9 March 1955: Lieutenant Colonel Robert Ray Scott, United States Air Force, commanding officer, 510th Fighter Bomber Squadron, 405th Fighter Bomber Wing, Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, with Major Robert C. Ruby and Captain Charles T. Hudson, flew their Republic F-84F Thunderstreaks non-stop from Los Angeles Airport (LAX), on the southern California coastline, to overhead Floyd Bennett Field, New York. Two in-flight refuelings from Boeing KB-29 tankers were required.
Colonel Scott’s flight set a new National Aeronautic Association speed record with an elapsed time of 3 hours, 44 minutes, 53.88 seconds.
A newspaper article from the following day describes the event:
2 Des Moines Pilots Break Speed Record
NEW YORK (AP) — Two air force pilots from Des Moines broke the speed record from Los Angeles to New York Wednesday, making a nonstop flight in less than four hours.
Lt. Col. Robert R. Scott, 34, flying a Republic F-84F Thunderstreak jet fighter, turned in the fastest time — 3 hours 46 minutes and 33 seconds. He averaged 649 miles an hour.
Just one minute behind was another Des Moines pilot, Maj. Robert C. Ruby, 32. His time was 3:47:33.
The old mark for the 2,445-mile route was 4:06:16, set Jan 2, 1954, by an air national guard pilot.
The pilots said they could have made faster time except for slow and obsolete in-flight refueling tanker planes.
A third pilot who shattered the old mark is Capt. Charles T. Hudson, 33, of Gulfport, Miss., who made the flight in 3:49:53.
Eight air force Thunderstreaks left Los Angeles in a mass assault on the record. Five dropped out through failure to make contact with refueling planes or other reasons. All reportedly landed safely.
While setting a Los Angeles–New York record, Scott failed to beat the navy’s time from San Diego, Calif., to New York — 2,438 miles, or seven miles shorter than Wednesday’s flight.
Flew Cougar Jet
Lt. Comdr. Francis X. Brady, 33, of Virginia Beach, Va., flew from San Diego in 3:45:30 on April 1, 1954, flying a Grumman F9F Cougar.
The air force planes flew at about 40,000 feet.
“The tankers used for refueling are much too obsolete and too old,” Scott commented on landing.
The jets had to slow to 200 m.p.h. from almost 650 to take on fuel.
Scott said he refueled twice — once near La Junta, Colo., and once near Rantoul, Ill.
Ruby and Hudson also said they could have made faster time if the tank planes were more modern.
Hudson and Ruby carried extra gas tanks and made one in-flight refueling each. Scott carried no extra gas and had two in-flight refuelings.
1st Lt. James E. Colson of Middleboro, Ky., tried to make it with no refueling. He got as far as Pittsburgh, Pa.
Of the other four unable to complete the flight, one dropped out in California, two in Kansas and one at Sedalia, Mo.
— The Daily Iowan, Thursday, March 10, 1955, Page 1, Column 1
Robert Ray Scott was born at Des Moines, Iowa, 1 November 1920. He was the first of two children of Ray Scott, a railroad worker, and Elva M. Scott. He graduated from North High School in Des Moines, January 1939. He studied aeronautical engineering at the University of Iowa for two years before he enlisted as an Aviation Cadet in the U.S. Army Air Corps, 15 August 1941. Scott was 5 feet, 7 inches (1.70 meters) tall and weighed 144 pounds (65.3 kilograms). He was trained as a pilot and and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, 16 March 1942. He was assigned as an instructor pilot in California, and was promoted to 1st Lieutenant 15 December 1942.
Scott was transferred to the 426th Night Fighter Squadron, 14th Air Force, flying the Northrop P-61 Black Widow in India and China. He was promoted to captain, 3 May 1944, and to major, 16 August 1945. Major Scott was credited with shooting down two enemy aircraft. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal.
Following World War II, Major Scott returned to the University of Iowa to complete his bachelor’s degree. He also earned two master’s degrees.
In 1952 he graduated from the Air Force test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base, then served as a project pilot on the North American F-86D all-weather interceptor. Later he was a project officer at Edwards AFB on the Republic F-105 Thunderchief Mach 2 fighter-bomber.
Scott flew the North American Aviation F-86F Sabre during the Korean War. From January to July 1953, he flew 117 combat missions. From 1953 to 1956, Lieutenant Colonel Scott commanded the 405th Fighter Bomber Wing, Tactical Air Command, at Langley Air force base, Virginia.
Scott was promoted to the rank of Colonel in 1960.
During the Vietnam War, Colonel Scott commanded the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing, flying 134 combat missions in the Republic F-105 Thunderchief. On 26 March 1967 he shot down an enemy MiG-17 fighter near Hanoi with the 20 mm M61 Vulcan cannon of his F-105D-6-RE, 59-1772, making him only the second Air Force pilot with air combat victories in both World War II and Vietnam.
Colonel Scott’s final command was the 832nd Air Division, 12th Air Force, at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico. He retired 1 September 1970 after 29 years of military service.
