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“I Am Not A Very Timid Type …”
April 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 3
Isn’t it sort of astounding, in retrospect, that so many people took off with so little technical knowledge of what they were doing?
It was a good and a bad thing. It separated the sheep from the goats real quickly, but it seriously penalized the chap who might be a superb pilot but was a slow learner. Quite a large percentage of cadets were washed out in those days. Some quit of their own volition; others left because the instructor felt they were not sufficiently apt. It was pretty much of an instinctive thing.
After you were commissioned as a lieutenant in March, 1918, and became an instructor yourself, what did you look for in your students?
You look for a chap who has good eyesight, who has fast reactions, who has a good sense of balance, but most important, you look for someone who really loves to fly. It would be very difficult to make a good pilot out of a chap who hated it. We always incline to do best those things that we enjoy doing. Another thing you look for is a pilot who can learn his limitations. A poor pilot is not necessarily a dangerous pilot as long as he remains within his limitations. And you find your limits in the air, by getting closer and closer and closer and sometimes going beyond them and still getting out of it. If you go beyond and don’t get out of it, you haven’t learned your limitations, because you are dead.
I understand that you got into trouble with one of your early commanding officers.
Ah, Colonel [Harvey] Burwell, at Ream Field, near San Diego. We later became great friends, but at that time I’m afraid I was a bit of a problem to him. His friend Cecil B. De Mille came down to Ream Field one day and took some movies, one of which showed a Jenny landing with me sitting underneath on the spreader bar between the wheels. When De Mille showed the film to Burwell, the colonel was furious and grounded me for a month and made me the permanent officer of the day for the base. This made me a bit perturbed, to say the least, so I conceived the idea of luring the colonel into an exhibition boxing match with me for the entertainment of the troops. I talked our physical director, [Charles] “Doc” Barrett, into suggesting such a match to the colonel. But Burwell correctly guessed what I was up to. The colonel had boxed at West Point, so he told Barrett that he would box both of us, one at a time. Doc, who wasn’t much of a boxer, decided it wasn’t such a good idea after all.
Wasn’t it dangerous riding on the landing gear?
No. The Jenny was a very slow airplane, and I was an acrobat, a tumbler, so it was no problem at all riding on the spreader bar or even climbing out on the wing. You see, everything I ever did in aviation I practiced and practiced and practiced. As a result I was able to do things that appeared rather hazardous to someone who hadn’t done them. Let me give you a better example of this. When I was the Army’s chief test pilot at old McCook Field [at Dayton, Ohio] in 1927, I practiced flying the route from Dayton to Moundsville, time after time, until I had memorized every windmill, every telephone pole, every silo, and every farmhouse, so that I could fly under weather conditions where other pilots, much better pilots than I, could not fly. Yet when my commanding officer heard about it, he grounded me for being in his opinion too irresponsible, and I lost the job I enjoyed more than any job I ever had. A few years later I was flying from Cleveland to New York in bad weather. In those days they had revolving beacons every ten miles. Well, I missed a beacon, and finally I saw a light in the window of a farmhouse on a hill, so I retraced my course to the previous beacon and made an emergency landing. Soon a farmer came along and informed me that the next beacon was out of order, which explained why I had missed it. Then the farmer said, by the way, the mail just went over. It was a matter of pride to me then not to let anyone fly when I couldn’t, but I realized that the reason the mail had gone through was that the pilot knew that terrain so well, just as I had known the area around McCook Field. So I stayed on the ground, and I have always thought that perhaps that was the day I became a good flier, because that day I learned my limitations.
In your opinion what effect did World War I have on aviation?
The war had a dual effect. It did greatly develop our capability to conceive and manufacture airplanes, although as far as I knew, our American aircraft never saw any combat in Europe. Our pilots all flew foreign aircraft. However, by the end of the war we had a huge inventory of DH’S and Jennies that lasted over a decade, and this actually stifled the manufacture of better aircraft. I can remember when we flew on the Mexican border patrol, we didn’t feel the least bit badly when we would crack up an airplane. As a matter of fact, we were rather elated, because we felt we could never get better airplanes until we got rid of what we had.
By the way, how did you and your fellow pilots manage to walk away from so many crashes?