25 May 1927: At Wright Field, now Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio, First Lieutenant James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle, United States Army Air Corps, was the first pilot to successfully perform an outside loop.
Flying a Curtiss P-1B Hawk pursuit, he began the maneuver in level flight at 10,000 feet (3,048 meters), then pushed the nose down into a dive. When he reached 280 miles per hour (450 kilometers per hour), Doolittle continued to pitch the nose “down” and the airplane flew through a complete vertical circle, with the pilot’s head to the outside of the loop.
Jimmy Doolittle attempted to repeat the outside loop at the 1929 Cleveland National Air Races, with a Curtiss P-1C Hawk, serial number 29-227. The airplane’s wings came off but Doolittle parachuted to safety. (The Curtiss P-1C used wing radiators instead of the large radiator under the nose of the P-1B. This substantially reduced the aerodynamic drag which allowed the airplane to accelerate to too high an airspeed during Doolittle’s maneuver.)
Jimmy Doolittle was one of America’s foremost pioneering aviators. He set many records, won air races, tested and developed new flying equipment and techniques. He was a highly-educated military officer, having earned his Bachelor of Arts from the University of California Berkeley School of Mines, and M.S and D.Sc. degrees in Aeronautical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As a pioneer aviator, he won every international air race, and had been awarded every international aviation trophy. He was also the first pilot to fly completely by reference to instruments.
During the early days of America’s involvement in World War II, Lieutenant Colonel Doolittle planned and led the Halsey-Doolittle B-25 raid on Japan. He was awarded the Medal of Honor and promoted to brigadier general, and then placed in command of the Twelfth Air Force in North Africa. As a major general, he commanded the Fifteenth Air Force in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations. Lieutenant General Doolittle commanded the Eighth Air Force in England from January 1944 to September 1945. He supervised the transition of the 8th to the Boeing B-29 Superfortress and its eventual transfer to bases on Okinawa to continue the war against Japan. World War II came to an end before any of the 8th’s B-29s actually moved west.
After the war, Lieutenant General Doolittle was placed on the inactive list. On 4 April 1985, by Act of Congress, James H. Doolittle was promoted to General, United States Air Force, Retired.
General James Harold Doolittle is the only person to be awarded both the Medal of Honor and the Medal of Freedom. He died 27 September 1993 at the age of 96 years. He was buried at the Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia.
The Curtiss P-1B Hawk was a single-engine, single-seat, single-bay biplane pursuit, an aircraft type now known as a fighter. The airplane and its D-12 Conqueror engine were both built by the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Co., Garden City, New York.
The P-1B was 22 feet, 10 inches (6.960 meters) long with an upper wingspan of 31 feet, 6 inches (9.601 meters). The lower wing had a span of 26 feet, 0 inches (7.925 meters), a narrower chord, and was staggered 3 feet, 2½ inches (0.978 meters) behind the upper. Both wings had significant taper with rounded tips. Their angle of incidence was 0°. The upper wing had no dihedral, while the inboard lower wing had 1°, and the outer, 5°. The total wing area was 252 square feet (23.4 square meters). The horizontal stabilizer span was 10 feet, 6.0 inches (3.200 meters) and its incidence could be adjusted from +3° to -1.5°. The vertical fin was offset 2° left of the airplane’s centerline. The overall height of the airplane was 8 feet, 10 inches (2.712 meters).
The P-1B had an empty weight of 2,105 pounds (955 kilograms), gross weight of 2,932 pounds (1,330 kilograms), and maximum weight of 3,562 pounds ( kilograms).
The P-1B was powered by a liquid-cooled, normally-aspirated, 1,145.1-cubic-inch-displacement (18.8 liter) Curtiss D-12D (V-1150-3) dual overhead cam (DOHC) 4-valve 60° V-12 engine with a compression ratio of 5.7:1. It was a direct-drive engine, rated at 415 horsepower at 2,000 r.p.m. at Sea Level, and 460 horsepower at 2,300 r.p.m. The D-12 was 58¾ inches (1.492 meters) long, 34¾ inches (0.883 meters) high and 28¼ inches (0.718 meters) wide. It weighed 680 pounds (308 kilograms). The P-1B was equipped with an aluminum Curtiss-Reed propeller with a diameter of 8 feet, 9 inches (2.667 meters).
