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James DeWitt Hill: Scottdale's Aviation Pioneer
by Mary Ann Mogus
From the Westmoreland County Historical Society Journal

Westmoreland
History
A Magazine of the County's History

 

Introduction

On October 18th 1970, beneath skies perfect for flying, citizens, officials, old friends, aviation representatives, and representatives for the Hill family gathered around the gazebo in Scottdale [PA] to dedicate a monument to James DeWitt Hill. Within the stone monument, faced with a bronze plaque of Hill (photograph 2), was buried a flag that had flown over both the North and South Poles, a speech written by Hill's old friend A.G. Trimble in honor of the dedication, and the names of the donors of the memorial. Trimble had suggested the memorial in October 1927, a month after Hill died in an attempt to cross the Atlantic on a non-stop flight from New York to Rome.  By the time the monument was dedicated, the world had forgotten the flight and the crew of Old Glory.

James DeWitt Hill

James DeWitt Hill was born in Scottdale, Pennsylvania on March 2,1882. He was the son of James DeWitt Hill, Senior, and Mary Emma Long Hill, both originally of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, and the fourth of five children (one sister and three brothers).

Hill's childhood spanned the beginnings of heavier than air flight and saw the experiments by Samuel P. Langley at the Allegheny Observatory. During Hill's adolescence early experiments by the Wright brothers intrigued him and Hill was quoted as saying that he avidly read all he could about aviation.

While Nellie Hill's sister supported his interest in flight, it was Hill's younger brother who was induced to participate in Hill's early experiment at the family home (photograph). Hill related to an interviewer that when he was a child he had used his mother's best tablecloth as a parachute to jump from a stable. When it failed for him, he persuaded his younger brother, Frank, to try the improvised parachute. When Frank had no success with it, Hill's father put an end to the experiments. This early experience may have left a permanent mark, for Hill never parachuted from any plane he flew, even when it was damaged.

According to Trimble, Hill returned to his schoolwork and excelled, graduating from Scottdale Grammar School and High School with honors. Hill and Trimble were in the same room in grammar school, number eight, and this is where their lifelong friendship began.

After high school Hill attended Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, and studied mechanical engineering, but returned home after one year when he found he did not like the curriculum. He enrolled in civil engineering at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. After three years at Cornell, ill health forced him; to again return home where he managed an automobile garage owned by A. C. Overholt.

Hill as Aviation Pioneer

Hill was 21 in 1903 and working in automotive engineering when the Wright brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk. His interest in aviation had not changed since the days of the tablecloth parachute. The health problems that plagued him at Cornell continued and this might be one reason for his being in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1909. But even with health problems, Hill managed to find a way to learn to fly for there is a record suggesting that Hill had already soloed.

In a letter from Hill to his father written from Hot Springs, Arkansas, dated March 18, 1909, Hill states: " As to your being at my elbow when I received your first telegram you couldn't have been there long for I immediately went up in the air and my airship was only built for one."

This letter from Hill is extraordinary since airplanes were scarce in 1909. But there is evidence that flights were taking place on a small field north of Fayetteville. While later articles about Hill claimed that he learned to fly in 1912, it is obvious from the above letter excerpt that Hill had at least some flight training prior to this date.

Hill's father died in 1909 and Hill traveled to Los Angeles to work in engineering. Near the end of 1910 Hill was sent to Portland to represent his company as mechanical engineer at the branch offices. It was in Portland where he first saw Charlie Hamilton fly and met Silas Christoffersen. Christoffersen was building an airplane and it is reported that he gave Hill a flying lesson. Cristoffersen also taught Lloyd Bertaud, Hill's friend and fellow pilot on the transatlantic flight attempt, how to fly.

In a 1927 interview Hill mentioned that he still had health problems in 1910 and chose to remain in Portland. He received a homestead grant of 160 acres and purchased the adjoining 160 acres. He lived there and worked the land for 18 months until he felt that he had regained his health. After his recovery, he sold everything and returned to San Diego in the fall of 1912.

Hill was determined to learn flying "...from the ground up" as he stated in an interview. He went to work at the Glenn Curtiss Flying School, learning aeronautical engineering and taking formal flying lessons. Hill officially earned his wings, holding the Aero Club of America land plane certificate #234. Still associated with the Curtiss Company, he was given an assignment to test motors at the Curtiss plant in Hammondsport, New York. While there he also trained in flying seaplanes.

