The Great Air Race: Billy Mitchell’s Quest for an American Sky

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U.S. Army biplanes circled overhead arsenic the Cunard liner Aquitania steamed into New York Harbor connected Feb. 28, 1919. It was a fitting invited for Brig. Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell, a leader of the Great War returning to the United States aft astir 2 years overseas.

As the commandant of American aerial operations connected the Western Front, Mitchell arguably had done much to show the subject imaginable of the airplane than immoderate antheral alive, for which helium would 1 time beryllium recognized arsenic the begetter of the U.S. Air Force. But Mitchell’s triumph was clouded by uncertainty. With the signing of the Armistice little than 4 months earlier, the authorities had canceled virtually each of its orders for caller airplanes, forcing astir manufacturers retired of concern oregon astir so.

The brash, iconoclastic aerial powerfulness advocator who years aboriginal would foretell the Japanese onslaught connected Pearl Harbor knew that a thriving home craft manufacture was captious to nationalist defense. But who would bargain its products successful peacetime?

There were nary commercialized airlines to talk of, and aerial message was inactive successful its infancy. For the astir part, the lone imaginable customers were affluent sportsmen oregon the itinerant stunt flyers known arsenic barnstormers (though astir of them flew military-surplus Curtiss trainers purchased for arsenic small arsenic $300 each). Mitchell knew that if the United States were to predominate this indispensable caller tract — inactive an unfastened question successful 1919 — the authorities would person to assistance make a marketplace wherever nary existed. The lone question was how.

His reply was a transcontinental airplane contention — an unprecedented, headline-grabbing spectacle successful which much than 60 subject pilots would vie to beryllium the fastest antheral to alert circular travel from seashore to coast, a region of 5,400 miles. Mitchell hoped that a palmy result would boost nationalist and legislature enactment for his goals, which included much national spending connected aviation and an autarkic aerial unit co-equal with the Army and Navy.

He surely grabbed the country’s attention. Large crowds cheered the aviators astatine refueling stops on the route, arsenic newspapers chronicled their advancement with the benignant of front-page container scores usually reserved for large sporting events. But the contention besides highlighted the recklessness that sometimes got the amended of Mitchell’s judgment. With their crude instruments and unreliable, fire-prone engines, the flimsy war-surplus biplanes that flew successful the contention proved ill-suited to long-distance question successful an property earlier paved runways, vigor networks oregon physics navigation aids. Many planes crashed, immoderate flyers died and lone a fistful completed the round-trip journey. Congress was unimpressed, leaving the airplane manufacture to fend for itself arsenic the country’s fledgling aerial unit — the U.S. Army Air Service — continued to shed men and machines.

The transcontinental race, and Mitchell’s relation successful it, were soon forgotten.

But they shouldn’t person been. Despite its nonaccomplishment to beforehand Mitchell’s short-term governmental objectives, “the world’s top aerial race,” arsenic helium called it, is worthy of much than a footnote. In fact, it arguably acceptable the signifier for the modern aerial question strategy that we each instrumentality for granted today.

Government support for industries deemed captious to subject and economical spot is known contiguous arsenic “industrial policy,” but it was not a caller thought adjacent successful Mitchell’s time. One of its earliest promoters was Alexander Hamilton, the archetypal Treasury secretary, who argued for tariffs and subsidies to boost the country’s nascent manufacturing sector. Industrial argumentation has since taken galore different forms: the national onshore grants that enabled the gathering of the transcontinental railroad successful the 19th century; the dam- and bridge-building frenzy of the New Deal; the Cold War-era subject probe that gave emergence to the Internet and Global Positioning System, among different essentials of modern life.

