NEXT MONTH marks the 50th aniversary of Charles Lindbergh's New York-to-Paris flight. Few of aviation's pioneers are still around to celebrate the occasion, but Leigh Wade, 80, of Washington knows what it was like to fly into history. Three years before Lindbergh's feat, Wade made history by flying in the other direction.
A retired Air Force general who lives in Cleveland Park, Wade is the last surviving pilot from the first round-the-world flight in 1924. Four planes took off from Seattle that April; only two made it back. It took almost six months to complete the journey, it took Wade two planes. But the world reacted as if it hadn't witnessed anything like it. It hadn't.
President Coolidge waited in the rain three hours at Bolling Field to congratulate the airmen - the first to fly across the Pacific and the first to cross the Atlantic east to west. Throngs greeted them at every inhabited stop along the way. A surging crowd at Santa Monica, Calif., lifted Wade off his feet and broke two of his ribs.
Remarkable, that was the worst injury Wade suffered on the 26.345-mile flight. There were problems enough: Frederick Martin, flying the No. 1 plane, hit a mountain, but lived to tell about it; Wade ditched in the North Atlantic when his engine quit; No. 2 pilot Lowell Smith contracted dysentery, almost grounding him; a newsman, hitching a ride with Wade to get the story firsthand, almost prevented Wade from clearing treetops leaving Calcutta because of the extra weight in the little open cockpit biplane.
Naturally, there was always fog, rain, snow or high winds threatening to end the adventure.
Wade planned none of this; he had wanted to be a doctor. Born in Cassopolis, Mich., he went west to North Dakota to work in the wheat fields, volunteered for the national guard, and got sent to the Texas border to help make the U.S. safe from Pancho Villa. On guard duty one night, Wade though he sensed trouble but all he crept up on, with fixed bayonet, were three stray horses shooing mosquitos. Bigger things were to come.
Army duty already had introduced Wade to his first plane. Back in North Dakota, a barnstormer, whose engine quit, floated down into the tent city set up by Wade's unit. Wade got to sit in the cockpit while a friend took his picture. He thought flying might be fun.
So when World War I broke out, he signed up for flight training and gained a quick, modest fame by landing his first solo flight between a man with a wheelbarrow and another with a steam roller, both refusing to be interrupted from smoothing out the air strip even by an incoming plane.
A flight instructor during the war, Wade pulled out of two nose dives, one caused by a student pilot, the other by a new plane. He had become one of the chief test pilots for the Army Air Service when he was named to the round-the-world crew. He thought someone was kidding him, but got serious upon receiving a package of sea charts with the admonition that all were "not exactly accurate."
They flew mostly at 1,000 to 2,000 feet, but sometimes almost as low as the ocean waves when fog threatened them. One day Martin dropped out of sight; engine trouble. He got in the air again only to hit the mountain. The other three went on, arriving in Japan to a reception that Wade describes as cheers mixed with consternation.
Wade says the Japanese "military element was upset" because it perceived Japan might not be impregnable from the air when a group of welcoming planes, knowing the Americans' altitude and time of arrival, flew out to greet the adventurers and missed them entirely. Further on, the Americans flew just above a British pilot attempting to make it around the world the other way and never saw him waving to them.
(Round-the-world efforts by England, France, Italy, Argentina, and Portugal, all underway at the time, all cracked up short of the objective.)
Wade almost cracked up when he took aboard AP man Linton Wells. "He came out with a great big suitcase at Calcutta," said Wade. The suitcase stayed as Wells climbed into the back seat with Henry Odgen, Wade's mechanic. (Ogden is one of two navigator-mechanics from the trip still living; the other is Alva Harvey of Falls Church, who accompanied Martin.)
"I gave him my helmet and goggles," said Wade. "I had an old pith helmet, which I tied around my chin with some cheesecloth. It was really miraculous; we just got over the treetops with the extra weight."
Wells was ordered off by the Army at Karachi as the planes rushed, as best they could, to Paris - "Vienna would have been lovely to stay an extra day" - and a luncheon with Gen. Pershing. So much for the good times.
On the way to Iceland, Wade noticed the oil pressure in his trusty craft, The Boston, dropping to zero. Soon he was dropping, too, ditching into the ocean, the victim of a broken oil pump drive shaft. Lucky he had pontoons on the plane. Not so lucky was a feeble effort by a U.S. Navy ship to hoist. The Boston on board for repairs, only to drop it accidentally back into the water.
The ship towed the plane almost to Iceland, but cut it loose to sink after the plane capsized and threatened the ship. Wade finished the trip in a backup plane, The Boston II.
In 1927, Wade had a chance to be the one to make the first nonstop U.S.-to-Europe flight. Out of the service then, he says he discussed flying the Charles Levine-owned plane that Clarence Chamberlin eventually flew. Wade also says he proposed to Richard Byrd to "help" him fly his plane across the Atlantic but so as to take no credit would cover his face with a mask on takeoff and landing, becoming forever a mystery man.
Wade rejoined the service in 1941, retiring as an Air Force major general in 1955. He tends a five-tiered backyard garden with his wife, Helen, advises several aviation organizations, and gives frequent speeches, the 1924 flight being his favorite subject.