J. A. Macready
on Night Flying
With regard to an article that J. A. Macready wrote on night flying, the Editor of the December 1926 issue of U. S. Air Services magazine pointed out: "This is the first article Lieutenant Macready has written for publication since he left the Air Service to take a general's pay in industry. He entered the electric refrigerator field last April and is now assistant chief engineer for Frigidaire Corporation."
(This labeled photo is extracted from page 15 of the December 1926 issue of U. S. Air Services magazine)
Making Commercial Night Flying Safe
Today the problem of bringing commercial night flying to a safe and practical basis is one of the most fascinating and important subjects engaging the attention of pilots and business men interested in development of aviation.
Commercial flights by day have been proven practical. Carriers of the Air Mail are daily demonstrating that it is possible to take up ships in almost any kind of weather and fly them on a fixed schedule by day to a given point. Maintenance of such service calls for well constructed, carefully inspected planes. The pilots, of course, must be the most skilful it is possible to obtain. The present degree of air mail service could be maintained under no other policy.
Many elements enter into the desirability of night commercial service by air. It would give the business man in the west a chance to get into New York early in the morning, do a day’s business and sleep in his own bed the next night. It would enable New York banks to send checks and securities to Chicago after banking hours and have them there before the Chicago banks open in the morning with annual savings to the banks of millions of dollars now lost in interest on funds in transit.
Without a doubt this is the most difficult problem in the whole realm of commercial flying. The night flyer will encounter bad weather, low fogs, rough going, forced landings, mountain chains and all the other difficulties that beset the one who flies by day, plus the terrific handicap of absolute pitch darkness.
Is this to be accomplished? Without a doubt, yes.
Twenty years ago, when the Wright brothers were tinkering with their first airplanes, and were being derided wherever their experiments were discussed, no one would have had the hardihood to have ventured an opinion that the airplane would carry passengers around the world within two decades, that the United States could ever be spanned in a single flight or that planes would ever attain a flight speed of 300 miles an hour.
The development of modern means of travel on land and water took thousands of years. Travel by air has reached its present stage within the space of one generation. How then can we consistently concede that Nature will forever hold commercial flying to sunlight hours? If we knew what was coming tomorrow, we would have it today.
It seems almost certain, however, that the attitude of business must be considerably changed before commercial aviation can be developed much further. Business men now will raise a million dollars or so to embark on some sort of aviation project, invest in a fleet of planes at $25,000 each and put them in the hands of pilots at $200 a month. Then if something goes wrong a heavy investment must be written off and progress is still further retarded.
The Air Mail has dealt with this problem properly in paying wages to pilots commensurate with the skill they must have and the risks they must run. Its wisdom is proven in the comparatively few accidents its flyers have had and the splendid service they have maintained under all kinds of conditions. No pilot prefers night flying and good business policy dictates that when it is undertaken adequate wages should be paid the men who will some day make it possible.
In certain airways we now have a fairly elaborate system of lights which enable the airman to hold his course. If he misses the light ahead he can retrace his steps to the one he just passed and set his course anew. Still better means of helping the night flyer on his way will naturally follow.
My experience with night flying was obtained when there was no mechanical provision for it. When the T-2 was flown across the continent without landing in part of two days and one night, there was absolutely nothing to guide the pilots after sundown except the lights of towns and villages. At times there was nothing but all enveloping blackness.
Darkness came when the plane was between Indianapolis and Dayton, and for thirteen and a half hours as the T-2 pounded its way westward into New Mexico, a distance of 1,300 miles, the ship was flown blindly through low clouds, dense fogs and perfect blackness, with few beacons to help set the course.
Lieut. Oakley G. Kelly, who piloted watch and watch with me on the flight, flew the ship from New York to Dayton, where at dusk I took the controls. After passing over Terre Haute we followed general compass directions with an occasional check from main highways which we could distinguish by the large number of automobile headlights on them, and planned to pick up St. Louis next.
We changed our plans, however, when the faint beam of a searchlight breaking through the mist in a ghostly manner from Scott Field at Belleville, Illinois, seventy miles away, glinted on our propeller and let us know that other airmen were here hoping for our success and trying to guide us. We were so lonesome we could not resist heading in that direction. Then St. Louis, and after that we plunged into a drizzle of rain over the Ozarks where lights were at first scattered, then isolated and finally not at all.
It was at this point that I was compelled to fly by instruments alone for several minutes at a time. The period was the most trying of all for me during the transcontinental flight. The drizzle was continuous and we were within 400 or 500 feet off the ground in darkness and mist.
Few people realize the difficulties of flying unless there is some exterior fixed object that the pilot may use to obtain a sense of balance or position. If there is no horizontal, no light nor any fixed object, a pilot can not tell the position that the plane is in except from the instruments in the cockpit. When the lights all disappeared there was nothing to do but watch and fly by the instruments alone. It did no good to look outside; there was nothing to see but opaque blackness.
With the meager instruments then in use a pilot could fly by the instruments for a certain length of time, probably fifteen minutes, but he would be very apt to become confused and lose his sense of balance entirely if there was no fixed point that he could see within twenty miles.
The pilot watches the air speed instrument, he watches his compass, he watches his bank and turn indicator, and he must be watching them all at the same time. When the air speed becomes very great, he knows that the nose of the plane must be pointed downward to cause acceleration, and when it becomes very slow he knows that it must be pointed upward and may stall. When he sees the compass begin to swing, he knows the plane is turning, but there is nothing fixed on the outside to tell how many turns he is making, whether he is making a quarter of a turn or whether he is making four or five turns.