The pursuit had a cruise speed of 127 miles per hour (204 kilometers per hour). Its maximum speed was 159.6 miles per hour (256.9 kilometers per hour) at Sea Level, and 157 miles per hour (253 kilometers per hour) at 5,000 feet (1,524 meters). It had a service ceiling of 21,400 feet (6,523 meters) and absolute ceiling of 22,900 feet (6,980 meters). Its range was 342 miles (550 kilometers).
The P-1B was armed with two fixed air-cooled Browning machine guns, one .50-caliber and one .30-caliber.
The Air Corps ordered 93 Curtiss P-1 Hawks between 1925 and 1929.
19 May 1946: 1st Lieutenant John J. Hancock, 1st Fighter Group, U.S. Air Force, set a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for Speed Over a Closed Circuit of 2,000 Kilometers (1,242.742 miles), flying a Lockheed P-80A Shooting Star. The average speed was 708.592 kilometers per hour (440.299 miles per hour).¹
The speed record was announced by General Carl A. Spaatz on 4 June 1948:
. . . Among the 20-odd new world records announced today by General Spaatz were two new marks for the 1,000 and 2,000 kilometers set by Lt. J.J. Hancock, who flew a P-80 at an average speed of 440 miles per hour on May 19. (Two thousand kilometers are approximately 1,242 miles.) The established route for 1,000 kilometers is from Wright Field to St. Louis and return. In breaking the record for 2,000 kilometers, Hancock traveled the course twice and also bettered the record for 1,000 kilometers. As noted in a forgoing paragraph the 1,000 kilometer record for this aircraft was broken only a few hours after General Spaatz’s announcement. [See TDiA, 4 June 1946]
One of the outstanding features of Hancock’s record was that the flight was made at 35,000 feet [10,668 meters] in inclement weather. He would not have been able to make the flight if radar had not been used. Flying on instruments, he was “talked around” the course by the Radar Group, who could follow him on their screen.
—The Cincinnati Enquirer, Volume 106, No. 55, Tuesday, 4 June 1946, Page 9 at Column 2
The individual aircraft flown by Lieutenant Hancock while setting this record is not known.
The Lockheed P-80-1-LO was the United States’ first operational jet fighter. It was a single-seat, single engine airplane, designed by a team of engineers led by Clarence L. (“Kelly”) Johnson. The prototype XP-80A, 44-83020, nicknamed Lulu-Belle, was first flown by test pilot Tony LeVier at Muroc Army Air Field (now known as Edwards Air Force Base) 8 January 1944.
The P-80A was 34 feet, 6 inches (10.516 meters) long with a wingspan of 38 feet, 10.5 inches (11.849 meters) and an overall height of 11 feet, 4 inches (3.454 meters). It weighed 7,920 pounds empty (3,592.5 kilograms) and had a maximum takeoff weight of 14,000 pounds (6,350.3 kilograms).
Early production P-80As were powered by either an Allison J33-A-9 or a General Electric J33-GE-11 turbojet engine. The J33 was a licensed version of the Rolls-Royce Derwent. It was a single-shaft turbojet with a 1-stage centrifugal compressor section and a 1-stage axial-flow turbine. The -9 and -11 engines were rated at 3,825 pounds of thrust (17.014 kilonewtons). The were 8 feet, 6.9 inches (2.614 meters) long, 4 feet, 2.5 inches (1.283 meters) in diameter and weighed 1,775 pounds (805 kilograms).
The P-80A had a maximum speed of 558 miles per hour (898 kilometers per hour) at Sea Level and 492 miles per hour (801 kilometers per hour) at 40,000 feet (12,192 meters). The service ceiling was 45,000 feet (13,716 meters).
Several hundred of the early production P-80 Shooting stars had all of their surface seams filled, and the airplanes were primed and painted. Although this process added 60 pounds (27.2 kilograms) to the empty weight, the decrease in drag allowed a 10 mile per hour (16 kilometers per hour) increase in top speed. The painted surface was difficult to maintain in the field and the process was discontinued.
The P-80A Shooting Star was armed with six Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber (12.7×99 NATO) machine guns mounted in the nose.