Republicans person historically been skeptical of concern policy, arguing that picking winners and losers successful the system is amended near to markets than politicians. As successful the Cold War, however, they often person made exceptions for nationalist security. That’s what happened successful July, erstwhile immoderate Republicans joined Democrats successful Congress to walk the CHIPS and Science Act, aimed astatine boosting home accumulation of semiconductors and countering China’s advances successful precocious technology. A fewer weeks later, by contrast, not a azygous Republican voted for the Inflation Reduction Act, the astir ambitious clime authorities successful U.S. history, which authorized much than $300 cardinal for clean-energy development.

Aviation faced akin headwinds successful its aboriginal years. The Wright brothers’ archetypal powered formation astatine Kitty Hawk, N.C., connected Dec. 17, 1903 was ignored not lone by the property and the public, but besides by the national government. It wasn’t until the summertime of 1909 that the Army bought its archetypal airplane — a Wright Military Flyer — aft a bid of objection flights by Orville Wright astatine Fort Myer, Va. But Congress was dilatory to supply backing for the caller technology. Lawmakers inactive successful thrall to the laissez-faire traditions of the 19th period saw small request for the authorities to enactment what manufacturers would surely execute connected their own, conscionable arsenic the Wright brothers had.

The outbreak of warfare successful 1914 began to alteration that calculus by revealing the airplane’s imaginable arsenic a weapon. In 1915, Congress created a authorities assemblage — the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics — charged with directing probe into aviation. But Congress provided conscionable $5,000 to money the organization, whose 12 members — including aeronautical experts from the War Department and the Smithsonian Institution — were expected to unpaid their time.

It was a antithetic communicative connected the different broadside of the Atlantic. Aeronautical laboratories backed by governments and affluent industrialists sprang up successful Britain, France and Germany, absorbing immoderate of their champion scientists and engineers successful the years earlier the war. From 1908 to 1913, France invested $22 cardinal successful aviation, compared with conscionable $435,000 successful the United States. Germany led the battalion with $28 million.

The gait of craft improvement successful Europe accelerated sharply with the outbreak of warfare successful August 1914. At archetypal the warring powers utilized airplanes for reconnaissance and artillery spotting. The planes lacked armaments, and aviators from opposing sides often greeted 1 different with a gentlemanly wave. That soon changed, arsenic commanders connected some sides saw the contented of dominating the skies supra the battlefield. Aviators began plinking astatine each different with sidearms and rifles, soon replaced by swivel-mounted instrumentality guns. Smaller single-seat scout, oregon pursuit, craft were deployed to onslaught force planes and reflection balloons. Planes became faster, much maneuverable and much lethal, particularly with the advent of synchronizing gears that allowed instrumentality guns to beryllium fired done spinning propellers without shooting them off. Aviators chased 1 different astatine heights of up to 20,000 feet, groggy from deficiency of oxygen and numb with cold, successful dizzying mortal contests that often ended successful agony, arsenic their wood-and-fabric planes burned easily, and they flew without parachutes. The epoch of the dogfight had arrived.

Back successful the United States, by contrast, the Army’s archetypal deployment of airplanes to thing resembling a combat portion had, if anything, undermined the lawsuit for aerial power. In March 1916, Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing, who soon would bid U.S. forces successful Europe, led horse-mounted troops crossed the confederate U.S. borderline successful pursuit of the Mexican revolutionary and outlaw Pancho Villa. Pershing’s troops were supported by the Army’s archetypal aerial combat unit, the accurately named First Aero Squadron, which was equipped with 8 outdated Curtiss JN-3 biplanes — often called Jennies — that had a apical velocity of 75 miles an hr and could hardly alert 2 hours connected a vessel of gas. The Jennies lacked capable powerfulness to wide the 10,000-foot mountains of the Mexican desert, and pilots often damaged their planes successful forced landings aft losing their bearings oregon suffering motor failures. Propellers cracked and delaminated successful the adust heat. The planes were scrapped wrong a month, and the much almighty Curtiss R-2s sent arsenic replacements fared small better.

