Transatlantic fever did not die with the successful venture of Charles Lindbergh in Spirit of St. Louis. In fact, his world-acclaimed flight in May 1927 spawned a series of distance-stretching attempts — some successful and others destined to end in tragedy — from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Perhaps none was more colorful than the flight of the Fokker F.VIIA Old Glory, with pilots James Dewitt Hill and Lloyd Bertaud and newspaper editor Philip Payne on board, on September 6, 1927. The circumstances leading up to their ill-fated flight were as unusual as their silver-and-gold monoplane that nosed skyward from the airfield at Old Orchard Beach, Maine, on that late summer day.
Hill, the man at Old Glory‘s controls on September 6, was a 45-year-old bachelor who had flown U.S. airmail for three years, a veteran pilot with more than 5,000 hours’ experience. During all that time Hill had never parachuted from a damaged plane, preferring to ride it to the ground. He had, in fact, gained a reputation for landing planes that other pilots might have abandoned in midair.
The pilot had been interested in aviation from an early age. He once told an interviewer that, as a child in Scottdale, Pa., he had borrowed his mother’s best tablecloth to use as a parachute.
In 1900 Hill enrolled at Lafayette College, transferring to Cornell University the following year. But in 1903 health problems forced him to return to his hometown, where he went to work at a local garage owned by A.G. Overholt. He subsequently moved to California and then to Oregon in 1910, at which point he homesteaded for a year and a half. Prior to his time in Oregon, Hill had apparently somehow managed to learn the rudiments of flying. In 1909 he wrote his father from Hot Springs, Ark., ‘I took up my airship today….
Hill soon became determined to find a way to fly for a living. In 1912 he sold everything he owned and traveled to the Glenn Curtiss flying school in San Diego, where he found work. He took formal lessons and earned his license, Aero Club of America Land Plane Certificate No. 234, in 1913. Thereafter, he continued to work for Curtiss at the Hammondsport, N.Y., plant, where he also learned to fly seaplanes.
The Army needed civilian flight instructors in 1916, and Hill became a teacher. After World War I ended, he served a short stint as a test pilot at McCook Field in Ohio before returning to Curtiss as an exhibition pilot.
Both Hill and fellow pilot Lloyd Bertaud participated in the 1919 Toronto-to-New York air races, held to commemorate the Prince of Wales’ trip to Canada. When Hill’s plane, a Curtiss Oriole, stalled on approach to a refueling stop in Albany during that race and crashed, he and his passenger walked away without a scratch. From that time forward, successfully landings in damaged planes became a trademark of sorts for Hill.
Hill soon returned to Oregon to fly for Curtiss’ Northwest branch. He would later describe this time as barnstorming around the Northwest. The work included setting up flying schools and airfields, as well as demonstrating Curtiss aircraft.
By 1924, Hill had taken the test to become a pilot in the U.S. Airmail Service, perhaps influenced by the fact that his friend Lloyd Bertaud had already joined the service. Hill passed the physical and was accepted on July 1, 1924 — at 42, one of the oldest pilots flying the mail.
Hill was assigned first to Hazelhurst on Long Island and later to Hadley Field in New Brunswick, N.J. Flying the New York-to-Cleveland leg of the mail, he routinely crossed the so-called Hell Stretch of the Allegheny Mountains. In 1926 he flew the first night mail run between New York and Chicago.
Instrumentation was rudimentary in the early airmail planes. Hill quickly gained a reputation for developing his own methods of figuring out where he was. For example, he was famed for using his cigars to time his flights between refueling stops across Pennsylvania. He always carried several cigars with him in the cockpit and lit one when he took off. A cigar and a half later, he would drop from the sky over Beaver Field near Bellefonte, Pa., and come in for a landing.
Not all his landings were easy ones. He was forced down numerous times due to bad weather or engine problems. Each time he miraculously walked away from the plane without injury.
The airmail pilots were a close-knit group, so it is no surprise that both Hill and Bertaud heard early on about Lindbergh’s desire to attempt a transatlantic flight. In 1926, while he was still flying airmail, Lindy had dreamed of piloting a Wright-Bellanca — a single-engine, high-wing monoplane that was generally acknowledged to be one of the best aircraft in the world — across the Atlantic Ocean. Piloted by Clarence Chamberlain and Bert Acosta, the Wright-Bellanca Columbia would capture the attention of the media in the spring of 1927, achieving a world record for time aloft: 51 hours and 11 minutes. Lindbergh had tried to buy Columbia for his own attempt at flying the Atlantic, but Charles Levine, Bellanca’s chairman of the board, refused to sell unless he could pick the crew to pilot the plane.
