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Four "Caterpillars" and a funeral documents on the crash of the Huff-Daland XLB-5.


Aircraft accidents were relatively common during the early days of military aviation. And while most were a flying version of "fender benders," many resulted in the destruction of an aircraft and often a loss of life. Following World War I, the U.S. Army Air Service and its successor, the Air Corps, adopted a formal system of aircraft accident investigation and reporting to improve flying safety. As a result, today the U.S. Air Force Historical Research Agency (AFHRA) at Maxwell Air Force Base (AFB), Alabama, maintains an extensive collection of accident reports from prior to World War II. This collection is one of the least known, most useful, and all-too-often ignored sources of information on early army aviation. Most of the reports comprise standard forms that record the basic facts of an accident, including the date, time, location, aircraft, individuals involved, and damage. Photographs, technical data, the pilot's record, and other pertinent material may also be part of the record. When a death occurre d, the report is usually more extensive and may include testimony, orders, letters, and messages.

Such is the case of the report on the crash of the Huff-Daland XLB--5 "Pirate" and death of Pvt. Daniel Leroy Yeager near Reynoldsburg, Ohio, on May 28, 1927. (1) This accident is intrinsically interesting for at least two reasons. First, when four members of the crew jumped from the aircraft, they became the greatest number of airmen saved by parachute during a single incident since the Air Service had mandated the use of that device in 1922. On October 20, of that year, 1st Lt. Harold R. Harris became the first Air Service pilot to use a parachute successfully Subsequently, two Dayton newsmen, Morris Hutton and Verne Timmerman and an Engineering Division employee, M. H. St. Clair, from McCook Field, established an unofficial association, the "Caterpillar Club." The name symbolized that parachutes were made of silk, and also that a caterpillar spins a cocoon, crawls out and flies away from certain death. Members of the club received a certificate, and several parachute manufacturers, especially the Irving Ai r Chute Company, also presented them with gold or silver "caterpillar pins." With the crash of the XLB--5, the roster of the Caterpillar Club expanded significantly. (2)

Second, one of the men who jumped from the XLB--5 was Maj. Lewis Hyde Brereton, commander of the 2d Bombardment Group (BG), based at Langley Field, Virginia. Brereton was one of the U.S. Army's pioneer aviators, a decorated combat veteran of World War I, and an officer with considerable operational and staff experience. As will be seen, the accident occurred at a critical juncture in his career, but he would survive the event and go on to become a lieutenant general during World War II, serve in most of the theaters of the war, and participate in several of the most controversial operations of that conflict. Beyond the accident itself, the report provides a good picture of some U.S. Army Air Corps practices related to inspection, maintenance, and accident evaluation in the late 1920s.

The XLB--5, Air Corps serial number 26-208, was one of a series of single- and twin-engine biplane bombers designed and built by Huff, Daland and Company, Incorporated, of Bristol, Pennsylvania, beginning with the XLB--1 in 1923. In March 1927, Huff-Daland became the Keystone Aircraft Corporation, and the U.S. Army ultimately purchased some 250 aircraft from the company through 1932. Almost all of its bombers were conventional, cloth-covered biplanes not much different in design or performance from those that had flown during World War I. A tangle of drag-inducing strut-and-wire external bracing and what appears to the modern eye to be a total disinterest in streamlining seem to have been the most prominent characteristics of the type. The Air Corps accepted the XLB--5--identifiable by its single vertical stabilizer and rudder--on November 12, 1926. Subsequently, the Air Corps bought ten, designated as the LB--5, which had two additional "stabilizing rudders" above the horizontal stabilizer in line with the s lipstream of the engines, giving it the appearance of having three vertical tails. And later, the Air Corps purchased thirty-five of a variant, the LB--5A, which sported the twin vertical tails standard on army bombers of the day. (3) Two water-cooled 420-hp Liberty V--1650--3 engines gave the XLB--5 a top speed of 113 mph. The United States had produced over 20,000 Liberties during World War I. Noted for its reliability, the Liberty powered a variety of larger Air Service aircraft following the war, but was coming to the end of its service life by 1927. (4)

