“After running the motor a few minutes to heat it up, I released the wire that held the machine to the track, and the machine started forward into the wind,” reported Orville Wright in the December 1913 issue of Flying magazine.
Though possibly not the first pilot report in an aviation journal, it sure is a pilot report about the oldest aircraft.
Though flight test articles became a common feature of general aviation magazines in the 1960s and on, these pilot reports on performance and handling of aircraft were rare before World War II. The emergence of flight test articles on new private aircraft owe their origins to two magazines: The Sportsman Pilot and Air Facts.
THE SPORTSMAN PILOT
The Sportsman Pilot magazine was launched in the late 1920s under the title Yachting and Sportsman Pilot. It was devoted mainly to the activities of wealthy yachtsmen and pilots who could afford to fly purely for pleasure rather than business.
Later Yachting was dropped from the title and the magazine became a strictly aviation publication. It expanded its editorial focus to include those of less affluence who were gaining entrance to aviation via the low-powered lightplanes of the day, such as Aeroncas, and Cubs.
The most distinguishing feature of the publication was its column “The Sportsman Test Pilot.” With this feature, one of its distinguished writers, Lewin Barringer, essentially invented the flight test report article in the mid-1930s. Barringer, who learned to fly in 1929 and began flying gliders in 1930, was the operator of the Wings Gliding School near Philadelphia.
The first pilot report he wrote appeared in the Aug. 15, 1934, issue of The Sportsman Pilot. The test aircraft was the new 125-horsepower Kinner B-2 Sportwing.
The report started with general characteristics of the plane: “Here is a ship which really lives up to its name. Half the sport of flying for most of us is taking someone up with us. If we can seat him or her beside us and talk as we fly, out enjoyment of the flight is doubled. That’s what the Kinner engineers have designed it to enable you to do.”
In the air with the throttle set for cruising at 1,750 rpm, the air speed showed a shade better than 105 mph, which he reported was not bad for 125 horsepower.
In the air he tried some verticals. “She rolled over very easily, and I held her for a full turn to the left. Then throwing the stick hard over and reversing the rudder, I tried to see how quickly she would go from a left to a right vertical. I did not have to push the stick hard; she followed me so quickly and smoothly that I was surprised. I can’t remember when I have flown a ship of this type which has responded so nicely.”
Barringer set the foundations for pilot reports for readers of general aviation magazines. His contributions as a test pilot author for the magazine ended in 1935 when he went to Iran as pilot for the Harvard Archaeological Expedition.
By October 1935 Robert Renfro, the editor of The Sportsman Pilot, decided that they missed the test pilot articles and engaged Franklin T. Kurt to carry on with the series. Kurt was an MIT graduate who learned to fly with the U.S. Navy in 1925. While writing the flight test articles for the magazine he was an engineer for the Viking Flying Boat Co.
His first flight report appeared in the Oct. 15, 1936, issue of The Sportsman Pilot. Kurt reported that “If we don’t say what we think, the articles will be worthless. We hope to present a few facts about each ship that would otherwise go unpublished, and if an occasional opinion creeps in, our readers may lay it — or throw it — at the author’s feet alone. After all, the Bureau of Air Commerce sees to it that no bad airplanes reach the market, and their final acceptance becomes a matter of opinion only.”
The aviation community was fortunate that when The Sportsman Pilot magazine departed the publishing scene in 1943, a new publication, Air Facts, appeared to take on the mantel of being the provider of flight test reports.
The founder and editor of Air Facts was Leighton Collins, who first learned to fly in 1928 and held a commercial certificate. Before founding Air Facts, he had been a sales representative for Aeronca and later Lambert Aircraft. Just prior to creating Air Facts he had been a flight instructor for two years.
The first issue, dated Feb. 1, 1938, debuted with the subtitle “Facts, Knowledge, Safety.” And to this end almost every issue of the magazine contained flight test articles.
These articles were excellent reports on the behavior, especially from a safety viewpoint, of the subject aircraft. The articles became a regular monthly feature and were more detailed than those that appeared in The Sportsman Pilot. The pilot reports were often eight pages in length.
His reports were exact and critical. For example, from the March 1939 article on the Luscombe 50 (Model 8): “A few items appear to deserve particular consideration. The cabin noise level and vibration are objectionable. The gap between really noisy and quiet airplanes, even in the small ship category, is becoming rapidly wider. To build a good performing but noisy airplane may be as far as engineering would go, but after an airplane is built, someone has to sell it.” He added that hopefully time will bring improvements in the airplane.
These flight test articles provided a great deal of insight into the construction, performance and behavior of light aircraft in their formative years just before and after World War II and form the basis for the pilot reports that became a standard feature in general aviation magazines since the 1960s.