Story by Kyle Thede, SC&A intern and Public History graduate student
Lieutenant Fairchild was still humming the familiar refrain of “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” though the constant howl of the wind rushing past his open cockpit drowned out any trace of what could be called music. He smiled as he glanced down at the houses 2,500 feet below his Thomas-Morse fighter before his eyes fixed on the tiny monoplane climbing to meet him. Harris was on his way up, and the game was on.
Of course, calling anything as serious and dangerous as experimental test flying a “game” verged uncomfortably close to tempting fate, but simulated combat with Harris was always a sort of thrill, in any case. Fairchild allowed his thoughts to flash momentarily back to California, to Italy, to training both on the ground and in the air alongside his friend, and the adrenaline fueling their good-natured rivalry coursed through him as he swung his biplane around, facing down Harris’ Loening fighter head-on.
Keeping his friend’s airplane in his gunsights, Fairchild’s knuckles whitened around the joystick as the two fighters barreled towards each other. With a flick of the wrist, Fairchild sailed off to one side as Harris banked around to the other, the airplanes whizzing past each other. Remembering the plan for the test, Fairchild pushed his biplane’s nose down into a shallow dive, glancing briefly over his shoulder as Harris maneuvered behind his tail. Opening up the throttle, Fairchild could barely conceal his grin as he watched the airspeed needle climb past 150 mph. Time to see who could outrun who.
Gradually banking his plane to the left, Fairchild turned again, looking over his shoulder,
expecting to see Harris shrinking into a speck far behind him. What he saw instead made his blood run cold. The Loening was pitched upwards, its wings rippling violently as the whole craft shook from side. Instinctively steepening his turn, Fairchild wheeled around to get a closer look, the simulated combat gone from his mind. Watching in horror as Harris’ plane pitched over into a dive, its wings collapsing, Fairchild followed, desperately trying to keep his friend in view as his own plane hurled towards the ground.
As his own wings began to shudder in protest, Fairchild pulled back on the stick, barely noticing the g-forces pinning him to his seat as he helplessly watched Harris disappear, plummeting through a cloud. Gone, just like that. Fairchild, like his friend, had been witness to many airplane accidents over the years, and he no longer held any illusions as to what they entailed. The return to McCook Field and landing passed by in a daze, Fairchild’s heart heavy with grief as he stepped out of the cockpit. He almost didn’t hear Ensign Williams, the new guy, running up to him and shouting something.
“Lieutenant Fairchild! Lieutenant! It’s Lieutenant Harris! He’s in the sick bay!”
It took Fairchild a second for the words to make sense. Harris was gone. He had fallen out of the sky in a disintegrating airplane. There was no way he –
Sure enough, Harris was more than happy to regale the story of how he’d bailed out of the crashing Loening – the first time such a thing had ever been done – just moments later, when Fairchild met him in the sick bay. Again, Fairchild barely heard anything, the overwhelming relief of seeing his friend alive and well – albeit badly bruised – covering everything else.
Harold Harris’ career in aviation is a long, varied one, extending into both the military and commercial spheres. One of his most prominent distinctions, however, is his being the first airman ever to use a parachute in a real emergency. The exciting story of just how it happened can be read – in Harris’ own words – in the Harold Harris Papers, 1917-1988 (MS-214), Special Collections & Archives, Wright State University. This post is simply a recounting from a slightly different perspective.