|THE WORLD WAR I YEARS, 1917
CHANUTE, SELFRIDGE, ELLINGTON, GERSTNER AND BROOKS FIELDS
Standing, left to right, Lees, Harvey, Torrey Webb, Robertson, Smythe, Snow, Al Johnson
Seated, left to right, Roger Jannus, Beatjer, Machel, Logan T. McMenemy
CHANUTE FIELD, RANTOUL, ILLINOIS
April 6, 1917: The World War I years were chaotic for the Lees family. Although Walter was a civilian instructor with the Army, they moved around as much as if he'd been in the service.
He checked in first at Chanute field, near Chicago, where the first official U.S. flight training field opened on July 4th. From there he was sent to Selfridge Field, Michigan.
Editor's Note: If you are interested in the story of Octave Chanute, I invite you to visit Steve Spicer's website, Octave Chanute Pages, "Focusing on Chanute's contribution to the invention of the airplane and his glider experiments in the Indiana Dunes in 1896."
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At Selfridge Field, Michigan, we started instructing when the field was only half completed. It was all grass, no runways, in fact all fields were grass with the exception of McCook which had a short runway about 1000 feet long and 100 feet wide of concrete.
Each morning, one of the instructors would take off and check flying conditions, especially if there was any wind. I took off one morning with a fairly brisk south wind. I found that at 1000 feet, the wind was blowing so hard that by throttling down the engine, I could stand still in the air. Soon, two other instructors took off, joined me, and we stood still in formation for about five minutes. We had to use full throttle and a steep glide to get down to the the ground and land.
Before starting flying each morning, all planes were lined up in a row, then the end man would take off first, then the next, etc., so as not to get bunched taking off. I was the end man, took off with the student in the back seat, got up to about 200 feet, when suddenly the student pushed the controls forward. I pulled up, he did it again. I looked around, his eyes were bulged out, and he was pointing out. I looked up and was a pair of wheels almost on our top wing, so we ducked down quick. I took the number of the plane and back on the ground, I hunted up the plane. I found a new student had been flying it. When asked why he flew so close to me, he said he never saw me at all.
At this time, we were only allowed to give a student ten hours of instructions. Then we had to turn him loose to solo, no matter if he was ready or not. We all protested, but were talked down. All of my students made their solo OK except one, Sullivan. He took off OK, but let the wind drift him toward the hangars. His wheel hit the top of a hangar, which confused him, he throttled, then pancaked down on the other side of the hangar. He was not hurt.
After my stay with Walter's parents in Mazomanie, We went to Mt. Clemmens, Michigan to Selfridge Field. I remember the terrible sulfur-tasting drinking water. Grandfather Kennan and Aunt Mary came to visit and Grandpa flew with Walter. I left Selfridge in November by train for Houston, Texas.
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In October 1917, I was sent to Ellington Field, Houston, Texas. One morning I got into the air after an unusually long run on the runway. The plane was very sluggish and would hardly fly. I circled once but decided to land. We found that on take off, the wheels had picked up mud, thrown it forward into the prop, and both blades were split from tip to hub.
It was at this field that some screwball with a sour sense of humor had written on a propeller, "Whoever flies this plane will be killed." After inspecting the plane and engine thoroughly, one of the instructors took it up and found everything was OK
We stayed in a hotel until Pops got a little house. Danny Lloyd made the trip from Michigan with us and stayed in Houston until Burt was several months old. Burt was the first Ellington Field baby to be born.
Paul Culver had joined the Army and was sent to Ellington too. Teed brought Jim to the hospital to see Burt and me. Later, she brought Jim to the house where Burt and Jim were in the same baby carriage. Aerial Burt Lees, Born December 23, 1917.
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It was decided to try some night flying. There were no runways and no runway lights, so a bunch of cars and trucks were lined up with head lights on and turned away from the plane. All instructors drew straws to see who would go up first. I drew the short straw. I got off the ground OK and flew around the field several times, everything OK. I glided into the field for landing and everything still seemed to be OK. When I estimated that I was about 25 feet from the ground, suddenly it was right there. By jerking the stick back quickly, I managed to land OK. Then I told Al Johnson, who was to go up next, what I had experienced. But even then, he did the same thing. There was a little pow wow and it was decided that the car lights were too far apart. So they were bunched closer, and the rest of the instructors did not have the trouble that Al and I had.
Pops was sent to Gerstner Field to teach instructors to teach pilots. We lived on post and Al Johnson and his wife Loraine lived next door. She was about 18 years old and afraid of staying alone. They were quarantined for Spinal Meningitis and Pops drove an army car about 18 miles to get milk for everyone. They all had to be vaccinated, but as I was a nursing mother, I didn't have to be. We had terrible windstorms here. I saw planes lifted up and rolled down the field, some coming very close to our quarters.
OFFICE OF THE CHIEF SIGNAL OFFICER
April 3, 1918
From: Chief Signal Officer of the Army.
To: Commander Officer, Gerstner Field, Lake Charles, La.
Subject: Travel Orders.
In accordance with authority contained in letter of the Secretary of War, dated April 7, 1917, the following Civilian Flying Instructors will proceed from Gerstner Field, Lake Charles, La., to Brooks Field, San Antonio, Texas, for permanent station in connection with the Aviation Service of the Army:
W. H. Bleakly
E. A. Johnson
W. E. Lees
B. M. Norton
W. E. Johnson
A. J. Croft
Harry M. Jones
A. L. Allen
C. M. Pond
E. J. Wessen,
Captain, Sig. R. C., A. S.
A TRUE COPY.
G. E. Scott
2nd Lieut., Signal R.C.A.S.
= Early Bird Member
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I was gliding in for a landing when I noticed another plane alongside of me and converging on me. I started to turn away from him when I saw another plane coming toward me from that side. I started to pull up but found a third plane just in back of me and gliding into me. I decided to crowd over into the plane on the left side and hope that he would see me and turn. He did and I did. I found out later that all three planes had solo students in them and didn't see me.
At Brooks Field, we had our colored maid Cora, a jewel. Al and Loraine Johnson lived with us here. It was so hot, I remember my shoes sinking into the pavement when I got out of the car. I bought my first sandals there.
From here, Pops was sent to McCook Field in Dayton, Ohio to test planes. We stayed with Jimmie Johnson, his sister Helena and Mother. We found a gorgeous house for the summer months and Cora came too. We moved into a duplex on Broadway and I remember we all had the flu when the Armistice was signed.
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Editor's Note: Due to what must be briefly described as monetary differences, Tony and Roger Jannus left the Benoist Company and formed their own. In demonstrating a Curtiss plane to Russia in 1916, Tony was lost in a flight over the Black Sea. Details of his death still remain a mystery. Roger Jannus joined the aviation section of the Army Signal Corps, as it was then known, and became an instructor in aerial combat tactics. He and a student died in a crash of a training plane in Sept. 1918.
To quote from Reuben Fleet's 1966 speech before the Air Mail Pioneers: "I left Lieutenant Webb in charge at Belmont Park and the Curtiss plant, with Lieutenant Miller and Bonsal helping, and in reserve, and instructed Webb to get the other four aerial mail airplanes ready, and fly one from Belmont Park with the aerial mail at eleven the next morning to Bustleton Field, which the Philadelphia Postmaster had selected for Philadelphia. Edgerton at Bustleton Field would relieve Lieutenant Webb there and fly on to Washington, while Lieutenant Culver would relay the aerial mail at Busttleton Park in New York."