Colonel Robert Ray Scott flew 305 combat missions in three wars.During his Air Force career, Colonel Scott was awarded four Silver Star medals, three Legion of Merit medals, six Distinguished Flying Crosses and 16 Air Medals. He died at Tehachapi, California, 3 October 2006 at the age of 86 years. He is buried at the Arlington National Cemetery.
The Republic F-84F Thunderstreak was an improved, swept-wing version of the straight-wing F-84 Thunderjet fighter bomber. The first production Thunderstreak, 51-1346, flew for the first time, 22 May 1952, with company test pilot Russell M. (Rusty”) Roth in the cockpit.
The F-84F was 43 feet, 4¾ inches (13.227 meters) long with a wingspan of 33 feet, 7¼ inches (10.243 meters) and overall height of 14 feet, 4¾ inches (4.388 meters). The wings were swept aft 40° at 25% chord. Their angle of incidence was 1° 30′ and there was no twist. The F-84F had 3° 30′ anhedral. The Thunderstreak had an empty weight if 13,645 pounds (6,189 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight of 27,000 pounds (12,247 kilograms).
The initial F-84F-1-RE aircraft were powered by a Wright J65-W-1 turbojet, a license-built variant of the British Armstrong Siddely Sapphire. Later versions used Wright J65-W-3 and J65-W-7, or Buick J65-B-3 or J65-B-7 engines. The J65-B-3 was a single-shaft axial-flow turbojet with a 13-stage compressor section and 2-stage turbine. The W-3/B-3 had a continuous power rating of 6,350 pounds of thrust (28.25 kilonewtons) at 8,000 r.p.m. It produced 7,220 pounds of thrust (32.12 kilonewtons) at 8,300 r.p.m. (5-minute limit). The J65-B-3 was 10 feet, 8.6 inches (3.266 meters) long, 3 feet, 1.7 inches (0.958 meters) in diameter, and weighed 2,785 pounds (1,263 kilograms).
The F-84F had a maximum speed of 595 knots (685 miles per hour/1,102 kilometers per hour) at Sea Level (0.900 Mach). The fighter bomber could climb at 7,000 feet per minute (36 meters per second). Its service ceiling was 44,450 feet (13,548 meters). The fighter bomber’s maximum ferry range was 2,010 nautical miles (2,313 statute miles/3,723 kilometers).
Armament consisted of six Browning .50-caliber (12.7 × 99 NATO) AN-M3 aircraft machine guns, with two mounted in the wing roots and four in the nose. The were 300 rounds of ammunition per gun. Up to 6,000 pounds (2,722 kilograms) of bombs and rockets could be carried under the wings. A variable-yield Mark 7 tactical nuclear weapon could also be carried.
Between 1952 and 1957, 2,112 F-84F Thunderstreaks were built by Republic at Farmingdale, New York, and by General Motors at Kansas City, Kansas. The Thunderstreak served with the United States Air Force and Air National Guard until 1971.
9–10 March 1945: at 17:35 local time, 9 March 1945, the XXI Bomber Command, Twentieth Air Force, began launching 325 Boeing B-29 Superfortress long-range heavy bombers from airfields on Guam and Saipan. This was Operation Meetinghouse, a night incendiary attack on the Tokyo Metropolis, the capital city of the Empire of Japan, and the most populous city on Earth.
Operation Meetinghouse was the single deadliest and most destructive air attack in history.¹
XXI Bomber Command was led by Major General General Curtis Emerson LeMay. The B-29 Superfortress bombers had been engaged in the U.S. Army Air Forces doctrine of precision daylight bombardment, but with limited success. Only a few days a month was the weather over Japan good enough for precision bombing, but the very high winds encountered dispersed the falling bombs, limiting the attackers’ accuracy. Also, though Japan did have major industrial centers, a large part of its war production was dispersed to small shops throughout the cities.
The B-29s had been designed to operated at high altitudes, bombing from 30,000 feet, but the long climb to altitude with a heavy load of bombs and gasoline strained the engines. Engine fires were common. Although the Wright “Duplex Cyclone” engines’ crankcases were machined from forged steel, the nose and accessory cases were made of magnesium alloy. Once burning, the engine fires could not be put out and the bomber would be lost.
Further, bombing during daylight increased the vulnerability of the B-29s to Japanese air defenses.
General LeMay decided to change tactics. Under the new plan, the Superfortresses would bomb at night, at low altitude. As the construction of Japanese cities made them vulnerable to fires, the bombers would carry incendiary bombs rather than high explosives. The lower altitude would reduce the strain on the R-3350 engines.
LeMay did not expect much reaction from enemy fighters during hours of darkness, so he ordered that, except for the tail guns, all defensive guns on the B-29s, along with their gunners and ammunition, be left behind. This reduced weight allowed him to order double the normal bomb load.
General LeMay also ordered that rather than attack in formations, the bombers would attack as individuals.
