During the Fall of 1929, the higher authorities of the United States Army Air Corps, forerunner of the Army Air Forces and eventually of the United States Air Force, directed the First Pursuit Group to conduct a training exercise to test the capability of its men and aircraft to operate in cold winter weather. The squadrons assigned to conduct the exercise were those of the 1st Pursuit Group, at Selfridge Field, near Detroit, Michigan, at that time under the command of Maj. Ralph Royce. The squadrons located at Selfridge included the 94th Aero Squadron, the 27th Aero Squadron, the 17th Aero Squadron (replacing the 147th Aero Squadron, which had been one of the original squadrons during World War I), and associated support units assigned to the field. The 95th Aero Squadron, the fourth of the original squadrons in the 1st Pursuit Group in France, had been assigned elsewhere after the end of the war.
These squadrons had been prominent in the American war effort during World War I: the 94th had been led by Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, and had claimed the record of the most aircraft shot down by an American unit during the war. The 27th Aero Squadron had been the unit to which "Balloon Buster" Frank Luke had been assigned before he was shot down and killed in a gun battle with German soldiers. And the 17th Aero Squadron (attached to the British forces for nearly all of its operational time in World War I) had accounted for fifty-three enemy aircraft destroyed during the war. While the cold weather test would not call for the pilots of the 1st Pursuit Group to fly against any human opponents, they would face one of the toughest forms of opposition, the forces of "King Boreas," "Old Man Winter."
The three squadrons of the 1st Pursuit Group were to fly from Selfridge Field to Spokane, Washington, and return, following routes close to the border between the United States and Canada, during the first weeks of January 1930. The aircraft flown by the men of the First Pursuit Group was the Curtiss P-1C Hawk, the first models of which were built in 1925. The Hawk was an open-cockpit, single-seat biplane powered by a 435 horsepower V-12 liquid-cooled engine, capable of producing airspeeds of approximately 150 miles per hour, with a range of approximately 450 miles. These aircraft were light, with a total operational weight of just under 3,000 pounds, and afforded the pilots relatively little protection against the weather. To simulate combat conditions, all aircraft were fitted with two .30 caliber machine guns, mounted within the fuselage directly in front of the pilot. (1)
This challenging exercise called for the pilots of the 1st Pursuit Group to endure severe weather conditions, for in the late 1920s, all single-seat Air Corps aircraft were open-cockpit aircraft, in which the pilots or other flying crew members were exposed to the wind and weather, protected only by their aircraft windscreens and the layers of clothing that they wore. Maj. Gen. Frank Parker, Commander of the Sixth Corps Area, stated that "these maneuvers are of great military importance in that they not only put pursuit tactics to the acid test under extremely rigorous weather conditions, but also afford a very broad opportunity for testing flying equipment in zero temperatures." (2)
Even though the aircraft engines generated some heat, almost none of that heat could be felt in the open-air cockpits. To protect themselves from the cold, the pilots on the winter test flight wore thick leather flying suits lined with fur, heavy insulated boots, insulated gloves, and fur-lined leather helmets. The pilots also wore knitted face masks with openings for the eyes, which were covered by light-weight flying goggles, which, as they unhappily discovered, easily frosted over in the frigid wind. Both flying suits and other flight gear had been recently developed, and the test was designed to evaluate the effectiveness of the personal equipment in cold weather. Another aspect under evaluation was the performance of skis, which had been placed on the aircraft instead of the traditional wheels, and which required the aircraft to land on frozen lake surfaces or snow-covered fields.
