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Transcontinental Aviation Record Soars

Updated on September 21, 2013

Flight was experienced first by birds and later mimicked by man

A Bald Eagle soars through the sky with a fish in its talons.
A Bald Eagle soars through the sky with a fish in its talons. | Source

♦ A new perspective on flight

Flight. Leaving the earth, lifting ever higher and soaring through the air.

For centuries people have watched the birds and pondered how they could join them and enjoy this matchless freedom – the thrill of flying.

The incremental steps start in 200 BC when the Chinese perfected kite flying, followed by the 15th century aeronautic designs of Leonardo da Vinci. In 1783, a hot air balloon invented by the Montgolfier brothers lifted humans into the air and a few years later English engineer George Cayley invented a fixed wing airplane and then a passenger-carrying glider.

However, it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century that manned flight really took off. It was a time of experimentation, failures and adjustments. In addition to citizen inventors and pilots, the U.S. and European military participated in the development of aviation. They were eager to use the new airborne devices to deliver bombs on their enemies.

Video: Aviation Pioneers

When we think of aviation pioneers, the Wright brothers, Charles Lindberg and Amelia Earhart come to mind. But there were numerous men and women whose achievements, along the way, impacted aviation’s progress. Such is the case with John Macready and Oakley Kelly, two Army lieutenants who flew non-stop across the United States 90-years-ago.

On May 2, 1923 Macready and Kelly climbed aboard their Fokker T-2 single-engine monoplane, loaded with extra fuel, and took off from Roosevelt Field, Long Island. The next day they landed at Rockwell Field, San Diego. They traveled the 2,470 miles in under 27 hours (an average speed of 92 mph). Macready and Kelly’s only navigational instrument was a compass. They relied on dead reckoning, mostly by following train tracks and rivers. At night, much of the territory outside their cockpit was unknown. And the weatherman was not an ally. They had to deal with storms and rain for over half the flight.

Try, Try, Try Again:

Their successful non-stop flight across the United States was preceded by two aborted attempts. The Army decided to make the first two journeys from west to east to take advantage of prevailing westerly winds and California’s higher octane fuel.

The first attempt ended when they couldn't get their heavily fuel laden airplane over the mountain range east of San Diego. The second try ended when a leaking radiator forced them to land in Indianapolis.

For their charmed third attempt, Macready and Kelly flew east to west. This time they easily cleared the mountains in California, because when the Fokker T-2 reached them most of the fuel had been consumed and the aircraft was significantly lighter.

The Army Air Service approved the flight to test the capability and endurance of their pilots and their new T-2 transport airplane. The successful endeavor also demonstrated the military and commercial potential of long-distance air travel.

John Macready and Oakley Kelly flew the Fokker T-2 on an historic flight 90 years ago.
John Macready and Oakley Kelly flew the Fokker T-2 on an historic flight 90 years ago.

Who Were John Macready and Oakley Kelly? Lt.Macready set a world altitude record and was the Army's leading test pilot. Lt.Kelly helped originate the idea for the transcontinental flight. But it was Macready who was the aviation star. In the early 1920’s Macready was a test pilot and flew an early General Electric turbo-supercharger. Over a period of six years he flew an open cockpit biplane exploring regions as high as 40,800 feet. He survived temperatures as low as -80 degrees by breathing oxygen from a welder's tank.

The Fokker T-2 is on display in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
The Fokker T-2 is on display in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

The Fokker T-2:

In 1920, the U.S. Army Air Service contracted the Netherlands Aircraft Company to manufacture a single-engine military transport based on the company's Fokker F.IV airliner (named after company owner: Anthony Fokker). “The T-2 featured the same plywood cantilever wing and tubular steel fuselage found on the highly successful Fokker fighters of World War I,” according to the Smithsonian. The cabin normally carried 8 to 10 passengers and their baggage. The Army selected the T-2 because it could be adapted to make the long flight.

