This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
Hundreds of Cow Towners skipped church on Sunday, May 19, 1929 and slipped out to the municipal airport to give the “Fort Worth” a rousing send-off.
Though dangerously overloaded with fuel and every conceivable carry-on, the monoplane cleared the runway with plenty of room to spare at exactly 11:33 a.m. Reginald L. Robbins and James Kelly climbed to 2,000 feet and set their course for nowhere. To inscribe their names in the aviation annals, the barnstormers hoped to break the world record for continuous flight by circling the city for a solid week.
“Reg” Robbins was a 26-year-old mechanic, who had learned to fly by hanging around aerodromes. Since buying the Ryan two-seater second-hand and installing a rebuilt motor, the same kind that powered “The Spirit of St. Louis” over the Atlantic in 1927, he had earned a living by taking paying customers on their first plane ride.
Three years younger than his sidekick, Kelly had put aside a portion of his cattle-punching pay as a West Texas cowboy until he could afford the tuition at a Fort Worth flying school. The proud possessor of a shiny new pilot’s license was not about to let his inexperience hold him back.
The first midair refueling took place at 6:30 Monday morning. A second aircraft with K.K. Hoffman at the controls and H.S. Jones handling the chores joined the “Fort Worth” at 1,800 feet for the tricky maneuver.
An on-the-scene reporter for the Associated Press reviewed the risks. “The hose may strike the propeller, gasoline may spill on some hot portion of either plane and set either or both afire, the planes may foul each other, or the manipulators of the hose may be jerked overboard by an unexpected rough spot in the air.”
In spite of the hazards and a lack of practice, the coupling was completed and the “Fort Worth” took on 110 gallons. When Kelly signaled the tank was full, Jones reeled in the rubber hose.
Next a barracks bag containing four gallons of oil and a day’s rations was lowered on a 40-foot rope. The recipient had to brave a 70 mile-per-hour gale, the air speed of the planes, to wrestle the heavy bag into the cabin.
This perilous two-step procedure was repeated three times daily. By the second day, the four participants had it down pat and never gave the danger another thought.
Prior to the second rendezvous on Monday, Robbins and Kelly dropped a note at Meacham Field requesting parachutes. But when the refueling crew tried to deliver the emergency equipment, their friends waved them off. There simply was not enough space on the Fort Worth for the bulky lifesavers.
In a display of good sportsmanship, the record holders — five Army aviators that had stayed aloft 151 and a half hours — loaned the challengers a couple of compact chutes. While the khaki kings hated the thought of being dethroned, they did not want the civilians to die trying.
Once a day, Kelly gave earthbound onlookers a thrill and his heart a brisk workout by greasing the rocker arms. To perform this otherwise routine maintenance, he crawled out of the cabin to a specially constructed perch in front of the propeller. One wrong move, and the cowboy would have been coleslaw.
The supply plane pilot reported on Tuesday that Robbins and Kelley were “still cheerful,” and the motor of the Fort Worth was “purring like a cat.” Just before midnight, the Texans surpassed the nonstop mark for a two-man crew set the previous July by a pair of Belgians.
Pilots and plane seemed to be as fit as fiddles at the halfway point on Wednesday afternoon. In addition to food, chewing tobacco and a big bottle of aspirin, Robbins and Kelly received their initial batch of fan mail which had begun pouring into the local post office.
The duo raised their sights on Thursday in a message which read, “We will try not only for a new record but a good one.” That evening they broke the monotony of their permanent holding pattern by buzzing the amusement park at Lake Worth.
By Friday the sky were thick with sightseers, who paid a pretty penny for a close look at the high-flying heroes. Kelly’s worried bride issued a public appeal for observation aircraft to stay a safe distance from her groom of six weeks.
Fort Worth went crazy with sirens, whistles, horns and fireworks, when the old record fell on Saturday night. Robbins and Kelly, who already had announced their intention not to come down for 200 hours, made a triumphant pass over the airport and commented in the usual way, “It sure is a fine crowd.”
But a cracked propeller ended the adventure the following day after 172 hours and 32 minutes. In a mob scene reminiscent of the wild Paris reception for Charles Lindbergh, twenty thousand spectators broke through a fence and police lines to welcome the tired Texans back to terra firma.
Syndicated columnist BARTEE HAILE has written about Texas history for the San Marcos Mercury since 2011. Haile welcomes your comments or questions by mail at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.
COVER PHOTO: The “Fort Worth,” Ryan Aeronautical B-1 Brougham monoplane, is refueled in mid-air during a flight to Tucson in 1929, the same year that Reginald L. Robbins and James Kelly set a world record for continuous flight without ever leaving site of the city of Fort Worth. PHOTO via DAVIS-MONTHAN AVIATION FIELD REGISTEREmail | Print