Race winner Belvin Maynard, left, and his mechanic, William E....

Race winner Belvin Maynard, left, and his mechanic, William E. Kline, with Trixie, who accompanied them on the flights. Credit: National Archives

With no clouds in the sky over Roosevelt Field, Wednesday, Oct. 8, 1919, was a perfect day for flying.

By 8:30 a.m. more than 1,000 spectators had arrived in motorcars they parked along a row of wooden hangars. Young female volunteers in flowing white dresses handed out sandwiches and poured coffee from enameled pitchers. The Twenty-Second Infantry Division brass band serenaded the onlookers.

A single-seat biplane soars above the crowd at Roosevelt Field...

A single-seat biplane soars above the crowd at Roosevelt Field at the start of the race. Credit: Library of Congress

They had come to gawk at nearly 50 biplanes arrayed in an uneven line and watch as their dashing pilots took off in the first transcontinental air race. The event, organized by aviation pioneer Billy Mitchell, would result in more than 50 crashes and the deaths of nine of the Army flyers. But as former Washington Post reporter John Lancaster recounts in his dramatic book, “The Great Air Race: Glory, Tragedy, and the Dawn of American Aviation” (Liveright, 2022), the competition advanced lagging American aviation development and nationwide airmail service.

As the 9 a.m. start time approached, Assistant Secretary of War Benedict Crowell shook hands with each of the flyers and wished them luck. Then Mitchell turned to Col. Archie Miller, commander of Roosevelt Field, and said “Let them go, colonel.”

With that, the Reliability and Endurance Test promoted by Mitchell, the general who would be celebrated as the father of the U.S. Air Force, was on. It most definitely tested the reliability and endurance of the pilots and their aircraft.

More than 60 planes divided into two groups — a larger one on Long Island and a smaller one in San Francisco — took off for opposite coasts, 2,700 miles away, and then would make the return flight.

The book explores an episode that the author suggests was overshadowed by Charles Lindburgh's trans-Atlantic flight eight years later. Credit: Liveright Publishing

“It was a bold and risky undertaking,” writes Lancaster, 64, of Washington, D.C. “Though the race was open only to qualified military aviators. ... the surplus warplanes they would fly were almost comically ill-suited for long-
distance travel. ... Open cockpits offered scant protection against wind and cold. Engine noise was, quite literally, deafening. Engines were unreliable and sometimes caught fire in flight. Crude flight instruments were of marginal value to pilots trying to keep their bearings in clouds and fog.”

To make matters worse, the United States had little aviation infrastructure. There were hardly any permanent airfields, no radar, no air-traffic control system or radio network. “Weather forecasts were rudimentary and often wrong,” notes Lancaster, himself a pilot.

The largest plane in the race, the Martin bomber, stops...

The largest plane in the race, the Martin bomber, stops for refueling. Most of the Army’s surplus warplanes in the race were ill-suited to the task. Credit: National Archives

Working with crude maps, the pilots followed railroad tracks or compass headings to fly between 20 “control stops” where, theoretically, they could get fuel, spare parts and food, or sleep overnight because flying in the dark was prohibited. Most of the “airfields” were hastily prepared grass or dirt strips.

Preparations were made in only a couple of weeks; in some cases they were not completed in time. But that did not stop Mitchell and his fellow planners in the Air Service, the forerunner of the U.S. Air Force, to decide at the last minute to make the race round-trip rather than one way so prevailing winds would not benefit one group of flyers over the other.

The man who would become known as the father of...

The man who would become known as the father of the U.S. Air Force, William "Billy" Mitchell, far right, organized the contest. Credit: Library of Congress

Mitchell, who would later be found guilty of insubordination at court-martial because of his insistent badgering of superiors who refused to see that the future of warfare was in the air, conceived of the race because the United States was lagging in aviation. Though the country was home to the Wright brothers, who had made the first powered flight in 1903, it had fallen far behind Europe.

Once in the air, the flyers garnered huge public interest. Newspapers were filled with pictures of grinning aviators standing by their planes, and daily “box scores” provided rankings of the pilots’ flying times for each leg. The New York Times ran more than 30 stories, including eight on the front page. Police were required to keep crowds off the runways.

Pilot Daniel Brailey Gish, in cockpit, shakes hands with another pilot...

Pilot Daniel Brailey Gish, in cockpit, shakes hands with another pilot at the start of the race. Because flying in the dark was prohibited, and planes had to stop to refuel, the race took the better part of a week. Credit: Library of Congress

The public was attracted by the combination of newfangled technology and colorful flyers.