The First Aero Squadron’s atrocious grounds successful Mexico confirmed the views of galore successful the Army’s precocious ranks that airplanes were unsafe and unreliable. With Congress sharing that jaundiced attitude, aviation remained an afterthought successful subject budgets. By the clip the United States formally entered the warfare connected April 6, 1917, the Army’s aerial constituent — inactive wrong the Signal Corps but soon to go the discrete Army subdivision known arsenic the Air Service — could muster conscionable 35 pilots and 55 aircraft, of which “51 were obsolete and 4 were obsolescent,” arsenic Pershing aboriginal quipped.

Billy Mitchell had learned to alert successful 1916, paying for formation lessons retired of his ain pouch due to the fact that the Army considered him excessively aged to beryllium a aviator astatine 36. He was among the archetypal to grasp however acold the United States had fallen down successful aviation. In March 1917, a period earlier the state declared warfare connected Germany, the War Department sent him to France to study backmost connected developments successful the subject usage of airplanes. To that end, helium made repeated flights implicit the Western Front, archetypal arsenic a rider successful French reconnaissance planes, past arsenic the aviator of a single-seat Spad emblazoned with his idiosyncratic seal — a metallic eagle connected a scarlet disc that his mechanic had copied from a dollar bill. His first-hand observations informed the elaborate reports helium sent backmost to Washington and shaped the aerial powerfulness theories helium would trial successful 1918, erstwhile U.S. Air Service squadrons yet made it into combat.

Mitchell’s alarm astatine the authorities of American aviation was shared by a caller national entity, the Aircraft Production Board, arsenic good arsenic by immoderate successful Congress. The turning constituent came successful precocious May 1917, erstwhile the French authorities cabled an urgent entreaty for airplanes and engines. After the committee approved the request, subject leaders rapidly drew up plans for the manufacture of 20,474 caller airplanes successful conscionable 12 months. Congress supported the programme with the largest single-purpose appropriation — $640 cardinal — successful U.S. past to that point.

Within days of the French appeal, the accumulation committee commissioned 2 of the country’s starring automotive engineers, Elbert J. Hall and Jesse Vincent, to plan a caller craft motor that could beryllium utilized crossed a scope of airframes. The men sequestered themselves successful a suite astatine the Willard Hotel successful downtown Washington and roughed retired the basal plan successful little than a week. Their plan drew heavy connected concepts developed by French, British and German manufacturers. Still, the Liberty motor was revolutionary, wide considered the astir important American aeronautical beforehand of the war. Unlike astir craft engines, which were hand-built similar good Swiss watches, the twelve-cylinder, 400 horsepower Liberty was expressly designed for wide production, with interchangeable parts that would marque it casual to repair. Nearly 5,000 would beryllium manufactured by Packard and different automobile companies earlier the War Department terminated accumulation successful March 1919.

But the War Department’s vow to “darken the skies implicit Germany with airplanes” yet would beryllium hollow. The Liberty motor was a uncommon occurrence story. Industrial argumentation oregon no, the nation’s tiny craft manufacture simply did not person the capableness to conscionable the overnight surge successful demand.

To beryllium fair, the manufacture would extremity the warfare successful overmuch amended signifier than it started — accumulation accrued astir 18-fold from 1917 to 1918, driving accelerated improvements successful air-frame design, engines, instruments and manufacturing techniques. But the gains would travel excessively precocious to marque a meaningful quality successful the aerial war. In the end, lone a fewer 100 American planes — two-place DH-4s based connected a British plan — would marque it into combat implicit the Western Front.

The Armistice of Nov. 11, 1918 had a devastating effect connected American craft manufacturers. Within a fewer months, immoderate had closed their doors portion others struggled to survive. In Seattle, the Boeing Airplane Co. began making furnishings and speedboats. Glenn L. Curtiss and a fewer different craft designers rolled retired prototypes for commercialized rider planes, successful the optimistic content that scheduled hose work soon would follow. It did, but not successful the United States. By the extremity of 1919, respective commercialized airlines were operating successful Europe, including 1 that flew passengers betwixt London and Paris successful converted Farman F-60 bombers (another was KLM, the Dutch carrier, which is inactive flying today). In the months aft the war, the menace of overseas domination was a recurring taxable successful aviation publications specified arsenic Flying and Air Service Journal, which successful January 1919 ran a front-page communicative nether the headline, “U.S. Lags Far Behind Europe successful Preparations for Air Transport.”

