A Thumbnail Sketch of the Flying Adventures of
I had kept in my possession a four-page decree of a Kgl. Prussian Landcourt which had agreed with the judge's decision that it was foolhardy and wasteful to spend the inheritance on flying lessons. The Landcourt's decision was that there was ground to believe that I would waste the money in other "light" fashion without becoming a "Luftschiffer". However, I was able to withdraw my funds and prove that everyone was old fashioned in their thinking. If I were to be a "Luftschiffer". it was to fly and to prove them wrong in their attitude. I became an aviator pilot for airplanes heavier than air).
Having a background of education in High School and Technician training, I built my own airplane in my home city of Cologne, in the year 1912. This contraption resembled a Blériot and Deperdussin with a Delfosse rotary engine. It was what was known in those days as a Blériot "Penguin" in that it would move along the ground and could only fly a few centimeters off ground. Perhaps it was just as well from a training standpoint as it probably saved me from serious disaster at that early time.
In 1913 I entered the Imperial Army Air Service. In 1914,with the outbreak of the war, I was assigned to a "Tauben" squadron and flew through Luxemburg into France. The first six months of the war in late 1914 - early '15 was exciting, but tame, flying over the front. Duelling in the air was unknown in those days, Huns and Poilus saluted each other whenever they passed alongside in the air. To enliven matters, I had attached an extension pipe to the end of my Very pistol and intended to spring my surprise on the French pilot patrolling my sector. As I passe the French airman I showed him the side of my "gun" and fired.....the smoke and fire scaring him immensely to my great amusement and joy.
After this experience in "duelling" with the enemy, I was commissioned to the Pfalz Pursuit Aircraft Factory to test-fly the early combat planes. These planes were true copies of the French Morane-Saulnier, Gnome engined, mid-wing, and parasol monoplanes. The fact that I had cut short my school education and interrupted my military service during my test piloting days at the Pfalz factory (as well as many an incident of unmilitary conduct in the eyes of non-flying commanders) made me unfit to become a commissioned officer, even when I had finished my military service by flying the final fifteen months of the war with a Bavarian Pursuit Squadron on the Western Front.
The sole Bavarian Air Base in the early days of the war was located at Schleissheim, near Munich. I recall an incident that would have had serious consequences if I had been caught, because at the time it shook the entire Kgl. Bavarian Air Station. I was in charge of advanced flying instruction and enjoyed my role of "supremacy" on the field and in the air." I, alone, was authorized to take up the 14 cylinder, double rowed Gnome Pfalz single searter, the castor Oil rotary "Schnurpser". This airplane was for the defense of Munich in case of need. Early one morning the Grand-Inspector of the Bavarian Air Coprs arrived from Munich in his official car on an unexpected visit. Such a visit, at best, is sufficient cause for non-tranquility. While his two chauffeurs took advantage in looking over the flying machines, we flight instructors were interested in the Big Chief's car as it was the very last word in automobiles. A beautiful clock on the insturment panel so overwhelmed me that I decided that I just MUST have it in my trainer so I removed it with a screwdriver....It was not long afterwards that the General returned from his journey back to Munich....in a blazing fury! The entire Corps was called out and stood at attention while abuse was heaped upon us. The culprit who "liberated" the clock was ordered to speak out....but I did not, and no one reported me. One of my mechanics had thrown the clock into a water ditch where it was hidden. When the General left for Munich, threatening dire results, the clock was later retrieved, and after the incident had cooled down, it was installed in the cockpit of my Pfalz....so the clock still remained in the Army, but under new management!
The end of the war brought an abrupt end of all flying for German aviators. I had different plans because I loved flying and struggled so hard to become an aviator that I could not bear to give up flying. My decision was to leave Germany if it meant that I could still fly. I went immediately to Argentina in South America.
There I flew at the Military Airdrome, "El Palomar", near Buenos-Aires. I was acclaimed by Argentine collegues and was detested by some members of the official French Mission who had come to the Argentine to sell their old war planes. Here I met Lawrence Leon, the Curtiss representative and a very fine fellow, who was showing the Argentines the beauty of his high priced, but low powered, OX Jennies. (civil aviation was still a novelty in the country and the endeavors of ex-war fliers like myself had won much enthusiasm for it.
My acrobatic exhibitions and stunt flying, as well as flight instruction and passenger flying, had made me a well known aviation figure in Argentina. I became celebrated as a stunt flyer and formed an air circus and have the distinction of still being the only pilot who had transferred an acrobat from the airplane to a moving automobile in South America. This stunt was performed over ordinary dirt roads along the flying fields and in front of the grandstands in horse race tracks. These roads were bumpy, dusty and had straight stretches of only a few hundred yards in length so that the car could never pick up the speed necessary to make the transfer with ease. We had sand bags tied to the lowest rungs of the rope ladder to hold the ladder in position while flying. Many times the driver had bveen walloped over the head with these sand bags at a speed of 100-120 miles per hour and often times they refused to continue driving as they did not relish the idea of having their brains spattered all over the dirt race tracks of South America.
We made our appearances in closed-in "Sportivas" and horse racing tracks....loose dirt, dusty, short straightaway stretches, sometimes on an up-hill grade, with posts and rails to either side of the road only a few feet from the Jenny's upper shoulder... We encountered side winds too and unbearable heat over the tracks so that I neared the dangerous speed very often. The motor car used was not a racing model but always a stock model of a very popular make.
