Race with the Sun
By Carl Kuntze
Thirty-one-year-old Air Force Lt. Russell Lowell Maughan climbed into the cockpit of his biplane for the first leg of a dawn-to-dusk flight across the continental United States. It was 3:59 a.m. (EST), June 23, 1924. His journey would take him across four time zones through landscapes of varied complexity, beauty, and danger. From his perch, he would catch glimpses of expanding cities, dusty plains, craggy mountain peaks, and arid deserts. It was an experience he anticipated with excitement.
A slight drizzle sprayed vapor across Maughan’s windscreen, but that didn’t faze him. He’d flown through heavier downpours before. Fewer than two hundred spectators showed up to see him off, perhaps because of the early hour or the inclement weather. He took off from Mitchell Field, Mineola, Long Island. His final destination: San Francisco.
Mechanical failures had aborted two earlier attempts, but each tentative step gleaned more information on configurations for better airflow and more powerful propulsion methods in the fabrication of aircraft. Maughan’s plane was a Curtis PW-8 pursuit model, which in retrospect was rather flimsy, given construction material of the time. Jets carrying heavy loads over great distances were decades ahead. Charles Lindberg’s solo transatlantic flight was still three years away. On this day, Maughan was simply out to prove the flight was practical.
With this accomplishment, the U.S. military hoped to establish a dependable link between control centers and the frontlines. Planes would then deliver tactical dispatches to field commanders with speed and security. A successful flight would also demonstrate that it would be possible to deploy fighter planes in a wartime emergency. While fighter bombers were used with some effectiveness in World War I, they had little impact in the strategic outcome. There was still considerable reluctance in Congress to fund further development.
A heavy storm over Pennsylvania and 50 mph headwinds, which lasted for two hundred miles, delayed Maughan’s landing in Dayton, Ohio, until 7:59 a.m. (EST) for his first refueling stop.
Back aloft, he scanned the earth for landmarks to fix his position. Radio was still in its infancy, and air control systems were primitive. Pilots depended on visual navigation. Flying over Indianapolis, he crossed Springfield, Illinois, half an hour later before touching down at Rosecrans Field, St. Joseph, Missouri, at 10:55 a.m. (CST).
Maughan reached North Platte, Nebraska, at 12:48 p.m. (MST), then Cheyenne, Wyoming, at 2:15 p.m. He landed with greater frequency in the mountainous West. Maintenance precautions were vital at this point.
Russell was one of eleven children of Peter W. Maughan and Mary Neff. His father was one of the original settlers of River Heights, now a suburb of Logan, Utah, and his grandfather founded Maughan’s Fort in Cache Valley, a tiny settlement that would mushroom into the historic town of Wellsville. Born on March 28, 1893, Russell was raised on a farm, attending school and working part-time, pitching hay, and tending dairy cows during the summer. Barnstorming aerial exhibitions stimulated his interest in aviation.
After graduating from high school, he attended Utah Agricultural College, where his father was registrar, and eventually earned a degree in mechanical engineering, which undoubtedly proved useful when he joined the Air Force.
Bypassing Ogden at 4:45 p.m., Maughan touched down at Salduro, Utah, for his last refueling stop and moved into the Pacific time zone.
The first time he flew a warplane was over the skies of France, where in dogfights with German flyers he had come just one kill short of becoming an ace.
He remained in the service after the war. As an Air Force officer, he impressed his friends with the ease he maneuvered his aircraft through difficult exercises. Somewhat a fraternal organization, the Air Force allowed pilots considerable leeway to perform such maneuvers.
8:15 p.m. (PST): Now over Reno, Maughan was no longer apprehensive about the mountain ranges below. Soon, the shimmering waters of the Pacific Ocean would appear before fading into the failing light of dusk.
At 9:47 p.m. he landed at Crissy Field in San Francisco. As if to compensate for the disappointing sendoff, thousands of cheering crowds greeted Maughan’s touchdown. He had covered 2,670 miles in 21 hours, 48 minutes, and 30 seconds. At an average speed of 150 mph, his actual air time was 18 hours and 20 minutes; he had maintained an altitude of 500 to 1,000 feet to avoid the fierce headwinds that buffeted the plane through a good part of the flight. A brief intermission of calm allowed him to soar as high as 9,500 feet.
His feat splashed across national headlines. Among the cascade of congratulatory telegrams were those from President Calvin Coolidge and Secretary of War John Wingate Weeks, who lauded not only the scientific triumph, but also the pilot’s spirit and physical courage. Exhausted but happy, Maughan rested at the home of a military superior before drawing plans for the return flight to base.
By carrying out his assignment to its successful conclusion, Maughan disarmed skeptics, who just then were beginning to comprehend the possibilities of aviation. Its role in warfare already defined, aviation thereafter assumed an increasingly significant role on the home front. Flights like Maughan’s spurred engineers to design lighter, more durable planes and more efficient engines with better lift and thrust.
During World War II, Maughan served in the 8th Air Force in Great Britain, where he was awarded the Flying Cross. He rose to the rank of colonel. The Air Force consulted with him on strategic placement of air bases in Greenland for operations in Europe. In 1946 Maughan retired from the Air Force to devote more time to his family. He had two sons and two daughters. He sustained his interest in aviation throughout his retirement, but he now preferred a more placid life. He died in 1958 of an unspecified illness at the age of 65.
Maughan might have been lost among the footnotes of history had his descendants not exhumed his story. With the cooperation of the Air Force and the Sons of Utah Pioneers, they initiated a subscription drive that raised sufficient funds to commission a granite slab to be placed in front of the Logan, Utah, house where he was born. On opposite faces, two aluminum plates bear his likeness as well as an image of the plane flown on that 1924 flight.
The inscription on the granite slabs reproduce newspaper headlines that heralded his dawn-to-dusk flight to the world, finally bringing recognition to Russell Lowell Maughan, a forgotten pioneer in aviation.
Sources: The San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Daily News.