The Aircraft Squadrons, Battle Fleet, were represented at the 1929 National Air Races at Cleveland by Fighting Squadron One, the “High Hats,” from the U.S.S. Saratoga. The flight of this squadron from San Diego to Cleveland and return over some 5,000 miles of country new and strange to all the pilots was a demonstration of the efficiency and mobility of the aerial arm of the Battle Fleet. The detachment, under the command of Lieutenant Commander Homer C. Wick, U. S. Navy, consisted of eighteen Boeing fighters, three Sikorsky amphibion transports with a personnel of twenty-one naval aviators, three aviation pilots, and nineteen mechanics. The squadron carried its baggage and light spare parts and was self-maintained throughout the flight.
From start to finish, the squadron logged 1,400 motor hours with only one forced landing due to motor trouble. The planes, loaded to full capacity with fuel and baggage, were landed in strange fields at altitudes as high as 7,200 feet above sea level with only one crack-up. Throughout the flight, the press and the public showed a most gratifying interest in the squadron and the naval aviation service. This was evidenced by the huge crowds which awaited our arrival at each scheduled stop and the mass of favorable publicity given the squadron in the newspapers of the cities visited. That large inland sections of the country have but slight knowledge of the Navy’s aeronautical organization was demonstrated by the invariable first question : “If you fliers belong to the Navy, why do you have wheels on your planes?”
Not until August was it announced that VF-1 would make the flight and the scheduled date of departure was August 19. This allowed only two weeks to make the many preparations necessary to moving such a large number of planes en masse across the continent; and in addition, the regular employment schedule for this period was carried out. Refueling arrangements were particularly important as a delay of only five minutes per plane twice each day would result in a loss of two hours for the squadron.
Because the flight was to pass over sections of the country which seldom, if ever, have an opportunity to become acquainted with our naval air forces, it was necessary to make advance arrangements to insure a proper spread of information concerning the squadron’s route, its personnel, and equipment. The planes and motors required careful checking over and a few planes needed a change of motors.
By Saturday, August 17, all preparations were complete, and a final review was flown for the Commander, Aircraft Squadrons. Early Sunday morning advance parties took off in two of the amphibions, one for Tucson, Arizona, and the other for Midland, Texas, to have all in readiness for an expeditious refueling at those points. The time of departure had been set for 6:00 a.m. Monday, but, due to a delay in the delivery of certain important mail (the expense funds), the start was not made until noon. The remaining transport was given a fifteen- minute start; and at twelve o’clock the eighteen fighters taxied from the line, took off in two nine-plane divisions, and four hours later landed at Tucson, Arizona, for the night.
By taking off at 4:30 a.m. and making exceptionally fast time in refueling at El Paso and Midland, Texas, the squadron caught up with the original schedule and arrived at Dallas 5:30 p.m., accomplishing a flight of 860 miles in eight hours in the air. The next day, a thirty-knot tail wind blew us out of Texas and across Oklahoma to the “Hat Box” Field at Muskogee in less than two hours. The favorable wind held and by one o’clock the squadron was on the ground at Kansas City. During the night the wind shifted to the west and the following morning an average ground speed of 140 miles per hour was maintained to Scott Field, Belleville, Illinois, where the squadron refueled. From there to Fair- field Air Depot at Dayton was only a matter of three hours.
Leaving San Diego on the nineteenth and due at Cleveland at 2:00 p.m. on the twenty-fifth, we had allowed a two-day leeway for bad weather. Encountering nothing but the fairest of weather, we found ourselves in Dayton, only 190 miles from Cleveland, with two days to spare. This time was spent in scrubbing down the planes, checking motors, and removing the spare wheels and auxiliary gas tanks which were to be stored there until our return from the races. On Saturday morning the entire squadron took the air for formation drill, after which the nine “High Hats,” a nine-plane acrobatic team, took off to rehearse their stunt program (see p. XXXVIII).
This consisted of taking off in a nine- plane vee-of-vees formation, closing the distance between planes to about fifteen feet as soon as the planes were off the ground. The group made one circuit of the field to gain altitude, then dove along the line of observers and pulled up to perform two successive nine-plane loops. A steeply banked turn was made at the end of the field and the formation returned along the line, the leader of each three-plane section flying upside down with the other planes of the sections closed in as usual. At the end of the field the leaders slow-rolled right side up. The formation did a tight reversement by sections and came back with all nine planes executing a slow roll in unison. On the next pass all nine planes slow-rolled on to their backs and crossed the field in this position, still retaining the vee-of-vees formation. Then the sections came up into a line of columns over the center of the field and went into a three-barreled “squirrel cage.” In this maneuver each plane chases the one next ahead around a loop, the three planes in each section being equally spaced around the circle. On the third time over the top, each plane does an Immelman turn and dives into a loop, thus reversing the rotation of the squirrel cage. Three times over the top again, and the leaders straighten out and the vee of vees is rapidly reformed. This was followed by a standard three-way strafing attack on an imaginary target in front of the observers on the field. Rendezvousing quickly, the division circled the field and looped to a landing.
