Byline: Ernie Pyle

The country’s best-known war correspondent learned his trade as an aviation reporter.

Though he had a student pilot’s permit, Pyle never got a license. (Courtesy The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana)
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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.

“He is an aviator, but he has never been to the North Pole, or the South Pole, or flown across the ocean at midnight with a pig in his lap, or stayed in the air a week without changing his socks.

“No, all he ever did was fly the night air mail between Cleveland and Cincinnati every night for 34 consecutive nights last winter.”

In these early columns, Pyle developed the easy, homespun style that would later characterize his World War II correspondence. Of Lieutenant Jimmy Doolittle running a 1929 radio beacon test: “If you had been at College Park Field just at dusk yesterday, you would have seen a little man, all stuffed and beclothed until he looked like a big man, waddle into his airplane and fly away into the northern darkness.”

Pyle wrote about pilots by day and socialized with them by night, often in his tiny second-floor apartment on N Street in southwest Washington. The airmail pilots were so comfortable with the slight, redheaded reporter that if they were forced to land due to bad weather, they’d call the postal service first and Pyle second, to give him the story.

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