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FreightWaves Classics/Pioneers: First nonstop transcontinental flight across the US was 99 years ago

The pleasant end to the story

On May 3, 1923, the first nonstop transcontinental flight across the United States ended successfully. U.S. Army Air Service lieutenants Oakley G. Kelly and John A. Macready landed a single-engine, high-wing airplane at Rockwell Field near San Diego, California. This was 26 hours, 50 minutes and 48 seconds after Kelly and Macready left Long Island’s Mitchel Field.

The aviators made the 2,625-mile trip across the United States less than 20 years after the Wright brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina (on December 17, 1903). Kelly and Macready flew cross-country “without weather reports, flying instruments, any radio, or parachutes.” Their 49-foot-long Army Fokker T-2 aircraft was carrying 780 gallons of fuel, 32 gallons of oil, and 25 gallons of water. The airplane was so heavy when they took off that the pilots had to travel just above the ground until some of the fuel was used. And, of course, they had to add fuel and oil in the air while flying the plane. Despite these conditions, they were able to operate the Fokker’s Liberty engine at 90% power for the entire trip.

A Wright brothers flight in 1909. (Photo: History Collection)
A Wright brothers flight in 1909. (Photo: History Collection)

After Kelly and Macready landed, Rockwell Field’s commandant Major Henry “Hap” Arnold (who was an aviation pioneer in his own right and the future Commanding General of the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II) made his way through the welcoming crowd to greet the record-setting pilots. “Congratulations!” said Arnold. “It was a marvelous flight and we are surely proud of you.”

One newspaper article made a key point that was repeated by many other newspapers of the time. The article noted the aviation milestone’s military significance, stating “a non-stop transcontinental air voyage indicates the feasibility of transporting men, messages, equipment or any other vital necessity from one coast to the other in an incredibly short space of time.” The article also highlighted the commercial importance of that flight, stating that “the accomplishment of the two pilots is expected to encourage aircraft companies to organize aerial transport services and establish an increased number of landing fields and air routes all over the country.”

Kelly would pilot the same plane used for that flight the following year when he took 93-year-old Ezra Meeker over portions of the Oregon Trail. Meeker had traveled that trail by wagon back during the 1850s, and he and Kelly flew above the historic route to foster support for marking and preserving it.

The Fokker F-IV that carried the two pilots across the United States. (Photo: Vintage Aircraft Association)
The Fokker F-IV that carried the two pilots across the United States. (Photo: Vintage Aircraft Association)

The backstory

The successful flight didn’t just happen… For more than 18 months, the two Army pilots and others (including mechanics, engineers and staff members of the U.S. Weather Bureau) had been working to make the flight successful. There were many setbacks along the way.

Post-World War I 

Airplanes were used as both offensive and defensive weapons during World War I by the Allies and opposing nations. However, like tanks, which were also used for the first time in a widespread manner during the war, many in the military (and the general public) did not believe either weapon was that important or necessary.

While tanks did not have a civilian use, many hoped that aviation could have both military and civilian applications. The leaders of the Army Air Service believed in the need to further develop aviation, as well as aircraft, pilots and the infrastructure needed to make it successful. 

From 1919 until the mid-1930s, pilots who had served in the Air Service and others who had learned to fly worked to keep aviation in the news and in the minds of the general public. They sought opportunities to showcase their skills and the capabilities of the various airplanes that they flew. This period of Air Service history (and the history of aviation in general) has been termed by many as “the stunt era.” From coast to coast pilots competed in air races and performed exhibitions at as many events that they could. 

A Sopwith Camel from World War I. (Photo: USAF Museum)
A Sopwith Camel from World War I. (Photo: USAF Museum)

U.S. Army Air Service efforts

In late 1921, Kelly and First Lt. Muir Fairchild proposed to fly nonstop across the United States. Most of their fellow aviators thought the idea was impossible. Aircraft of the time were still frail and their engines were underpowered. Flights of any great distance were very rare. 

Despite the naysayers, Kelly and Fairchild continued to move forward. They understood that the right airplane was the key to success. They examined and evaluated the various aircraft that were in the Air Service’s fleet. They settled on the Fokker F-IV (designated by the Army as the T-2), thinking its characteristics gave them the best chance to accomplish their goal.

The airplane

The T-2 was a very large airplane in 1923. It was a passenger aircraft; its wingspan was nearly 75 feet. Its “enclosed metal-tubing-and-fabric-covered fuselage” could hold as many as eight passengers; it had seating for one pilot in an exposed cockpit that sat forward of the cantilevered wood-covered wing. The U.S. Army had two T-2 aircraft; they had been acquired to help test an engine. Although a T-2 carried 130 gallons of fuel, much more fuel would be needed for a transcontinental flight.

