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The First Test Pilots

At old McCook Field, the art of flying became a science

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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.

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.”

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