Ask Rufus: Dances, propellers and perceptions

October 6, 2012 9:46:48 PM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


Often what we consider to be important really isn't that significant, while at the same time events we overlook can be of historic note. An aviation milestone that occurred in 1919 was connected to our area, but today few people even know about it or its local associations. It was the first transcontinental round-trip airplane flight. 


January of 1919 found the Great War ended and military bases across the U.S. in the process of being closed or down-sized. Such was the case at Taliaferro Air Field near Ft. Worth, Texas. There, Maj. Theodore Macauley, the field's commander, found his duties less pressing. That opened the door for him to pursue an aviation record of the first airplane flight to make a transcontinental round trip. 


He departed Taliaferro Field in January 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 a mechanic. He flew west to Rockwell Field at San Diego, Calif. From there, he started his return trip east. 


The flight east went 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, Ga. and Arcadia, Fla. In Florida, engine trouble forced a landing in a swamp, 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, Ala., Macauley was flying through a rain storm when his propeller was damaged. He 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 heavy rain caused the field's grass runway to be too soft for airplanes to take off. Realizing that they would be stranded for a few days, Maj. Macauley and his mechanic 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 Ft. Worth. 


For such a significant event as the first transcontinental round trip flight, I thought it would be interesting to see what had been reported in the West Point newspaper, which covered Payne Field news. I reviewed the 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." 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." 


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.

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