No 1 was much alarmed by the dismal authorities of postwar aviation successful the United States than Mitchell and the “air-minded” acolytes who had followed him to unit jobs successful Washington. Adding to Mitchell’s frustration, the apical occupation successful the postwar Air Service had gone not to him but to Maj. Gen. Charles T. Menoher, a sober-minded artilleryman with nary flying experience; Mitchell would service arsenic his deputy. Nevertheless, Menoher was a susceptible person whose acquisition arsenic a part commandant connected the Western Front had opened his eyes to the possibilities of aerial power. He mightiness person lacked Mitchell’s messianic fervor, but helium shared his interest implicit the near-collapse of the American craft industry. “The authorities is practically the lone marketplace for the craft manufacturers,” Menoher said successful a connection to Congress connected July 11, 1919, successful which helium pleaded for assistance to support them afloat. Otherwise, helium warned, “within six months each craft manufacturers volition beryllium retired of the craft concern and the authorities volition person nary root from which to get its airplanes and airplane engines.”

Menoher was exaggerating, but determination was nary denying his larger point. The scandalous failures of craft procurement during the warfare had dimmed nationalist and legislature enthusiasm for authorities spending connected caller airplanes, particularly present that the warring had ended. In the end, Congress approved lone $25 cardinal for the Air Service’s 1920 budget, little than a 3rd of what Mitchell and Menoher had requested (and astir 5 percent of its wartime peak).

Mitchell and his Air Service colleagues searched desperately for ways to beryllium the airplane’s worth successful peacetime. In the spring, Army pilots began patrolling for wood fires successful California, an effort soon expanded to Oregon. Aerial cameras and photography techniques developed for battlefield reconnaissance were promoted for commercialized uses, specified arsenic mapping cities and advertizing existent estate. And successful June, subject pilots began flying borderline patrols successful Texas aft respective incursions linked to Pancho Villa, who was inactive astatine ample much than 3 years aft Pershing’s ill-fated penetration of bluish Mexico.

But Mitchell, a earthy showman, wanted to marque a bigger splash. And successful September 1919, helium announced his program for doing conscionable that: A transcontinental airplane race. The “Endurance and Reliability Test” was sold to higher-ups arsenic a “field exercise” and restricted to subject pilots, who would vie connected a voluntary ground and lone if their commanders thought they were up to the challenge. Cash prizes were banned. But cipher was fooled by its veneer of subject purpose. The transcontinental contention was a publicity stunt. Mitchell hoped that a palmy result would rally the nationalist down his goals successful Washington and besides astatine the section level, wherever the Air Service was pushing towns and cities to physique airfields — oregon “aerodromes” — arsenic an indispensable archetypal measurement toward commercialized aerial service. It was concern argumentation connected the cheap.

The “air derby,” arsenic it was sometimes called successful the press, was a bold and risky undertaking. More than 60 airplanes divided into 2 groups — 1 connected Long Island, the different successful San Francisco — would instrumentality disconnected for the other seashore immoderate 2,700 miles distant, crossing successful the mediate and competing for the fastest flying and elapsed times.

Pilots successful the contest, galore of them warfare veterans, had ne'er attempted a travel of specified improbable length, and for bully reason. Like each craft of the day, the surplus DH-4s and single-seat fighters they would alert were astir comically ill-suited for long-distance question — oregon arguably for immoderate question astatine all. Open cockpits offered scant extortion against upwind and cold. Engines were deafeningly large and occasionally caught occurrence successful flight. Primitive formation instruments were of marginal worth to pilots trying to support their bearings successful clouds and fog. But that was lone portion of the challenge. The way crossed the state was astir wholly lacking successful imperishable airfields — oregon immoderate signifier of aviation infrastructure. There was nary radar, aerial postulation power strategy oregon vigor network. Weather forecasts were rudimentary and often wrong.

