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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McCook’s greatest invention, though, may have been the professional U.S. military test pilot. No longer would aeronautical researchers rely on daredevils and barnstormers to check out their new machines. Europeans and Americans alike had started to take a more scientific approach to aviation, and for the pilots assigned to Dayton, technical training would be as important as flying skills.

One of the first of the new professionals was Eugene “Hoy” Barksdale, a Mississippian who flew for the British Exeter Cadet Squadron in World War I. Barksdale had three confirmed shootdowns before he was downed behind enemy lines in France. After the Armistice, his aerial prowess—he set a speed record in a Curtiss biplane, for example—impressed Billy Mitchell, so in November 1923 he was transferred to the elite group of pilots in McCook’s Flight Test Section. “Mitchell put together the best of the best in the Air Service at McCook,” says Shawn Bohannon, a retired Air Force archivist. “And Barksdale was definitely one of them.” The 26-year-old pilot quickly developed a reputation, and he took on some of the boldest assignments. When the rear stabilizer separated from an experimental metal Boeing XCO-7, Barksdale bailed out in a spin and survived—an early beneficiary of new parachutes developed at McCook.In 1925, as he made ground-skimming passes in a modified DH.4 to test wing loading, Barksdale felt a jolt. He landed the airplane to check the damage, only to discover he’d decapitated two Army surveyors riding in a flatbed truck, who had inadvertently strayed into the test area. Despite the shock, the next day Barksdale was back in the pilot’s seat testing another aircraft over the same course. “I sustained no injuries and I am subject to duty,” he told a Dayton newspaper reporter, adding, “Fliers must have lady luck with them sometimes if they are to keep going.”

Many of the traits later associated with the classic test pilot psyche came together in Hoy Barksdale. “He wasn’t a terribly excitable man,” says Bohannon. “He was an incredibly professional and stoic man—a gifted pilot who had the ability to just press forward with the mission at hand.” At the time, critical observations and recordings during a test flight had to be committed to memory or written on a clipboard strapped to a leg. Not only could Barksdale keep control of his aircraft in stressful situations, “he was also a very keen observer and recorder, fantastic qualities for a test pilot,” says Bohannon. In fact, Barksdale literally wrote the book on the subject, authoring the military’s first test pilot manual in 1926. In Flight Testing of Aircraft, he lays out a program for testing different aircraft, one per month, with the results meticulously recorded in a standardized seven-page report. Eventually, Barksdale paid the ultimate price for his methodical approach to taking on new risks. While testing a spin-prone Douglas O-2 observation airplane in 1926, he deliberately induced a left spin. “It went into a flat spin and he couldn’t recover,” Bohannon says. As he attempted to jump free of the plane, centrifugal force slammed him into the fuselage. The cords of his parachute were severed by the wing rigging, sending him plummeting to his death in front of scores of witnesses.

The crash traumatized the Air Service. “His death became the driving force behind extensive test work conducted solely to determine the cause of flat spins,” Bohannon says. Another McCook test pilot, Harry Sutton, made it his mission to discover techniques to counter the mysterious phenomenon, beginning with theoretical work that led to wind tunnel tests and ultimately successful flight experiments. When an airfield opened in Louisiana in 1933, it was named for McCook’s pioneering aviator; today it’s called Barksdale Air Force Base.

American pilots commonly returned from World War I steeped in stick-and-rudder sense but lacking formal training in aeronautics. McCook’s Air School of Application was set up to mold the most promising candidates into disciplined pilots with an engineering mindset. Lieutenant Edwin Aldrin, who would later get a Ph.D. in aeronautical engineering from MIT, was made assistant commandant, in charge of the school’s operations. The curriculum included courses like “Economic Analysis of Dirigible and Airship Lines,” and instructors taught topics from airfoil theory to propeller design.

Edwin’s son Buzz Aldrin, who later became a NASA astronaut, connects the dots between McCook and the aerospace research that culminated with his own lunar landing in 1969. “It’s all a big circle,” he says. The school his father helped organize at McCook in 1919 evolved directly into the Air Force Institute of Technology—“the same institution that sponsored my Ph.D. in astronautics [on orbital rendezvous] in 1963.” The senior Aldrin had studied physics at Clark University under Robert Goddard, inventor of the first liquid-fueled rocket. Edwin Aldrin also knew Charles Lindbergh, who in turn had connections to philanthropist Harry Guggenheim. When Goddard came to Dayton seeking backers for his rocket experiments, Lindbergh introduced him to Guggenheim. Forty years later, a giant liquid-fuel rocket would propel Edwin Aldrin’s son to the moon. A big circle indeed.

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.


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