Brigadier General Thomas Sarsfield Power, commanding the 314th Bombardment Wing (Very Heavy) based on the island of Guam, was in command of the air attack. The 314th dispatched 56 B-29s. The 73rd Bombardment Wing (Very Heavy) and the 313th Bombardment Wing (Very Heavy) took off from Saipan in the Marianas Islands, putting up 169 and 121 Superfortresses, respectively.
The B-29s began to arrive over Tokyo at 12:08 a.m., 10 March. The weather was clear with visibility 10 miles (16 kilometers). It was very windy, with surface winds blowing at 45–67 miles per hour (20–30 meters per second) from the southwest. The target was designated as a 3 mile × 4 mile (4.8 × 6.4 kilometers) rectangle in the northwest quadrant of the city. More than one million people lived inside the boundaries. It was one the densest population centers on Earth.
Flying at altitudes of 5,000 to 7,000 feet (1,524–2,134 meters), the B-29s dropped their 7-ton bomb loads. As the cluster bombs fell they broke apart and the 38 6-pound (2.7 kilogram) AN-M69 bomblets in each cluster spread. These were filled with napalm and ignited by a white phosphorous charge. A total of 1,665 tons (1,510 Metric tons) of the incendiaries fell on the northeast section of Tokyo.
The resulting firestorm burned out 15.8 square miles (40.9 square kilometers) of Tokyo, with only brick structures still standing.
There can only be estimates of the casualties inflicted on the ground. It is known that 79,466 bodies were recovered. Following the War, the United States Strategic Bombing Survey estimated that 87,793 people had been killed, and 40,918 injured. Other estimates are much higher.
Of the bomber force, 279 airplanes reached Tokyo. 12 were shot down and 42 damaged. 96 crewmen were either killed or missing in action.
The B-29 Superfortress was the most technologically advanced—and complex—aircraft of World War II. It required the manufacturing capabilities of the entire nation to produce. Over 1,400,000 engineering man-hours had been required to design the prototypes.
The Superfortress was manufactured by Boeing at Seattle and Renton, Washington, and Wichita, Kansas; by the Glenn L. Martin Company at Omaha, Nebraska; and by Bell Aircraft Corporation, Marietta, Georgia.
There were three XB-29 prototypes, 14 YB-29 pre-production test aircraft, 2,513 B-29 Superfortresses, 1,119 B-29A, and 311 B-29B aircraft. The bomber served during World War II and the Korean War and continued in active U.S. service until 1960. In addition to its primary mission as a long range heavy bomber, the Superfortress also served as a photographic reconnaissance airplane, designated F-13, a weather recon airplane (WB-29), and a tanker (KB-29).
The B-29 was operated by a crew of 11 to 13 men. It was 99 feet, 0 inches (30.175 meters) long with a wingspan of 141 feet, 3 inches (43.068 meters). The vertical fin was 27 feet, 9 inches (8.305 meters) high. The airplane’s empty weight was 71,500 pounds (32,432 kilograms). Its maximum takeoff weight of 140,000 pounds (63,503 kilograms).
The B-29’s wings had a total area of 1,720 square feet (159.8 square meters). They had an angle of incidence of 4° and 4° 29′ 23″ dihedral. The leading edges were swept aft to 7° 1′ 26″.
The B-29 was powered by four air-cooled, turbocharged and supercharged, 3,347.66-cubic-inch-displacement (54.858 liter) Wright Aeronautical Division Cyclone 18 (also known as the Duplex-Cyclone) 670C18BA4 (R-3350-23A) two-row, 18-cylinder radial engines. These had a Normal Power rating of 2,000 horsepower at 2,400 r.p.m., and 2,200 horsepower at 2,800 r.p.m., for takeoff. They drove 16 foot, 7 inch (5.055 meter) diameter, four-bladed, Hamilton Standard constant-speed propellers through a 0.35:1 gear reduction. The R-3350-23A was 6 feet, 4.26 inches (1.937 meters) long, 4 feet, 7.78 inches (1.417 meters) in diameter and weighed 2,646 pounds (1,200 kilograms).
The maximum speed of the B-29 was 353 knots (406 miles per hour/654 kilometers per hour) at 30,000 feet (9,144 meters), though its normal cruising speed was 216 knots (249 miles per hour/400 kilometers per hour) at 25,000 feet (7,620 meters). The bomber’s service ceiling was 40,600 feet (12,375 meters) and the maximum ferry range was 4,492 nautical miles (5,169 statute miles/8,319 kilometers).
The Superfortress could carry a maximum of 20,000 pounds (9,072 kilograms) of bombs in two bomb bays. For defense, it was armed 12 Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine guns in four remote, computer-controlled gun turrets and a manned tail position. The bomber carried 500 rounds of ammunition per gun. (Some B-29s were also armed with an M2 20 mm autocannon at the tail.)
A number of B-29 Superfortresses are on display at locations around the world, but only two, the Commemorative Air Force’s B-29A-60-BN 44-62070, Fifi, and B-29-70-BW 44-69972, Doc, are airworthy. (After a lengthy restoration, Doc received its Federal Aviation Administration Special Airworthiness Certificate, 19 May 2016.)