I have several books filled with clippings and photographs which tell my story and I can speak of many interesting incidents of those days of daring flying with my two acrobats. One of the acrobats was a young German lad who was later killed (but not by me) while stunting in Chile, and the other acrobat was a very adventurous young lady who created quite an uproar with her daredevil stunting. I remained in South America for almost ten years and started just in time to take my share in the boom which surely was to follow Lindbergh's feat for America. I left Argentina for the United States shortly thereafter.
In 1928 I was a test pilot for A.H.G. Fokker and made the first experimental flights with his flying-boat. This new design amphibian had a large boat hull and first a small "Super-Universal" wing with a Wasp pusher engine. The rudder was so badly overbalanced that you had no feeling at all, we knew this from water taxiing tests. Mr. Fokker had instructed me not to test fly the ship if it were unsafe, but I flew it so anyway, in Mr. Fokker's flying stories.
We had taken the rudder off and returned to the plant, it was on a Sunday morning. A welder was called in to work and the modification of the rudder was started. Meanwhile, Fokker, who had wanted to fly the boat but had no license, asked the Government Inspector (a Mr. Jacobs) to examine him on flying procedures. A Super-Universal was wheeled out and Fokker, with Jacobs, took off. I saw the airplane coming in for a landing at a terrific speed and level off about the middle of the length of the runway...float and float; I thought that it would surely end in the ditch, which it did! When the ship wazs given the gun it refused to respond, but simply sank, and with the wheels touching the border of the ditch it somersaulted clear of the ditch and rested upside down in the meadow. Fokker didn't ask for his license, and as a matter of fact, he never tried to get one thereafter. He thought it much simpler to take me along to fly or to stunt.
Fokker was a hell-raiser, too. On Sundays we would fly over the Sound, flying demonstrations to yacht owners we spied from the air. If customers were few, then woe to the small boat owners cruising in the Sound. Fokker would dive at them, sometimes missing the mast of these boats by a matter of inches, and he would be satisfied only when he had caused some terrified sailors to jump over board. I enjoyed "dive bombing" also, but would not go that close while I was at the controls for fear of being grounded, or losing my license, for as the only licensed pilot aboard, I was liable for the aricraft and all of its passengers, and that included Mr. Fokker.
I was at my peak as experimental test pilot for the American Fokker Corporation at the Teterboro Airport. It was then that one of the unforseen mishaps occurred that brings us out of the clouds down to the level of other simple mortals... I cracked up the Pan American Flagship, a brand new Fokker Trimotor. This airplane was on of a series built for the Western Air Express and lent for the occasion to Pan American. I was to have flown it the following day to Washington, D.C. for the christening ceremonies to be performed by Mrs. Coolidge, the First Lady of the Land.
It was a chilly November evening, the ship had been standing in the yard while a score of men were furiously working on it to get it ready for the trip to Washington and the ceremony. It was getting late and while all hands were busy, I did my own inspection of the outside control system while Inspector K. of the W.A.E. was running the engines in and giving them the warm-up test. He handed me the engine readings.... it was OK. We had to chase the workers out because it was getting dark and I should test-hop the plane in order to be sure of our leaving the next morning. The engines were kept running, and confident and hurried, I taxiied out without revving them up once more. I sailed down wind to the end of the runway, and I opened up the throttles gradually while swinging into the wind, without letting the ship come to a stop as I did not want to lose any time. The ship was light and the air was good and it was easy to fly this ship as it had plenty of power. It was getting late and quite dark and the field was not too good in those days as you could not see the ditches. The center engine took-on nicely, and the starboard engine did the same. But not so the port engine, it had cooled off too much and was spitting and sputtering.... I played the throttle, and in the meantime, the ship was picking up speed and ran into a slight left turn. That in itself was not bad I judged, as I was turning away from the buildings and toward the open field. I let the plane do it in spite of the fact that I had no more rudder to the right to hold, but I was confident that the left engine would hold. As soon as I would get off the ground I could throttle the right side engine a little bit; but I had not seen the end of the ditch along my left side, which I had almost cleared except for a few feetl The crash came and the would-be flagship was badly crippled and lying on its belly at the other side of the ditch. It was a great deal of my own fault and a little too much of the old barnstormers testing methods coupled with a little too much zeal. Well, I had learned my lesson and we old pilots know that such warnings come when it is high time to bring us back to earth when we are "going too high up......"
That was that.....the next day I was back on my flying-boat to do more test flying with this new Fokker type. There were plenty of incidents as any test pilot can tell of interesting experiences connected with the trying out and improving of newly designed airplanes. During the two years that I was a test pilot for Fokker, I had my share.
When business came to a standstill, I had to give up my position with the Fokker Company. I went with my former employer, Mr. L. Spencer, the president of the old Fokker Atlantic Aircraft Corporation, as an airport manager and flight instructor at Newport, R. I. After two successful seasons at this fine summer resort, I took a long "rest"...the rest has continued to the pressent day. I hope it will end soon because I want to do some more flying before I grow white whiskers. I still keep in training and feel fit to do it all over again, but with some wiser knowledge gained from the old past experience.
Autobiography from Edgar B. Smith's estate collection,
submitted by his son, Donald M. Smith, holder of estate.