Suppose you are cruising along in an airliner at 34,000 feet, nestled comfortably in your seat in a heated, pressurized environment. Now image turning to look out of your window and, to your amazement, you catch a glimpse of a cloth-covered triplane with the pilot sitting in the open, wearing heavy coveralls, goggles, a leather helmet, and sucking on an oxygen tube. Such was the case in 1919 when Roland Rohlfs reached six miles high in a Curtiss Triplane.
Record altitude flights began with the Wright brothers. During the fall of 1908 Wilbur Wright demonstrated his Flyer for French officials at Camp d’Auvours, Le Mans, France, outside of Paris. On Nov. 13, 1908, at the Camp d’Auvours military field where the second series of flying demonstrations were held, Wright won the Aéro-Club de la Sarthe Prize for altitude flown above balloons set at 30 meters high.
At about the same time at Issy, France, Henri Farman climbed to the same altitude. On Nov. 18 Wright soared over 90 meters and the competition for altitude records was on.
Record heights only gradually increased until what was called “the world’s first great altitude flight” took place Dec. 28, 1913, when Georges LeGagneux was the first to reach an altitude of over 20,172 feet or approximately four miles up in the air.
While the advent of World War I slowed record attempts, it boosted interest in the development of high altitude aircraft. One development from the war that would affect later altitude flights was work on turbo-superchargers, which would compensate for the lack of oxygen at high altitudes.
At the end of 1918 the world altitude record was 28,000 feet, set by Capt. Rudolph Schroeder of the US Army at McCook Field, Dayton, Ohio, on Sept. 18, 1918. The plane was a Curtiss-built British Bristol fighter that had been equipped with a 300-hp Wright-built Hispano-Suiza engine.
The following spring the French made a series of flights to set a new world’s altitude record. On May 28, 1919, French Air Service Lt. Jean-Paul Casale, using a specially built Nieuport-Delage 40R, reached an altitude of 30,050 feet, about 5.5 miles up, just barely besting Schroeder’s record. Casale would try again on June 7, reaching 31,160 feet, a new world’s record, at 5.9 miles. On June 14 he would break his own record by climbing to 33,136 feet, breaking the six-mile mark.
Efforts then shifted back to the United States with the introduction of the Curtiss Wasp and the piloting skills of Curtiss Chief Test Pilot Roland Rohlfs.
Rohlfs, who began his career in 1914 as a mechanic with the Curtiss Aeroplane Co., became the company’s chief test pilot in early 1918 when the Curtiss Company formed the new Engineering and Experimental Development Division at Garden City, Long Island.
The Curtiss Model 18, known as the Wasp, was a two-place fighter designed specifically for the new 400-hp Kirham K-12 engine, a water-cooled geared V-12. The K-12 would give the Model 18 world-record performance.
In a test in August 1918, Rohlfs flew the plane to a top speed of 163 mph, making it the fastest airplane at the time.
During flight test work in 1918, the company realized it was possible to use the Wasp to establish a new altitude record. In March 1919 Rohlfs climbed to 26,000 feet, descending only because of the failure of the oxygen system. It was decided then to try for a world’s altitude record and a special version of the plane was designed with increased wing surface area, raising the intended service ceiling from 30,000 to 35,000 feet.
On July 25 Rohlfs climbed to 31,100 feet to break the year-old American record held by Schroeder, but not enough to break the world’s record. Rohlfs’ efforts would continue with a flight on July 30 reaching 31,700 feet. Sept. 13 saw a third flight climbing to 34,200 feet to set a new world’s record. A fourth flight sealed the deal with an altitude of 34,610 feet. This record would stand until turbo-supercharged engines came into use.
So, the next time you are jetting along in the stratosphere, remember Roland Rohlfs and the other pioneers who risked life and limb, frozen fingers, frozen eyeballs and hypoxia to get us six miles up.
NOTE ON RECORDS
In researching the record altitudes set on these flights, I found it difficult to find uniform reporting. In one case for Casale, four different sources list four different altitudes reached on the June 7, 1919, flight. I also found discrepancies on other flights by the other pilots. One source in a book covering LeGagneux’s flight provide a different altitude than given by LeGagneux in a quote in the book. Thus, I have used numbers provided by Flight, Aviation and The New York Times.
Dennis Parks is Curator Emeritus of Seattle’s Museum of Flight. He can be reached at email@example.com.