Newspapers called it the “Air Derby”

On Oct. 8, 1919, two groups of U.S. Army aviators took off from the East and West coasts in frail open-cockpit biplanes. They were embarking on the first leg of a transcontinental air race, the likes of which the world had never seen. Conceived by Brig. Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell, the father of the U.S. Air Force, the race was intended to show that airplanes could fly safely over long distances, transforming the nature of commerce as well as war. Mitchell hoped the race would build public and congressional support for aviation at a time when the country was rapidly demobilizing in the aftermath of World War I.

Brig. Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell
Col. Archie Miller, Benedict Crowell, Lt. Ross Kirkpatrick, Gen. Wm. Mitchell, Sgt. E.N. Bruce. Source: Library of Congress
1919 Transcontinental Air Race Map
Please click on the map for a closer look.

Things did not go quite as he had planned. Plagued by terrible weather, unreliable engines, and dangerous, ill-prepared airfields, only eight of the 63 planes that started the race actually finished the 5400-mile roundtrip journey. There were 54 crashes, countless forced landings, and seven deaths. Editorialists all but accused Mitchell of murder. Nevertheless, Americans were transfixed by the spectacle, which generated a surge of interest in all things aviation. Libraries were stripped of aeronautical books. The New York Times carried eight front-page stories on the contest. Crowds at some of the stops along the route grew so large that police were called in to keep order. And within months, U.S. Postal Service airplanes were carrying mail over the same route that Mitchell’s fliers had pioneered, vindicating his vision if not perhaps his method.

The Great Race, by veteran journalist and amateur pilot John Lancaster, will tell the story of this pivotal but largely overlooked moment in aviation history. In the coming months John will fly the same route in his two-seat light-sport aircraft, stopping at each of the 20 towns and cities–and in a few cases, the same airfields–where the Army pilots landed a century ago. He hopes his journey is a lot less exciting.

John Lancaster

John Lancaster
John LancasterAuthor

I’m a journalist by trade, and perhaps by birth as well. My dad was a reporter and editor for the Wall Street Journal, and it just seemed natural to follow in his footsteps. After graduating from college in 1980, and a stint tending bar in Vail, Colo., I landed my first reporting job at the Des Moines Tribune, a feisty afternoon daily then in fierce journalistic competition with the better-known Des Moines Register, which was owned by the same company. The work was far from glamorous. My days were filled with school board meetings and traffic pileups, spiced with the occasional lurid murder or grisly farm accident. Still, it was a classic newspaper apprenticeship of a sort that the digital age has rendered mostly obsolete, and it’s one that served me well. I subsequently worked for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where I covered the mayoral administration of Andrew Young, and in 1986 I joined the Washington Post.

I spent two decades at the Post, where I covered local news, national environmental issues, and national security, including the 1993 military intervention in Somalia. In 1994, I moved to Cairo as the newspaper’s Middle East correspondent, roaming a territory from Morocco to Iran. I returned to Washington in 1998 as a deputy foreign editor, then covered the State Department and Congress. From 2002 to 2006, I was based in New Delhi as the Post’s South Asia correspondent. Among other stories, I covered the A.Q. Khan nuclear scandal, the 2004 Asian tsunami, and the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. Only later did I learn that I’d passed within a stone’s throw of the compound where Osama bin Laden spent his final years.

In 2007, I left the Post to free-lance. My work has appeared in National Geographic magazine, The New Republic, Slate, Smithsonian, National Geographic Traveler; The Smart Set; and I’ve also written for a surfing magazine and a couple of nonprofits. A piece I wrote for Smithsonian was included in the 2008 edition of “Best American Travel Writing.”

I’ve long been casting around for a book idea, and my search led naturally to aviation. I’ve been a propeller head since way back. As a youth I devoured the aviation-themed works of Ernest K. Gann, among others, and the summer after college earned my private pilot’s license, toying briefly with the idea of making flying a career. Several years ago I was reading a work of aviation history when I stumbled across a reference to the 1919 transcontinental race. As I learned more about the subject, I realized that it captured a threshold moment in American aviation–a bridge between the eras of the Wright Brothers and Charles A. Lindbergh. Also, it would give me an excuse to fly again. The idea for this project was born.

A Book and a Journey

Follow John on his journey as he crosses the continent.