There is no object to pass by a certain number of times or to indicate when or where to stop.
It takes considerable time for a swinging compass to become still and adjust itself. While the compass needle is swinging, the plane may be continually turning without the knowledge of the pilot.
Neither can the pilot tell except by his instruments, where one wing is pointed toward the earth and one toward the sky, or whether they are in a horizontal position; and these different positions and conditions must be coordinated and watched simultaneously.
On our nonstop transcontinental trip, the absence of an outside fixed point or lights would last for two or three minutes, and then another light would appear through the rain and blackness in the window of some isolated farm house in the foothills. Control of the lane was then not difficult.
A little after midnight we suddenly shot out from under the dark clouds into brilliant moonlight, and a welcome change it was. We could see the section lines on the ground and could judge our direction and drift from them. Kelly took the controls and carried us safely until dawn.
Had something happened during the night that would have forced us to land, the consequences might not have been agreeable, although on another flight I was forced to land the huge T-2 in total darkness in a snowstorm with 10,000 pounds of weight and fortune favored us in that no injury resulted. Another forced landing at night stands out in my recollection as perhaps my most thrilling experience as a pilot.
This was back in the days when first experimental night flights were being made between Dayton and Columbus, Ohio, a distance of eighty miles. There were signal lights at Dayton and Columbus and one midway between the two cities of London, Ohio. Each night a pilot would fly to Columbus, land, and then return to Dayton.
One very murky night about 10:30 I was 5,000 feet above Dayton, ready to land from the round trip when my engine went dead. I set the nose gliding to a landing, but soon saw that I would be forced down right in the heart of the city.
I turned the plane toward the outskirts of the city with the idea of landing in one of the parks. I reached a spot where all was black beneath me and released a flare. It failed to work. I dropped my second and last one and it lighted just before it struck the ground, too low to be of any assistance.
At this time I was 1,800 feet above the ground, according to my instruments and descending rapidly through the blackness. Knowing the impossibility of making a safe landing, I prepared to jump and trust to my parachute.
I raised up my seat and my parachute, upon which I was seated, caught in the seat. I let go my control stick to release it and while doing so the plane went into a nose dive while I was half in, half out of the cockpit. The whistling wires sang death as the plane swooped downward.
I reached back for the control stick, but the plane wouldn’t right itself. I jumped, counting “One—Two” to get myself clear of the ship and then pulled the parachute ring. The lights of the city swung aroud in sickening circles. Then came the tug as the parachute opened.
Just then, the light of the second flare appeared—the flare I had dropped a couple of minutes before. And just a few seconds later there was a flash of fire forty feet high and a loud explosion as the plane I had quit crashed a few hundred feet below.
Thinking I might be seriously hurt when I struck the ground, I tried to call attention to my plight before I hit by calling loudly for help. A voice form the ground answered: “Where are you?”
I replied: “Up here in a parachute.”
A few seconds later I landed unhurt on a country estate and some late-staying dinner guests attracted by my cries were on the scene soon after I reached the ground.
On May 2, 1923, Lieutenants J. A. Macready and Oakley G. Kelly flew out of Long Island, New York, and they landed at Rockwell Field, San Diego, California, on May 3, slightly more than 26 hours and 50 minutes later. They flew in a Fokker T-2 which is on display at the National Air and Space Museum. It was much larger than the airplane pictured above, which is a Vought that U. S. Air Services included in the article.
It is noteworthy to point out that most historical sources address James A. Macready as "John" A. Macready, but the labeled photograph and the article he wrote above with his name beneath the title indicates he went by the name of "James." After all, he wrote the piece so he should know his own name. Perhaps, one of his names was indeed "John" or perhaps this is just another repeated error by historians? This is why we included this article in our RARE HISTORY Website. If anybody can clarify this confusing issue, please contact LarryBrianRadka@hotmail.com, and I will add any enlightening information to this page.
An enlightening reply: "Ralph Cooper just sent me an e-mail about your inquiry on 'James' Macready. I am sure someone got it wrong," wrote Sally Macready Wallace today (12/15/06). "The famous aviator is my father, John A. Macready, and he's on the Internet as such. Some close friends called him Jack but his official name is John."
Indeed, the Editor of U. S. Air Services apparently "got it wrong," three times in his magazine. Finally, however, after eighty years, the error has been corrected. I occasionally make mistakes on these Web pages, but his blunder is one for the books. Nevertheless, what counts is that we get our history straight!
Thank you for the information Sally.
Note: On December 23, 2006, I received a copy of Sally Macready Wallace's book titled John Macready, Aviation Pioneer, which is quite interesting, well illustrated, and an essential read for anybody wanting to learn more about early aviation history. On the front page of this important work, she politely suggested that "if my dad wrote the article and signed it in long hand, very possibly the "John" could look like "James." However, that would not seem to explain fully why the editor would print three times the wrong name of a flyer like John Macready, who was world famous for the flying records he broke by 1926. However, he may have gotten a mental lock on the wrong name, and just could not get the right one to stick in his head. I experienced this recently with a young lady by the name of Charlene, whom I kept calling Marlene, so this might explain the editor's misnomer for John Macready, a great American high flyer.
This page was last modified on Tuesday, January 19, 2016