First Flight  
  Capt. Lionel M. Woolson & Walter E. Lees, May, 1929  


In Detroit at Packard, Walter became involved in a very special Project. Captain Lionel M. Woolson, the Chief Aeronautical Engineer and Dipl.Ing., Hermann I.A. Dorner, a diesel engine inventor from Hanover, Germany, designed the Packard diesel with the help of Packard engineers and Dorner's assistant, Adolph Widmann. Walter worked with Woolson and Marvin Steele, the assistant engineer.
     The historic first flight of the Packard diesel engine took place on September 19, 1928, at the Packard proving grounds, Utica, Michigan. But the first unofficial test was made the night before. Walter was given the distinction of flying the world's first diesel powered airplane flight.
From Jo Cooper's PIONEER PILOT


I made the first test in a Stinson, a cabin job, the SM-IDX "Detroiter". The official test flight was to be in the morning, but Captain Woolson and I took the plane up the evening before just to be sure.
     The engine had only one valve which acted as intake and exhaust. Our first test engine did not even have short exhaust stacks, but exhausted directly out of the cylinder into the open air.It flew all right, but coming in to land, I couldn't throttle under 1500, so took off again. In my next attempt at landing, I lined up the plane on a glide to the field, then cut the fuel off entirely and landed with a dead stick.
     The next day I made several flights. Capt. Woolson had installed a revolving valve on the intake and exhaust ports. It was hooked to the throttle so that it was open for take off and flying, but then closed off the ports and put back suction in the cylinders so the engine would slow down when landing.
     I made many expereimental flights with Capt. Woolson, also with mechanics. Once we made a flight to 19,000 feet without oxygen. We also made several night flights with automobile headlights for landing lights. While flying one day, Capt. Woolson confided to me that he some day wanted to make an engine with one moving part.
     To start the engine in cold weather, we heated each cylinder with a blow torch, then ran the engine to warm it up. The flying was done inside the Packard Proving grounds, approximately 3/4 mile long and 1/4 mile wide. There was a hangar at one end.
     To impress the visitors who came out to see the engine run and fly, in winter time Capt. Woolson would call me up from the plant in Detroit, telling me the approximate time he and the visitors would reach the Proving Grounds. We would warm the engine up in the hangar and keep it running until we saw the car with the Capt. and the visitors turn into the grounds. Then we would shut the engine off and when they arrived, push the plane outside and start the engine before they could inspect it and see it was already warm.
     The first starter was a shot gun. Later, it was replaced by a special electrical starter. We also installed glow plugs in the head of each cylinder, hooked up directly to a large battery. When the push button for the starter was depressed, contact with the glow plugs was made. At no time was gasoline used to start the engine.

Packard to Begin Building Diesel Plane Engines Soon
Will Start Construction at Once on New Three
Story Factory to Handle Work

[From Aviation, March 2, 1929, vol. 26, no. 10]

DETROIT, MICH.----Indication that the Diesel type airplane engine, recently developed by Capt. L. M. Woolson, chief aeronautical engineer of the Packard Motor Car Co., will become a commercial reality and possibly a revolutionary factor in airplane design, is seen here in the announcement of the concern that it will begin construction immediately of a $650,000 plant to produce the engines in large quantity for the commercial market.
     The new plant, according to the announcement by Hugh J. Ferry, treasurer of the Packard firm, will be completed and in operation within five weeks. Between 600 and 700 men will be employed and, according to the expectations, production will be carried on at the rate of about 500 Diesel engines per month by July.
     The Packard Diesel was announced first in October, following experiments covering several years. The original engine was placed in a Stinson-Detroiter, which was flown successfully by Captain Woolson and Walter Lees, Packard pilot. Since that time Captain Woolson has built four of the engines, all of 200 hp. capacity, developing 1 hp. for every 2 lb. of weight.


August 27, 1997: I was alerted by Steve Mark that Greg Herrick had been at the Oshkosh meet with his Buhl Air Sedan. In response to my inquiry, Mr. H.G. Frautschy, Editor, Vintage Airplane and Associate Editor, Sport Aviation, confirmed that Greg had been at the EAA convention with his newly restored Buhl Air Sedan and kindly provided me with his mailing address. I wrote to him immediately and he responded with this e-mail message.

Dear Dr. Cooper: Thanks for your letter!
Yes, I did have the Buhl Sport Airsedan at Oshkosh. I will be sending you
a copy of a little booklet I printed up to hand out at the show; it tells
quite a lot about the airplane and I think you will find it interesting.
     You mentioned that if I had a photo of the plane, you might scan it in for
your web site -- well actually you already have a photo of my plane on your
web site... in fact you have photos of TWO of my planes posted!
     The Buhl pictured is NC8451 which is my aircraft. In addition I own the
Stinson in which Walter Lees made the world's first diesel powered flight!
I purchased the Stinson from the Henry Ford Museum a few years ago.
     You may be interested in a set of seven pictures of Buhl Sport Airsedan
NC8451 which the EAA Boeing Library can make copies of for you. They were
discovered in a collection of donated glass slides and include several
shots of Walt Lees and the plane. The EAA does not charge much for the
photo reproductions but there is some charge.
     I am ordering the book today and look forward to receiving it.
     Take care and let's keep in touch!

     PS: If the family has any materials about Mr. Lees which could be put on
display we are thinking of opening a museum to the public next year.

September 1: Col. Lewis Brittin founds Northwest Airways as a Michigan corporation with operations based at Speedway Flying Field (site of today's Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport). Harold H. Emmons of Detroit is the first president; Col. Brittin is vice president and general manager.
October 1: Northwest Airways takes to the sky, carrying air mail from the Twin Cities to Chicago with a "fleet" of two rented, open-cockpit biplanes - a Thomas Morse Scout and a Curtiss Oriole.
November 2: Northwest introduces the nation's first closed-cabin commercial plane - the three passenger Stinson Detroiter.
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