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HERITAGE SERIES: Before Court Martial, Mitchell Set Air Record at Selfridge

  • Published
  • By TSgt. Dan Heaton
  • 127th Wing Public Affairs
(Part of an ongoing series of historic profiles on key Airmen & events in the early history of Selfridge Air National Guard Base.)

The press still called him William then.

Still three years away from the future court martial that would cement his name in Air Force history, Major Gen. Billy Mitchell added a footnote to his very full resume during a 1922 visit to Selfridge Field. During a 1922 series of air races at Selfridge, Mitchell set a new air speed record while flying at the base - moving so fast that his leather helmet was "slit by the wind during his rush through the air" in an open-cockpit Curtiss R-6 biplane.

Mitchell first rose to prominence as a pilot in the Army Air Service during World War I, where he was the first American to fly over enemy German lines. During the war, he commanded all American air operations and planned the air campaign during the crucial Battle of Saint-Mihiel, which involved the use of nearly 1,500 American, British, French and Italian aircraft in what was the first major coordinated air-ground campaigns in history. After the war, he was appointed assistant chief of the Air Service and began a lifelong campaign to advocate for the advancement of air power.

In 1921, he famously orchestrated the Ostriesland trials, during which U.S. aircraft sank an ex-German Navy battleship. Senior officers in the U.S. Navy complained that Mitchell did not follow the prescribed rules of the trials. Mitchell's brash nature did not help the situation. The confrontation between the Navy and its supporters and Mitchell led to a showdown in which Mitchell was relieved of his position as assistant chief of the Air Service, reduced down from his temporary war time rank of brigadier general - which he was still wearing more than two years after the end of World War I - and returned to his permanent rank of colonel. He was also transferred to Texas - well away from the power circles in Washington D.C.

While the showdown between the Mitchell - still wearing one star and serving as assistant chief of the air service - and the Navy was in full swing, Mitchell paid a visit to Selfridge Field in October 1922 for the National Airplane meet. While there, Mitchell set an official air speed record of 224.05 miles per hour on Oct. 18.

While Mitchell set the record, however, he was not the fastest pilot at the meet.

Four days earlier, at the same meet, Army Lt. Russell L. Maughan flew 248.5 miles per hour in the same Curtiss R-6. Maughan's flight, however, occurred before the arrival of the official observers from the Federal Aeronautique Internationale, or FAI, which prevented it from being considered "official."

An estimated 75,000 spectators packed Selfridge Field for the trials - Detroit had declared a municipal holiday on the date of Maughan's flight. Several records were broken during the course of the 1922 races, including average speed over a 50 kilometer course (206 mph) and top speed overall.

Maughan said during the race he was "lost four times in the haze" and was "stunned more or less" at each of the 15 turns he had to make, becoming unconscious at one point. "When I regained my senses, I was almost skimming the waves of Lake St. Clair," said after landing and claiming the Pulitzer Trophy for winning the race.

In reporting on the events of the Selfridge races, The New York Times, Detroit News and other media outlets refer to Mitchell by his formal name "William," rather than "Billy" as he is now universally known.

In 1923, a Navy dirigible, the Shenandoah crashed, killing all 14 aboard. Mitchell issued a statement that Army and Navy incompetence and "almost treasonable administration of national defense" helped lead to the crash. That was the step too far and Mitchell was charged with insubordination and other offenses in a court martial. While a number of notable pilots - including Eddie Rickenbacker, Hap Arnold and the man who had served as the first Selfridge Field commander, Byron Q. Jones - testified on Mitchell's behalf, the technical legal issue at hand in the trial was Mitchell's insubordination - not his views on air power. Mitchell was convicted and sentenced to a reduction in pay and rank. Mitchell chose instead to resign from the military.

Mitchell died in 1936, an advocate for air power until the end of his life. In 1942, during World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt posthumously promoted Mitchell to the rank of major general (Mitchell had topped out at brigadier general while in uniform) in recognition of Mitchell's contributions to air power, which were then coming to the fore in WWII.

Maughan, who served in the U.S. Army 1917-1946 and retired as a colonel, would go on to set several other marks as a pilot. In 1923, he set an official speed record flying 236.5 mph. In 1924, after two unsuccessful attempts in 1923, he flew the first "dawn-to-dusk" transcontinental flight of the U.S., marking the first time an aircraft had crossed the country in a single "daylight" period. The idea for the flight was conceived by Mitchell as a means to garner support for the Army Air Service.

Selfridge Field was the sight of a number of important early air races and air demonstrations, but probably none as significant as the high speed tests of 1922 which helped lead to, among other changes, an end to open cockpit military aircraft and advancements in helmets for pilots.

Comprised of approximately 1,600 personnel and flying both the A-10 Thunderbolt II and the KC-135 Stratotanker, the 127th Wing supports Air Mobility Command, Air Combat Command and Air Force Special Operation Command by providing highly-skilled Airmen to missions domestically and overseas. The 127th Wing is the host unit at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, which marked its 95th year of continuous military air operations in 2012.