¹ (a.) Hiroshima: A single B-29 dropped a 16-kiloton atomic bomb on the city. Approximately 5 square miles (12.9 square kilometers) of the city were destroyed by the detonation and resulting firestorm. Estimates are that approximately 70,000–80,000 people were killed immediately, and about the same number injured by the detonation and resulting firestorm. (b.) Nagasaki: A single B-29 dropped a 21-kiloton atomic bomb on the city. 60% of the structures were destroyed. An estimated 35,000 people were killed immediately by the detonation and resulting firestorm. (c.) Dresden: The raids of 13–15 February 1945 included 1,296 RAF and USAAF heavy bombers, dropping high explosive and incendiary bombs. The resulting firestorm destroyed approximately 2.5 square miles (6.5 square kilometers) of the center of the city. Afterwards, 20,204 bodies were recovered. The most recent estimates are that approximately 25,000 people were killed.
9 March 1918: Captain James Ely Miller, commanding officer, 95th Aero Squadron, 1st Pursuit Group, American Expeditionary Force, accepted the invitation of Major Davenport Johnson to join him and Major Harmon for a short patrol over the lines in three SPAD S.VII C.1 fighters borrowed from a French squadron.
Major Harmon’s SPAD had engine trouble and he turned back. Major Johnson and Captain Miller continued and encountered four German fighters near Juvincourt-et-Damary in northern France. Shortly after the air battle began, Major Johnson abandoned the fight, leaving Captain Miller on his own. Captain Miller was shot down near Corbény, France.
The German pilot who downed Miller and a German intelligence officer who had rushed to the crash scene witnessed Captain Miller’s dying words in which he cursed Major Davenport Johnson for leaving him during the air battle.
On 12 March, Major Johnson assumed command of the 95th.
James Ely Miller was born 24 March 1883 in New York City, New York. He was the fifth child of Charles Addison Miller and Mary Eliza Ely.
Miller attended Yale University, graduating in 1904. He was a member of the Psi Upsilon (ΨΥ) fraternity. Miller was active in sports, a member of the varsity crew and played guard on the football team.
Following university graduation, Miller joined the Knickerbocker Trust Company of New York (later, the Columbia Trust Co.), one of the largest banks in the United States. By 1913, he was secretary of the corporation, and by 1917, a vice president.
Miller was 6 feet, 2½ inches (1.89 meters) tall, with brown hair and eyes, and a fair complexion.
Miller married Miss Gladys Godfrey Kissel, 2 April 1908, in Manhattan, New York City, New York. They would have a daughter, Gladys Caroline Morgan Miller.
1st Lt. Miller flew with the 1st Aero Squadron, New York National Guard, in the Punitive Expedition into Mexico, in 1916.
On 10 May 1917, Captain Miller was activated from the Officers Reserve Corps and assigned to the Aviation Section, Signal Corps, for duty in France. He served overseas from 23 July 1917 until his death.
Captain Miller was the first United States airman to be killed in combat. In 1919, Miller Field, Staten Island, New York, was named in his honor. His remains were buried at the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery, Fère-en-Terdenois, France.
On 14 June 2017, the Distinguished Flying Cross was posthumously awarded to Captain Miller. Secretary of the Army Robert M. Speer presented the medal to Byron Derringer, Captain Miller’s great-grandson.
The Société Pour L’Aviation et ses Dérivés SPAD S.VII C.1 was a single-place, single-engine, two-bay biplane chasseur (fighter). The airplane was 19 feet, 11 inches (5.842 meters) long, with a wingspan of 25 feet, 7¾ inches (7.817 meters) and overall height of 7 feet, 2 inches (2.184 meters). It had a maximum gross weight of 1,632 pounds (740 kilograms).
The SPAD VII was initially powered by a water-cooled, normally-aspirated, 11.762 liter (717.769 cubic inches) Société Française Hispano-Suiza 8Aa, a single overhead camshaft (SOHC) 90° V-8 engine with a compression ratio of 4.7:1. The 8Aa produced 150 horsepower at 2,000 r.p.m. By early 1918, the S.VII’s engine was upgraded to the higher-compression 8Ab (5.3:1), rated at 180 horsepower at 2,100 r.p.m. These were right-hand tractor, direct-drive engines which turned a two-bladed fixed-pitch wooden propeller.
The SPAD VII had a maximum speed of 119 miles per hour (192 kilometers per hour). The 8Ab engine increased this to 129 miles per hour (208 kilometers per hour). The service ceiling was 17,500 feet (5,334 meters).
Armament consisted of a single air-cooled Vickers .303-caliber (7.7 × 56 millimeter) machine gun, synchronized to fire forward through the propeller arc.
The SPAD S.VII was produced by nine manufacturers in France and England. The exact number of airplanes built is unknown. Estimates range from 5,600 to 6,500.
The airplane in this photograph is a SPAD S.VII C.1, serial number A.S. 94099, built by Société Pour L’Aviation et ses Dérivés, and restored by the 1st Fighter Wing, Selfridge Air Force Base, Michigan. It is in the collection of the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.
