The First Test Pilots

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

The McCook Field test pilots in 1924. (National Museum of the US Air Force)
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Not long after ex-World War I aviator John Macready left his California ranch at the age of 54 to serve again in World War II, he was checked out in one of the B-17 bombers he’d soon be flying over North Africa. A young lieutenant, eager to tout the modern, high-altitude capability of the Flying Fortress, pointed out the supercharger that made such missions possible. “Know anything about these, sir?” he asked the veteran of the Great War. Today, Sally Macready Wallace chuckles at the irony: “Daddy just looked at him and said, ‘Yes Lieutenant, I believe I do.’ ”

Twenty years earlier, as chief test pilot at McCook Field in Dayton, Ohio, John Macready had stunned the aviation world by flying a biplane fitted with the world’s first operational supercharger to an astonishing altitude of 34,500 feet. At one point during the flight, nearly seven miles up, it was so cold in the open cockpit that the pilot’s oxygen tube clogged with ice from his own breath. Just another day’s work at America’s first flight laboratory.

Variable-pitch propellers. Guided missiles. An operational rotorcraft 10 years before Sikorsky. Landing lights and radio navigation. The first nonstop transcontinental flight. The Gerhardt Cycleplane, which collapsed in a heap. Around the world in an airplane—before anyone else. Higher, faster, farther.

Part Skunk Works and part research center, the R&D operation at McCook Field was the launch pad for much of 20th century aviation technology. More than 2,300 people worked there during the Roaring Twenties, in 70 buildings housing everything from wind tunnels to machine shops to offices. From 1917 to 1927, every pilot at McCook knew that his next experimental flight might represent a significant leap into aviation’s brave, bold future—and that when he landed, the guy shaking his hand might be Orville Wright.

The Wright brothers, though, were ancient history. Aviation may have been born in Dayton, but by the start of World War I, America’s early edge in flight had already slipped away. In 1912, the French had come to Chicago and walked away with the Gordon Bennett Trophy, after Jules Védrines piloted his Deperdussin racing monoplane at more than 100 mph. “No American competitor even flew against them,” says former Air Force historian Richard Hallion.

On the day in 1917 when the United States entered the war, the total U.S. inventory of military aircraft numbered less than 250, and all were trainers or observation platforms. Commercial aircraft production lagged. Assumptions that airplane development would grow out of the burgeoning auto industry proved unfounded. “Aircraft production at the time of the first world war was more akin to building pianos,” Hallion says. By the Armistice, the sole American-built airplane to see combat—the Dayton Wright Airplane Company’s de Havilland DH.4—was actually designed Over There, constructed to British blueprints.

While war in Europe raged without American airplanes, the U.S. government fast-tracked the establishment of an Army Signal Corps aviation research and development facility in Dayton. The project was assigned national defense priority, and crews worked overtime building wooden hangars, test facilities, classrooms, and barracks. Occupying 250 acres adjacent to the business district, McCook Field—named for the Fighting McCooks, a family of Civil War heroes who owned the property—was the most urban airfield in the nation.

McCook’s engineering division was charged with developing the technology to recapture American aviation’s lost mojo. Though the base was run by the Signal Corps, most of the engineers and designers were civilians, and the vibe was only quasi-military. Army red tape was minimized; Colonel Thurman Bane, commandant in the early years, believed a good idea took precedence over rank. The tempestuous Brigadier General Billy Mitchell, then chief of training and operations for the Air Service in Washington, butted heads with a military establishment he accused of preparing for the last war instead of the next. The looser hierarchy at Dayton suited his temperament, and provided a laboratory for his then-controversial theories of air supremacy. “Mitchell got every foreign aircraft he could find and had them all brought to McCook,” says Hallion. “Many were German, transferred to the U.S. as part of the terms of the Armistice.” Dayton residents soon became accustomed to the sight of a Fokker D.VII, still emblazoned with the Kaiser’s Iron Cross, wheeling alongside a British Sopwith Camel or a French-built Voisin 8 in the blue Ohio skies.

“I want tomorrow’s airplane today,” Mitchell told McCook engineers. Behind closed hangar doors, the German airplanes were stripped to the frame to reverse-engineer their secrets. Engineers searched for the perfect mix-and-match magic, installing American engines in European aircraft and vice versa. In the culture of experimentation Bane encouraged, any novel idea was granted at least a fair hearing, whether from a major company or a lone backyard inventor. The most promising designs were handed off to a crew that built prototypes in the cavernous assembly building, which were then flight-tested.

Among the concepts brought to life by the engineering division was a 16-ton behemoth known as the Barling Bomber. Based on a wartime idea that gargantuan airplanes staging night bombing raids could help decide future conflicts, the enormous triplane featured a 10-wheel landing gear, five gun stations, and a 5,000-pound bomb capacity. Though it completed testing and even a promotional tour, its range, just 170 miles, combined with a maximum speed below 100 mph doomed the outsized airplane. En route to Washington, D.C., for a demo flight before legislators, the Barling failed to clear the Appalachian mountain range and had to turn back. Cost overruns, including the requirement for a $700,000 hangar, were so big the project was cancelled.


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