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Above an ice-covered lake in eastern Washington state on January 19, 1930, a group of Army Air Corps pilots maneuvered their ski-equipped Curtiss P-1 Hawks in formation above a cheering crowd of 2,000. Known as the Arctic Patrol, these crews of the 1st Pursuit Group were testing themselves and the military’s top open-cockpit fighters against an unseen enemy—Old Man Winter.

On that frigid day, 13 pilots had completed the first leg of a round-trip journey from Michigan to Spokane, Wash., thrilling spectators as they circled overhead. “Gasps of wonder went up as the ships, in echelon formation, gleaming in the afternoon sun, streamed out of the southwest,” said a Spokane newspaper account. “Twice they circled the lake, the powerful motors of the wasp-like planes roaring as if in defiance of the elements. Eastward they went and then, banking, came west, when suddenly, directly over the crowd, Major Ralph Royce, the commander who was leading the flight, banked sharply and dove to the right.”

The Arctic Patrol embarked on that mission just over two years after Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 transatlantic flight, and its progress was followed closely by the media. A total of 22 planes took off from Michigan’s Selfridge Field on January 10 for a 3,500-mile round-trip trek designed to test men and machinery in the same wintery conditions that fighters might encounter during wartime. In addition, the group was testing shortwave radio communication among the aircraft and permanent ground stations in cooperation with the American Radio Relay League, a group of ham radio amateurs.

Members of the Arctic Patrol were also trying out new goggles for snow flying, as well as heaters and covers for engines and evaluating the effects of below-zero weather on engine efficiency. The wintry conditions took a toll on the crewmen, who struggled against frostbite, mechanical breakdowns and difficulties with warming engines for takeoff.

According to a Curtiss-Wright Corp. history, the P-1 Hawk biplane fighters were widely popular with the Army and Navy during the 1920s, credited with the first folding wings on an American fighter, the first turbo-supercharged engines and early radio transmissions. The fact that the Arctic Patrol aircraft were equipped with skis indicates they were likely P-1C variants. In fact, a photograph of Royce standing next to his plane during the group’s return trip clearly indicates the P-1C lettering, as well as the serial model number in the fuselage stenciling. The cruising speed of P-1C single-seat fighters was around 123 mph, with a maximum speed of 154 mph.

The 1st Pursuit Group—a predecessor of today’s 1st Fighter Wing—was organized in 1918 in France toward the end of World War I, when its pilots flew French-built aircraft. Notable 1st Pursuit aviators from that era include Eddie Rickenbacker, known as the U.S. “ace of aces,” and Frank Luke Jr., nicknamed the “Arizona Balloon Buster.” The early group eventually included a total of five aero squadrons, the 94th, 95th, 147th, 185th and the present-day Air Force’s oldest fighter squadron, the 27th. It was based mostly at Selfridge Field, except for a brief period from 1919 to 1921, when the unit was moved to Texas. Its pilots spent the critical years between WWI and World War II honing their fighter tactics while testing aircraft and equipment.

The group also took on some other missions—flight tests during winter conditions and delivering the mail under orders from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. To launch the Arctic Patrol in late 1929, the military planned for a group of 22 planes, including 18 Curtiss Hawks, a Douglas O-2K observation plane, a Douglas C-1 transport and two Ford C-9 TriMotors carrying mechanics and equipment. The first challenges came early, when a Ford transport with radio equipment sank in 5 feet of water on a Michigan lake near the Selfridge takeoff site. It took several hundred men working through the night to recover the aircraft. The observation plane also failed to get off the ground on the first day because of engine trouble.

Commanded by Royce, the Arctic Patrol’s crew pilots included Alden R. Crawford, Kenneth A. Rogers, Marion L. Elliott, Paul W. Wolf, Cecil E. Henry, Charles A. Harrington, Ernest K. Warburton, Ralph C. Rhudy, Austin A. Straubel, Donald L. Putt, Norman D. Sillin, Paul B. Wurtsmith, Theodore M. Bolen, Paul M. Jacobs, Edward H. Underhill, Horner L. Sanders and Robert K. Giovanolli. According to 1st Pursuit Group diary information compiled from original documents by Langley Air Force Base historians, the majority of the group flew from Michigan to Minnesota and then to Minot, N.D., the following day.

In Minot, with the temperature at 20 degrees below zero on January 12, 1930, the men struggled to start the planes’ engines for the next leg of the flight. The pilots often employed plumbers’ pots with stovepipes attached to warm the engines. During one such attempt, the rear end of Lieutenant Bolen’s engine was torn out by the starter because the motor was too cold to turn over; a new power plant had to be shipped from Selfridge Field. Other pilots carried on to Glasgow, Mont., but during the subsequent journey to Great Falls some of the fliers experienced mechanical problems, forcing them to land or temporarily remain behind. That happened to Lieutenant Elliott, who was forced down on a remote Montana ranch and had to travel 50 miles by bobsled and then by train to meet up with the other Arctic Patrol pilots in Great Falls. The owner of the ranch, A.H. Arnold, agreed to keep an eye on the P-1 until Air Corps members could retrieve it. In their preparations to depart for Glasgow, the pilots had drained water and oil from the engines and injected steam into the motors using hot blowers and blowtorches. The process resulted in leaky radiators in three of the planes.

