THE HISTORY OF THE AVIATION FIELD AT COLLEGE PARK
RALPH C.VAN ALLEN
HONORARY ENGINEERING FRATERNITY
UNIVERSITY of MARYLAND
The desire of mankind to master the air can he
traced from as early as the myths of Daedalus and Icarus,
T/hich shows that his attempts to soar above the earth
commenced in prehistoric times,
Suetonius states that Simon Magus was killed in
Rome during the reign of Nero by attempting to fly from one
house to another.ETom that time on experimenters offered
many ingenious, but for the most part impracticable flying
machines* The first successful experiments in the navigation
of the air took the form of hot air and hydrogen balloons,
which were followed by the dirigible, a combination of a
balloon with a motor and propeller.
Along with these experiments were those related
to the airplane. Among the attempts to solve the problem of
flight with heavier than air machines were those of Hiram S«
Maxim, Otto Lilien thai, and Professor S*Langley,of the
Smithsonian Institution. The most successful of these early
experiments took the form of air gliders.
During the fall of 1903, the Wright brothers, Orv 11 J e
and Wilbur, constructed a most primitive machine in which they
installed a twelve horse-power, two hundred pound gas engine.
The construction required the operator to lie prone and
control the front horizontal rudder with his hands and the
vertical tail by a cradle in which his hips rested.
On December 17, 1903, Wilbur Wright rose into the
air with this machine .This was the first time that man
had ever flown In a mechanically driven heavier than air
machine.Four short flights were made j the first three were
barely skips above the ground, but the last covered eight
hundred feet in a time of fifty-nine seconds.
In 1907, the Wright brothers offered to sell all
their rights and interests to the United States Government,
but the Board of Ordanance and Fortification replied that it
had no money available for this purpose*
The War Department awakened to the possible
military value of aircraft and on December 23,1907 issued
the first airplane specifications ever drawn up by any
These specifications were largely drawn by
Major George O.Squier.They required a speed of forty miles
per hour, a flight of one hour vrith two persons of a total
weight of three hundred and fifty pounds, fuel -carrying
capacity sufficient for a flight of one hundred and twenty-
five miles, and the ability to steer in all directions
On September 9,1908 the first tests were held
under these specifications, They were held on the parade
ground at Fort Meyer.At 7; 50 A.M,,CrvilIe Wright took off
and circled the grounds fifty seven times at a height of
about one hundred feet, His time was just short of an hour.
That afternoon the first flight was made of
over an hour,
A short time later while making a test flight
with a passenger the plane crashed, killing the passenger
and injuring Wright, This stopped further tests until the
July 1909 Wright returned to Fort Meyer with a
new plane which was not only accepted "by the government
under the original agreement f "but earned an additional bonus
for the Wright brothers by a successful ten mile cross
The United States was now one of the first
countries to own an airplane , but as yet it was of no
value as they had no pilots*
THE FIRST ARMY AVIATION FIELD
With the purchase of the Wright brothers 1 airplane
by the United States Government, came the necessity of
training pilots, The contract between the Wright brothers
and the Government called for the instruction of tiro Army
officers as pilot s«For obvious reasons the drill field at
Fort Meyer could not be used for training purposes, so it
was necessary for the Government to acquire the use of
The Wright plane was assigned to the Signal Corps
for the airplane's only use seemed to be for observation*
The Signal Corps set out at once to select the
site for the first training field* October 1909 a site at
College Park, Maryland was selected* This field is located
just east of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad tracks and
may be seen from passing trains*
The reasons for the selection of this field by
the Signal Dorps were because of a large, fairly level
piece of ground that needed very little improvements to
be turned into a landing fie Id* The soil was a grade of
gravel that dried very quickly and made possible landings
even in wet weather* The proximity of this field to
Washington also added to its choice*
The first pilot trained at this newly established
field was Lieutenant Lahm y a Lieutenant in the Cavalry
assigned to the Signal Corps for training* He is now a
The second pilot trained by Wright was Lieutenant
Humphreys who resigned at the completion of his training.
Although their part of the contract had been
fulf illed, Orville Wright consented to train another officer
in place of Lieutenant Humphreys .This officer was Lieutenant
Foulois now a Brigadier General .Before Foul ©is* training was
completed, Orville Wright had to sail for Europe, so Lieutenant
Lahm completed the training of Lieutenant Foulois.
The training of the two officers was completed
by the latter part of November 1909 .The training of the two
men having taken just about one month.
The Signal Corps had only the one plane that had
been purchased from the Wright brothers .A short time after
his training had been completed Lieutenant Foulois took this
plane from College Park to San Antonio, Texas, so the College
Park field was not used again by the Army for several years.
In the spring of 1911, the first appropriation
ever allotted to aviation was made by Congress. On March 3,
1911 Congress appropriated one hundred and twenty-five
thousand dollars for aviation.
The Quartermaster Corps built temporary hangers,
and In June 1911 the first real flying school was established
at College Park, with Captain Charles De Forest Chandler
in c ommand.
Three planes were bought and sent to College
Park as training planes. They consisted of one Wright, one
Curtiss and one Burgess biplane.