According to Hill's interview, 1911 to 1914 was a slow period for aviation and he returned to Pittsburgh to sell automobiles. Hill's mother died in 1913 and this may have been an added incentive to return home. But Hill did not remain long in western Pennsylvania. Hill was made an instructor at the Curtiss School in Buffalo, New York, in 1915 and in the summer of 1916 he was serving as an instructor in Aviation at the Thomas School in Ithaca, N ew York.

On October 1, 1916, Hill became a civilian flight instructor for the army at Hazelhurst Field in N ew York when the Signal Corps opened an aviation school on the east coast. Hill later taught at Ashburn Field in Chicago, McCook Field in Dayton, Ohio, and Bellville, Illinois.

After the end of World War I, Hill joined Air Service Engineering at McCook Field, Dayton, Ohio. While there he served as a test pilot. Hill then rejoined the Curtiss Company at Buffalo and worked as a pilot and sales representative.

In 1919 Hill participated in an air race commemorating the Prince of Wales' trip to Canada and the opening of a new airport at Toronto on August 25, 1919. Three days before the race Hill piloted a Curtiss Oriole from Buffalo to Mineola, averaging 105 mph. On the day of the race, Hill flew a Curtiss Oriole from Mineola to Albany, a refueling stop. As he started his landing approach, a gust of wind forced his left wing upwards and the plane began the first stages of a spin. Hill was too low to recover from the spin and the plane crashed. The wings, undercarriage, and engine supports were destroyed, but Hill and his passenger walked away from the crash. Undaunted, Hill flew another Oriole from Buffalo to Syracuse on August 31, 1919. This time his passenger was Hope Eden, an actress.

In October 1919, Hill was transferred to the Curtiss Northwest Distribution Branch in Oregon known as the Oregon, Washington, Idaho Airplane Company. Hill and the other pilots in the company demonstrated Curtiss aircraft, promoted interest in aviation, and worked to establish airports, flying schools, and passenger lines.

Air Mail and Cigar Days

By the time Hill joined the U.S. Air Mail Service on July 1,1924, he was forty-three years old and had been flying continuously since 1913, intermittently since 1909. Hill was first assigned to Cleveland in September 1924, and flew between Cleveland and Hazelhurst Field in New York. He was later assigned to Hadley Field.

On the N ew York to Cleveland run, pilots flew across the Allegheny Mountains, one of the most difficult stretches for the primitively equipped planes of this period. The topography was that of gentle, forested hills, but the terrain was difficult for pilots to read. This, coupled with sudden, violent changes of weather, and few clearings in which to accomplish a forced landing, was the reason pilots gave the mountains the name "Hell Stretch."

The cigar stories about Hill date from his time in the Air Mail Service. Since cockpit instrumentation was rudimentary and often unreliable, pilots were forced to improvise. Hill was known for using cigars to time his flight path. He would carry cigars with him and light a cigar when he left Cleveland. When the cigar reached the point where it burned his fingers, he knew he was over Beaver Field in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. He would descend to the refueling stop. There are several different versions of this story told by Hill's friends. Hill was the first airmail pilot in the Eastern Division to successfully fly night mail from New York to Cleveland.

Hill never lost his interest in designing planes and one summer when he visited his old home in Scottdale, he brought with him a model he had constructed, suspended it from a clothesline and photographed it.

But for an Argument

The circumstances surrounding Hill's involvement in the transatlantic flight attempt, sponsored by publisher William Randolph Hearst, began in April1927. In early April of that year, an airplane, the Columbia, built for the Air Mail Service by Guiseppe Bellanca, achieved the world record for time aloft, 51 hours. This Wright Bellanca was capable of a transatlantic flight in the eyes of Charles Lindbergh and Lindbergh made arrangements to buy the plane.

But in April when Lindbergh arrived in New York, Charles Levine, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Columbia Aircraft Company, told Lindbergh that he would sell the plane, but he reserved the right to pick the crew. This meant that Clarence Chamberlin, the company pilot who had accomplished the record-breaking endurance flight, would fly the Columbia. Lindbergh refused and left, going to San Diego to buy the Ryan which he eventually flew across the Atlantic on May 20,1927.

