Chasing The Sun – A Little-Known Piece Of Aviation History

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On a side street in the northern-Utah city of Logan, a large plaque celebrates the city’s contribution to aviation history. On June 23, 1924, Logan native and U.S. Army Air Service test pilot 1st Lt. Russell Maughan became the first to complete a “dawn-to-dusk” transcontinental U.S. flight from New York to San Francisco. The flight was scheduled close to the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, for maximum daylight going east to west.

The plan was part of an Air Service program, started in 1919, to establish endurance, distance, altitude and speed records. General Billy Mitchell was keen to promote public support—and a larger slice of the budget pie—for the Air Service, later leading to his court martial for defying his superiors in tests that ultimately proved the superiority of air power over battleships. The dawn-to-dusk flight was meant to highlight the potential for rapidly moving air assets from one side of the country to the other.

Mitchell selected a modified prototype of the 435-HP Curtiss PW-8 fighter, which was derived from the R-6 Racer. The one-off version had its guns removed and extra fuel tanks installed to increase capacity to 177 gallons. After two failed attempts in 1923, the flight was rescheduled for the period surrounding the summer solstice the following year. Thirty-minute refueling stops, following recently established airmail routes, were planned for airports in Ohio, Missouri, Wyoming and Utah—Maughan’s home state. He took off from Mitchel Field, Long Island, New York at 3:58 a.m., just after sunrise.

After agonizing delays to repair a broken fuel tank valve at the first stop and an extra stop due to one of the fields being too soggy for a full-fuel takeoff, he zeroed in on the revolving light on Alcatraz Island to guide him to Crissy Field, San Francisco. After 20 hours and 48 minutes en route (18 hours and 20 minutes of actual flight time), at an average groundspeed of 156 MPH, the Curtiss touched down in front of some 50,000 spectators at 9:46 p.m. Pacific Time, just one minute before official sunset.

Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

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9 COMMENTS

  1. They launched from the East coast because the intent was to fly in only daylight and cross the country. If they launched from the west coast, it would have been night , long before they reached the East coast. At least that’s how I figure it.

    • Chuck: Wondering if you heard the sound of a writer’s palm smacking his forehead…Yes, the direction of flight was due to the objective of completing the flight within daylight hours, though it also set some other speed records that were later eclipsed by west-to-east flights with the tailwinds. I will correct this.

    • Though Daylight Savings Time was initiated in 1908, the time of the takeoff was recorded as Standard Time, for some reason. So the takeoff would have been 4:58 EDT (GMT-5). Allowing for a half-hour or so’s fudge factor for maneuvering, I suppose he could have crossed the coastline at “close-enough-for-government-work” sunrise.

    • Be careful not to confuse “dawn to dusk” with “sunrise to sunset.” The last sentence of the article can be confusing (and is actually incorrect) as it mentions sunset, but the monument makes it clear the achievement occurred between dawn and dusk.

      As pilots know, the FAA considers night time (according to 14 CFR § 1.1) as “the time between the end of evening civil twilight and the beginning of morning civil twilight, as published in the Air Almanac, converted to local time.” Morning civil twilight begins when the geometric center of the sun is 6° below the horizon and ends at sunrise. Evening civil twilight begins at sunset and ends when the geometric center of the sun reaches 6° below the horizon.

      The title on the plaque pictured on the monument specifically says “Dawn to Dusk,” not “Sunrise to Sunset.” Further, the last sentence of the first paragraph says, Lieutenant Maughan left Mitchell [sic] Field “at dawn” and arrived in San Francisco “one minute before official dusk.”

      (The correct spelling is Mitchel, (only 1 “l”) as the field was named in honor of former New York City Mayor John Purroy Mitchel who was killed while training for the Air Service in Louisiana when he fell from his airplane due to an unfastened seatbelt.)

      I don’t know what the sun was doing back in 1924, but for reference, morning civil twilight (dawn until sunrise) in Garden City, NY, this morning was from 0450 to 0524 EDT. Evening civil twilight (sunset to dusk) in San Francisco will be 2036 to 2106 PDT.

      • I forgot to mention, the last sentence of the next-to-last paragraph is also confusing and incorrect, stating Maughan “… took off … just after sunrise.” The plaque states he took off “at dawn.”

        Also, the misspelling of the field’s name is on the plaque, not in the article. Mr. Phelps got that one correct.

        And as an aside, Mitchel Field was also the site of the first flight conducted completely by instruments, with a blind takeoff, flight, and landing. That feat was accomplished 5 years later by another Lieutenant, one James Doolittle. The Cradle of Aviation Museum located there today is worth a visit.

    • Hempstead is very close, but Mitchel Field is a tiny bit farther to the east, so sunrise would be a few seconds earlier. Still, dawn (the time Lt. Maughan is reported to have left Mitchel Field) would have been about 34 minutes earlier.