by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Reading A. Scott Berg’s excellent biography of Charles Lindbergh has helped reinforce the understanding of just how rapidly aviation advanced during the late 1920s, including after the “Flying Eagle” made his epoch-making trans-Atlantic solo flight in May 1927. Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the museum’s holdings emphasizes another major record of the period, the endurance record achieved by the United States Army’s Question Mark as if flew over greater Los Angeles for almost a week at the beginning of 1929.
The object is a press photo from International Newsreel of the tri-motor Atlantic-Fokker C-2A aircraft in the air above the Angel City, and which is date stamped 4 January, and it is probably safe to say that there were few events, save perhaps the sensational trial of Gordon Northcott of the horrific “Chicken Coop Murders,” that were as heavily covered by the regional press as this aviation milestone captivated residents of greater Los Angeles and well beyond.
Undertaken by the U.S. Army Air Corps, one of the several predecessors of the Air Force, the flight was described by an Air Force historian as having “played a crucial role in the beginning of air refuleing efforts and the development of the U.S. Army Air Corps.” The five-man crew included its leader Major Carl Spatz , Captain Ira Eaker (whose wife came up the plane’s moniker,) lieutenants Elwood Quesada and Harry Halverson, and Staff Sergeant Ray Hooe.
In addition, there were two refueling tankers with three-men crews as well as significant ground and logistical support. Midair refueling was still relatively new, with the first efforts going back to the early Twenties, with a gas can grabbed by a grappling hook from a float in a river and another involving a wing-walker carrying a can on his back climbing from one craft to another. In 1923, a gravity-flow hose was developed and employed, though one test involved a hose that got caught in the wings of one plane, which crashed with the pilot killed, and further work was halted.
Five years later, a Belgian experiment with air refueling, which lasted a record 60 hours, was followed by a German attempt, but the latter asked for American assistance to find a plane that crash-landed in Labrador in remote northeastern Canada. Eaker and Quesada were among the crew sent to find the German plane and the latter wondered about refueling, especially in difficult conditions like fog, while the former began advocating for a retooled refueling program.
This led to the formation of the Question Mark endurance flight, with Eaker’s wife credited for coming up with the name because, she said, no one really knew what the significance of the endeavor would be. In fact, Quesada later commented that
The Question Mark had no noble purpose. It wasn’t going to create an operational procedure that would plunge the Air Force into a great superior power that woud make it unnecessary to have an Army or a Navy. The purpose was to attract attention. I think it would be somewhat abusive not to recognize that.
Attracting attention was certainly not a challenge. Local papers ran features and showed photos and illustrations every day the plane was aloft and there was palpable pride manifested in the coverage. From the craft’s take-off from Metropolitan Airport, now Van Nuys Airport, at 7:30 a.m. on New Year’s Day, newspapers reported breathlessly on the flight, which included “laps” to San Diego and back, including a fly-over during the Rose Bowl football game, in which Stanford defeated Pittsburgh 7-6.
As noted by the Los Angeles Times of the 1st, “what the Army is trying to demonstrate . . . [is] an attempt to find out how long it is possible for an airplane to remain in continuous flight by means of taking on fuel and food in the air.” Beyond the Belgian fueling record, there were other marks to beat, including a 118-hour one by a French dirigible, formerly a German Zeppelin, that, in 1923, exploded and crashed.
The question of whether the plane could achieve its goals was expressed by a comment by an aviator that “my guess is that she could be up anywhere from twnety minutes to a month,” but the public’s interest was manifested by the crowds who showed up to see the craft take off. The National Aeronautical Association and the Federation Aeronautique International sent experts to monitor the flight.
It was also noted that four of the cew would alternate piloting in shifts while Sgt. Hooe was to be the monitor and mechanic, including, if needed, use of an 8-inch wide catwalk to access the side engines for repairs. For refueling, Eaker was to be at the helm with Halverson as his backup and Spatz was to be responsible for assuring contact of the 30-foot long, 2 1/2″ diameter hose to the Question Mark, while Quesada and Hooe were to work with the fueling components in the plane. The refueling involved the planes being just seventeen feet apart, while flying at 3,000 feet, and 75 gallons was to be transferred a minute.
