Old and Bold Pilots

Founder Story by Kip Cooper reprinted from The San Diego Union Newspaper, published Monday, January 29, 1979.


There are pilots who are old and there are pilots who are bold, but there are no pilots who are both old and bold.

This is the Navy way of saying careful pilots live to a ripe old age.

Retired Navy Cmdr. Carlton Palmer of San Carlos is living proof that there are exceptions to every rule.

Palmer was one of the pioneers in naval aviation, having made the first landing in a military-type plane on the Navy’s first aircraft carrier: the Langley, commissioned in March 1922 following its conversion from the collier Jupiter.

He has made dead-stick landings in treetops, cornfields, and tidal flats.

He flew off battleships before the days of catapults, after helping construct a 51-foot runway atop a gun turret.

Palmer, who will celebrate his 89th birthday Feb. 11, said in an interview that fewer than 10 of the early naval aviators of his era are still alive.

Still hale and hearty, with a firm handshake and a steady voice, Palmer has suffered a hearing loss as a result of open-cockpit dive-bombing.

He says his memory is fading, but he speaks with accuracy and affection of the old days of aviation.

Palmer became interested in flying while serving on the old auxiliary cruiser Dixie during the Mexican revolution.

“We were stationed about 10 miles from the mouth of the Tampico River to stop gunrunners trying to get arms to Pancho Villa,” Palmer recalled.

“No one on our ship had liberty and the water was covered with oil, so there was no fishing (a favorite pastime of sailors in that day).

“Then our ice machine broke down, our frozen meat and vegetables spoiled and we were down to eating our limited canned goods.”

“We got mail once a month. Then a Mexican schooner came by loaded with watermelons and we bought all of them and we lived on watermelons for a week.”

Palmer said about that time, the Navy was asking for aviation volunteers.

“So, I said to myself it would be fun to fly an airplane. And it couldn’t be any worse than this.”

Palmer was sent to Pensacola, Fla., for flight training, becoming naval aviator No. 116, although he had begun training months earlier than some aviators with lower numbers.

That happened, said Palmer, because the Yale University Class of 1916 wanted to get into aviation. That class was trained by the Royal Flying Corps in Canada in about a month, graduating before the aviators then training in Florida.

Palmer said he made 23 of the first 99 landings on the Langley, using training-type planes. In the winter of 1921, he made the first landing on the Langley.

“You may have a little trouble with the Navy on that,” Palmer said, “because they don’t want to admit that. But it’s true.” (The Navy lists the first landing as occurring in 1922.)

“We built the arresting gear on the Langley ourselves and we practiced landings on the Langley while it was anchored in Chesapeake Bay.

“We made the landings while the ship was anchored because there was an economy wave at the time and the Navy didn’t want to burn the oil to take the Langley out to sea.”

Palmer stayed on the Langley two years and then went aboard the Saratoga, which traveled through the then-new Panama Canal and came to San Diego.

There was a lot of opposition from senior officers in the Navy to the air arm in those days and battleships were the admirals’ favorite warship, Palmer recalled.

During one exercise about 400 miles off Hawaii in the pioneer days of naval aviation, Palmer said a non-aviation admiral insisted that the pilots speed up their takeoff intervals from 15 seconds to eight seconds.

“You can understand that when we got down to eight-second intervals each plane was taking off in the slipstream of the one ahead,” Palmer said.

He said a young pilot behind him was blown into the ocean by the slipstream from Palmer’s plane and drowned despite the efforts of another pilot who dived 60 feet from the deck of the ship into the water, swimming underwater after the rapidly sinking plane.

The second man in the two-seat VE-7 plane was rescued by the other pilot.

Palmer said that after World War I, “we brought back three British airplanes on the battleship Texas and long before the days of catapults we build a 51-foot platform over the No. 2 gun turret, the highest from the water.

“We flew off the platforms all winter under our own power and no one was injured.

“We had radios and we would spot for the battleships; but we couldn’t land on the Texas, so we landed on tidal flats in Cuba.

“We lived in an old Spanish battery that had no water, toilets, or electricity.”

Palmer said the plan was to land the planes on the mud flats, bring a motorboat from the Texas to shore and then have sailors lift the places into the boats, where they would be taken to the Texas and hoisted back aboard.

