Tag Archives: Billy Mitchell

25 October 1925

Colonel William Mitchell during the 1925 court martial. (U.S. Air Force)
Colonel William Mitchell during the 1925 court martial. (U.S. Air Force)

25 October 1925: The court martial of Colonel William (“Billy”) Mitchell, Air Service, United States Army, began at Washington, D.C. For his criticism of the U.S. Navy’s leadership in regard to a number of deadly aviation accidents, he was charged with eight counts of insubordination.

(Mitchell had been returned to his permanent rank of colonel after completing his term as Assistant Chief of the Air Service, during which he retained the temporary rank of brigadier general that he had held during World War I.)

Billy Mitchell had been the senior American air officer in France during World War I. He was a determined advocate for the advancement of military air power and encouraged his officers to compete in air races and attempt to set aviation records to raise the Air Service’ public profile. He gained great notoriety when he bombed and sank several captured German warships to demonstrate the effectiveness of airplanes against ships.

Ex-USS Alabama (BB-8) hit by a white phosphorous bomb, 27 September 1921. (U.S. Air Force)
Ex-USS Alabama (BB-8) hit by a white phosphorous bomb dropped by one of Billy Mitchell’s bombers, 23 September 1921. (U.S. Air Force)

His outspoken advocacy resulted in the famous Court Martial of Billy Mitchell, in which a military court consisting of twelve senior Army officers found Mitchell guilty of insubordination. He was reduced in rank and suspended for five years without pay.

Major General Douglas MacArthur (later, General of the Army, a five-star rank) said that the order to serve on the court was, “. . . one of the most distasteful orders I ever received.”

Mitchell resigned from the Army and continued to advocate for air power. He died in 1936.

After his death, President Franklin D. Roosevelt elevated Billy Mitchell to the rank of Major General on the retired officers list. The North American Aviation B-25 twin-engine medium bomber was named “Mitchell” in recognition of General Mitchell’s efforts to build up the military air capabilities of the United States.

Brigadier General William Mitchell. (NavSource)
Brigadier General William Mitchell. (University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee/NavSource)

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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18 October 1922

Brigadier General William Mitchell, Air Service, United States Army, 1879–1936. (United States Air Force)

18 October 1922: At Selfridge Field, near Mount Clemens, Michigan, Assistant Chief of the Air Service Brigadier General William Mitchell set a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Absolute Speed Record flying a Curtiss R-6 biplane, Air Service serial number A.S. 68564, over a 1 kilometer course at a speed of 358.84 kilometers per hour (222.973 miles per hour).¹

This was the same airplane with which Lieutenant Russell L. Maughan had won the Pulitzer Trophy just three days earlier.

Brigadier General William Mitchell stands in the cockpit of a Thomas Morse pursuit.

Sources vary as to the speed General Mitchell attained, e.g., 222.96 m.p.h., 222.97 m.p.h., 224.28 m.p.h., and 224.4 m.p.h. A contemporary news magazine listed the officially recognized speed as 224.58 miles per hour (361.43 kilometers per hour):

American World’s Speed Record Homologated

The speed record made by General Mitchell, of the American Air Service, on October 18 last year, when he attained a speed of 224.58 m.p.h., has now been homologated by the International Aeronautical Federation.

FLIGHT,  The Aircraft Engineer & Airships, No. 733. (No. 2, Vol. XV) January 11, 1923, at Page 26.

Brigadier General Billy Mitchell at Selfridge Field, Michigan, 1922. This airplane may be a Thomas-Morse MB-3 fighter. (U.S. Air Force)
Brigadier General Billy Mitchell at Selfridge Field, Michigan, 1922. This airplane may be a Thomas-Morse MB-3 fighter. (U.S. Air Force)

“Billy” Mitchell had been the senior American air officer in France during World War I. He was a determined advocate for the advancement of military air power and encouraged his officers to compete in air races and attempt to set aviation records to raise the Air Service’ public profile. He gained great notoriety when he bombed and sank several captured German warships to demonstrate the effectiveness of airplanes against ships.

His outspoken advocacy resulted in the famous Court Martial of Billy Mitchell, in which a military court consisting of twelve senior Army officers found Mitchell guilty of insubordination. He was reduced in rank and suspended for five years without pay. Major General Douglas MacArthur (later, General of the Army, a five-star rank) said that the order to serve on the court was “one of the most distasteful orders I ever received.” Mitchell resigned from the Army and continued to advocate for air power. He died in 1936.

After his death, President Franklin D. Roosevelt elevated Billy Mitchell to the rank of Major General on the retired officers list. The North American Aviation B-25 twin-engine medium bomber was named “Mitchell” in recognition of General Mitchell’s efforts to build up the military air capabilities of the United States.

The Curtiss R-6 Racers were single-engine, single seat, fully-braced biplanes with fixed landing gear, developed from the U.S. Navy Curtiss CR. The airplane and its D-12 Conqueror engine were both built by the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Co., Garden City, New York. The fuselage was a stressed-skin monocoque, built with two layers of wood veneer covered by a layer of doped fabric. The wings were also built of wood, with plywood skins and fabric-covered ailerons. Surface radiators were used for engine cooling.

Two R-6 Racers were built of the U.S. Army at a cost of $71,000, plus $5,000 for spare parts.

