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 4 of 5)
During the war, when bullets hit the fuel tanks in wood-and-fabric airplanes, the craft became flying crematoriums. Pilots could opt to leap to their death or ride the flaming airplane down. Balloon observers had a better choice: When they jumped from the gondola, a rudimentary parachute unfolded that they could grab onto. The balloon escape system was effective: No wartime observer ever died as a result of one failing. In an airplane, however, instantly deployed parachutes could get tangled in the wing rigging, and aviators were dragged into the spinning prop. Billy Mitchell brought the problem to McCook engineers. Floyd Smith, a former circus performer and a test pilot for Glenn Martin who later headed the Parachute Division at McCook, spearheaded intensive research, which led to the invention of the Type A freefall parachute, made of Japanese Habutai silk. The Type A’s innovations included delayed ripcord opening—which allowed the pilot to fall clear of the airplane before opening the chute—and a smaller pilot chute to yank the main chute out of the pack.
Six months after the backpack-style Type A was introduced, McCook pilot Harold Harris was flying a Loening monoplane when the aircraft began to disintegrate. Harris released his harness and stood up, and was immediately blown out of the cockpit by the propeller blast. Normally that would have meant certain death, but instead, moments later he floated down beneath a billowing white canopy, landing in a backyard grape arbor without a scratch and becoming the first aviator saved by the McCook emergency freefall parachute.
A year later, when the engine in his DH.4 conked out over Dayton, Mac Macready “hit the silk” and claimed honors for the first nighttime save. Far below, at the estate of the president of the Dayton Chamber of Commerce, guests at a dinner party on the terrace were discussing the Book of Revelation when Macready’s de Havilland streaked overhead like a meteor and exploded in a vacant field, illuminating the sky. Seconds later, a disembodied voice could be heard in the darkness above. “My father was yelling ‘Hello! Help!’ as he came down in the parachute,” Sally Wallace explains. The host of the gathering, an avid Bible scholar, later likened the event to witnessing the archangel Gabriel calling down from heaven. Harold Harris and Mac Macready became, respectively, the first and second charter members of the Caterpillar Club, an organization that still records saves by parachute.
McCook did its part to assure the public that airplanes were safe by staging two record-breaking flights. In May 1923, Macready and Oakley Kelly flew a McCook-modified Fokker transport from Roosevelt Field in Long Island to San Diego, nonstop, in 26 hours. By then, research at McCook’s Instrument and Navigation Branch had made “blind flying”—flying on instruments only—more precise and predictable. To get headings free of magnetic deflection errors, the pilots used a compass invented at McCook. A bank-and-turn indicator, another McCook original, kept them shiny-side-up in clouds and fog. By the time Macready flew the big T-2 over sun-drenched downtown San Diego, their instrument-guided heading deviated less than a fraction of a mile from the course marked on the map. (Today the airplane is on exhibit in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.)
Such long-distance flights became something of a McCook trademark. In June 1927, test pilots Lester Maitland and Albert Hegenberger flew a Fokker Trimotor christened the Bird of Paradise across 2,425 miles of open ocean between Oakland, California, and Honolulu. The airplane was crammed with the latest and greatest from McCook’s Instrument and Navigation Branch, along with an inflatable raft complete with 18-foot mast and sail. Two radio navigation beacons modeled on an experimental version at McCook were set up in San Francisco and on Maui. A navigational error of just four degrees would cause the Bird to miss Hawaii entirely and run out of fuel over the vast Pacific.
Charles Lindbergh’s flight to Paris had occurred just a few weeks earlier, and was still very much in the news. But notwithstanding the other risks he faced, Lindbergh could hardly have missed spotting the European continent as long as he kept flying. That fact was not lost on Maitland and Hegenberger. Lester Maitland’s grandson, David Knoop, remembers his grandfather’s take. “He certainly did believe [his] was a tougher flight than Lindbergh’s, and he knew Lindbergh well,” Knoop says. “As Lester always told it to me, it was a lot harder to find Hawaii than it was France back in those days.”
The Bird took off from an extended runway in Oakland on the morning of June 28, and soon after, most of its technology failed. Malfunction of the compass was followed by loss of the radio navigation signals from both California and Hawaii. Attempts to get a position via air-to-sea radio contact with a nearby Navy vessel were frustrated by poor reception. Maitland and Hegenberger navigated instead by plotting position lines from sun sightings, taking sextant fixes on stars, and observing the spume on the ocean below to estimate drift. They approached Hawaii in overcast conditions at 3:20 a.m., on the ragged edge of that four-degree margin of navigational error. They missed the Big Island entirely, and came dangerously close to bypassing the rest of the chain when the bright, flashing oil-vapor lamp of the Kilauea Lighthouse shone through the cloud cover. Maitland brought the Bird around and reversed course to Honolulu. While critical systems had failed, the flight of the Bird of Paradise is credited with revealing weak spots in navigation technology, leading to improvements that eventually established a regular air route to Hawaii. (Commercial airliners still included a sextant port in the cockpit as late as the 1960s.)
Later that same year, all functions at McCook were transferred to newly constructed Wright Field, east of Dayton, and McCook began the fade into obscurity. During its 10-year tenure as aviation’s R&D nerve center, a black sign with white letters large enough to read from considerable altitude had been mounted above the door of McCook’s main hangar: THIS FIELD IS SMALL—USE IT ALL. The first test pilots did—every inch of it.