The first attempt to land on the mudflats was a disaster, Palmer recalls. His commanding officer, a Lt. Cmdr. Eddie McDonnell, was piloting the plane and Palmer was riding the back seat.

McDonnell hit the top of a tree and spun off into the brush about 6 feet high.

“We carried an axe in each plane in those days and McDonnell yelled for me to get an axe and chop him out of there.”

After they dragged the plane back to the mudflats, he said, McDonnell took off and hit the top of another tree. The plane nosedived into the ground, knocking McDonnell out and throwing Palmer about 50 feet through the air into the brush.

“I wasn’t hurt, but McDonnell was unconscious and bleeding. And the plane was a total wreck.”

After sailors cleared away much of the brush, planes landed on the flats without further incident.

Palmer said the Navy was lenient with its pilots after World War I, allowing them to use their airplanes to take sightseeing and hunting and fishing trips.

One Saturday, Palmer flew to an island in the James River of the Capt. John Smith – Pocahontas legend to fish, and was returning to his base in Virginia when his engine conked out.

He made a dead-stick landing in a cornfield. Just as the plane was coming to a halt, the engine started up again so he took off.

“That was a bad mistake because the engine quit again over a heavily wooded area and I had no alternative but to land.

“I hit the top of a great big tree. The plane spun around 180 degrees and then drifted down through the trees and hit the ground. The airplane was a complete wreck but I didn’t have a scratch.”

Palmer has been married 64 years to Marie Bailey, great-granddaughter of the man who owned Bailey’s Corner, then a 1,000-acre farmland and now the site of a huge apartment complex in Virginia near Washington, D.C., that bears his name.

Early Encounters with the C-6: Bill Sievert Founder # 272

Amigos del Ciel:

The cover picture of a C-6 powered Curtiss Oriole on the September Daedalus Flyer was very nostalgic. (Incidentally, never before had I seen sleeve loops on a trench coat.) My first contact with this post WWI aircraft was at Rockewell Field, North Island, San Diego, California in the summer of 1919. (The U.S. Navy had made only minor encroachments on North Island at that time).

I was in the 2nd Observation Squadron (Gil Ervin, C.O.) and we were awaiting transport to the Philippines. One weekend my very high rank (?) drew O.D. duty. (No BOQ at ROckwell and a few of us lucky ones lived in the Hotel del Coronado Annex at a very special rate of one dollar a day. The quarters, heat and light allowance of a second looie just about toook care of the rent. There were also special rates in the dining room and grill so it was a case of turning over our monthly paychecks to the hotel cashier.)

About four o’clock on this particular Saturday afternoon, from in front of headquarters, I noticed an unfamiliar type of aircraft perform a landing pattern and then land. I met the aircraft in the OD’s side car as it taxied up to the hangar line and shut down the vertical and uncovered engine.

Very soon from the front cockpit there emerged a lady clad in full fox hunting attire (red coat, white breeches and riding boots). It was quickly determined that the lady was Mary Roberts Rinehart, the well known authoress, and the charter flight had just come from Chaplin (Syd) Field, Venice, California (located then between now LAX and SMO) for a weekend in Coronado. Transportation was requested to the Hotel Del but only the motorcycle sidecar was available. So Mrs. Rinehart got to the headquarters building that way and there phoned the hotel, not for a taxi, but a “limousine”.

Meanwhile the pilot stated he would RON so that meant taxiing the aircraft into the parking area. I “declined” the pleasure of propping the C-6 so we changed places and I taxied the Oriole in my first experience with a non-military aircraft.

In passing, might mention that after returnign from the Philippines I flew a Curtiss Seagull C-6 powered and with a battery operated self-starter! This was at the Edgewater Beach Hotel, Chicago, the summer & fall of 1921. All our Founder members will appreciate the “self-commencer” innovation after several years of hand “twirling” OX’s, Hissos and Liberties. The C-6 engine (Kirkham design) was the sire of the V1570 and D-12 engines we all know how smooth they were.

Finally, I might remark that the spooky stage plays of Mary Roberts Rinehart were quite an aid to romance. It seems that young ladies, after attending an evening performance of the play, were averse to being left alone.

Hope to see you all at the 1971 Convention if the Tucson Flight can wangle Air Force transportation. It couldn’t this year.