One of the Army’s two T-2s was provided for the attempt to fly coast-to-coast. The team’s chief engineer was First Lt. Earnest Dichman, and he began to modify the airplane so that it might be able to make a flight that had never been attempted. The modifications that Dichman made included “additional water and oil tanks in the cabin, larger and stronger wheels, auxiliary water and oil radiators, a door between the cockpit and the cabin, and a second set of flight controls in the cabin.”

The airplane’s flight path had to be determined. Meteorologists with the U.S. Weather Bureau  recommended that the flight be made from west to east, which allowed the aircraft and pilots to use the 20-plus-mph westerly tailwind that was prevalent during August and September. The first attempt would follow a California-to-New York route.

The Fokker F-IV, which was renamed T-2 by the U.S. Army. (Photo: Smithsonian Institution)
The Fokker F-IV, which was renamed T-2 by the U.S. Army. (Photo: Smithsonian Institution)

Attempt #1

The modified T-2 arrived at Rockwell Field on North Island, California on September 24, 1922. Final preparations for the flight attempt were made. Among the new modifications, an overhauled Liberty 12 engine was installed. Fairchild was recovering from an unrelated accident and was replaced by Macready as the second pilot. 

On the morning of October 22, 1922, the T-2 was placed at the end of Rockwell Field’s 10,000-foot runway. The two pilots flipped a coin to see who would sit in the cockpit first; Kelly won. The T-2 moved forward. Its gross weight was 10,695 pounds (incredibly heavy for the time). It moved along the runway, and slowly lifted off. After reaching an altitude of 100 feet, the airplane sank lower; it skimmed along only 10 feet above the waves of the Pacific Ocean.

Luckily, the very heavy airplane slowly gained altitude. However, after about 50 miles, the pilots encountered light fog; they flew on, but hit more fog near Banning, California, where the tops of hills were fog-covered. Although they sought to maneuver around the fog, they decided to turn back because they had used too much fuel by that time. 

They returned to Rockwell Field, dropping a note to let those on the ground know they had abandoned the transcontinental attempt. However, they had decided to continue flying, hoping to break the world endurance record.

The pilots circled Rockwell Field; they were aloft for over 35 hours. When the T-2 touched down, there were 1,000 waiting for them on the ground. While Kelly and Macready had set an endurance record, it was ruled unofficial because proper arrangements had not been made prior to the flight. Despite that, the pilots and their aircraft proved that they could stay aloft long enough to make a nonstop transcontinental flight. 

Attempt #2

Maintenance issues and poor weather caused a longer-than-expected delay. Nonetheless, Kelly and Macredy took off again on the morning of November 3, 1922. No fog hampered them; they had enough altitude to fly through the California mountains. Once across the Colorado River, Macready took the controls. Prior to the Continental Divide, Kelly again took the pilot’s seat. 

Lieutenant Oakley George Kelly, U.S. Army Air Service. (FAI)
Lieutenant Oakley George Kelly, U.S. Army Air Service. (Photo: FAI)

As the T-2 burned fuel, the gradual weight loss gave Kelly the height to cross the Continental Divide at dusk. The moon had not yet risen, and the pilots flew on in total darkness. They were able to spot the lights of Tucumcari, New Mexico, which gave them a known point and favorable terrain. 

However, as they headed further east, clouds formed, often obscuring the moon and forcing Kelly to fly close to the ground to follow the tracks of the Southern Pacific Railroad. The weather worsened; “thunder and lightning rumbled and flashed on every side.”

They reached Pratt, Kansas, and then followed a compass course. There were no lights from the ground and a fierce crosswind caused the airplane to drift. However, they continued on and approached St. Louis near dawn. They had flown about 400 miles, but then discovered a cracked cylinder jacket. The engine had not yet lost any of its water coolant; they continued onward. But as they passed over Terre Haute, Indiana, the cracked cylinder jacket had worsened and was affecting other cylinder jackets; the airplane was rapidly losing coolant. 

Lieutenant John A. Macready, U.S. Army Air Service. (Photo: FAI)
Lieutenant John A. Macready, U.S. Army Air Service. (Photo: FAI)

As the airplane approached Indianapolis, the water temperature was rising (due to the loss of coolant). Macready was able to land the T-2 on the infield of the Indianapolis Speedway.

The pilots were safe because of their “incredible skill, sound judgment and quick thinking.” 