John J. Hancock, 27th Fighter Squadron, 1st Fighter Group, made a belly landing in a P-80A, 44-85325, 3 miles north east of March Field, CA, 16 February 1947.
Two years later, 22 May 1948, Jackie Cochran broke Lieutenant Hancock’s record when she flew her green piston-engine North American Aviation P-51B Mustang, NX28388, to an average speed of 720.134 kilometers per hour (447.470 miles per hour) over a 2,000 kilometer course.²
17 May 1942: After a 761 mile (1,224.7 kilometer) flight over five days, test pilot Charles Lester (“Les”) Morris and Igor Sikorsky arrived at Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio, to deliver the U.S. Army’s first helicopter, the Vought-Sikorsky XR-4. Morris hovered directly up to the base administration building and landed there. He and Sikorsky were greeted by a large group of people which included Lieutenant Colonel Hollingsworth Franklin (“Frank”) Gregory, the Army’s designated rotorcraft expert, and pioneer aviator Orville Wright.
From the Sikorsky factory at Stratford, Connecticut, to Wright Field, Ohio, was 761 miles (1,224.7 kilometers), direct. Because of the XR-4’s low speed and short range (weight limitations restricted the quantity of gasoline it could carry) the distance was covered in sixteen separate flights with a total flight time of 16 hours, 10 minutes. The longest single flight lasted 1 hour, 50 minutes, a new world’s record for helicopter flight endurance. Igor Sikorsky joined Les Morris for the final leg of the flight.
The Vought-Sikorsky VS-316A (which was designated XR-4 by the U.S. Army Air Corps and assigned serial number 41-18874), established the single main rotor/anti-torque tail rotor configuration. It was a two-place helicopter with side-by-side seating and dual flight controls. The fabric-covered three-blade main rotor was 38 feet (11.582 meters) in diameter and turned counter-clockwise as seen from above. (The advancing blade is on the helicopter’s right). The three-blade tail rotor was mounted to the right of the tail boom in a tractor configuration, and rotated clockwise when seen from the helicopter’s left side. (The advancing blade was below the axis of rotation.)
The XR-4 was 33 feet, 11.5 inches (10.351 meters) long and 12 feet, 5 inches (3.785 meters) high. It weighed 2,010 pounds (911.7 kilograms) empty and the maximum gross weight was 2,540 pounds (1,152.1 kilograms).
The VS-316A had originally been powered by a 499.8-cubic-inch-displacement (8.19 liter) air-cooled Warner Aircraft Corporation Scarab SS-50 (R-500-1) seven-cylinder radial engine, rated at 145 horsepower at 2,050 r.p.m. In the XR-4 configuration, the engine was upgraded to an air-cooled, direct-drive 555.298-cubic-inch-displacement (9.100 liter) Warner Super Scarab SS185 (R-550-3) seven-cylinder radial engine with a compression ration of 6.20:1. The R-550-3 was rated at 185 horsepower at 2,175 r.p.m. at Sea Level, and 200 horsepower at 2,475 r.p.m (five minute limit) for takeoff. The engine was placed backwards in the aircraft with the propeller shaft driving a short driveshaft through a clutch to a 90° gear box and the transmission. The R-550-3 weighed 344 pounds (156 kilograms).
The XR-4 was redesignated XR-4C. This would be the world’s first production helicopter. It is at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
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 February 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. Kesley 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. Funded 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.
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.
11 February 1939: Barely two weeks after its first flight, First Lieutenant Benjamin Scovill (“Ben”) Kelsey, U.S. Army Air Corps, took the prototype Lockheed XP-38, 37-457, on a record-breaking transcontinental flight from March Field, Riverside, California, to Mitchel Field, Long Island, New York.
Lieutenant Kelsey departed March Field at 6:32 a.m., Pacific Standard Time, (9:32 a.m., Eastern) and flew to Amarillo, Texas for the first of two refueling stops. He arrived there at 12:22 p.m., EST, and remained on the ground for 22 minutes. The XP-38 took off at 12:44 p.m., EST, and Kelsey flew on to Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio. He landed there at 3:10 p.m. EST.
Kelsey was met by Major General H.H. Arnold, and it was decided to continue to New York. The XP-38 was airborne again at 3:28 p.m., EST, on the final leg of his transcontinental flight.