9 March 1915: Air Vice Marshal James Edgar (“Johnnie”) Johnson, C.B., C.B.E., D.S.O. and Two Bars, D.F.C. and Bar, Royal Air Force, was born at Barrow upon Soar, Leicestershire, England.
Johnson was the highest scoring Royal Air Force fighter pilot of World War II. He flew 515 sorties and scored 34 airplanes destroyed, 7 shared destroyed, 3 probables and 10 damaged. All of his victories were against fighters.
Benjamin Scovill Kelsey, an aeronautical engineer and test pilot, despite his youth and junior rank, was one of the most influential Air Corps officers in the shaping of United States military air power during the years leading up to World War II.
Ben Kelsey was born in the Kelsey family home at 22 Johnson Street, Waterbury, Connecticut, on 9 March 1906. He was the son of Benjamin Richard Kelsey, an agent for the Waterbury Blank Book Co., and Elizabeth Anna Scovill Kelsey. His mother’s family, the Scovills, were a prominent manufacturing family in Connecticut. Kelsey’s father died 2 Dec 1909.
Kelsey attended Crosby High School in Waterbury. He had an early interest in aviation, and he began flight lessons at the age of 14. He enrolled with the Curtiss Flying School, located at Roosevelt Field, Long Island, New York. The school offered 500 minutes (8 hours, 20 minutes) of flight instruction for $500. Kelsey soloed 13 August 1921.
Kelsey was able to buy a Curtiss “Jenny” airframe from the school, and accumulated parts and an OX-5 engine to put it into flying condition.
Kelsey was granted an aviator’s certificate, No. 6843, by the National Aeronautic Association of U.S.A. (N.A.A.), on behalf of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, about 1926. When the United States Department of Commerce began issuing pilot licenses after 1928, Kelsey qualified for Transport License No. 3200. He also held Department of Commerce Mechanic’s License No. 1368. (These, as well as a number of other licenses and identification cards belonging to Kelsey are held in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum.)
Ben Kelsey entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) at Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1924, with a major in mechanical engineering. He was a member of the Reserve Officers Training Corps (R.O.T.C.), the Tau Beta Pi (ΤΒΠ) fraternity, and The Scabbard and Blade, a national military fraternity. He was president of the Aeronautical Engineering Society, a member of the Mechanical Engineering Society and the Society of Automotive Engineers (S.A.E.). Outside of academics, Kelsey participated in the varsity team sports of swimming and crew, and was a member of the Varsity Club and the Tech Boat Club. He also joined the M.I.T. Flying Club.
Kelsey graduated from M.I.T. in 1928 with a scientiae baccalaureus (S.B.) degree in Mechanical Engineering. He stayed on at the university as a Research Assistant to William G. Brown, Assistant Professor of Aeronautics, in the Department of Aeronautical Engineering.
Benjamin Scovill Kelsey was commissioned as a second lieutenant, Air Corps, United States Army, on 2 May 1929 (accepted 16 June 1929). Because of his experience as a pilot and his training in aeronautical engineering, Lieutenant Kelsey was assigned to work with First Lieutenant James Harold (“Jimmy”) Doolittle at the Guggenheim Full Flight Laboratory at Mitchel Field, Long Island, New York. Financed by the Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics, Lieutenants Doolittle and Kelsey worked with Elmer Sperry, Jr., and Paul Kollsman to develop instruments and techniques to take off, fly, and land airplanes in clouds and fog.
On 24 September 1929, Lieutenant Kelsey, in the forward cockpit of a civil-registered, two-place, Consolidated NY-2 Husky biplane, NX7918, acted as a safety pilot while Doolittle flew the airplane from the rear cockpit. Doolittle had his visual reference to earth and sky completely cut off by a hood enclosure over his cockpit. He made the first completely blind airplane takeoff flight and landing, solely by reference to instruments on board his aircraft.
Lieutenant Kelsey was then assigned to the Air Corps Primary Flying School at Brooks Field, and the Advanced Flying School at Kelly Field, both located in San Antonio, Texas. He completed the Air Corps Pursuit Course in 1930.
On completion of his military flight training, Lieutenant Kelsey was assigned to the 77th Pursuit Squadron, 20th Pursuit Group, based at Mather Field, Sacramento, California, and then Barksdale Field in Louisiana. The squadron flew the Boeing P-12 biplane pursuit.
Kelsey was still a very junior officer in the Air Corps. In July 1931, he was number 231 on the list of second lieutenants.
Lieutenant Kelsey returned to M.I.T. to complete a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering. He was awarded a scientiae magister (S.M.) degree in Aeronautics in 1932.
The United States government had contracted with commercial aviation businesses to deliver the U.S. Mail by air. A corrupt contracting process was used by the Postal Service, however, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt cancelled those contracts and ordered the Air Corps to start delivering the mail, effective 19 February 1934.
