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1919: Learning to Fly in a

1919: Learning to Fly in a "Jenny" Just Like Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart

by William Bollman

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Edward O. Southard learned to fly the Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” at March Field in Riverside, California, in 1919. About eighteen months earlier, William Muir Russel was honing his pilot skills at Ashburn Field and then Rantoul Aviation Field, both in Illinois. But that’s where the differences in their early flying school experiences end. They both learned


Edward O. Southard learned to fly the Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” at March Field in Riverside, California, in 1919. About eighteen months earlier, William Muir Russel was honing his pilot skills at Ashburn Field and then Rantoul Aviation Field, both in Illinois. But that’s where the differences in their early flying school experiences end. They both learned to fly in the same plane. They both saw frequent crashes. They both mastered the same controls, take-offs, and landings. And they both first flew solo in a Jenny. In 1919, author William H. Bollman melds Southard’s photographs, taken with a Brownie No. 2 Kodak box camera, with excerpts from Russel’s letters that were compiled in the book A Happy Warrior. The photographs and words describe what it was like to learn to fly in the same plane that Amelia Earhart first learned to fly in, and in the same plane that Charles Lindbergh first soloed in, in this entry in the Trip Back in Time: Vintage Photo Album Series™. 1919 tells the story of what it was like to be among the very first to learn to fly this open-air biplane at a time when very few had even seen a plane up close.

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Learning to Fly in a "Jenny" Just Like Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart


Trafford Publishing

Copyright © 2013 William Bollman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4669-8107-2



Letter excerpts by William Muir Russel Featuring Edward Southard's vintage photos from 1919

Work has begun in earnest, and I must admit it is a more novel experience than I expected. We were ordered to report at the field yesterday at seven o'clock, which meant rising at 5:15 in the morning, and a hasty breakfast. Dressed in our overalls, we were at once set to strenuous mental and manual labor; taking instruction by lecture, and tearing down and assembling aeroplanes. The work is entirely new to me, and has to be done rapidly, but it is amazing how much one can learn by practical experience even without instruction. At twelve o'clock, a bugle sounds, which informs us that we can check in our tools and rush to a small cafeteria across from the field and stand up to a delicious luncheon of ham and egg sandwiches and a bottle of coca cola. I then crawl into one of the hangars and have a rest—that is, if I rush my sandwich.

Another bugle at one o'clock, and we return to the assembling and repair department. Work then continues until four o'clock, when we are summoned for muster and inspection. At 4:30, we have drill for half an hour; then two or three times a week, a lecture on aero-dynamics. It may seem incredible to you, but I am enjoying work, and outside of a few aching bones, never felt better in my life.

I had dinner and a good visit with Jim Buckley the other evening. He has failed in his physical exam, for aviation on account of bad eyes. The average down here accepted is five out of twenty-four examined.

You will understand that it will take some little time for me to become accustomed to work, so I will not write you again for a few days.

Never before have I looked forward so eagerly to Saturday afternoon and Sunday for rest as now, at the end of the first real working week of my life. I felt, however, that such a breath from Heaven as a week-end rest was too good to be true. Sure enough, it was so.

My work during each day has been practically the same. To prove how strenuous it is, it will probably surprise you to know that I have been in bed every night by a quarter of nine, with the exception of Sunday night guard duty. I have, however, been placed on the flying list, which means that I have a flight every day, weather permitting. My first ride was what they call a joy ride. You merely sit and endeavor to accustom yourself to the new sensations. From now on, I will be permitted to drive with the instructor at another set of controls behind me to correct any fault. It is hard to describe the feeling. At first it gives you very peculiar sensations in your stomach and ears. One thing that surprised me was the roughness of the riding. Looking at an aeroplane from the ground, it seems to glide, but the riding in the aeroplanes in use here is very rough and choppy. It may be a consolation to you to know that I have been assigned to an instructor who is said to be the most conservative flyer on the field.

My second inoculation for typhoid yesterday gave me no fever. I returned to my room, waiting all afternoon for evil effects to come, but instead of that, I felt better and better. This morning, I wakened at the usual early hour, and felt so good that I did not take the rest of my 24-hour leave, and reported to the field. It was a mistake, because I found about the busiest day of my short enlistment experience awaiting me. Two other men and myself tore down two entire machines and packed them for shipment.

One young fellow came here, entered the aviation school, and has been placed under guard, and removed from the flying list because he cheated in an examination. Although he is still in the camp, he will probably be dishonorably discharged. Captain Royce gave us a good talk on this subject yesterday, and told us the way it was dealt with at West Point.

In comparison with an automobile, it has been surprising to me how simple the construction of an aeroplane is, and the rapidity with which it can be set up and torn down.