Miffed at Levine’s refusal, Lindbergh instead made arrangements to buy the Ryan that became Spirit of St. Louis. Levine, meanwhile, turned to making Columbia ready for a transatlantic hop. Lloyd Bertaud was initially supposed to accompany him and Clarence Chamberlain to Europe. But Columbia met with a series of mechanical problems that delayed their departure. It was far easier to deal with mechanical problems, however, than to resolve the quarrels that soon erupted between Bertaud and Levine.
Lindbergh’s successful flight to Paris on May 20, 1927, spurred Bertaud’s impatience with his team’s delays — and exacerbated tensions between the aviators. When Levine threatened to remove him from the crew, Bertaud sought an injunction to prevent Columbia from taking off without him. Despite that, Levine finally decided to leave Bertaud behind. On June 7, 1927, Chamberlain and Levine flew the Wright-Bellanca to Germany, breaking the nonstop distance record with a total of 3,911 miles flown.
That move left the distance prize of New York to Rome open for all comers. Bertaud’s friend Hill had been making plans for such a flight before Columbia lifted off from the runway. A series of letters, now part of the archives at the West Overton Museum in Scottdale, Pa., paints a picture of Hill searching for a plane capable of a long-distance flight. The airmail pilot had apparently already located backers to finance a transatlantic attempt. On June 6, 1927, Carl F. Egge, superintendent of the Eastern Division of the Airmail Service, mentioned Hill’s supporters in a telegram to Pratt & Whitney, requesting that the company consider building an engine for an aircraft capable of this kind of flight. With a favorable reply from Pratt & Whitney in hand, Hill met with Giuseppe Bellanca, who told him it would take six to seven months for him to build such an aircraft.
While Hill struggled to find a plane, U.S. Navy Commander William Byrd made a more or less successful transatlantic crossing with his crew in a Fokker C-2 christened America. Unable to locate Paris, he was forced to ditch the plane in the surf near the French shore, but his flight was generally regarded as the third nonstop crossing of the Atlantic. Other pilots were also preparing for transatlantic attempts in Europe, and Hill, who had by now teamed up with Bertaud, became convinced that an attempt at the New York-to-Rome prize could not wait for a Wright-Bellanca. If he and Bertaud wanted to make their mark, they had to leave soon.
As it turned out, Hill and Bertaud gained an aircraft and major backer thanks to Philip Payne, the editor of William Randolph Hearst’s Daily Mirror. Payne convinced Hearst to sponsor the flight as a stunt to boost that New York newspaper’s circulation. Hearst had purchased a Fokker F.VIIA monoplane — similar to the aircraft Byrd had flown — for their use. The Fokker had a steel superstructure covered in canvas and a cantilever wooden wing bolted to the framework. Its 450-hp Jupiter engine was shipped to the United States from England, and the plane assembled in the Fokker factory at Hasbrouck Heights, N.J.
Payne, meanwhile, built up the publicity for the flight, parceling out information to the public in the weeks leading up to their departure. Not happy with merely writing about the flight, the newspaper editor also decided to accompany Bertaud and Hill in Old Glory, as the Fokker had been dubbed.
There was never any doubt that Hill would serve as the co-pilot during the attempt (he was not taken along for the ride, as some authors would later claim). His skills and experience were viewed as essential to the mission’s success. Old Glory‘s first test flight took place on July 30.
Fully loaded and fueled, the Fokker weighed all of 12,700 pounds. Elaborate preparations were made to ensure the safety of the pilots and passenger. The plane was equipped with the latest survival gear and carried a radio station with the call letters WRHP (for William Randolph Hearst). Old Glory also carried a waterproof, wind-powered automatic transmitter, designed to send out the radio call letters in Morse code, allowing ships and stations along its proposed northern route to track their progress.
