Thursday, October 20, 2016

No Margin for Error - Dwight R. Messimer

In the mid-1920s, General Billy Mitchell was pushing for the Navy's air arm to be folded into a single, independent air arm. The Navy didn't want this, and were desperate for some public relations coup to prove how great their air service was. They settled on a nonstop flight from California to Hawaii, and then the trouble starts.

The seaplanes they plan to use aren't certain to have sufficient range, but they add some new carburetors that are supposed to improve fuel efficiency, but the project is in such a rush they don't have time to actually test the modifications to see if that's true. Or, rather, they don't take the time. But they're all sure they'll have a 20-30 knot tailwind, so that'll make up the difference, right? As long as it materializes. They can barely get the three seaplanes in the air for test flights, and find all sorts of mechanical issues.

So the flight is a pretty serious failure, with one plane never getting in the air, one having to emergency land, and the third runs out of gas over 400 miles short of its goal. And because the radio operator on the nearest observation ship was an incompetent dope, the search party is looking in entirely the wrong place. So the second half of the story is the crew on PN9-1 trying to survive while they either figure some way to communicate with the ships or else steer their seaplane to the island of Kauai.

Messimer argues the total failure, combined with the crash of the airship Shenandoah on a flight across the country at the same time, actually helped save the Navy's air service. It brings things to a head, where President Coolidge appoints a board to decide whether all aviation should be under a single independent government heading or not. The conclusion is "not", which was for the best, but it seems curious for the Navy to benefit for such a cock-up that was brought on by placing a desire for headlines above common sense and proper preperation.

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