The actual flying started at the field July 1,
The training consisted, of those officers who
already knew how to fly, teaching other officers who in
turn acted as instructors*
On July 7,1911 Lieutenant Arnold reached an
altitude of three thousand two hundred feet*
August 21,1911 is a day to be remembered in Army
aviation history, as on that day the first flight of over an
hour was made by an Army aviator* The flight was made by
Lieutenant Arnold and lasted one hour and two minutes,
covering a distance of forty- two miles*
By September 1911 the Signal Corps planes and
their pilots stationed at College Park were as follows,
Lieutenant T.De.W .Milling, piloting a nurgess-Wright plane,
Lieutenant Harry N.Arnold, piloting a Wright plane .These men
having been trained at the Wright factory and they in turn
had trained captain Charles De F*Chandler and Lieutenant
R.C • Kir tl and .Cap tain Paul W*Beck was flying an eight
cylinder Curtis s.
Lieutenant Frank II. Kennedy of the College Park
Field was to be sent as the first Curtiss pupil. A great
deal of rivalry then existed at the field between the Wright
and Curtiss men*
The longest cross country flight that had been
made up to that time was made by Captain Chandler and
Lieutenant Arnold from College Park to Frederick, Maryland
a distance of forty-one miles, air line. Re turning that night
they broke up the machine landing at Gaithersburg*
The first experiment In the use of an Instrument
of war with an airplane was conducted at College Park,
October 10,1911 when a bomb sight developed by Lieutenant
R.E.Scott was tested on a Signal Corps plane*To operate this
sight the bomber had to lie down between the aviator and the
engine in order to look thru the telescope of the sight*
In the test two bombs were dropped within six feet of a
cloth target and six inches apart from an elevation of
one thousand feet*
Because of the open type of planes then In use
the Signal Corps flying school was transferred from College
Park to Augusta, Georgia for the winter flying and flying
was not resumed at College Park by the Signal Corps until
The first real accident at College Park was June
11, 1912, when Lieutenant Hazelhurst,who had been detailed
from the Infantry for instruction! and Welsh, a commercial
pilot were killed while testing a Type C Wright plane*
Besides the men additional weights were carried ,an anvil
being one. The strain resulted in the wings snapping.
The second accident resulted In the death of
Lieutenant Rockwell and Corporal Scott.
Flying fields were named in honor of these
pioneers in Army flying.
The greatest single forward step of the airplane
as ah Instrument of war took place during the same month
at College Park* This was the first machine gun being fired
from an airplane .The gun used was a Lewis gun, one of the
f irst few of that type of gun manufactured. The gun was
"brought to the College Park field by Colonel Lewis the
inventor and instruction in its operation given Captain
Chandler on the ground* The gun was then held on the plane
by Captain Chandler so that the barrell rested between his
knees and the muzzle rested against the foot rest. The plane
was piloted by Lieutenant Milling* A cloth target sixty feet
long by five feet wide was placed on the ground* Ihe plane
was traveling at a speed of forty five miles per hour and
fourteen hits were recorded out of fifty shots .The gun
could not be fired for any length of time because of the
manner in which it was mounted*
Colonel Lewis never accepted royalties for his
gun from the United States Government.
isy November 1,1912 the personal and equipment
at College Park had grown to consist of twelve officers,
thirty-nine enlisted men, twelve planes, and eight hangars
in comparison with two officers, six enlisted men and one
plane in 1909 and 1910.
Still further developments were made with the
airplane as an instrument of warfare, when the airplane
was used for the first time in the United States in
connection with control of artillery fire. Tests were
carried on at College Park from November 5,1912 to November
13, 1912. Three methods were used, radio, dropping cards and
During the latter part of 1912 the first so
called "Military Planes" were received at College Park.
They were speeds-scout single-seater type having a cruising
radius of one hundred miles at a speed of sixty-five miles
per hour » and two-seater scout type with forty-five miles
per hour speed, three hours flight endurance and a weight
carrying capacity of four hundred and fifty pounds. The
machines previously used had he en the ordinary commercial
planes, lacking power, speed and carrying capacity necessary
for military use*
The flying school was ordered south for the winter
of 1912, hut did not return to College Park in the summer of
1913, as the Air Service branch of the Signal Corps was sent
to Texas for duty on the border*
Why the Signal Corps did not return to College
Park after the trouble on the border had quieted down
I could not ascertain, but no record can be found of the
College Park field being again used by the government
until X918 # when the government again took over the field
and established the first air mail station running mail
from New York to Washington.
EARLY AVIATION COMPANIES AT COLLEGE PARK
Many early experimenters and aeroplane companies
made use of the college Park field at the same time the
Signal Corps was using it.
About the first of these companies was the one
formed by Dr. Christmas, which used the hangers left by Wright.
Very little is known about this company except that it was
one of the pioneer aviation companies*
The best known companies that operated at College
Park were the Rex Smith Aviation Company and the Washington
Aeroplane Company. Possibly the best known of the two was the
Washington Aeroplane Company.Mr J.Lee Simmons was the
president of this company and the builder of the Simmons
Propeller, Mr Berliner, who is well known in Washington at
the present time in connection with Hoover Field was also
interested in this company.