Kelsey was overhead Mitchel Field, New York at 4:55 p.m., Eastern Standard Time, but his landing was delayed by other airplanes in the traffic pattern.
On approach, 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. The airplane crashed on a golf course short of the airport.
The total elapsed time was 7 hours, 45 minutes, 36 seconds but Kelsey’s actual flight time was 7 hours, 36 seconds. The prototype had averaged 340 miles per hour (547 kilometers per hour) and had reached 420 miles per hour (676 kilometers per hour) during the Wright Field-to-Mitchel Field segment.
Kelsey’s transcontinental flight failed to break the transcontinental speed record set two years earlier by Howard R. Hughes by 17 minutes, 11 seconds. It should be noted, however, that Hughes H-1 Racer flew non-stop from coast to coast, while the XP-38 required two time-consuming fuel stops.
The XP-38 was damaged beyond repair, but its performance on the transcontinental flight was so impressive that 13 YP-38s were ordered from Lockheed by the Air Corps.
Designed by an engineering team led by Hall L. Hibbard, which included the legendary Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson, the XP-38 was a single-place, twin-engine fighter designed for very high speed and long range. It was an unusual configuration with the cockpit and armament in a center nacelle, with two longitudinal booms containing the engines and propellers, turbochargers, radiators and coolers. The Lightning was equipped with tricycle landing gear. The nose strut retracted into the center nacelle and the two main gear struts retracted into bays in the booms. To reduce drag, the sheet metal used butt joints with flush rivets.
The XP-38 was 37 feet, 10 inches (11.532 meters) long with a wingspan of 52 feet (15.850 meters) and overall height of 12 feet, 10 inches (3.952 meters). Its empty weight was 11,507 pounds (5,219.5 kilograms). The gross weight was 13,904 pounds (6,306.75 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight was 15,416 pounds (6,992.6 kilograms).
The Lightning was the first production airplane to use the Harold Caminez-designed, liquid-cooled, supercharged, 1,710.60-cubic-inch-displacement (28.032 liter) Allison Engineering Company V-1710 single overhead cam 60° V-12 engines. When installed on the P-38, these engines rotated in opposite directions. The XP-38 used a pair of experimental C-series Allisons, with the port V-1710-C8 (V-1710-11) engine being a normal right-hand tractor configuration, while the starboard engine, the V-1710-C9 (V-1710-15), was a left-hand tractor. Through a 2:1 gear reduction, these engines drove the two 11-foot (3.353 meters) diameter, three-bladed Curtiss Electric variable-pitch propellers inward to counteract the torque effect of the engines and propellers. (Viewed from the front of the airplane, the XP-38’s starboard propeller turned clockwise, the port propeller turned counter-clockwise. The direction of rotation was reversed in the YP-38 service test prototypes and production P-38 models.) The engines have long propeller gear drive sections to aid in streamlining aircraft, and are sometimes referred to as “long-nose Allisons.”
The V-1710-11 and -15 had a compression ratio of 6.65:1. They had a continuous power rating of 1,000 horsepower at 2,600 r.p.m. at Sea Level, and 1,150 horsepower at 2,950 r.p.m. for takeoff. The combination of a gear-driven supercharger and an exhaust-driven General Electric B-1 turbosupercharger allowed these engines to maintain their rated power levels to an altitude of 25,000 feet (7,620 meters).
The -11 and -15 were 7 feet, 10.46 inches (2.399 meters) long. The -11 was 3 feet, 6.59 inches (1.082 meters) high and 2 feet, 4.93 inches (0.7348 meters) wide. It weighed 1,300 pounds (589.7 kilograms). The -15 was 3 feet, 4.71 inches (1.034 meters) high, 2 feet, 4.94 inches (0.7351 meters) wide, and weighed 1,305 pounds (591.9 kilograms).
The XP-38 had a maximum speed of 413 miles per hour (664.66 kilometers per hour) at 20,000 feet (6,096 meters) and a service ceiling of 38,000 feet (11,582.4 meters).
The XP-38 was unarmed, but almost all production Lightnings carried a 20 mm auto cannon and four Browning .50-caliber machine guns grouped together in the nose. They could also carry bombs or rockets and jettisonable external fuel tanks.
Testing continued with thirteen YP-38A pre-production aircraft and 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.