President Calvin Coolidge inspects the cockpit of a de Havilland DH-4B at Bolling Field in Washington, D.C. The photo was probably taken on Sept. 9, 1924, when the president visited the airfield to welcome the Douglas World Cruisers after they reached Washington on their pioneering flight around the globe.
The DH-4B that’s captured the president’s attention was the latest version of the type, which corrected design flaws by moving the front cockpit back and placing the fuel tank in front of it, lessening the chances that the pilot would be crushed by the tank in the event of a nose-over. The change also improved the airplane’s balance.
Unfortunately for the U.S. Army Air Service, the armistice was signed before any DH-4Bs could reach the front in World War I, but they saw a lot of postwar use, especially flying the mail.
The pilot showing the president the airplane appears to be the assistant chief of the air service, Brig. Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell, a passionate advocate of air power. Just over a year later Coolidge would order Mitchell to be court-martialed for his outspoken criticism of the military.
Coolidge, the last president to never fly in an airplane, had a mixed record with aviation. He is remembered for (probably apocryphally) asking, when asked about supplying the army with more airplanes, “Why can’t they just buy one airplane, and take turns flying it?” But it was also his administration that oversaw passage of the Air Commerce Act of 1926, which instituted federal regulation of aviation and created order out of the sometimes chaotic state of affairs in the sky.
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