In the lack of physics beacons oregon ceremonial aeronautical charts, pilots would travel railroad tracks oregon compass headings that wandered drunkenly with each turn. Every hr oregon 2 — they hoped — they would onshore astatine 1 of 20 refueling stops betwixt the coasts. Most of these “control stops” were makeshift writer oregon ungraded airfields that had been hastily demarcated and stocked with fuel, spare parts and different supplies, sometimes conscionable hours earlier the commencement of the race.

Despite these slapdash preparations, Mitchell and his colleagues successful the Air Service decided astatine the past infinitesimal to treble the magnitude of the contention — alternatively of making a one-way formation betwixt the coasts, contestants would effort a round-trip travel of 5,400 miles. It was arsenic if, successful the lack of thing resembling a nationalist aerial proscription system, Mitchell had decided simply to volition 1 into being. He hoped that by showing however specified a strategy would work, adjacent successful draught form, the contention would stimulate nationalist and backstage concern successful aviation, starting with the mentation of the rudimentary airfields that would beryllium utilized successful the contention itself. (Several, including Britton Field successful Rochester, N.Y., evolved into modern municipal airports that are inactive successful usage today).

Americans were transfixed by the spectacle of “the top airplane contention ever flown,” arsenic Mitchell had described it. At immoderate airfields on the route, crowds grew truthful ample that constabulary were called successful to forestall them from interfering with takeoffs and landings. The property made celebrities of pilots specified arsenic Lt. Belvin Maynard, an ordained Baptist curate from North Carolina whose German constabulary dog, Trixie, shared the rear cockpit of his DH-4 with a mechanic. The New York Times ran 30 stories connected the contest, 8 of them connected the beforehand page.

But the contention was successful immoderate ways a disaster. After starting connected the greeting of Oct. 8, pilots connected some sides of the state soon flew into unspeakable upwind — blizzards implicit the Rockies, rainfall and hailstorms successful the East, sometimes accompanied by gale unit winds. Biplanes crashed into mountainsides and trees, overturned successful botched landings and successful 1 lawsuit splashed down successful Lake Erie. By the clip it was over, 54 planes had suffered accidents of 1 benignant oregon another, and 7 men had died, not counting the 2 pilots who died portion flying to the commencement of the contention astatine Roosevelt Field connected Long Island. Only 8 aircrafts completed the round-trip journey.

As the casualties mounted, truthful did the backlash. The Chicago Tribune accused the Air Service of “rank stupidity.” The San Francisco Chronicle called the deaths “rather a precocious terms for a contention crossed the state simply to show that the travel could beryllium made.” The Buffalo Express dryly observed that the contention had “done small to fortify the public’s religion successful the information of the heavier-than-air machines.”

Policymakers were likewise unimpressed. Legislation that would person realized Mitchell’s imagination of an autarkic aerial unit was each but dormant by the extremity of 1919. (The Air Service and its successors would stay portion of the Army until 1947, astir 2 decades aft Mitchell’s death, erstwhile Congress yet established the U.S. Air Force.) And lawmakers continued to starve the Air Service of funds. By 1924, lone 754 airplanes would stay successful the Army’s aerial arm. Military and governmental leaders had by past grown weary of Mitchell’s changeless grandstanding. At a tribunal martial successful December 1925, the swaggering airman was convicted of insubordination aft publically accusing his superiors of “criminal negligence” successful transportation with 2 accidents, the nonaccomplishment of a Navy seaplane successful the Pacific and the clang of a Navy airship successful a tempest implicit Ohio. He resigned from the Army a fewer months later.

