Ask Rufus: A Forgotten Aviation Milestone

February 9, 2019 9:56:33 PM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


The centennial of an aviation milestone that was connected to our area passed unnoticed 11 days ago.  


It was the first transcontinental round-trip airplane flight and only the fourth transcontinental flight.  


January of 1919 found the Great War ended and military bases across the U.S. in the process of being closed, down-sized or given new missions. Such was the case at Taliaferro Air Field near Fort Worth, Texas. There, Maj. Theodore Macauley, the field's commander (on February 25, 1914, he had set an American altitude record by ascending to 12,139 feet) found his duties less pressing. That opened the door for him to assist in nonmilitary aviation projects.  


The Postal Service teamed up with the Army Air Service to develop air mail routes around the United States. One of the Air Service pilots assisting with the planning and mapping of potential air mail routes was Maj. Macauley. The second week of December 1918, he flew and mapped an air mail route from Fort Worth to San Diego. On that flight Macauley flew at an average altitude of 1,000 feet and made an interesting comment that he found that the prevailing wind flying westward was a tail wind while he encountered headwinds while flying eastward. 


The need to explore air mail routes opened the door for Maj. Macauley to pursue an aviation record of the first airplane flight to make a transcontinental round trip.  


He departed Taliaferro Field at Fort Worth on Jan. 21, 1919, in a De Haviland DH-4 airplane fitted with an extra 57-gallon fuel tank. The airplane was powered by a Liberty engine, and flying with Macauley was not a co-pilot or an observer, but Pvt. Staley, a mechanic. He flew west to Rockwell Field at San Diego, California. From there, he started his return trip east.  


The flight east was relatively smooth until the airplane experienced battery trouble over Texas. Macauley landed at Hot Wells, Texas, to get a replacement battery and then at Pecos, Texas, for a better battery. He left there and arrived in Baton Rouge on Jan. 23.  


From there the flight proceeded to Americus, Georgia, and Arcadia, Florida. In Florida, engine trouble forced a landing in the Everglades 25 miles west of Palm Beach, resulting in the airplane being transported to a Marine base near Miami for repairs. After the repairs, Macauley resumed his flight around Jan. 26, returning to the west. He again experienced problems and crash-landed in Georgia.  


After the Georgia incident, he procured a new De Haviland and continued his flight. Near Montgomery, Alabama, Macauley was flying through a rain storm when his propeller was damaged. Lt. Worthington who was flying with Macauley in another "machine" "wrecked" at Vernon, Alabama. Worthington was not injured but was unable to complete the trip. 


Macauley detoured to the Army Air Service's Payne Field at West Point. Payne Field had a propeller shop that could provide a replacement for the De Haviland's damaged propeller.  


The De Haviland was fitted with a new propeller, but "torrential rains precluded a safe take-off from a mud-clogged field." Realizing that they would be stranded for a few days, Maj. Macauley and Pvt. Staley decided to make the most of the delay. They took a train to spend a few days in Memphis. Their return to the field found the runway dry, allowing them to take off and complete their round trip to Fort Worth.  


After his return to Fort Worth Maj. Macauley reported: 


"The trip, actual air line mileage, from Fort Worth to San Diego, thence to Arcadia. Miami via Jacksonville to West Point, Miss., figures 4943 miles. This distance was covered in 47 hours actual flying time."  


Maj. Macauley's round trip flight ended on Jan. 30, 1919. On Jan. 31, it was announced that Payne Field would be demobilized as a military base. However, a detachment of 12 officers and 200 enlisted men would remain as the field was to be converted to a "permanent landing on aerial mail routes." 


Just as the role of West Point's Payne Field in the first transcontinental round trip by air has received no notice on its centennial, so was the case in 1919.  


I reviewed West Point newspapers in January and early February for accounts of the flight and found the following news from Payne Field:  


■ In early January of 1919, West Point's Episcopal Church of the Incarnation and its minister, Rev. J. W. Fulford, was operating a St. Andrews Club for servicemen above the Star Theatre.  


■ On Jan. 17, it was reported that post commander Col. Heard was being reassigned and Maj. Cousins was assuming command of Payne Field. There was also a big ball scheduled at the field for Saturday night.  


■ On Jan. 22, Unit B. at Payne Field had a dance.  


■ On Jan. 31, it was announced that Payne Field would be demobilized and the field would become a "permanent landing on aerial mail routes."  


■ On Feb. 2, George Krutz, a violinist, played at the Khaki Club.  


It would seem that an important milestone in aviation history had occurred and no one even noticed, then or now.

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]