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“I Am Not A Very Timid Type …”
April 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 3
Well, besides myself and Elmer junior, there was my back-up pilot, Lt. Ben Kelsey, and Prof. Bill Brown, who taught me aeronautics at M.I.T. , and my old chief mechanic from the Army, Sgt. Jack Dalton. Jack took care of the airplanes Ben and I flew, and the professor ran the instrumentation of all our radio equipment. We were a closely integrated team from start to finish. Our big day came on September 24, 1929. About four that morning Jack Dalton called me—actually it was the same day we tested Raeder’s fog-dispersing technique. As I said, I had been doing blind landings under the hood for a considerable period of time, and this particular day I realized that here was an opportunity to try a flight in actual zero-zero conditions. So we immediately pushed the airplane out. I climbed in, took off, flew up through the fog, and came back and landed. This was, as far as I know, the first takeoff and landing ever made under zero-zero conditions of fog. About that time Harry Guggenheim arrived from his home. He suggested we make an official flight under a hood. I said fine. About that time the fog began to disperse slightly. I tried my best to get Harry to permit me to take off and make the hooded flight alone. But he wouldn’t permit it. He was concerned that there might be other airplanes flying above the fog. Harry insisted that Ben Kelsey go with me. So Ben got in the front seat, and I taxied out and made the flight completely under the hood, with Kelsey holding his hands up at all times—to show he wasn’t touching the controls.
Did Guggenheim know that you had flown solo before he arrived?
I am positive he did, but that time I was not flying under the hood. I was flying looking out. Harry wanted the official flight to be completely blind, completely under the hood, by instruments alone. And so, for maximum safety, Harry wanted another pilot in the plane with me. After the FullFlight Laboratory was disbanded in 1929, all our equipment was turned over to the Army at Wright Field, where Captain Hegenberger modified and improved it, and then he made the first solo flight under a hood. Hegenberger received the Collier Trophy for that flight.
Did you ever receive any award for your blind flights?
Not as far as I know.
In 1930, the year after the Guggenheim experiments concluded, you resigned from the Army and went to work for the Shell Oil Company. Why?
My mother and my wife’s mother were ill, and we could not take care of them on the rather meager pay of a first lieutenant. So I got out of the service and went with Shell, where we had the money to do whatever we could for our mothers until they passed on shortly thereafter.
This period of your career—1917 to 1930—encompasses the frontier days of aviation. Do you consider these years the most exciting in the history of aviation?
That’s a hard question to answer. I will say that in those days the pilot was very important, and his skill in manipulating the airplanes, which were not as reliable as they are today, was very important indeed. The airplanes today are mechanized to such a degree that the pilot no longer depends on the seat of his pants to the extent that he did in the early days. What has happened to aviation has happened to almost everything else. The day of the rugged individualist, the day of the inventor, is almost over. The Ben Franklins and Henry Fords are pretty much a thing of the past. It has just become too complicated. Everything now is a team operation, and if a truly new concept is developed, it means that there will be a large number of people knowledgeable in various scientific disciplines involved. And this requires a different philosophical outlook. I cannot see, for instance, how we could ever have another Lindbergh. Things have changed too much for that sort of competence to be rewarded the way it justifiably was. Still, I think that aviation will continue to develop, and each era will be interesting. But interesting in different ways.
Looking back to those early days, does it ever amaze you that so many of the pioneer aviators, yourself included, are still alive?
It amazes me that so many of them are gone.