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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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.

Frequent contributor Stephen Joiner writes about aviation from his home in southern California.


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