The engines used in the planes built by the
Washington Aeroplane Company were built by the Gyro Motor
Company of Washington.
Possibly the best known plane built by this
company was the Columbia Monoplane, the first monoplane
built in America.lt had a spread of twenty nine feet,
weighed five hundred and thirty pounds, had a twenty horse-
power engine and developed a speed of seventy miles per
On May 24,1912 a new duration record was set by
Paul Peck of four hours, twenty- three minutes and fifteen
secondsolt was made In the Miss Columbia a Washington
Aeroplane Company biplane with a seven cylinder, fifty
horse-power Gyro engine .This plane was given its initial
tests at College Park.
Among the first of the enclosed cockpit or
Nacelle type of planes built in America were those built
by the Washington Aeroplane Company and tested at College
A record was made In aeroplane building by
Mr J.Lee Simmons of this company when he built a ^special
biplane, similar to the Curtiss June Bug in twenty one days
including the day of signing the contract and of shipping
the plane. The plane was sent to the Crystal Palace
On June 22,1912 there were four planes in the
air at one time over the field, the planes being a Wright,
a Burgess, a Curtiss and a Columbia monoplane .How unusual
this was at this time is shown by a quotation from the
Washington Star as follows, "unusual sight for the aviation
field 11 .
Among the well known fliers of that day who flew
at College Park were in addition to Paul Peck, Lincoln
Beachey who flew a Wright Gyro, Oscar Brindley»one of the
first licensed Wright fliers who flew a Columbia machine,
Harry A Orme who flew a Wright plane with a four cylinder
motor cycle engine and Cecil Peoli,the first man to fly
across the Andes in SouthAmerica.Peoll was killed while
testing a machine of his own design assembled for him by
the Washington Aeroplane Company, The reason for his crash
is laid to the fact that a different engine was installed
from the one that the plane was designed for causing the
plane to he out of "balance.
Another man who did a great deal of work a College
Park is Rex Smith. Before entering the aviation field he was
an amateur trick bicycle rider and was the first man to ride
a bicycle down the Capitol steps.
He started building his first plane about April
1910 and completed it about November the same year. It was
a single surfaced headless biplane of the uurtiss type and
used an Emerson one hundred and fifty horse-power engine.
It was flown by Antony jannus,who also flew for the
Washington Aeroplane Company.
Rex Smith finished his second plane in the spring
of 1911#Soon after its completion it was taken on an
exhibition trip by Paul Peck • This machine had a total weight
with gas, oil and operator ready for flight of one thousand
pounds. It left the ground at a speed of thirty-five miles
per hour and had a speed In flight of fifty-five miles per
hour. It was capable of carrying three hundred pounds of
passengers or freight.
The third machine built by Smith was finished
about October 1911 and was practically a duplicate of the
Paul Peck was one of the most important test pilots
that flew at college Park. He taught himself to fly in less
than ten days. He started to learn July 20,1911 and nine days
later was a bona fide pilot.
On August 0,1911 he flew from College Park to
Washington circled the dome of the Capitol, flew down
Pennsylvania Avenue, around the Washington Monument and over
into Virginia and then hack to the speedway where he landed
completeing the flight in half an hour* The next morning he
flew back to College Park,
He flew only about two years, being killed September
11,1913 while flying a Columbia plane •This was a long life
for a test pilot at that time.
In addition to these successful companies many
small companies were formed at College Park from time to
time but none of them were very successful.
Flying progressed smoothly at College Park until
the entrance of the United States Into the World War when
all commercial flying had to be abolished and all civilian
fliers were called to the colors.
College Park was not used again for flying until
taken over by the government for an air mail station.
The World War brought the early history of the
College Park Aviation field to a close.
I hare endevored to give in this thesis a "brief
history of the aviation field at College Park from its
establishment to the World War, bringing out the most
important events that occured at the field, or any incidents
of interest that happened to men or planes connected with
the field In any capacity*
There are periods of time which may appear not
to have been covered, but it is either that nothing can
be found covering this time or the events that took place
were not of sufficient Importance to be given a place in
From the World War to the present day forms a
new chapter in the history of the College Park field
and there was not sufficient time to cover it in this
Lieutenant Colonel Charles De Forest Chandler
Commander of the Signal Corps Flying School
College Park f Mdo
Mr J.Lee Simmons
President of the Washington Aeroplane Company
Washington Aeroplane Company
Ae or nautical Division
Department of Commerce
Early copies of "Aeronautics"
Army Air Service Library
"Textbook of Military Aeronautics"
Army Air Service Library
"The American Air Service"
Army Air Service Library
"History of U.S. Naval Aviation"
Bureau of Aeronautics
View of the Signal Corp* Aviation Field, College Park, MM., 1912, taken from an Army machine. (From "Flying.")
The Hangars ut the l\ S. Army Aviation School at College Park, Md., 1911.
The first machine gun
fired from an aeroplane *