The Air Corps organized the Army Air Corps Mail Operation. The Western Region, based at Salt Lake City, Utah, was under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Henry H. (“Hap”) Arnold (later, General of the Air Force). 2nd Lieutenant Kelsey was transferred from the navigator’s school at Rockwell Field, San Diego, California, to the A.A.C.M.O. Western Region. He and other Air Corps pilots flew at night, in winter weather, on a triangular route from Salt Lake City to Reno and Elko, Nevada. Initially, the airplanes used were the Boeing P-12 pursuits, but they were able to carry only a small amount of mail. The Curtiss A-12 Shrike was then used for the mail delivery.
During this time, Lieutenant Kelsey also worked with Captain Albert F. Hegenberger on an instrument flight research program that allowed Air Corps pilots to conduct a flight from start up to shut down, including takeoffs and landings in “zero-zero” conditions, solely by reference to instruments.
Kelsey was promoted to the rank of first lieutenant, 1 October 1934. He was next assigned as the Pursuit Projects Officer, Material Division, at Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio.
1st Lieutenant Benjamin S. Kelsey married Miss Caryl Rathje, 16 August 1935. Miss Rathje was the fourth of seven children of William John Rathje, president of the Mid-City Trust & Savings Bank in Chicago. Her mother was Mary Eliza Philpot Rathje.
Caryl had graduated from Morgan Park High School in 1929 and then attended Northwestern University at Evanston, Illinois. She was a member of the Beta Chapter Alpha Phi (ΑΦ) sorority. While at Northwestern, Miss Rathje sang 1st soprano in the Glee Club and was secretary of the Daughters of Neptune swimming team.
The wedding, performed by Rev. Clyde Melsee, took place in the bride’s home in Chicago, Illinois.
The Kelseys would have three children, Benjamin Scovill Kelsey, Jr., Peter Rathje Kelsey, and David W. Kelsey.
Kelsey continued his assignment at Wright Field: “Engineer, Procurement Branch. Project Officer, Pursuit, Engineering Procurement Branch, Material Division.” It was his task to evaluate all pursuit aircraft in current service with the Air Corps, and to assess its future needs. He was in contact aircraft and engine manufacturers, and evaluated similar aircraft types in foreign military service. He performed as an aeronautical engineer, a test pilot and a forecaster of aviation technology.
On Christmas Eve, 1936, Lieutenant Kelsey was flying a twin-engine Martin B-10 bomber from Mitchel Field, New York, to Wright Field. The flight was not uneventful.
Lieut. Ben Kelsey, returning to Wright Field one night in a Martin B-10B, had reached the vicinity of Columbus, Ohio, when the left engine quit “as though the switches were cut.” After some gas valve and ignition switch manipulating, the engine started up with the gas valve in the “off” position, gasoline flowing freely from the exhaust pipe. On starting, the flames ignited the gasoline on the wing, which also ignited the fabric rear portion of the wing. The engine then began to operate normally and, after deciding against taking a chance on the Columbia Airport fire fighting facilities, Lieut. Kelsey raced the fire to Wright Field. A few inches from the aileron the fire lost, and Lieut. Kelsey, after a few practice cloud landings, shot a “hot” flapless landing successfully at Wright Field with only a little more than half the left wing surface remaining. When asked why he didn’t jump, he answered: “I had an electric train in the back for the boy.”
—Air Corps NEWS LETTER, Vol. XX, No. 3, 1 February 1937, at Page 3, Column 1
For his actions that night, Lieutenant Kelsey was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 2, 1926, takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Flying Cross to First Lieutenant (Air Corps) Benjamin S. Kelsey, U.S. Army Air Corps, for heroism and extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight. On 24 December 1936, at about 7:30 p.m., Lieutenant Kelsey was piloting an airplane from Mitchel Field, Long Island, New York, to Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio, flying at an altitude of approximately 1,800 feet when he left motor instantaneously failed and the left wing burst into flames. By his outstanding courage, sound judgment, and at the risk of his life Lieutenant Kelsey maintained control of the airplane and, with great difficulty due to the darkness of the night and the glare from the burning airplane, effected a safe landing at Wright Field, thereby preventing the destruction to valuable Government property.
General Orders: War Department: American Decorations, 1937 – 1938 (Supplement II-1939)
Action Date: December 24, 1936
On 1 September 1937, Lieutenant Kelsey made the first flight of the Bell Aircraft Corporation XFM-1 Airacuda at Buffalo, New York. This was a prototype twin-engine heavy fighter. The Airacuda was Bell’s first military aircraft and was technologically advanced, but also had many flaws. Kelsey found that the airplane would immediately enter a spin when flown with one engine. It was also unstable in pitch, as the “pusher” arrangement would cause pitch angle to climb as engine power was increased. This was the same problem that had caused the Air Service to ground all pusher-type aircraft in February 1914, and to prohibit their future use.
The XFM-1 was powered by two Harold Caminez-designed, liquid-cooled, supercharged, 1,710.60-cubic-inch-displacement (28.032 liter) Allison Engineering Company V-1710-9 single overhead cam 60° V-12 engines. These were very early models of the type, but the Allison V-12 would be a significant feature in several future aircraft which were proposed by Kelsey.