Congress had adjacent little involvement successful civilian aviation, though that began to alteration successful 1926 with the transition of the Air Commerce Act. Among different things, the authorities created the precursor bureau of the FAA, imposed licensing requirements for pilots and established national work for aerial navigation aids. Government’s relation successful aviation would lone grow. During the 1930s, the New Deal bureau known arsenic the Works Progress Administration helped physique hundreds of airports astir the country, including New York City’s archetypal large commercialized airport, named for erstwhile Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. Then came World War II. The monolithic concern mobilization against fascism laid the instauration for the aerospace manufacture that aboriginal would assistance triumph the Cold War and that remains a pillar of American economical spot to this day.

In telling the communicative of commercialized aviation successful the United States, historians of the tract mostly person treated the transcontinental contention arsenic a curiosity, if they person mentioned it astatine all. Mitchell would spot that arsenic an injustice. As helium liked to constituent out, pilots successful the contention had blazed the way for the archetypal ceremonial aerial way crossed the country. Just 11 months later, successful September 1920, the U.S. Post Office inaugurated its coast-to-coast airmail work on fundamentally the aforesaid path. In the mid-1920s, the Post Office transferred its airmail operations to backstage companies, immoderate of which evolved implicit the decades into large airlines (including American Airlines). It was connected that ground that Henry H. “Hap” Arnold — a Mitchell modern who helped signifier the contention and aboriginal commanded Army aerial forces successful World War II — described the contention arsenic “the instauration of commercialized aviation successful the United States.”

Arnold’s assertion contains a kernel of truth. There’s small question that the aerial contention helped effect the crushed for transcontinental airmail, hastening the improvement of astatine slightest immoderate of the airfields on the way that would beryllium utilized by the message planes. On the different hand, overmuch of the way simply followed the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads, which eased the organisation of substance and supplies and served arsenic a navigation assistance that pilots called the “iron compass.” The precocious William M. Leary, an aviation historiographer astatine the University of Georgia, admired the subject flyers for their gumption and tenacity, but helium took a skeptical presumption of what they really had achieved. “Associating the Army flyers with specified a milestone successful the past of aeronautics mightiness sanctify to immoderate grade the lives mislaid during the race, but, unfortunately, a cautious survey of the grounds does not enactment this conclusion,” helium wrote. “The beingness of the railroad was the cardinal factor, not the efforts of the Air Service.”

But that is lone portion of the story. Though its trailblazing quality tin beryllium debated, the contention did person another, arguably much important effect: It changed the mode that Americans thought astir aviation. With its dozens of pilots and planes, analyzable logistics, communications networks, aviation-specific upwind forecasts and constitution of a ceremonial flying route, nevertheless crude, the contention was a blueprint for the aboriginal — it showed Americans what an aerial proscription strategy would really look like.

No 1 who followed the contention could earnestly uncertainty that the airplane would soon articulation the rider train, the steamship and the automobile arsenic a applicable diagnostic of mundane life. As the Rockford Morning Star enactment it successful an editorial connected Oct. 23, 1919, a fewer days aft Belvin Maynard and respective others completed their round-trip crossing, “The palmy travel of the racers means that airplane journeying is close present astatine our doors. It isn’t going to beryllium precise agelong earlier radical … get into the wont of buying a summons and taking a spot with a suitcase conscionable arsenic calmly arsenic ever they bash present connected the section for the adjacent town.” The Air Service serviceman assigned to the refueling halt astatine Binghamton, N.Y., reported that nationalist libraries successful Binghamton and 2 adjacent towns had been stripped of aeronautical books, galore checked retired by schoolchildren. The improvement surely was repeated elsewhere, arsenic Americans contemplated a aboriginal that was taking signifier earlier their eyes.

Mitchell’s “greatest aerial race,” successful different words, was much than conscionable a spectacle. It was the archetypal iteration of a caller age.

Excerpted from The Great Air Race: Glory, Tragedy, and the Dawn of American Aviation, by John Lancaster. Copyright © 2022 by John Lancaster. With support of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.