Life is not scripted. Without warning, we can be overtaken by an event, and compelled to make a decision that can have profound effects. In moments of strife, we find personal courage or we face an undeniable truth, that we are less than noble. There are words that define nobleness: duty, honor, faithful, selfless, devoted, and friend are some of those words. When the moment demands courage, decisiveness, and the guts to stand with someone else who has counted on that, where do you stand?
Pioneers of Aviation
By 1926, the fledgling U.S. Army Air Corps (AAC) struggled to justify its existence. The aircraft mechanics and the pilots had their hands full trying to advance the learning curve on the tactics, techniques, and procedures of aviation. The AAC leaders, all of whom were young and junior grade officers, had plenty to do to keep the traditional corps of the army from taking their budget and casting Army aviation aside. Such little budget that Congress gave them had to be shared with the fledgling U.S. Naval Aviators. Although he had passed away by 1926, former Assistant Secretary of the Navy and later President Teddy Roosevelt had been a champion of Naval Aviation. With some ships being fitted to carry the Navy and Marine Corps planes with
the fleet as it sailed the world’s oceans, the AAC faced the daunting task of proving how it would get about the world too.
Without a War, Win the Peace!
AAC leaders got the idea of promoting the growing U.S. Army Air Power by showing it off, and by showing it off outside of the United States, it might also show Congress that it could get overseas without being tied to converted ships. Thus, the concept of a Goodwill Flight, took shape. Early pioneers of commercial civil aviation got behind it and helped the AAC to lobby Congress for the funds as well as permission for AAC aircraft, crews, and logistics to be used for international air showmanship. The target was the West Indies, Central, and South America. The challenge, was that few of those geographies had any airfields at all! The problem was solved when the AAC selected the two-seat Loening OA-1A Amphibious Biplane as the aircraft to make the trip. This was a scout plane that could land on an airfield or on a boat hull, which was part of its fuselage. Its engine had to be mounted upside down in order to keep the wooden propeller from impacting the boat hull! The fuselage was made of aluminum-covered wood. The two main wings (this was a biplane) were constructed of wooden frames covered with fabric. Five of these aircraft were prepared to make the Goodwill Flight in 1926-1927. They were named for American cities: San Francisco, Detroit, San Antonio, New York, and Saint Louis. The two AAC aviators for each aircraft were all young volunteers. They had to be skilled as aircraft mechanics as well as pilots and navigators.
Harder Than They Planned
With no fanfare, the AAC sent out a considerable number of logistics personnel with aviation fuel, oil, and spare parts to the locations where the Goodwill Flight was going to land. In many instances, they could have used the U.S. Navy’s help, but they did not ask. No way were they going to let the Navy take credit for making the AAC promotion work. Communications were accomplished by wireless telegraph (messages using Morse Code). On December 21, 1926, a ceremony was held at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas, after which the 10 brave fliers in five aircraft began their epic journey. This was a test of the viability of the AAC, the airworthiness of their aircraft, and the nobility of the ten men, and not only for themselves, but all fliers would be judged by what they did when they were overtaken by events. They had such moments regularly. They got lost, ran out of fuel, had weather dangers, equipment failure, and many times it came down to the bond between two men to see them through near calamity. The ultimate test came just after they departed Buenos Aires, Argentina. The aircraft called Detroit had a malfunction in one of its main landing gear. It could not be lowered from the cockpit. Since they were always being watched, the aircraft always flew in a close formation. It would not be cool for one plane to move away while young Lieutenant John Benton walked on a biplane frame out to the landing gear to crank it down by hand. It would also not be practical for him to wear a parachute. The learning curve on parachutes was also steep, plus they were very bulky and cumbersome. Captain Clinton Woolsey held his airplane steady while his brother airman crept out onto the wing.
Courage and Camaraderie
A gust of wind, a patch of cloud to obscure the view, too much weight on one wing, any and all of these things caused the Detroit to drift into the New York. Their wings locked together! One of the aircraft stalled, then the other did! Both aircraft entered a flat spin! http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/factsheets/factsheet.asp?id=741 There was no way out of this. The New York crew elected to use their parachutes. Lt.
Benton, hanging on for dear life, shouted to his brother airman that he should use his parachute. Captain Woolsey stared back at his brother, who had none! This was Captain Clinton Woolsey’s moment! He stayed with the aircraft. He did not abandon his brother. With all of his wits and all of his strength he fought to free Detroit and fly out to cheat death. Both men were killed. What would you have one?