The Los Angeles Express reported that there were about 2,000 people at the airport for takeoff and they “cheered themselves hoarse, after waiting for more than three hours in the cold morning breeze” and conditions were considered excellent when the craft took to the sky. The first rations of food were provided by the women of the First Christian Church of Van Nuys, as well as dinner cooked by staff at Rockwell Field in San Diego, from where all the planes were sent.
Notably, despite the plan to use the hose, the paper stated that “last-minute tests proved that the most economical and satisfying method of giving lubricating oil [gasoline and oil both] to the plane would be by dropping it in five-gallon cans from the refueling ship” with pair of refueling craft outfitted with 20 cans each.
Yet, there was direct transfer using the hose into the tanks and, at midnight as the 1st merged into the 2nd, and as the refueling effort was being made over San Diego, Spatz was burned in the face and Quesada was overcome with fumes when the hose was pulled away too quickly and while gasoline was still pouring out. Quesada came to within a few minutes, while Spatz was treated with zinc oxide to forestall scarring.
Another problem that arose on the 3rd was reported on in the Express, which stated, “forced from its regular course by bumpy air, poor visibility and fog, the Question Mark . . . started for Imperial valley shortly after 2 o’clock this afternoon.” Importantly, because the craft did not carry a radio for weight reasons and which communicated through hand signals between it and the other planes and with other signaling methods with those on the ground, the paper added that “the fog was the occasion forgrave alarm this morning when the ship disappeared and was not hard of for two hours.”
It was also reported that the battery on the plane was rapidly depleting “and fears were felt that the trouble had caused a landing.” The move inland from San Diego allowed the plane and the refueling craft to continue the flight and it was noted that “the mileage as the plane flies around the valley will not count in the total, but the hours in the air count,” the latter being essential in pursuit of the record. El Centro then became the official southern terminus in the lap from Metropolitan.
It was often stated that the Question Mark would remain in the air as long as the machine would hold out mechanically and the crew could keep up physically and mentally, with ten days or 240 hours being a purported goal but, on the 4th, the Express reported
Capt. Ira Eaker, chief pilot of The Question Mark, has collapsed and has been put to bed in the cabin of the plane . . . a gentlemen’s agreement was made before the flight that if any of the men got sick he would leap to the ground in a parachute rather than ruin the flight. Fear was expresed at Metropolitan airport that Captain Eaker will refuse to leap, preferring to attempt to cast off his illness.
By the 5th, however, the situation was said to have improved considerably and the Whittier News reported that “conditions aboard the Question Mark were so favorable today that the Army endurance plane once again resumed its original flying course” to San Diego, even though Major Spatz considered only flying in a route around Metropolitan to be credited with its records, because it had to land at the same field from which it took off.
Evidence of the good spirits and shape of the crew came from quotes from messages, with Spatz telling those on the ground, “please send up a wash-basin. We have all gone four days without washing. We are dirty but we like it.” Later, he joked that Quesada was spending most of his time answering fan mail, while he expresed gratitude for the refueling crew and others involved.
The Express found a way to publicize itself during the flight by having meals cooked by “Domestic Science expert” and the paper’s Home Economics department, Kate Brew Vaughn, and sent up to the crew. On the first day of the flight, the Times boasted that it was part of the world’s first delivery of a paper from plane-to-plane when it had copies of the morning paper sent by fast train to San Diego and then taken with a breakfast basket by a refueling plane to the Question Mark.
Advertising quickly got into the act, especially from companies who supplied food or parts for the historic flight. So, for example, Van de Kamp’s Bakers, a long-time regional landmark company, touted the fact that “when the choice of dessert for Maj. Spats and his four comrades was considered—a dessert that would prove the crowning touch to a perfect dinner—Kate Brew Vaughn selected a famous Van de Kamp two-layer Milk Chocolate Cake.”
