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Mavericks of the SkyThe First Daring Pilots of the U.S. Air Mail
The 12—cylinder Liberty engine was the biggest, most powerful piece of hardware ever strapped into a wood and canvas biplane. Fashioned into a "V" shape, its combustion cylinders pushed out an enormous 400 horsepower.
The nation's top engine designers had spent a year tweaking the engine, and on May 2, 1918, it was ready for testing in a bomber. The U.S. War Department had pinned a lot of hopes on the power plant. The brute power of the Liberty would let bombers fly at higher and safer altitudes—and carry greater destructive payloads. When the Liberty was fit into the nose of a fighter plane, it would climb faster and maneuver better to attack and evade. Such a formidable addition to America's war—fighting machine would help the country hold its head high among its European allies.
The engine was planned for the de Havilland DH—4 bomber, a British—designed biplane being built in the United States, and flight testing could only be entrusted to the Army's most experienced pilot—Maj. Oscar Brindley. He was the first civilian flight instructor hired by the Army, a legendary pilot whose name was known across the Atlantic. Brindley was joined in thetwin—cockpit bomber by Lt. Col. Henry Damm.
The ship was sitting tall on its haunches at McCook Field in Dayton, Ohio, having been prepped for the pilots with meticulous care. With confidence and ease, Brindley guided the airplane smoothly into the sky. The gas tank was only partially full, and hardware like the twin .30—caliber Lewis machine guns in the rear had been removed so as not to overtax the engine with too much weight. Satisfied with the Liberty's performance at 5,000 feet, Brindley brought the ship back down so the fuel tank could be topped off and the hardware reinstalled. Now at near maximum weight, the airplane took off again. But it seemed to stall before it cleared the small maple trees that bordered the field and crashed to the ground before the eyes of horrified witnesses. Maj. Brindley died instantly, and Lt. Col. Damm passed away on the trip to the hospital. Army leadership was devastated. What would this mean for the Liberty program? An engine failure like this could set development back months. An immediate investigation was called.
Heavy security greeted Maj. Reuben Hollis Fleet at the gates to McCook the next day. Fences, barbed wire, and armed guards were in place at the Army Signal Corps's main aircraft engineering facility, all designed to shut out the prying eyes of German spies. Fleet's credentials were checked and rechecked, and a call was made to confirm his business there. The major eventually gained entry, and he soon found himself inspecting the wreckage along with base commander Lt. Col. Thurman Bane.
Fleet was eminently qualified to determine the cause of the accident because he had seen his share of crashed machines as the officer in charge of the nation's thirty—four pilot training fields. It was his job to turn thousands of wide—eyed farm kids into tough combat fliers capable of fighting the Hun in the skies over France and Germany.
Scouring every inch of the DH—4, Fleet and Bane soon found the answer. A spark plug had jammed itself between the wing's trailing edge and aileron, making it impossible for Brindley to control the craft. The Liberty wasn't at fault, after all; the program could continue.
The engine still needed a thorough sorting out, though, and a second Liberty—powered DH—4 was standing by at McCook. Bane didn't have to look far to find an experienced pilot, and he ordered Fleet into the air. It was not what the major had expected when he arrived, but there wasn't much he could do except salute and don his pilot leathers. As an instructor, Fleet knew that a pilot could never have too much space to fly in, and McCook, being focused more on ground activities, didn't have the wide open spaces that test flying demanded. The solution was just a few miles away at Wilbur Wright Field, where its 2,000 acres of long grass runway and expansive space had been a center of U.S. military aviation since 1904 when Wilbur and Orville Wright turned it into their base for experimental flying and pilot training. The Army bought the land at the start of World War I and placed much of its aviator, maintenance, and gunnery training among the twenty—four hangars there. On most days, pilot cadets buzzed about in Curtiss JN—4D Jennies and Standard SJ—1 biplanes. Today the skies were clear, Maj. Fleet having them all to himself and his de Havilland.
A couple hours later, Fleet walked out to the flight line at Wright Field, where the plane stood waiting, the Liberty contained within a metal cowling at the nose of the craft. All the senior officers were standing by, interested to see how the engine, and Fleet, checked out. There would be no passenger on this test flight; if there was a problem, Fleet would go down alone.
Stepping onto the wing, the major flung his leg up and over the rim of the front cockpit and dropped himself onto the padded metal seat. It took the might of two men to crank the propeller and start the engine, and a pair of mechanics awaited Fleet's command.
With that, they threw all their muscle into spinning the prop. The powerplant roared to life, its prop churning the wind into shards of percussion.
Nose into the wind, Fleet throttled up the Liberty, allowing its power to propel him down the grass field, accumulating speed faster and faster until the wheels of the big bomber slowly rose and Fleet was away.
Leveling off at 2,000 feet, the aviator proceeded to push the engine hard, testing the airplane's climbing and banking capabilities under full power. The DH—4 was a proven design, but the difference between her top speed and stall speed . . .
Excerpted from Mavericks of the Sky by Barry Rosenberg Copyright © 2007 by Barry Rosenberg. Excerpted by permission.
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