The next move was to break out six forty- foot lengths of light manila line and lash the planes of each section wing to wing. Thus fastened together, the division took off in the usual vee formation and made a number of passes over the field, shifting formation from vee of vees to echelon of vees to division echelon to line and to division vee. The show was ended by looping the nine planes in vee-of-vee formation still lashed together, after which the formation landed. Even the Army pilots watching us from the field admitted that it was a good show, and coming from them, we considered that praise indeed.
These acrobatics, though they may sound and appear spectacular and unnecessarily hazardous, are really only a combination of maneuvers which are used almost daily in the regular training of fighting plane pilots. That they are not dangerous for a competent combat pilot was proved on one occasion when a section leader’s motor cut out while the entire formation was in inverted flight. This pilot, followed by the two planes of his section, righted his plane and all three spiraled down to a formation landing in the center of the field.
Sunday morning, the squadron moved up to Lorain on the shores of Lake Erie, about fifteen miles from Cleveland. There we were to be met by the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for aeronautics, Mr. David Ingalls, and the Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, Rear Admiral Moffett, whom the squadron was to escort into Cleveland. It was in landing at Lorain that the only crack- up of the flight occurred. A short, rough field, no wind, and a pilot attempting to land a little too short resulted in wash-out for the plane and a broken jaw for the flyer.
While the mechanics from the amphibions, which tucked up their wheels and landed in the lake, were removing the wreck from the field, three planes carrying the Assistant Secretary and his party landed. At 1:15 p.m. the squadron, now minus one plane and headed by Mr. Ingalls’ group, took off and proceeded out over Lake Erie and along the shore toward Cleveland. This was probably the first time that a Navy fighting plane squadron had ever maneuvered over any of the Great Lakes. Although it was fresh water and our squadron took pride in being accredited shellbacks, it looked like the sea and we felt quite at home.
At 1:59 p.m., the formation was in position 4,000 feet over the eastern end of the Cleveland airport and started a dive to pass low in front of the crowded stands. This was our big moment for which we had flown 2,500 miles. Exactly at two o’clock, our scheduled time of arrival, the squadron passed in front of the grand stands where 70,000 people were massed along the side of the field. Pulling up in steep climbing turn, the squadron put on a show of wing- and-tail formations while the Navy announcer, Lieutenant Chourre, explained our maneuvers to the spectators. After twenty minutes, the squadron landed, and, through billowing clouds of dust, found its way to the Navy area.
While the stunting division was standing by to take the air again at 4:20 p.m., the commanding officer returned from a conference with Mr. Ingalls and we were informed that it had been decided that there would be no formation acrobatics by the service units at the air races. The squadron was rather disappointed, but orders were orders, and we taxied out at four o’clock determined to at least show the crowd some of the most precise formation flying and maneuvering that they had ever witnessed. The two divisions performed cross-over turns and reversements from various formations, and much to our surprise learned, when we landed, that the crowded stands had been as thrilled by these maneuvers as we had hoped they would be by our acrobatics. Cross-over turns and reversements, which are simply expeditious means of turning a large formation in the air, were considered by the spectators as complicated evolutions fraught with the danger of certain collisions only narrowly avoided. This exhibition seemed to please the ever-changing crowd so much that it was repeated daily throughout the race meet.
The next day Colonel Lindbergh arrived at the field and, unannounced, walked into the Navy headquarters. The field directors soon learned of his presence and he was whisked up to the announcing stand to be introduced to the multitude. He returned an hour later in company with Mr. Ingalls and our commanding officer. After a short consultation the Colonel departed, and on the following day a wildly enthusiastic throng was electrified by the announcement that “Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh is now taxiing down the field and is about to take the air leading a section of the Navy ‘High Hats.’” The preceding evening the commanding officer and the writer’s section, Lieutenants Kivette and O’Bierne, had met Colonel Lindbergh at a secluded landing field in the vicinity of Cleveland and there we had demonstrated to him our particular technique in formation stunting. Then he led those two delighted young naval aviators into the air for practice. His very real ability as a combat and stunt pilot was amply demonstrated by the facility with which he took an unfamiliar plane and, after a remarkably short time for practice, flew and stunted it with a smooth sureness of hand that many pilots never attain. From then until the close of the races Colonel Lindbergh, leading this section of Navy planes, put on a daily exhibition of formation stunting which was easily the leading attraction of the race meet.