Vaya con Dios,

Bill Sievert ID 272

Hard Landing

by Col. Bill Sweeley, Founder #6566

Another unusual “incident” that happened to an old Daedalian these many years agone, forty-five years ago, in fact. The old members whole learned to fly in 1917 (or before – I started in 1916) will understand this rather unusual, forced landing.

I was acting as escort to the “Round The World Fliers” in Douglas-built cruisers. I was flying an old D.H.4 B., a Dehavilland biplane with a 400 H.P. Liberty engine. My “passenger” was a photographer from the Los Angeles Examiner. He had a rather large Graphlex camera mounted on a large tripod projecting from the turret of the rear seat.

The entire flight took off from Santa Monica March 16th, 1924, first stop was Sacramento, next day to Eugene, Oregon. The following day for Seattle where the Cruisers’ landing gears were to be changed to floats for the Trans-Pacific flight. Out of Eugene we were flying at about 8,000 feet over a large, forested area. I was slightly above the Cruisers who were off to my right.

I noticed the oil pressure gauge registered zero!!! An oil line had broken. I turned around and told the photographer to bail out – JUMP. He refused, I released my belt, turned around and tried to get hold of him – he fought me off. I tried to tear off the damn large tripod that held his camera. I failed. (By the by, this was the first time I had ever worn a parachute – or anyone else in the Army Air Service at that time. Parachutes came into being in March 1924).  

Mountains and dense forest; from my latitude the latter looked like a lawn. I noticed two trees tollers than others in the immediate vicinity. They were very close together. I had long since cut the switches. I glided the plane between these two trees, hoping the wings would be shorn off. They were. The fuselage bounced from limb to limb until the last limbs that were forty feet above ground. From there it was a free fall and disaster. We hit partially nose down; the engine tore loose and came back into me. I eventually crawled free from the wreck.

I was seriously injured and spent months in Letterman Army Hospital, Presidio, San Francisco. My right eye was partially out of its socket and hanging on my cheek. (The photographer received a broken ankle.) Two local hunters in a one-horse buck board saw the descent and heard the crash. They were my saviors indeed!

They took us to the small town of Peel, Oregon, not far from Medford. The local doctor of this village did the best he could, bless his heart. The crack Southern Pacific’s Shasta Limited was hailed down by building a small fire in the center of the tracks. I was placed in a drawing room. The doctor, again, bless his heart, accompanied me as far as Eugene where a doctor and nurse stayed with me until arrival in San Francisco when an ambulance took over.

Such a forced landing never took place before, and one similar to it will in all probability never take place again. Then, landing fields were many miles apart. Frequently, hundreds of miles, and of course, no radio. I was damned lucky to have survived. The scars, the limp, and the memories will always remain.

Marine Bomber Shot Down by the Huns – No Casualties: Samuel S. Richards, Founder #2251

It happened in WWI during the last days of the conflict in Europe. A DH-4, powered by a Liberty 400 HP engine and fitted with four 150 lb. bombs, left our La Fresne field in Pas de Calais for a bombing raid on the German U-Boat depot at Bruges, Belgium. “Vince” Young (NA 519) was the pilot while “Dick” Richards (NA 822, the writer) was acting as Marine gunner in the rear Lewis gun scarf-mount.

The trip north was uneventful with only sporadic anti-aircraft fire. We circled the objective and dropped the four bombs on the U-Boat haven in the canals of the town where the subs were repaired and provisioned. By that time ack-ack became so severe we hightailed it for the safety of the English Channel.

But, a small piece of shrapnel had punctured our radiator and without water our engine heated up and the rpms dropped from 1650 to 1000, to 800, to 400, and CRUNCH – it was dead. We stayed over water with a dead stick as long as possible and landed on the beach at Nieuport, Belgium under machine gun fire from the German trenches. We were safe and sound on the Allied side in the sand dunes without a scratch on our persons. The date: 18 October 1918.

It was a horrible, sleepless night, what wiht the incessant cannonadeing and frustrating language barrier, but finally got a phone message through to our camp. The next day a squad of mechanics arrived in a Quad truck — took the wings off the DH-4 and towed it back to France. It was well perforated with machine gun bullets and when the engine was dimantled, the aluminum pistons were practically dust. I still have the largest piece – approximately 2″ x 2 1/2″ as a souvenir.

Semper Fidelis
Samuel S. Richards