“One of the most interesting characters is Daniel Brailey Gish, who was a track star at the University of Washington before the war and then a racing car driver and garage owner in D.C.,” Lancaster said in an interview. “He learned to fly on his own before the war, and on his first training mission in France — even before he was assigned to a combat squadron — he crashed and shattered both of his legs. He was at Walter Reed Hospital for a year, and he actually checked himself out of the hospital to fly in the race wearing metal braces on his legs. He could barely walk, and he carried crutches in the cockpit.

Gish’s plane, Junk, at a refueling stop in Cheyenne, Wyo.,...

Gish’s plane, Junk, at a refueling stop in Cheyenne, Wyo., on his flight west. The pilots had crude maps and sometimes used rail lines to guide them.  Credit: Credit: National Archives

“And, of course, there’s the guy who won the race, Belvin Maynard. He was an ordained Baptist minister who was just a natural gifted pilot. He was kind of eccentric. He flew the whole race with his German shepherd in the rear cockpit.”

The press nicknamed Maynard the Flying Parson and fawned over his dog, Trixie. There were several combat aces from the war, one of them a general’s son who had twice escaped captivity in Germany after being shot down behind enemy lines. During the race and afterward, the pilots were treated like heroes.

And then there was the charismatic and brash race organizer.

“Billy Mitchell was a fascinating character,” Lancaster said. “He was a very complex guy, quite brilliant in his own way, and also suffered from hubris that ultimately proved his downfall.”

The pilot of this DH-4, Col. Townsend F. Dodd, was...

The pilot of this DH-4, Col. Townsend F. Dodd, was one of the nine Army flyers killed in the race’s more than 50 crashes. Credit: National Archives

The aircraft that took off from Roosevelt Field, part of an Air Service complex that included adjacent Hazelhurst and Mitchel fields, were warplanes built for relatively short trips over the battlefield. The largest was a twin-engine Martin bomber, which carried four men in two open cockpits. The smallest were single-seat planes, including the French Spad, British S.E.5s, an Italian-made Ansaldo S.V.A. and three German Fokker D.VII fighters, complete with black iron crosses, that had been seized by the victors in the war. The poorly designed American DH-4 would account for 46 of the 63 aircraft that started the race.

None of the pilots had parachutes, mystifying Lancaster because they were proven safety devices.

The West Coast group took off from the Presidio in San Francisco at roughly the same time as the Roosevelt Field flyers. Both groups quickly experienced mechanical failures and pilot errors. Several hours after leaving Roosevelt Field, an oil line broke over the village of Deposit, near Binghamton in upstate New York, on a DH-4 flown by Col. Gerald Brant. The plane crashed, inverted and broke in half. The pilot suffered four cracked ribs, but his mechanic died. Also over upstate New York, in the Finger Lakes region, Gish’s DH-4’s engine caught fire, searing his face; he landed hard and overturned the aircraft. He and his mechanic escaped with bruises. Gish then took an express train back to Mineola and restarted in another DH-4.

Not long after a DH-4 piloted by Maj. Dana H. Crissy took off from San Francisco, it stalled and crashed into a shallow pond. Spectators rushed to help the unconscious aviators, holding their heads above water for five minutes until a mechanic arrived with tools to cut them free. Crissy and his mechanic, Sgt. Virgil Thomas, died before reaching a hospital.

The first of the Roosevelt Field competitors, Maynard landed at the Presidio in the afternoon of Saturday, Oct. 11. His elapsed time of three days, six hours and 47 minutes was half a day faster than a transcontinental train from New York to San Francisco. Maynard had spent 25 hours, 16 minutes and 48.5 seconds in the air, for an average speed of 108 mph.

Aviator Carl Spaatz, center, at Roosevelt Field after his flight...

Aviator Carl Spaatz, center, at Roosevelt Field after his flight from San Francisco, with his family, his mechanic and Col. Archie Miller, commander of Roosevelt Field. Credit: Library of Congress

Lt. E.C. Kiel was the first eastbound aviator to land at Roosevelt Field after Carl Spaatz, the pilot who had been ahead of him, landed at the wrong airstrip because the organizers had changed the destination without telling all of the pilots. Kiel’s flying time was 26 hours and 17 minutes.

After the first leg, 44 of the 63 starting planes remained in the contest.

The crashes and deaths had created a backlash among flyers and in newspaper coverage about continuing the round-trip. But the return leg proceeded, with pilots given four days in which to begin their return trips.