The Curtiss R-6 was 19 feet, 0 inches (5.791 meters) long with a wing span of 19 feet, 0 inches (5.791 meters). It had an empty weight of 2,121 pounds (962 kilograms).

The R-6 was powered by a water-cooled, normally-aspirated 1,145.11-cubic-inch-displacement (18.765 liter) Curtiss D-12 dual overhead cam (DOHC) 60° V-12 engine, which was developed by  Arthur Nutt, based on the earlier Curtiss K-12 which had been designed by Charles B. Kirkham. The D-12 had four valves per cylinder and a compression ratio of 5.7:1, and was rated at 415 horsepower at 2,000 r.p.m., and 460 horsepower at 2,300 r.p.m. During testing, it produced a 475 horsepower at 2,320 r.p.m. using a 50/50 mixture of 95-octane gasoline and benzol. The D-12 was a direct-drive engine and it turned a two-bladed, fixed-pitch, forged aluminum propeller designed by Dr. Sylvanus A. Reed. The Curtiss D-12 was 56¾ inches (1.441 meters) long, 28¼ inches (0.718 meters) wide and 34¾ inches (0.882 meters) high. It weighed 678.25 pounds (307.65 kilograms).

The R-6 racer had a maximum speed of 240 miles per hour (386 kilometers per hour). The service ceiling was 22,000 feet (6,706 meters), and it had a maximum range of 281 miles (452 kilometers).

A.S. 68564 disintegrated in flight at the Pulitzer Trophy Race, 4 October 1924, killing its pilot, Captain Burt E. Skeel.

Curtiss R-6, serial number A.S. 68564, at Selfridge Field, 14 October 1922. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives)

¹ FAI Record File Number 15252

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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11 April 1918

Colonel William Mitchell with his observer/gunner and their SPAD S.XVI A.2, France, 1918. (U.S. Air Force)
Brigadier General Willam L. Mitchell, United States Army Air Service. (U.S. Air Force)
Brigadier General William Mitchell, Air Service, United States Army. (U.S. Air Force)

The 1st Aero Squadron, I Corps Observation Group, First United States Army, under the command of Colonel William Mitchell, Aviation Section, Signal Corps, United States Army, made its first combat patrol over the front lines from their airfield at Ourches, France. They were equipped with the two-place Société Pour L’Aviation et ses Dérivés SPAD S.XVI A.2. They patrolled the lines, scouted troop movements, and took photographs in support of the U.S. Army I Corps and French XXXVIII Corps. This was the first United States air unit in combat during World War I.

The SPAD S.XVI was intended as an improvement of the earlier SPAD S.XI A.2, which was a two-place development of the SPAD S.XIII C.1 fighter. The S.XVI is single-engine, two-place, two-bay biplane with fixed landing gear. It was crewed by a pilot and observer/gunner. The wings are swept aft approximately 4° and are staggered, moving the center of lift aft to compensate for the airplane’s longer fuselage. The lower wing’s chord is significantly narrower than the upper. Ailerons are on the upper wing only.

The S.XVI A.2 is 7.707 meters (25 feet, 3.425 inches) long with an upper wingspan of 11.220 meters (36 feet, 9.732 inches) and lower span of 10.900 meters (35 feet, 9.133 inches). Its height is 2.850 meters (9 feet, 4.211 inches) with the fuselage in a level attitude. The airplane has an empty weight of 906 kilograms (1,997 pounds) and gross weight of 1,140 kilograms (2,513 pounds).

Société Pour L’Aviation et ses Dérivés (SPAD) S.XVI A.2 at Air Service Production Center No. 2, Romorantin Aerodrome, France, 1918. (U.S. Air Force)
Société Pour L’Aviation et ses Dérivés (SPAD) S.XVI A.2 at Air Service Production Center No. 2, Romorantin Aerodrome, France, 1918. (U.S. Air Force)
Société Pour L’Aviation et ses Dérivés (SPAD) S.XVI A.2 at Air Service Production Center No. 2, Romorantin Aerodrome, France, 1918. (U.S. Air Force)

The SPAD XVI was powered by a right-hand tractor, water-cooled, normally-aspirated, 16.286 litre (993.834 cubic inches) La société industrielle Lorraine-Dietrich 8Be single overhead cam 90° V-8 direct-drive engine which produced 270 cheval-vapeur (270.09 horsepower) at 1,900 r.p.m. The engine weighed 260 kilograms (573 pounds).

Lorraine-Dietrich 8Be V-8 aircraft engine on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force)

The SPAD S.XVI was armed with one fixed forward firing, water-cooled, .303-caliber (7.7 mm) Vickers Mk.I machine gun and two air-cooled .303-caliber Lewis Mk.2 light machine guns on a flexible mount in the aft cockpit. Because of the cold temperatures at altitude, the Vickers’ water jacket was not filled, thereby saving considerable weight. The airplane could also carry small bombs attached to the lower wing.

Approximately 1,000 SPAD S.XVIs were built. Six were obtained by the United States. Mitchell’s personal SPAD S.XVI, serial number 9392, is on display at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum, Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, Chantilly, Virginia.

Colonel William Mitchell's 1st Observation Group SPAD XVI, serial number 9392, at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. (NASM)
Colonel William Mitchell’s SPAD S.XVI A.2 9392 at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. (NASM)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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