Four "Caterpillars" and a Funeral Documents on the Crash of the Huff-Daland XLB-5

By Miller, Roger G. | Air Power History, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Four "Caterpillars" and a Funeral Documents on the Crash of the Huff-Daland XLB-5


Miller, Roger G., Air Power History


FOUR "CATERPILLARS" AND A FUNERAL DOCUMENTS ON THE CRASH OF THE HUFF-DALAND XLB-5, MAY 28, 1927

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. …

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