The Joannes Corporation, the makers of Ben-Hur Coffee, similar crowed that Vaughn chose its “healthful” product “because it eliminates indigestible fats and tannic acid . . . and because it is soothing and beneficial to jaded nerves under prolonged tension.” It also purported to be “strengthening” to the drinker and “permits restful sleep,” all very important to the “five hardy air-men,” so consumers were encouraged to take advantage of a special introductory offer and get a can, regularly priced at $2.60, for just a buck.
On the 6th, the Times provided excerpts of the log of the airship for about 15 1/2 hours on the previous two days, with Halverson exclaiming, “gosh, what a marvelous dinner, and what a beautiful night,” while Quesada wrote, “feel wonderful. Wish that I could fly more, a lot of fun.” Eaker joked that “Hooe has rabbits [rabbit’s foot charms] hung all over her [the plane]—no, aviators are not superstitious,” but he complimented the sergeant for being “tireless,” while Quesada claimed that “strange as it may seem, the longer stay up the longer we want to. If everything keeps on I expect we’ll never want to come down.”
Despite these cheery assertions about how long the Question Mark could stay aloft, the end of the flight came suddenly and swiftly on the afternoon of the 7th. As the Hollywood Citizen put it,
The epoch-making flight of the Army endurance plane, Question Mark, ended today shortly before 2:10 p.m. when it was forced down by motor trouble.
The Question Mark had been in the air almost 152 hours when it finally was forced down. One motor was entirely gone and the ship was unable to kep altitude.
When Major Spatz found that the Question Mark could no longer be kept in the air he ordered the gasoline dumped and a landing attempted. The gas dropped into the air and the Question Mark started a long glide which brought it into Van Nuys Airport . . .
The Express, however, reported that there two of the three 200-horsepower engines were dead and that, though engine trouble was reported at 1:30, “the valiant crew, loath to come to earth” kept the craft airborne for almost another 45 minutes, for a total flight time of 150 hours, 41 minutes and, unofficially, well over 10,000 miles. Hooe made his second trip on the catwalks (the first was on the third day), but to little avail.
When the crew disembarked, “the fliers were partially deaf” and Spatz “stumbled as he walked toward a waiting automobile, and two men grabbed him and assisted him in,” while Quesada “was half hysterical, alternately laughing and crying.” Eaker told reporters that, when he brought the plane in for landing, “he thought the plane still was fifty feet in the air when it touched the ground.”
Clearly, there was mixture of major fatigue, serious disappointment, and no small amount of disorientation after so long a flight. After a short stay at the airport, the quintet were taken to the Ambassador Hotel for a well-deserved period of rest and relaxation. Still, Eaker wrote out a press message about the landing and claimed “we all feel splendid and could take off again if we had to.”
Among the accolades that poured in was a congratulatory message from Guy W. Vaughan of the Wright Brothers Aeronautical Corporation, manufacturers of the Question Mark, who wrote of “the fine spirit and courage in sticking to the hard grueling grind which has already marked this as truly the flight of all times.” A telegram from Anthony H.G. Fokker, designer of the craft, included the statement that “I am confident of your ability to keep the plane in the air many more hours, and the flight will be a revelation of the present progress in aviation.”
The five crew members were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross at a late January ceremony near Washington, D.C. (the refueling crew was not so recognized until two surviving members received their DFCs nearly a half-century later, in 1976) and endurance flights were held throughout the remainder of the year, with nine bettering the record established by the Question Mark, one of these lasting a remarkable 420 hours.
The renamed Spaatz and Eaker and Quesada became high-ranking generals in the United States Army Air Forces, as it was then known, during World War II, while Strickland, Hoyt, and Hopkins of the refueling crew were all brigadier generals in the Air Force. Halverson, who went as high as colonel, rose to be a commander of the Tenth Air Force and led important bombing missions during the war. It took some time, but aerial refueling became a crucial factor in long-range military flights with Spaatz, as Air Force chief of staff, playing a vital post-war role in this area.
This pioneering effort, taking place here in southern California, was a landmark project that, while not leading to direct strategic results for many years to come, was a great advance in early aviation and the Question Mark has a prominent place in regional and national aviation history.