In February 1937, the Air Corps issued a proposal to aircraft manufacturers, written by Lieutenant Kelsey and Lieutenant Gordon P. Saville, for a twin-engine, high-altitude interceptor. This would be developed into the Lockheed Aircraft Company’s legendary P-38 Lightning. Ben Kelsey made the first flight of the XP-38 at March Field, Riverside, California, 27 January 1939. The Lightning was the first production airplane to use the Allison V-1710 engine.
Attempting a transcontinental speed record to draw public attention to the Air Corps’ need for technologically advanced aircraft, Kelsey flew the prototype XP-38 from March Field to Mitchel Field. On approach to Mitchel, the XP-38 was behind several slower training planes, so Lieutenant Kelsey throttled back the engines. When he tried to throttle up, the carburetor venturis iced and the engines would not accelerate, remaining at idle. With insufficient power to maintain altitude, the airplane crashed on a golf course short of the airport.
The XP-38 was damaged beyond repair, but its performance on the transcontinental flight was so impressive that 13 YP-38A pre-production aircraft were ordered from Lockheed by the Air Corps. Testing continued with the YP-38A and was the new fighter was quickly placed in full production. The P-38 Lightning was one of the most successful combat aircraft of World War II. By the end of the war, Lockheed had built 10,037 Lightnings.
Another Air Corps proposal written by Lieutenants Kelsey and Saville resulted in the Bell XP-39 Airacobra. This aircraft was also powered by an Allison V-1710, placed in a position behind the cockpit. The XP-39 made its first flight 6 April 1938. 9,584 Bell P-39 Airacobras were built during World War II.
Curtiss-Wright’s Chief Engineer, Donovan Reese Berlin, had taken the tenth production P-36A Hawk, Air Corps serial number 38-10, and had its air-cooled radial engine replaced with a liquid-cooled Allison V-1710-C13 V-12 engine. Although the P-36A’s original Pratt & Whitney R-1830-17 14-cylinder radial engine had greater displacement and produced 80 horsepower more for takeoff than the Allison V-12, the long, narrow V-12 allowed for a much more streamlined engine cowling for higher speed and greater efficiency.
The XP-40 was disappointingly slow when compared to the P-36A, however. Kelsey had the prototype sent to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) Research Center at Langley Field, Hampton, Virginia, where the full-size airplane was placed inside a wind tunnel.
Over a two-month period, NACA engineers made a number of improvements. The radiator was moved forward under the engine and the oil coolers utilized the same air scoop. The exhaust manifolds were improved as were the landing gear doors.
When they had finished, Lieutenant Kelsey flew the modified XP-40 back to Curtiss. Its speed had been increased to 354 miles per hour (570 kilometers per hour), a 12% improvement.
Between 1939 and 1945, Curtiss built 13,738 P-40s in many configurations. They flew in combat in every theater of operations during World War II.
1st Lieutenant Kelsey was promoted to the rank of captain in May 1939. In July 1940, Captain Kelsey was sent to England as a military attaché. He observed combat operations during the Battle of Britain, and was able to fly the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire fighters. Kelsey arranged to have two Spitfire Mk.Va fighters, R7347 and W3119, shipped to the United States for evaluation at Wright Field and NACA Langley.
Captain Kelsey returned to the United States, departing Galway, Ireland, 5 July 1940, aboard the United States Lines passenger liner S.S. Washington. The ship was under the command of Captain Harry Manning, who had been one of two navigators intended to fly with Amelia Earhardt around the world in 1937. Kelsey arrived at the Port of New York on 13 July. [Interestingly, on 11 June 1940, S.S. Washington had been stopped off the coast of Portugal by a Kriegsmarine U-boat, U-101, and the passengers and crew were given ten minutes to abandon ship before it was to be sunk. The submarine’s captain, Kapitänleutnant Fritz Frauenheim, realized that he had mistaken the ship for another, and signaled to Captain Manning, “Thought you were another ship. Please go on, go on.”]
With World War II underway, Britain could not produce enough combat aircraft to meet its immediate needs. The British Purchasing Commission had asked North American Aviation to produce Curtiss-Wright Tomahawks (P-40s) under license. N.A.A. responded with a proposal for an all-new fighter, the NA-73X, which would be powered by the Allison V-1710, could be designed and built in the same time it would take to establish a P-40 assembly plant in California. On 10 April 1940, the Commission authorized North American to proceed. The prototype made its first flight on 26 October 1940, and it was placed in production as the Mustang Mk.I.
The fourth and tenth production Mustang Mk.Is, AG348 and AG354, were diverted to the Army Air Corps, designated XP-51 and assigned serial numbers 41-038 and 41-039. Both aircraft were extensively flight tested at Wright Field and by NACA at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. The airplane was ordered into production as the P-51A Mustang.