The XLB--5 was one of twenty-eight bombers from the 2d BG that participated in the annual Air Corps maneuvers, held near San Antonio, Texas, in May 1927. Army aviation had begun conducting large-scale annual maneuvers in 1925, to allow operational training and test organization, equipment, tactics, and logistics under field conditions. The maneuvers held between May 15 and 19, featured a field army under Maj. Gen. Ernest Hinds maneuvering against a simulated enemy force. The Air Corps assembled some 108 airplanes and an airship under the Deputy Commander of the Air Corps, Brig. Gen. James E. Fechet. Major Brereton personally led ten of the bombers--six Martin NBS--1s, a Curtiss NBS--4, a Martin MB--2, a DeHavilland DH-4M-2P, and the XLB-5--to Texas. On May 2, the flight stopped at Wright Field outside Dayton, Ohio, (5) while the XLB--5 landed at nearby McCook Field, home of the Air Corps's Materiel Division. At MeCook, engineering personnel modified the blades of the XLB--5's Standard Steel Company metal prop ellers, thinning them toward the hub to provide a more consistent taper in place of the more radical taper of the stock propeller that the engineers considered susceptible to failure. They also scrutinized the blades for hairline cracks, finding none. The flight then proceeded to Texas.

Second Lt. Bernard A. Bridget piloted the XLB--5 on the return trip to Langley. A private in the Ambulance Service during World War I, Bridget had become involved in aviation long after the war, graduating from the Air Service Primary Flying School in 1924, and the Advanced Flying School Bombardment Course in 1926. (6) Despite Bridget's relative lack of time in the air, Brereton thought highly of his flying ability. In addition to Brereton, the other passengers on the ill-fated flight included two veteran Air Corps enlisted personnel, MSgt. Clyde M. Taylor and SSgt. Fred D. Miller, and a nineteen-year-old novice on his first cross-country mission, Private Yeager. (7)

The original orders directed the XLB--5 to return to Langley across Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, and the Carolinas. For reasons not in the record, however, Brereton requested a northern route that would take the aircraft to Langley by way of McCook Field and Bolling Field outside Washington, D.C. The initial leg of the journey to Ohio was uneventful. During the stop at McCook, two civilian inspectors, H. H. Barb and George Holland, examined the XLB--5's welded joints and attachment plates, inspected the control system and landing gear, and checked the crank shaft of both engines for excessive play They signed off on the aircraft on the afternoon of May 27, and the XLB--5 resumed its trip the next morning. Bridget occupied the pilot's position on the right side of the center cockpit; Brereton sat on his left. The two sergeants took stations in the rear gunner's position, where Miller operated the radio. Yeager sat by himself in the gunner's position in the nose.

Shortly afterward, the XLB--5 reached Norton Field, about seven miles east of Columbus, Ohio. Not to be confused with modern-day Norton AFB, California, Norton Field in 1927 was aviation headquarters for the U.S. Army's V Corps Area and a reserve aerodrome capable of servicing transient aircraft. (8) As he passed over the field, Bridget noticed that the right engine had suddenly lost about 300 rpm. Concerned, he turned around and landed. The suspect engine cut out after the aircraft reached the ground. While the officers and crew had lunch, Norton mechanics discovered an ignition problem: the brushes were worn out and the rotor "chewed up a bit," in Bridget's words. Following repairs, the bomber was refueled, and Bridget started the engines. While running up the right motor, he noticed that the shaft appeared to rotate slightly in what he described later as "a conical plane." This abnormality appears not to have deterred the lieutenant. He took off and, the XLB--5 soon reached an altitude of between 1,000 an d 1,200 feet. Over Reynoldsburg, ten miles east of Columbus, Bridget heard a sharp explosion. A blade of the right propeller broke off--it was found later about two miles from the main crash site--and the engine literally tore itself apart, spraying the aircraft with shrapnel. One piece hit Bridget on the right leg; another may have hit Yeager. There was little time to think. Brereton went over the left side of the fuselage. Taylor went over the right side, followed by Miller, whose radio helmet delayed his departure. The injured Bridget found that the XLB--5's controls would not respond, and when he tried to retard the throttle of the remaining engine, the aircraft seemed to fall faster. He increased power, then scrambled over the side of the fuselage. As he exited the cockpit, Bridget saw Yeager look at him. Thinking the private either stunned or afraid, Bridget yelled at him to jump, then took to his parachute.