By January 13, 13 of the Hawk pilots had landed in Great Falls. Montana’s mountains proved formidable enemies. Several times takeoffs had to be aborted or pilots turned back because of a bitter cold spell dipping down to between 30 and 40 degrees below zero, coupled with low visibility. The Air Corps men hoped to complete the flight by the morning of January 18. According to a January 17, 1930, Spokane newspaper: “Major Ralph Royce, commander of the flight, said last night that the severe Rocky Mountain weather had demonstrated well the need for improved winter flying equipment for Army flyers. His command of 22 ships is scattered along the line of flight from Selfridge Field, Michigan, to Kalispell, Mont.”

Finally an advance team of four planes arrived on January 17 at frozen Newman Lake, Wash., about 15 miles northeast of Spokane, where the ice thickness measured 7 inches. A few homes, hotels and several recreational resorts were located along the 1,190-acre lake. Lieutenant Wolf, who noted that his total flying time from Selfridge was 20 hours, led this team of three pursuit planes and the Ford TriMotor to a 1 p.m. landing. Because of the uncertainty of the first group’s arrival time, only a small crowd gathered to watch the planes land, but the onlookers noticed that one of the planes passing over had a ski dangling. According to one newspaper account: “The crowd held their breath as this plane, which proved to be driven by Lieutenant Putt, seemed to poise for a moment like a bird in flight before settling on one ski on the ice. Then he eased it onto the other ski when the ship in a ground loop spun on the ice. A gasp of relief went up from the watching crowd.”

As Spokane residents followed the progress of the remaining aircraft through Montana airspace, word soon spread of the approach of a larger group two days later. City dignitaries and residents were on hand to greet 13 planes as they landed. At least 18 aircraft made it to Spokane, the C-9 transport and 17 of the Hawk fighters.

“It was in all the newspapers,” recalled Spokane resident Laurence Bolks, 95, who used to skate on the ice-covered lake as a child. “All those people were out there to see them.”

Royce telegraphed Washington, D.C., upon his arrival, according to Langley Air Force Base archives. He reported, “Having battled forces of King Winter ten days and won from them secrets of how they intend to aid enemies of United States in wartime, the First Pursuit…stands defiantly on the ice of Newman Lake, 15 miles east of Spokane… and rests…while battle wounds are healed.” Speaking at a banquet, where he detailed the hardships the group encountered, he noted: “We planned to have plenty of mechanics and heating devices along with us, but they were always somewhere else. We had to work about four hours in the cold getting our planes started and then fly four or five hours more.”

The Arctic Patrol remained in the eastern Washington area for two days, returning to Selfridge Field on January 29, when 15 of the pursuit planes landed together. Other pilots returned in the next few days. According to a January 30 newspaper story, “The three transport planes lagged behind on the last lap, as they had throughout, and floodlights were turned on at the field here to facilitate a night landing.” One landed later at Selfridge, and two had to stay behind in Bay City, Mich., for the night.

Another newspaper account summarized the Arctic Patrol’s overall findings. A lot had gone wrong, but all the pilots completed the mission, with no fatalities or major injuries, and they brought valuable information on what equipment did or did not work:

Major Ralph Royce, commander of the flight, declared that the flight was a success in that it had accomplished its purpose—to determine how present equipment will cope with winter conditions. Two important facts have been developed, Major Royce said. The present type of ski is not practical, and the present type of heater will not perform when called upon to get a motor warmed up for starting after a cold night in the open.

Royce believes a combination wheelski would be more suitable for winter flying, and is of the opinion that wood or steel would be better material for construction of skis than the composition now used. The skis on ships of the patrol dug through shallow snow to the ground, he said. The heaters failed to operate…and the pilots used plumbers’ pots with stovepipes attached. The chemical hand warmers in which heat is generated through a reaction for which moisture is necessary also were found impractical because they froze in extreme cold weather. The flight commander was satisfied, however, with the performance of the motors.

Royce, who later became a major general, was awarded the Mackay Trophy for leading the Arctic Patrol flight. He led a bomber force of three Boeing B-17s and 10 North American B-25s during the first retaliatory attack of WWII against the Japanese in the Philippines. Named commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East, he also served as the deputy commander of the Ninth Air Force and senior air officer afloat during the Normandy invasion. Royce retired from active duty in 1946.

Three of the 1st Pursuit Group’s five squadrons flew on the Arctic Patrol mission, the 27th, 17th and 94th. The 95th and 17th squadrons were later transferred from the group and were replaced by the 71st. Two of the original squadrons, the 94th and 27th, still fly today and are based at Langley.


Originally published in the November 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.