 5,000-foot increments. Although his altimeter read 41,200 feet (his daughter still has the instrument’s barograph traces), post-landing calibration led the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale to downgrade the official number to 34,563 feet. It was still a world record—witnessed by Orville Wright himself, who later came by Macready’s office to congratulate him.