The last two days have been beautiful—the air clear and still. Ten to fifteen machines have been in flight nearly all the time. You cannot imagine the difference between flying at Memphis and here. At Memphis, we had a small field with heavy woods on one side, where naturally the air was cool and descending rapidly, while on the other side was a lumber yard, on which the sun beat down heating the air, and causing it to rise. On a field of this kind, you can imagine the bumps you hit as you cross from the ascending air into the still air, and then into the descending air. On the other hand, the field here is a mile square, and the surrounding country open, and of the same level, which causes the ride to be a gliding motion, perfectly smooth.

Yesterday, six new machines arrived, the first of a bunch of eighteen which have been ordered for this field, making forty-eight in all. They are standard aeroplanes, manufactured, I think, in Plainfield, New Jersey. The same type of machine is used at Mineola.

Work has been progressing, although slowly. Since our bad storm the other evening, the weather has been better, and the ground is drying out very rapidly for such a marshy place. The machines are being set up, and by the end of the week, we ought to have all forty-eight in commission. The new machines show beautiful workmanship, but as yet we have had none of them in the air. Some of these machines, we expect, will be equipped with the new "stick" control. We are informed that we will have to learn its use—that is, instead of using a wheel to guide your elevators and ailerons, you use a rod or stick, which you work sideways and forwards and backwards to govern your movements. This control is used almost entirely on the French and British machines. It can be more rapidly handled with one hand, leaving the other for the gun and the different manettes. Now, we are taught to hold the steering wheel at the top center and guide it with one hand, and thus practically follow the same motion as with the stick.

Yesterday, the Speedway races were held for the benefit of the Red Cross fund, and to co-operate and add to the interest, our field was asked to fly over and descend on the Speedway. Only instructors and advanced students were allowed to take part in the flying. It was a mighty pretty sight to see the fifteen machines go skimming through the sky and coiling down, and then drop one at a time into the field. Mr. Boyer will be interested to know that his son Joe drove a very pretty race up to the 150-mile mark, when he was forced to withdraw on account of engine trouble. His running mate, the famous Louis Chevrolet, did not make as good a record. The day was perfect, and they had a good crowd of sixty thousand persons, a very successful show for the Red Cross.

The last week has been so perfect, and so much has been accomplished, that I feel as if I had a new lease of life, and am more enthusiastic about flying than ever.

The sun has shone all week, and, as a result, the ground has thoroughly dried out. Last Monday, I made only one flight, but on each of the remaining days, I have made two. With this long consecutive run, I have at last got some confidence in myself, and yet, at the same time, I feel how little I really know. The flying in mid-air above an altitude of two thousand feet is comparatively simple. The quicker action and decision is required as you get nearer the ground. I should say that, barring such accidents to an aeroplane as might happen to an automobile, a locomotive, or even a carriage, from a concealed defect, or the breaking of a part, a fellow is safe when flying at a height of more than one thousand feet; between one thousand and five hundred feet, he is reasonably safe; at less than five hundred feet, there are elements of danger. You cannot rest even in a straight course as with an automobile. Each little puff of wind swings you to the right or to the left. The early morning flight, however, is very different. The air usually is perfectly quiet, and you glide along like a bird. My instruction last week consisted practically of straight flying, with occasional turns. The early part of this week, I spent in making left hand turns in the form of a circle or square. On Wednesday, I began on right hand turns, which are very different from the left hand ones. This is due to the revolving of the propeller, the tendency being not only to turn your machine to the left, but also to upset it laterally to the left. This must be prevented by giving it right rudder and right aileron more than left, thus holding your machine in a stable position. Seven machines have been somewhat damaged this week on account of too steep a descent before landing. The ground is still somewhat soft, and the front wheels stick in the mud, which throws the tail up in the air, and causes the machine to stand on its nose, and smash the propeller. Ordinarily, it is not very serious, but rather a nuisance, as it puts the machine out of commission for some time.

Aeroplanes now are plentiful. We have forty-eight for the use of seventy-three students. One of our most advanced men, who was already recommended for his commission, has been indefinitely suspended for looping the loop with a passenger. In the first place, it is strictly against the rules for a student to loop the loop without permission of the commanding officer, and secondly, it is forbidden except for an instructor ever to loop with a passenger.

Saturday ended by far the best week yet of my training. The good weather brought new life to everybody. We now have practically all of the planes set up and in running order. In addition to our forty-eight machines, there are six private aeroplanes. I have been able to get eleven flights since last Monday, and in that many one can accomplish a good deal. I have become perfectly accustomed to the new and rather pleasant sensations, and yet the various flying movements seem as strange and unnatural as ever. On this account, I sometimes feel discouraged, but they tell me the faculty comes to you over night. At any rate I am pinning my faith on this.

The landings still look impossible to me, but as I have not tried to make any yet, it is no wonder.

The delightful weather of last week did not last. This week it has gone to the other extreme. Monday was the only day I could make a flight. The rest of the time the rain has beaten down, and the field is practically lost to the eye under four inches of water.