In 1922, the plane was delivered to the Air Service, which designated it Air Service Transport 2, or T-2. It is known more widely by its unofficial name: the Fokker T-2. For its time, the Fokker was a large airplane: 49-feet long with an 82-feet wing span. The high-wing monoplane was powered by a 420 horsepower, liquid-cooled, Ford-built Liberty V-12 engine, with a top speed of 110 mph.

Several modifications were made to prepare for the transcontinental flight. Normally flown by a single pilot in an open cockpit, a second set of controls was installed so that the airplane could be controlled from inside while the two pilots changed positions.

Fill ‘Er Up: On its historic flight the T-2 carried 735 gallons of gasoline in three fuel tanks, the standard 130-gallon fuel tank, a 410-gallon wing tank and a 195-gallon tank in the modified cabin. When it took off from Long Island its gross weight was 10,850 pounds, only a few pounds below its maximum designed weight. The plane is currently on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

The fuel load for the transcontinental trip
The fuel load for the transcontinental trip

In the News:

Macready and Kelly’s coast-to-coast non-stop flight was “an impressive achievement,” The New York Times reported in 1923. “All through the night hours the 420 horsepower motor roared far up in the air, over cities and settlements where people came to their doors to look up into the sky, (hoping) to see the monster speed on,” said the Times.

“A pilot must have nerves of steel to keep at his work, deafened by the noise of the engine and the whir of the propeller, straining his eyes to follow the tracks of a railroad diminished to a mare trace, feeling his way through the night, knowing that if the engine goes dead, perhaps over a forest or a desert, it will be the end.

“All through the states tangles of railroad lines with confusing lights lay under them and only by flares lighted by prearrangement could they be sure of what city they were flying over…”

After traversing the desert and the Rocky Mountains and as they neared San Diego, the Times reported, “Triumph must have thrilled in the veins of these men when the white houses of the town gleamed in the sun in their setting of the mountains and the vast blue of the Pacific beyond.

“Macready and Kelly have done pioneering work for the Post Office mail service and generally for civil aviation… The day may soon come when a flight from New York to San Francisco will be so familiar as to pass unnoticed; when there will be regular and well-patronized passenger service,” the paper said.

Lindbergh was one of the aviation pioneers who took off from Roosevelt Field.
Lindbergh was one of the aviation pioneers who took off from Roosevelt Field.

Roosevelt Field – The Cradle of American Aviation

When Kelly and Macready brought the Fokker T-2 to Long Island they landed at Mitchell Field, the nearby Army Air Corps airfield. When it was time to depart, they moved the plane over to Roosevelt Field, because it had a longer runway. The idea of two active airports being such close neighbors is unheard-of today.

A treeless expanse on Long Island, known as Hempstead Plains, was an ideal site for a civilian airfield, especially since it was only 18 miles from Manhattan. With New York City being the world media center and aerial advancements a major story of the time, Roosevelt Field was frequently in the spotlight. Newspaper reporters soon played up Roosevelt Field and nicknamed it the “Cradle of American Aviation.” With so many planes departing from Roosevelt on their way to major aviation milestones that moniker was appropriate.

Roosevelt Field was named in honor of President Teddy Roosevelt’s son, Quentin, an Army aviator killed during World War I. At its peak in the 1930’s, it was America’s busiest civilian airfield. Many famous pilots like Admiral Richard Byrd, Amelia Earhardt and Wiley Post used Roosevelt Field.

And it was Roosevelt Field where a little known mail pilot named Charles ç Lindbergh took off from on his famous non-stop trip to Paris. The soft-spoken Lindbergh took 33½ hours to fly 3,610 miles from Long Island across the Atlantic in his single-engine mono-plane named Spirit of St. Louis. Aviation pioneers continued to use Roosevelt Field during the 30’s. The military used the airfield during World War II. After the war, it was razed and a massive shopping mall was built on the site. –TDowling

Historic Roosevelt Field now is a shopping mall

In the pursue of flight: Newsreel's look at early aviation failures

© 2013 Thomas Dowling

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