Brereton, Taylor, and Miller landed safely Bridget's canopy barely had time to open, however, and he hit the roof of a small church in Reynoldsburg, injuring his back. The XLB--5 crashed in a nearby field. Leaving the incapacitated pilot in the care of a local doctor, Brereton, Taylor, and Miller reached the crash site some ten to twenty minutes after the airplane hit. They found Yeager dead, lying half-out of the fuselage. Miller made some effort to extricate the body, but the wreckage was saturated with gasoline. A few minutes later, it unexpectedly exploded in a ball of fire that reduced the structure to a few charred pieces and burned Yeager's body beyond recognition.

A doctor, ambulance, and contingent of troops from nearby Fort Hayes under 2d Lt. John R. McGuiness reached the crash site about an hour after the accident. Brereton asked that a truck be sent from Fort Hayes to move the wreckage to Norton Field. He and Miller then flew to McCook Field, followed later by Taylor, who had remained behind to guard the wreck. The soldiers took Bridget to the post hospital at Fort Hayes. An accident board met at McCook Field on May 29 and examined Brereton, Taylor, and Miller. It completed its work on May 31 by taking the testimony of the injured pilot in the Fort Hayes hospital. The board members concluded that the accident was caused by a catastrophic failure of the propeller of the right engine and that Yeager had died when the aircraft crashed. The board recommended that the propeller blade be thoroughly analyzed to determine why it had broken.

The Standard Steel Propeller Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, had begun producing forged duralumin propellers in the early 1920s and by 1927 was manufacturing all-metal, adjustable-pitch propellers for civilian and military use. Charles Lindbergh's "Spirit of St. Louis" was equipped with a Standard Steel prop. In 1929, the Hamilton Aero Manufacturing Company and Standard Steel Propeller Company combined to form the Hamilton Standard Propeller Corporation, the largest producer of propellers in the world at that time. The company won the Collier Trophy in 1933 for a controllable-pitch propeller patented in 1927. (9)

Efforts to locate a report of a test of the propeller blade that failed on the XLB-5 proved unsuccessful. The National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., maintains Wright Field technical data and reports from the period at its Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration, and Storage Facility in Silver Hill, Maryland. A thorough survey of the card catalog yielded nine index cards listing reports on tests of Standard Company propellers between 1925 and the end of 1927. None, however, concerned the Huff-Daland XLB-5 crash. Unfortunately, only two of the reports listed on the cards were actually in the archival files. One, however, is relevant. In December 1926, engineers tested a Standard Steel Propeller Company forged duralumin propeller from a Huff-Daland XLB-1 that had failed at the junction of the hub and blade after thirty-four hours flying time and ten hours on a test stand. The Material Section reported that the hardness, and chemical composition of the blade met Air Corps specifications. The engineer s also found minute surface cracks near the hub, but concluded that they were superficial and probably played no role in the blade failure. They did, however, discover that the tensile strength of the longitudinal specimens was "decidedly erratic." The tensile strength of samples from the hub met Air Corps specifications; the tensile strength of samples taken from the blade, however, was below specifications. (10)

The crash of the Huff-Daland came at a critical time in Maj. Lewis Brereton's career. By early 1927, a failing marriage and heavy drinking had affected his nerves, and in February, three months before the accident, he had requested sick leave so that he could consult with a specialist. Subsequently, on April 7, he was at the controls of a Huff-Daland LB-1 when engine failure caused it to crash land at Langley Field just after takeoff. A near collision with another airplane at Little Rock, Arkansas, the crash of the XLB-5, and a formal reprimand in June--for an incident during which he failed to follow orders--followed in quick succession. The crash of the XLB-5 was, thus, one episode in a chain of events that contributed significantly to Brereton's condition. Under severe stress-diagnosed at Langley as "beginning fear of flying"--Brereton removed himself from flight status and spent two months undergoing treatment by one of New York City's leading psychoanalysts. Subsequently, the major recovered fully, retu rned to flying status, and resumed his career. At the beginning of World War II, Major General Brereton was the commander of Far East Air Force (FEAF) in the Philippines. He subsequently served as deputy air commander of the American-British Dutch-Australia Command (ABDACOM) in Java, commander of Tenth Air Force in India, commander of Ninth Air Force in North Africa and Europe, and commander of First Allied Airborne Army He thus participated in such controversial episodes as the defeat of FEAF and ABDACOM; Operation Tidal Wave, the low-level attack on the Ploesti oil refineries; Operation Cobra, the breakout from Normandy; and Operation Market-Garden, the airborne assault in Holland. (11)