On Apri126th the New York Times reported that Bellanca was considering using the Columbia for a transatlantic flight with Chamberlin as pilot. Lloyd W. Bertaud, Hill's friend and an airmail pilot on the Cleveland to New York run, was chosen to accompany Chamberlin. But there is evidence that Levine wanted to go instead. Levine and Bertaud quarreled and Levine threatened to replace Bertaud, who got an injunction to prevent the plane from leaving without him.

In the middle of all the quarreling Hill was still flying airmail, while his friend was preparing for the transatlantic flight. Hill, like the rest of the country, was aware of Bertaud's difficulties with Levine. Levine removed Bertaud and, by May 22, Bellanca had quit the Columbia Aircraft Company, leaving ownership of the plane, Columbia, in Levine's hands. The Columbia flight was scheduled for May 22, but was delayed due to an accident on the runway. For a time it was thought the Columbia would not fly. However, on June 4, 1927, with Chamberlin as pilot and with Levine on board, the Columbia took off for Europe. The pair landed in Berlin 46 1/2 hours later for the second non-stop transatlantic flight.

In the midst of the transatlantic flight fever, Bertaud and Hill were making their own arrangements for such a flight: the target, New York to Rome. Evidence for this comes from the letters in the J. D. Hill files in the West Overton Archives. On June 6, 1927, Carl F. Egge, the superintendent of the Eastern Division of the Air Mail Service, sent a telegram to Pratt & Whitney alerting them to a proposition Hill and his backers had in mind. A reply was sent to Hill on June 8, proposing a meeting with Hill on June 13.

With a favorable reply Hill wrote Bellanca, the designer of the Columbia, on June 17, describing the proposed project and asking:  "...1 have, as often stated, a great admiration for that rare combination of instinctive designing ability and engineering skill which you possess. Mr. Smith and Mr. Egge share this opinion with me and it is a very good reason for asking you to consider the designing and building of a ship."

Word of a possible New York to Rome trip involving Bellanca and La Guardia as a backer leaked to the news media. On June 24, 1927, Hill wrote J. L. Maloney at the Chicago Tribune that he had spoken with Bellanca and now that La Guardia had helped Bellanca find financial backing, the engineer was ready to design and build an airplane for them. But it would take six to seven months.

While Hill arranged for an airplane, Commander Byrd and his crew had already christened a Fokker C- 2 and were preparing to leave for Europe. Though the prize for first nonstop flight across the Atlantic had already been awarded to Lindbergh, and Chamberlin and Levine had followed with a flight to Berlin, there were still places in history to be had. Byrd's plane, the America, left on June 29, but ran into difficulties and had to ditch off the French coast. Still they had crossed the Atlantic and Hill and Bertaud could not wait until February for an airplane. There were preparations underway by others aiming for the distance prize of New York to Rome.

The arrangements with Bellanca and Pratt & Whitney evaporated and by July 7 newspapers were reporting that Bertaud, was planning to fly to Rome on a plane owned by William Randolph Hearst. The media reported that Bertaud had not picked a pilot to accompany him, but this was part of the build-up for the flight. There was never any doubt that Hill would fly with Bertaud. The pair had been making plans for such as a flight as the letters illustrate.

William Randolph Hearst sponsored the Bertaud-Hill flight through Philip Payne, the editor of Hearst's New York Daily Mirror. This flight was one in a series of "stunts" Payne had arranged in order to boost the Mirror's circulation. Hearst offered an F-VII-A Fokker monoplane that he purchased from Anthony Fokker. The plane was assembled in the Fokker factory at HasbrouckHeights. Arrangements were made to ship a Bristol-Jupiter motor from England foruse in the plane.

Brent Balchen, a test pilot who had accompanied Byrd on his June 29 flight to France, first flew the plane, christened Old Glory, on July 30. Mrs. Hearst flew in the plane on August 2, and felt the trip would be a success, but her husband had growing doubts about the flight and Payne's desire to accompany Hill and Bertaud. He urged Payne to call off the trip. Payne refused despite repeated telegrams from Hearst.