Macready later wrote for the National Geographic magazine. After the landing, “when Kelly and I stepped out of the T-2 in Indianapolis, we did not do much talking about transcontinental non-stop flights. We were through. Never, never again for us! We were entirely willing for someone to take our place. We wanted to forget it.”

Despite what Macready wrote, after a few days of rest Kelly pinned a map of the United States on the wall. “Without much discussion or ceremony, he and Macready were soon planning another attempt at a nonstop, transcontinental flight.”

The pilots decided to fly from east to west, which would allow the airplane to stay at lower altitudes until they reached the mountains in the West. By then, they would have used enough fuel to fly over the mountains. They also learned from Weather Bureau meteorologists that “during the last two weeks in April, there was usually a shift in the continental weather pattern, producing two or three strong, east-to-west wind currents that they could utilize.”

The route of the transcontinental flight. 
(Image: Smithsonian Institution)
The route of the transcontinental flight.
(Image: Smithsonian Institution)

Attempt #3

The T-2 was ready for another attempt by the spring of 1923. On the night of May 1, they received a favorable weather report. They made final preparations early the next morning for a takeoff from Roosevelt Field on Long Island.

After takeoff the heavily laden aircraft barely rose off the ground. For 20 minutes over Long Island the airplane gained little altitude, and “barely cleared the [electrical and telephone] poles and wires.”

Over Pennsylvania, there were problems with the airplane’s battery. Kelly fixed it inflight; they continued onward. Dusk approached, and the T-2 flew over Dayton, Ohio. Macready took the controls as clouds gathered. The lights of St. Louis were barely visible through the mist. Macready followed the Missouri River; the clouds thickened, and as they flew over the Ozark Mountains, the two pilots could not see any ground lights. Once again, they continued on through total darkness.

Macready pointed the T-2 toward New Mexico, following a compass course across five states. Shortly before midnight, the clouds thinned, and the ground was visible again. After 1,200 miles, they were still on course. Kelly took the pilot’s duty near Spearman, Texas; he utilized his compass to stay on course for six hours.

Macready took the controls again at 6 a.m. The airplane was over Santa Rosa, New Mexico; approximately two-thirds through the flight. After reaching the Rio Grande, they were seven hours from San Diego and had approximately nine hours of fuel remaining. 

But the T-2 was still fuel-heavy and struggled to rise. Each gallon of fuel burned gave the airplane a few feet of altitude. But they were unable to cross the Continental Divide. As they had done when flying eastward, they sought an alternate route through the divide.

Macready flew slightly southward and found an opening. The T-2 cleared the flight’s highest point. Kelly took the controls near Wickenburg, Arizona. He followed the tracks of the Santa Fe Railroad until reaching the Colorado River. There was only one more range of mountains between them and the Pacific Ocean. 

Macready was a native of San Diego; he took over the pilot’s seat once the Pacific Ocean was spotted. Their goal was to reach San Diego in under 27 hours total flight time. Macready pushed the controls down, the airplane descended from 8,000 feet to 100 feet. The T-2 touched down at Rockwell Field in a flight time of 26 hours and 50 minutes. The Air Service pilots had flown into history on their third attempt.

Fokker T-2, A.S. 64233, in flight, from above, left front quarter view, circa 1922–23. (Dutch Aviation)
Fokker T-2, A.S. 64233, in flight, from above, left front quarter view, circa 1922–23. (Photo: Dutch Aviation)

The aftermath

Kelly and Macready “received congratulatory telegrams from President Warren Harding, General John Pershing and hundreds of other well-wishers.” They were hailed in the media of the day; and the generals that ran the Army Air Service were very happy for the positive  publicity.

A few days after they landed, the two pilots flew the T-2 to Washington, D.C. The famous airplane was donated to the Smithsonian Institution. Nearly 100 years later, it is one of many famous aircraft and spacecraft that are on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

The T2 that flew across the United States. It is displayed in the Air and Space Museum. (Photo: Smithsonian Institution)
The T2 that flew across the United States. It is displayed in the Air and Space Museum. (Photo: Smithsonian Institution)

Legacy

The third and successful flight of Kelly and Macready was one of many flights that helped to build the case for aviation. Each added a bit more to the argument that aircraft and pilots could fly passengers and cargo in a manner that was beneficial to society.

Since this flight 99 years ago, aircraft have evolved in amazing ways. Man has gone from flying less than 3,000 miles to flying aircraft around the world, and flying spacecraft to the moon…

Author’s note: My thanks to history.net and thisdayinaviation.com for invaluable information.