The most important motivation for undertaking the "Arctic Patrol," as it came to be called, may have been the development of Prestone fluid as a coolant instead of water. Prestone[R] ethylene glycol was advertised to provide anti-freeze protection strength according to specific water-product combinations. It would not boil away or burn, maintained its liquid nature well below normal freezing temperatures, and was comparatively odorless. It was a more scientific mixture than previous ingredients, which had included such unusual substances as honey, sugar, and molasses. Methyl alcohol had been tried previously as well but was unsatisfactory. Prestone was first developed in 1927 by the Union Carbide Corporation and was a relatively new product. (3)
Reginald Cleveland, aviation correspondent for the New York Times, commented specifically on the importance of the performance of this new anti-freezing ingredient for the aircraft that participated in the Arctic Patrol; his comments appeared on January 19, 1930, when the flight was approximately halfway complete:
The flight, undertaken to test both men and material on long cross-country hops under the most adverse conditions, is the first extended trial of the kind of the new chemical-cooling system of which the Army Air Corps has such high hopes. Some of the ships are equipped for Prestone cooling and in the others this liquid has been added to the water [in the engine coolant].... Its performance under conditions of sub zero temperatures is awaited with interest. (4)
The men and aircraft of the 1st Pursuit Group had been involved in midwinter cross-country flights for a number of years. In the last week of January, 1927, for example, they had participated in a winter cross-country flight to Canada; in this flight twelve pursuit aircraft and one transport aircraft had flown from Selfridge to Ottawa, Canada. (5) During the previous winter, the pilots of the 1st Pursuit Group had been severely challenged by the winter weather in their efforts to find a missing person near Petoskey, Michigan, north of Traverse City, Michigan, a year earlier, in January 1929. The extremely low temperatures during the Petoskey rescue effort, which reached -30[degrees]F, prevented normal operation of their aircraft engines. A local cement company extended a steam hose to thaw engine oil and other components, enabling the aircraft to operate. (6)
In preparation for their flight to Spokane, the pilots selected to participate in the exercise practiced their cold weather procedures in November and December 1929 by flying from Selfridge Field to an auxiliary training field, Camp Skeel, named after an Air Corps pilot, Burt Skeel, commanding officer of the 27th Aero Squadron, who had been killed in a Dayton, Ohio, air race in the fall of 1924. Camp Skeel was located on the south shore of Van Ettan Lake, a few miles west of Oscoda and Au Sable, Michigan, former lumbering towns on the east shore of Lake Huron, at the mouth of the Au Sable River. The lumbering activities of the towns had been ended by a devastating fire in the summer of 1911, and the local citizens were happy to have the business that came with the government use of the flying field. The airfield at Camp Skeel had been used regularly in the winter months since 1924 to practice winter flying techniques and would continue to be used for that purpose until the onset of World War II. At Camp Skeel, the pilots practiced landing and taking off on skis affixed to their P-1s. They also experimented with methods for warming their frozen engines after the aircraft had stood idle during the frigid winter nights. They thought they had developed a satisfactory method for warming the engines, but their experiences in a January 1930 winter test flight proved otherwise.
The planned route of flight was as follows: From Selfridge Field to Spokane, Washington (the outbound segment):
1st day: Selfridge Field to St. Ignace, Michigan, 250 miles; refueling stop. St. Ignace to Duluth, Minnesota, via Hancock (Houghton) Michigan, 400 miles; overnight stop.
2d day: Duluth to Grand Forks, North Dakota, 250 miles; refueling stop. Grand Forks to Minot, North Dakota, 200 miles; overnight stop.
3d day: Minot to Glasgow, Montana, 250 miles; refueling stop. Glasgow to Great Falls, Montana, via Havre, 250 miles; overnight stop.
4th day: Great Falls to Kalispell, Montana, 200 miles; refueling stop. Kalispell to Spokane, Washington, 200 miles.
5th day: One day stopover at Spokane.
From Spokane to Selfridge (the return segment):
6th day: Spokane to Helena, Montana, via Missoula, Montana, 275 miles; refueling stop. Helena to Miles City, Montana, 200 miles; overnight stop.
7th day: Miles City to Bismarck, North Dakota, 230 miles; refueling stop. Bismarck to Fargo, North Dakota, 200 miles; overnight stop.
8th day: Fargo to Minneapolis, Minnesota, 230 miles; refueling stop. Minneapolis to Wausau, Wisconsin, 175 miles; overnight stop.
9th day: Wausau to Escanaba, Michigan, 150 miles; refueling stop. Escanaba to Selfridge Field, 350 miles.
The total mileage for the exercise was 3,810 miles, 2,000 miles outbound, and 1,810 miles on the return. However, due to bad weather and aircraft maintenance problems, the itinerary was modified slightly, and the planned nine-day exercise turned into a 21-day endurance test.
The Arctic Patrol pilots flew their test flight in January, when the weather typically at its wintry worst. As it turned out, the winter weather they experienced in the flight was much colder than normal. There was no way they could have known that the weather during January 1930 would be exceptionally cold, one of the coldest on record. The temperatures they experienced during the last three weeks of January 1930, when the aircraft were...