Lee Atwood, North American’s chief engineer and later president, wrote:
Ben Kelsey, in my opinion, was among the most effective Air Corps officers of World War II. His active liaison between combat and aircraft engineering was extremely productive and resulted in aircraft and weapons improvements in a timely manner and when most critically needed. I first met Ben when he was the project officer on the P-38 and he became interested in the P-51 at an early stage. Undoubtedly, he did all he could to bring it along. He had a low key, but very convincing approach.
—Warbird Factory: North American Aviation in World War II, by John Fredrickson, Voyageur Press, 2015, Chapter 8 at Page 147
Captain Kelsey was promoted to the rank of major (temporary) 15 March 1941. On 10 October 1941, he was appointed a major in the wartime Army of the United States (A.U.S.).
As the United States prepared for an unavoidable involvement in World War II, its military forces underwent a massive expansion. Promotions for serving officers came much more rapidly than had been the case during the pre-war years. Normally, they would retain their permanent rank in the United States Army while rising to higher rank and responsibility in the Army of the United States.
Major Kelsey was promoted to lieutenant colonel (temporary) on 5 January 1942, and to lieutenant colonel, A.U.S., on 1 February 1942. Four weeks later, 1 March 1942, he was advanced to colonel, A.U.S.
Colonel Kelsey was involved in the planning and operation of the North Atlantic Ferry Route (Operation Bolero), by which aircraft were moved from the United States to Europe, by way of Newfoundland, Labrador, Greenland, Iceland and Ireland. He flew a Lockheed P-38F Lighting of the 14th Fighter Group on the first crossing by this route in June 1942.
Colonel Kelsey resumed his assignment as chief of the Pursuit Branch at Wright Field. On 9 April 1943, Kelsey was at Lockheed in southern California, testing a P-38G-10-LO Lightning, 42-12937. He had entered a high-speed dive at 35,000 feet (10,668 meters). When he attempted to engage the new “dive flap,” intended to control some of the compressibility effects that pilots had encountered, the control lever broke away. Kelsey applied full rudder and aileron. The P-38’s left wing and tail broke away, and the remaining part of the airplane entered an inverted spin. Kelsey bailed out, suffering a broken ankle. The airplane crashed near Calabasas, California (13.5 miles, or 21.8 kilometers, from where I am now writing).
Colonel Kelsey was named chief of the Flight Research Branch, Flight Test Division, at Wright Field, in July 1943.
In November 1943, Colonel Kelsey was assigned as deputy chief of staff, Headquarters, IX Fighter Command, based at Army Air Forces Station 449 (RAF Middle Wallop) in Hampshire, England. Shortly after, he was reassigned as chief of operations, Eighth Air Force. While in England, Colonel Kelsey flew 21 combat missions. During 1944, he flew combat missions is the P-51 Mustang with the 363d Fighter Squadron, 364th Fighter Group, which was based at RAF Honington (AAF Station 375) in Suffolk, England. On 30 November, Kelsey flew as Red Leader with the 77th Fighter Squadron on a mission to Leipzig.
Following the end of the war, Colonel Kelsey returned to Wright Field. He reverted to his permanent rank of major, Army Air Forces, 2 May 1946. He then had a series of staff assignments. After the United States Air Force was established as a separate military service on 18 September 1947, Major Kelsey was appointed a major, U.S. Air Force, with a date of rank 2 May 1946. Major Kelsey was promoted to the rank of colonel U.S. Air Force, 2 April 1948.
Colonel Kelsey attended the National War College at Fort Lesley J. McNair, Washington, D.C., from August 1948 to June 1949. He then became an instructor at the College. Kelsey next served as Deputy Director for Research and Development at Air Force headquarters. He was promoted to the rank of brigadier general (temporary) on 5 September 1952.
In 1954, General Kelsey was the Air Force representative to the Research Airplane Committee which proposed the hypersonic X-15 rocketplane, which would be built by North American Aviation.
On 30 December 1955, Brigadier General Kelsey reverted to his permanent rank of colonel. He retired from the Air Force 31 December 1955, after 26 years, 7 months, 30 days of military service.
During his military career, Colonel Kelsey had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Air Medal with two oak leaf clusters (three awards). France and Belgium each decorated him with their Croix de Guerre.
In 1944, Colonel Kelsey had been honored with the Octave Chanute Award of the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences “for an outstanding contribution made by a pilot or test personnel to the advancement of the art, science, and technology of aeronautics.”
In 1959, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology bestowed on Kelsey its Jerome C. Hunsaker Visiting Professor of Aerospace Systems. Professor Kelsey delivered the annual Minta Martin Lecture, “Size Considerations in Optimum Aircraft.”
The National Air and Space Museum selected Colonel Kelsey as the Charles A. Lindbergh Chair in Aerospace History for 1979. With this fellowship, he wrote The Dragon’s Teeth?: The Creation of United States Air Power in World War II (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982).
Colonel Benjamin Scovill Kelsey, United States Air Force (Retired), died at Sherwood Farm, Stevensburg, Virginia, 3 March 1981, at the age of 74 years. His remains were cremated.
This Day in Aviation is indebted to Ms. Tiffany Kelsey, Ben Kelsey’s granddaughter, for her invaluable assistance.