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When Elis Ruled the Skies
Just after the Great War, veterans-turned-students squared off in a test of aerial ability. The future founder of Pan Am helped lead Yale to victory.

While Yale has participated in a number of “firsts” in intercollegiate competition, including the first crew race (1852) and the first hockey game (1896), the University’s triumph in the first Intercollegiate Air Contest in 1920 has been all but forgotten. The competition pitted Yale’s best pilots against those of ten other Eastern colleges.

For its team, Yale turned to three students and a recent alumnus, all of whom had flown in the Great War. Juan Trippe '20S had been an ensign and instructor in the Naval Reserve Flying Corps, G. Willard Horne '21S and William A. Hanway '19 had been second lieutenants in the Air Service, and first lieutenant Sumner Sewall '20 had received the Distinguished Service Cross with oak-leaf cluster for destroying seven enemy planes. The team would be required to demonstrate their skill in four events-a cross-country race, a “shooting-the-mark-contest,” acrobatics, and an “alerte contest.”

By midday on May 7, the day of the meet, 11 finely tuned aircraft were lined up in front of the hangars at Mitchell Field in Mineola, Long Island. Each was surrounded by a crew of mechanics making final adjustments to the engines and wing bracing. (In addition to the trophies to the champion pilots, a $100 prize was to go to the “mechs” of the winning plane.)

Some 2,500 spectators who had motored out from New York City waited in anticipation. At 2 o'clock, the cross-country flyers took the air, all staying below 100 feet. Turning the first pylon, Yale pulled up from sixth place behind the leader, Princeton, to third place. Flying the next leg of 12 miles to Amityville, Yale was flying nose-to-nose with Cornell and Pittsburgh, only ten feet apart and 30 feet above Merrick Road. From overhead, Penn dove down to overtake them, but Yale dove even deeper-to ten feet from the ground-banked, and made a sharp turn around the post to take the lead on the third leg. Penn and Yale flew side by side, leaving the other seven racers far behind, until Yale, brushing the treetops for the last two miles, pulled ahead and crossed the chalk line at Mitchell Field six seconds ahead.

In the second event, aerial acrobatics, the crowd took in the sputter and roar of the rotary engines and the smell of burnt castor oil as Yale won second place behind Columbia. The Princeton craft won the third event, “shooting the mark for accuracy,” by stopping exactly in the center of a 40-foot circle. The final event, the “alerte contest,” tested wartime skills most directly. Upon hearing the explosion of a bomb dropped from a captured German Fokker, each pilot in turn had to leap from a cot in his tent, suit up, run across the field, jump into his plane, wait for the mechanic to spin the propeller, and take off. First in the air in just 80 seconds was Williams, with Wesleyan second, and Yale third.

Winning the meet with a total of nine points, Yale was awarded the four-foot silver American Flying Club trophy and the large cup provided by the Cleveland Aero Club for the main event, the cross-country race. In presenting the cups at the celebration dinner that night at the Yale Club in New York City, officers representing the War Department remarked on the value of the event to the Air Service. The contest, they said, had proved that pilots trained at a cost of $11,000 each could be recalled if necessary and fly efficiently. Further, they added, since college-trained men apparently made the best pilots, the War Department would help secure appropriations to establish more R.O.T.C. ground schools.

As for Yale’s flying aces, two of them went on to careers in aviation. Sumner Sewall devoted his time to air transport activities and became a director of United Air Lines. Juan Trippe organized one of the first air-passenger services in the United States in 1923 and formed Eastern Air Transport in 1925. Two years later, with the backing of fellow alumni, he formed an international airline, Pan American Airways.  the end


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