Wednesday afternoon the nine “High Hats” showed Cleveland “the rope stunt” for the first time. Since our final review at San Diego this had taken the fancy of the news writers and had been given prominence in all the accounts of the squadron’s activities since we had left the coast. But there were those who doubted that we had ever really done it. To confound these skeptics, the ropes were shortened to thirty feet and the planes lashed together in sight of the spectators. Taking off in a cross wind the division went through all the scheduled maneuvers and landed with only one rope parted; (this happening when a plane hit a rut on taking off). Only once did the nine “High Hats” have an opportunity to display their full program of formation acrobatics. This was at Columbus where the division gave an exhibition on Governor’s day at the Ohio State Fair.
Friday the Navy pursuit race was run off. There was some surprise manifested at the slow time, 127 m.p.h., made by the winner of this event, especially as some of the planes made single laps in time varying from 140 to 160 m.p.h. The “race” was really conducted as a spectacle rather than as a speed test. Our motors had brought us all the way from San Diego and we were depending on them not only to take us back but to carry us through a strenuous schedule of gunnery exercises after we returned. For these reasons it was considered of prime importance to conserve our motors rather than subject them to the grueling strain of a full- out, 100-mile race. It was an exciting race to watch, nevertheless. Fifteen planes entered and they were always well bunched at the home pylon where the pilots opened them up and fought for places on the turn. The crowd received their money’s worth of thrills and we saved our motors for more important work.
The Navy was also represented at the races by the new all-metal dirigible which was promptly nicknamed “the tin balloon.” The Los Angeles sailed (see pp. XXXVII and XLII) over the field and demonstrated something really new when a plane took off from the ground with a passenger, hooked on to the dirigible, transferred the passenger, and brought another back to the earth. After accomplishing this feat the Los Angeles was moored to her mooring mast especially erected for her, stayed overnight, and departed for Lakehurst the following morning.
On Tuesday, September 4, the squadron started the return flight to San Diego. Leaving Cleveland in fair weather and proceeding to Chicago, then to St. Louis, and on towards Kansas City, the squadron encountered a violent storm which forced it to the ground at Jefferson City, Missouri. There again the value of our amphibions was demonstrated when the pilots, being unable to find the small river-bottom field in the heavy rain, rolled up their wheels and landed in the Missouri River.
In the face of low hanging clouds and driving rain the planes took off for Denver early the following morning, stopping at Kansas City and Goodland, Kansas, for gas. For many days our arrival in Denver had been widely advertised and the Governor of Colorado had declared the day a state holiday in honor of naval aviation. We, therefore, felt it incumbent on us to make every effort to arrive in Denver on time. But between Goodland and Denver, just as the planes were entering the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, a terriffic electrical storm was encountered which forced the squadron to abandon its course and seek safety on the ground. The first division made its way to Colorado Springs, while the second division, a half hour behind, went down in various small fields along the route. Next morning the squadron was rendezvoused at Colorado Springs and, with the able guidance of a local pilot, finally made its way through the fog-enveloped, mountainous country between Colorado Springs and Denver, arriving late in the afternoon in a pouring rain. Rain, snow, and low-lying clouds held the squadron on the ground in Denver for four days. As soon as the weather cleared the long-awaited and enthusiastically advertised aerial show was put on for the hospitable citizens of Denver and the convention of the United Veterans of the Spanish War.
Leaving Denver in the gathering dusk the squadron proceeded to Cheyenne, where an overnight stop was made. It was decided to make the flight from Cheyenne to San Diego, a distance of 1,100 miles, the following day. At four o’clock in the morning, two hours before sunrise, pilots and mechanics were on the field attempting to start the cold motors. The ground was frozen solid and during the night ice had formed on the wings and tail surfaces of the planes. After much hard cranking the motors were finally started and warmed up, and the planes took off and headed for the snow- covered Laramie Mountains just at sunup. Three and one-half hours later, the formation had crossed the high barren plateaus and the lofty snow-capped peaks which lie between Cheyenne and Salt Lake City. From Salt Lake City, the flight went south to Las Vegas, Nevada, over the mountains and desert country of southern Utah. Leaving Las Vegas the planes made good time to Oceanside just north of San Diego, where the squadron was ordered to rendezvous. Despite the length of the flight and the extremely hazardous nature of the country, the squadron arrived at the field in Ocean- side within twenty minutes of the scheduled time, with the exception of one plane which had been forced by failing oil pressure to land at Palmdale in the Mojave Desert.
Taking off from Oceanside the planes closed up in wing-and-tail formation and headed for North Island. About five o’clock they dove down to pass the home hangar, broke formation, and landed. The Battle Fleet’s first and most extensive inland cruise was finished.