Shortly after my flight Monday, all flying was stopped on account of a nasty accident to one of the solo men, who escaped miraculously from a wreck in a tail spin. This is a form of accident which a novice aviator must always guard against. It is usually the result of carelessness or a moment's forgetfulness. From the minute you first begin instruction, you are warned about it, and told how to keep out of it. A "tail spin," as it is called, is caused from losing headway. It results from two factors—failing to nose the machine down on the turns, and failing to keep the direction of the wind clearly in mind. On making a turn, if you do not nose the machine towards the ground, you necessarily lose such headway that the plane becomes uncontrollable. The nose will drop on account of the weight of the motor, throwing the tail into the air. If the wind is coming from a side direction, it will strike the plane, whirling the tail, and tend to spin it around the nose as an axis. Your only chance to gain control is to head to the ground with the motor off and the rudder held against the wind until you gain sufficient headway to get control once more of the machine. If you are at an altitude of over five hundred feet, your safety is assured, otherwise a wreck is imminent. This boy kept his head remarkably well, and never ceased fighting to gain control. When they got him out of the wreckage with only a couple of minor cuts on his face and a bad shaking up, they went over every part of his machine. It was badly smashed, but the controls were all in good condition. He fell about two hundred feet, and in that small space of time he had removed his glass goggles, unfastened his safety belt, throttled the motor, and shut off the spark—the four things he should have done. As I said, after this accident, all flying was called off for the rest of that day, and for the remainder of the week, it has poured rain.

Another rather unfortunate experience of a different kind has come to one of the boys, a nice fellow, this week. He entered just about the time I did, and it has been evident that flying did not appeal to him. All the time he struggled to overcome his aversion to the new sensations, but somehow, they were so unnatural to him that he failed to master his feelings. Wednesday, he went with tears in his eyes to headquarters, and after a long talk with the Captain, was released from the Aviation Corps. He was a brave enough fellow, and wanted to continue. This is the second case we have had. It seems that one's feelings are not controllable. You are either fascinated or dread it.

Tomorrow, we will have inspection here by a board of officers from Washington.

During this rainy spell, all the planes have been put in good running condition, and the extra time consumed in putting a polish on. I suppose that you have heard that the Curtis Aeroplane Company has been reorganized and new equipment has been installed so that it is said they can make five thousand machines this year.

Saturday, we leave for Rantoul. They say that there is no better flying field in the country. A concrete foundation, covering about forty acres, has been laid so that we will not have the trouble and danger of either starting or landing on the wet, soggy ground.

Saturday noon, thirty-eight machines, each carrying two passengers, will rise at short intervals and fly in a line. It will be a novel movement in American army experience to transport a corps in this way. I think I will be permitted to be a passenger in one of the planes, Mr. Pond's, and if so, he will probably let me drive it all the way down. This will be considered extra time, and not marked against my instruction hours. The other ten machines will be torn down and shipped by freight.

Barracks life will be new to me, but I feel sure it will be preferable to the haphazard way we have been living. It will save an hour or two's time in the morning, and instead of grabbing breakfast and rushing to a train, we can have a snappy setting up exercise and a peaceful breakfast afterwards, and so much the more flying; lunch at 11:30—a thing we have not known here—will be served; one o'clock another roll call; two o'clock, an hour of drill; three to five, recitations in aero-dynamics, practical electricity, and meteorology; five to seven, two more hours of flying instead of a tramp or run to the junction and a ride on a freight train, and a scramble on a crowded trolley car—then supper and bunk (I mean bed, of course). A new commanding officer, Captain Brown, I understand, will be in charge of the post, with three French aviation officers. I had the good fortune to go in with them from the field today—Lieutenants Gauthier, Laffly and La Pier. The latter, I am told, has twenty-eight German planes to his credit. They will conduct the courses in military science of the air. One of the many interesting things I learned was that their fighting machines can travel at a speed of one hundred and fifty miles an hour, with a landing speed of ninety miles an hour. Contrast this with our maximum flying speed of eighty miles and a landing speed of forty miles. You will appreciate how little we will really know, even after we have received our complete instruction on this side. He told me, too, about Guynemer, the great aviator who has forty-nine German machines to his credit. He said that Guynemer, as an aviator, was only a mediocre flyer, and that his great success lay in his daring and remarkable marksmanship, often bringing down the enemy plane with one shot.

It was rumored, but not definitely known, that we were leaving Ashburn, until just before an order came to set the machines in perfect condition to be prepared to fly to Rantoul at five o'clock next morning. So after working from seven until five on Saturday and Sunday, we left for Rantoul at ten o'clock Monday morning. Everyone wanted to take an aeroplane, or go as a pilot, but hopes were shattered when word came that only instructors and advanced students should fly, and that each should be accompanied by a mechanic. So on account of the method of assignment, the solo men took the remaining planes, either as drivers or passenger mechanics—then the civilian mechanics filled the remaining cars. Practically all the students were left out, and I missed my chance to ride. It would have been quite an experience, as well as good training, to fly cross-country for one hundred and fourteen miles.

Excerpted from 1919 by WILLIAM BOLLMAN. Copyright © 2013 William Bollman. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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