(1.) Crash of Huff-Daland XLB-5," May 28, 1927, Aircraft Accident and Incident Reports, 200.3912-1, Air Force Historical Research Agency (AFHRA), Maxwell AFB, Alabama. "Pirate" was the company nickname for the airplane; the Air Corps never adopted it officially

(2.) Maurer Maurer, Aviation in the US. Army, 1919-1939 (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1987), pp. 163-64; Mark S. Barbour, "The Caterpillar Club's Aviation History of Central New York State," website,, May 3, 2001.

(3.) Janes All the World's Aircraft, 1928, pp. 230-31; Maurer, Aviation in the US. Army, pp. 214-15; Huff-Daland XLB-5," USAF Museum Virtual Aircraft Gallery," U.S. Air Force Museum, Wright-Patterson AEB, Ohio, May 3, 2001; "Huff-Daland XLB-5," Joe Baugher's Encyclopedia of American Military Aircraft, May 3, 2001. The first Huff-Daland accepted by the Army was the TA-2, a single-engine training aircraft, three of which were purchased in 1920.

(4.) I. B. Holley, Jr., Ideas and Weapons, New Imprint (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1983), pp. 119-22, 124; "Liberty 12-A Engine," U.S. Air Force Museum, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, May 2, 2001.

(5.) "Wright Field, Ohio," Air Corps News Letter, May 14, 1927, p. 155 "The Joint Maneuvers at San Antonio," Air Corps News Letter, June 8, 1927, pp. 156-59; Maurer, Aviation in the US. Army, p. 239.

(6.) U.S. Army Register, for appropriate years.

(7.) This account of the accident is based upon the official report and the account in Don Glassman, JUMP: Tales of the Caterpillar Club (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1930), pp. 138-48. The incident is also mentioned in "Caterpillar Club Mounting in Membership," Air Corps News Letter, June 8, 1927, pp. 127-28.

(8.) Airport Directory Continental United States, 3 vols. (Washington, DC: Army Air Force's Aeronautical Chart Service, n.d.), III, p. 56; "Norton Field, Columbus, Ohio," Air Corps News Letter, June 8, 1927, p. 118; Maurer, Aviation in the US. Army, pp. 242, 244.

(9.) Aircraft Year Book, 1928 (New York: Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce, 1928), p. 312; Hamilton Sundstrand Division, United Technologies website, www.hamiltonsundstrandcorp.comAbout.History.htm May 9, 2001.

(10.) Material Section Report, "Duralumin Propeller--Drawing No. X-52352 for XLB-1 Airplane," December 27, 1926, D52.43/730, Archives, Paul E. Garber Facility, National Air and Space Museum, Silver Springs, Maryland.

(11.) Roger G. Miller, "'A Pretty Damn Able Commander': Lewis Hyde Brereton, Part I," Air Power History (Winter, 2000), pp. 4-27; Part II," Air Power History (Spring, 2001), pp. 22-45. Brereton's personal problems in 1927 are thoroughly detailed in Part I, pp. 15-18.

Roger G. Miller is a historian with the Air Force History Support Office at Boiling AFB, Washington, D.C. He is currently writing a history of air logistics from the Mexican border to the Persian Gulf. His articles have appeared in Air Power History, The Indiana Magazine of History, Military Affairs, Prologue, and The Air Force Journal of Logistics. Dr. Miller's book, To Save a City: The Berlin Airlift, 1949-1949, was recently published by Texas A&M University Press.
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Author:Miller, Roger G.
Publication:Air Power History
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2002
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