On his way back west, Lowell Smith’s plane was incinerated at an airstrip in Buffalo when mechanics flushed the oil tank on his DH-4 with gasoline rather than less volatile kerosene and a lamp ignited the fuel. He convinced Carl Spaatz to drop out and lend him his DH-4. When the engine of his borrowed plane gave out at Cheyenne, Wyoming, Smith lost two days swapping it out for one salvaged from a wreck. Flying to Salt Lake City, he was knocked unconscious by a chunk of ice that detached from his radiator, forcing his mechanic to fly the plane until he came to. Despite all of this, on Oct. 21, six days after leaving Long Island, Smith was the first pilot to land back in San Francisco.

Maynard was the first pilot to return to Roosevelt Field, where about 1,000 people waited for a glimpse of his DH-4, named Hello Frisco. He immediately announced plans to leave the Army to return to the ministry, although the Army would not discharge him until the following year.

After Maynard landed, Billy Mitchell released a statement hailing the success of the race, saying, “The air distance covered is 5,402 miles, in less than 50 hours of actual flying time. It is .  .  . twice the distance from Europe to America.”

It would take several days more for straggling planes to arrive on either coast.

After the race officially ended at sunset on Oct. 31, the nine deaths prompted some newspaper editorials to argue that Mitchell should be charged with murder.

“In the end, a spectacle designed in part to promote the safety and reliability of air travel arguably did the opposite,” Lancaster writes. “Yet there is no denying the aviators’ role as pioneers in the same tradition as Charles A. Lindbergh or the first astronauts. As they hopscotched from one improvised airfield to the next, they blazed the trail for the first crude version of a transcontinental air route.”

“Just 11 months later, the U.S. Post Office inaugurated its coast-to-coast airmail service along essentially the same path.”

Before the race, Lancaster explained, “when people thought about airplanes in a nonmilitary context, they were thinking about stunt flyers at county fairs and the barnstormers dropping in to your local farmer’s pasture and offering you a ride around the pasture for a few bucks. There was no commercial aviation and there were no practical uses for airplanes at the time.”

Said Joshua Stoff, curator of the Cradle of Aviation Museum, where Lancaster will be speaking next month, “The grueling race was fraught with difficulty and danger. However, the publicity generated surely helped to advance the cause of aviation in America and ultimately resulted in the construction of new airfields and safer and more reliable aircraft.”

Despite the importance and prominence of the race, very few people know anything about it today.

“I think it was overshadowed by Lindbergh,” Lancaster said, referring to the Long Island aviator’s solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. “Lindbergh’s achievement was monumental, and it had a really galvanizing effect on how Americans looked at aviation. However, this race well before that sparked a lot of interest and enthusiasm about aviation.”

RETRACING THE RACE 100 YEARS LATER

In 2019, author John Lancaster spent three weeks flying to...

In 2019, author John Lancaster spent three weeks flying to San Francisco and back along the route the 1919 flyers took. He captured this photo of himself with a GoPro mounted on the wing. Credit: John Lancaster

In researching “The Great Air Race: Glory, Tragedy, and the Dawn of American Aviation,” John Lancaster decided to retrace the competition route.

The 64-year-old former Washington Post foreign correspondent has been interested in aviation since childhood and got his pilot’s license after college. But he hadn’t kept up with flying. So after buying a secondhand two-seat plane, he signed up for flying lessons near his home.

Then he spent three weeks flying to San Francisco and back in early summer 2019. He had it a lot easier than the Army aviators a century earlier. His plane had a reliable fuel-injected engine, Autopilot and digital instrument panel for avoiding bad weather.

“Air traffic controllers guided me through crowded airspace and made sure I arrived safely at my destination,” he writes in the book.

“But judgment and skill still matter, and there were times when I was deficient in both. This led to several memorable scares.”

Before starting his transcontinental flight from Republic Airport, Lancaster visited the site of the former Roosevelt Field. He was chagrined to see no trace of the original airfield had survived construction of the shopping mall, where a small plaque mentions its aviation history but not “the great air race.”

“I have to say it was quite a disappointment,” he said.— Bill Bleyer

MEET THE AUTHOR

John Lancaster, author of "The Great Air Race."

John Lancaster, author of "The Great Air Race." Credit: Evy Mages

John Lancaster will be giving two lectures on Long Island next month about his book, “The Great Air Race: Glory, Tragedy, and the Dawn of American Aviation.”

Jan. 12, 7 p.m., at the Cradle of Aviation Museum, Charles Lindbergh Blvd., Garden City; 516-572-4111. To register, visit cradleofaviation.org.

Jan. 13, at noon, at Port Washington Public Library, 1 Library Dr.; 516-883-4400. The lecture will also be offered via Zoom; register at pwpl.org/events.