Bertaud was impatient to start, but conditions at Roosevelt Field in New York and the weight of the Fokker delayed the flight. It was decided that the field at Old Orchard Beach, Maine, offered a greater distance for takeoff and on September 3 1927, Hill, with Philip Payne as his passenger, flew Old Glory to Maine. On September 6, 1927, at 12:23 p.m., Eastern Standard Time, Old Glory took off for the trip to Rome with J. D. Hill at the controls, Bertaud on the radio, and Philip Payne as passenger. Hill, a bachelor, and with no female relative to see him off, was given a farewell by Mrs. Payne. She stepped up to kiss him and handed him a note that said "You are a fine fellow. We all love you."

Old Glory was a colorful plane with a gold cantilever wing and a silver fuselage. American flags had been painted on the top of the wing and the :words "Old Glory" beneath them. .The Fokker monoplane wing was constructed of wood, while the superstructure of the fuselage was of steel and covered in canvas. But the plane was heavy; weighing 12,700 pounds fueled. The plane was equipped with the best survival gear of the time and carried a radio station with the call letters WRHP (for William Randolph Hearst). The plane also carried an automatic transmitter that was waterproof and powered by a wind generator. The transmitter had a kite that could be released to hold aloft the antenna. On the plane the transmitter was to send out the radio call letters in Morse Code so that stations along the way could track the plane's progress.

After Old Glory's successful take off, she was repeatedly seen as Hill piloted over Nova Scotia and toward Newfoundland. But all reports indicated the plane was flying very low and making about 100 miles an hour. Bertaud sent his first message at 2:55 p.m. (EST) saying all was well, and a second at 3:55 p.m. (EST) saying that the plane was heavy. The last sighting of the plane came at 11:57 p.m. when Old Glory flew over the steamship California located 350 miles east of Cape Race, Newfoundland.

Then, at 3:57 a.m. (EST) Old Glory radioed the first SOS. Six minutes later the steam ship, Transylvania, received a second distress call. The time separation between distress calls was important to the possible survival of Hill and his companions. The Fokker's main tank held about 900 gallons of fuel and had a special valve that allowed the fuel to dump in 48 seconds. Once emptied, the tank would increase the buoyancy of the Fokker allowing Hill and the others time to inflate the survival raft, stow their survival gear, and evacuate the plane before it sank or was torn apart by the waves.

From the last sighting of Old Glory, and the direction of the SOS, Captain David Bone, of the Transylvania was able to approximate a possible location for the downed plane. He believed he was about 65 miles away and altered course to rescue the fliers. It took the Transylvania five hours to reach the location. Other ships joined in the search, but Bone's was closest. When the Transylvania reached the projected spot where the plane ditched, high seas, strong winds, and the threat of rain hampered the search. Along with four other ships, the Transylvania continued to search for over thirty hours. But as the time stretched out hope dimmed for the three men. Eventually the search was abandoned.

After the commercial ships returned to their scheduled routes, Hearst chartered the S. S. Kyle to continue the search. Five days later, on September 12, the Kyle radioed she had located the wreckage of Old Glory, but no crew. Thirty-four feet of the wing plus three tanks, the undercarriage, parts of the superstructure and canvas, and the damaged left wheel were found. The main tank, the one that might have served as a float, was missing.

Afterwards

The S. S. Kyle took the wreckage to St. John's Harbor, Newfoundland. From there the Neris A. loaded the remains of Old Glory, and, with Hearst's representatives, sailed for New York to deliver what remained of the plane to its owner. The bodies of J. D. Hill, Lloyd W. Bertaud, and Philip Payne were never found.

In October of 1927, A.G. Trimble, Hill's childhood friend, suggested that a monument be erected to Hill in Scottdale, Pennsylvania. In 1929 Charles Carroll, the pilot from Scottdale who had started the then Westmoreland-Latrobe Airport, renamed the field J. D. Hill Field after his old mentor. But the name underwent changes and today the field is known as the Arnold Palmer Airport. The field's associations with Hill and Carroll have been forgotten. Also forgotten were Hill, Bert, and Payne who on September 7, 1927, slipped beneath the waters of the Atlantic and into the pages of history.

 

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