The original plans called for Old Glory to take off from Roosevelt Field on Long Island, N.Y. But the fliers became concerned that they would run out of runway if they took off from Roosevelt fully loaded. They decided to make a change to a location with a longer runway. On September 2, Hill flew the Fokker to the airfield at Old Orchard Beach, in Maine. Hearst had by then begun to have doubts about the trip, and he sent Payne a series of telegrams urging him to call off the flight. But the editor refused to reconsider. The flight would take place as planned, and he would accompany Hill and Bertaud.
Old Glory‘s takeoff on September 6, 1927, was a spectacle — thanks in no small part to the publicity generated by the Daily Mirror. More than a thousand spectators lined the roads near the airfield, and National Guard units had to be brought in to control the crowds. Telegrams offering prayers and best wishes poured in from all over the world. Old Glory would be carrying letters from the U.S. secretary of state, as well as greetings from the mayor of New York to European heads of state.
Hill had won a coin toss to determine who would pilot the plane on the initial leg. Bertaud attended mass at a nearby church on the morning of the flight, and a priest blessed the plane in a final ceremony before they headed down the runway. As the men were about to leave, Payne’s wife raced up to Hill and kissed him, tucking a hastily scribbled letter into his hand. Mrs. Bertaud and Mrs. Payne had decided on this course, since Hill had no female relative to see him off. The note said simply, You are a fine fellow, and we all love you.
It was 12:23 p.m. when Hill got the heavily laden plane airborne. Two chase planes followed Old Glory as she headed north. Bertaud sent his first message at 2:55 p.m., followed by a second at 3:55 p.m. saying all was well, but that the plane seemed heavy.
The sightings confirmed Bertaud’s messages as time went on, for most indicated that Old Glory was flying low. The last reported sighting occurred at 11:57 p.m., when the Fokker flew over the steamship California about 350 miles east of Cape Race, Newfoundland. The plane appeared to be about 300 feet above the water.
Nothing more was heard from the crew until suddenly, at 3:57 a.m. on September 7, Bertaud radioed an SOS message, followed six minutes later by a second distress call. The steamship Transylvania, captained by David Bone, reported both calls and changed course, preparing to rescue the men if possible. But it took Transylvania five hours to reach the spot where Bone calculated that the plane had most likely gone down. Other ships joined Transylvania in a frantic search for the aircraft and its crew. But after 13 hours of fruitless searching — made more difficult by fog-shrouded waves and threatening skies — the rescue ships returned to their scheduled runs. Newspapers screamed worried headlines, and the fliers’ families met to console one another and wait for further word.
Anthony Fokker tried to offer some hope that they might yet be found alive. In a newspaper article he explained that the Fokker’s main tank was equipped with a valve that allowed the crew to jettison the aircraft’s fuel in 45 seconds. He pointed out that the time between SOS signals had been more than sufficient to dump the fuel, which might have given the plane enough buoyancy to keep it afloat until the crew could launch a life raft.
Hearst refused to give up on locating the plane and crew. He chartered SS Kyle to continue the search. Five days later, on September 12, 1927, Kyle‘s crew discovered the wreckage of the aircraft 100 miles northeast of the position that Captain Bone had calculated.
The wreckage included 34 feet of the 40-foot wing, fuel tanks, the undercarriage, parts of the super-structure and the damaged left wheel. But there was no sign of the crew or the large central fuel tank that might have served as a float. Investigators concluded that the plane must have dived into the water and broken apart, allowing no time for the crew to escape.
Stories about the ill-fated flight of Old Glory faded from public view as time went on. Hill, Bertaud and Payne had joined the ranks of other brave or foolhardy souls who had dared to cross the Atlantic — including Noel Davis and Stanton Wooster, whose American Legion crashed on takeoff the previous April, and Charles Nungesser and FranÇois Coli, who disappeared in L’Oiseau Blanc the following month.
In 1929 Charles Carroll changed the name of his airport, Longview Field in Westmoreland County, Pa., to J.D. Hill Field. The name change, marked with an elaborate airshow, was intended to be a permanent memorial, but it lasted only until the city of Latrobe purchased the airport in 1938.
Today the only memorial to Hill’s part in the last flight of Old Glory is a small stone monument erected in his hometown of Scottdale, Pa. James Hill, Lloyd Bertaud, Philip Payne and the gaudy silver-and-gold plane in which they attempted to set a record and win a prize have faded into the pages of history.
This article was written by M.A. Mogus and originally published in the March 2004 issue of Aviation History Magazine.
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