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The High Altitude Pursuit Pilot

Captain Hugh M. Elmendorf, for whom Elmendorf Air Force Base was named, was never assigned to Alaska, nor is there any record of his visiting the Great Land. Yet his presence is felt still throughout the Air Force. He pioneered high altitude formation flying tactics during the 1920s and early 1930s and wrote several scientific papers on the subject.

Hugh M. Elmendorf (1895-1933)

Hugh Merle Elmendorf was born on Elm Street in Ithaca, New York on 3 January 1895. He learned the skills of self reliance while obtaining an excellent education. His father, William C. Elmendorf, was a mayor of the city. Hugh attended public school and later, Cornell University. He received his Mechanical Engineering Degree in May 1917, less than a month after the United States declared war on Germany. He joined the military in August 1917.

During WWI he was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant of infantry on 15 August 1917, 1st Lieutenant on 9 February 1918 and Captain on 28 October 1918. He served at Camp Greene, NC until April, 1918 when he was transferred to Camp Benning, GA as an instructor, but he never got to the war in Europe.

This may have rankled him; on 10 March 1921 Hugh transferred to the Air Corps and, after completing primary training at Carlstrom Field, Arcadia, FL, and advanced training at Ellington Field, Houston, TX, he was rated a pursuit pilot on 7 December 1921. Others began to refer to him as "a natural."

He subsequently served with the 1st Pursuit Group at Ellington Field and then Selfridge Field, Michigan. He commanded the 19th Pursuit Squadron (currently assigned to Elmendorf Air Force Base and the 3rd Wing) from 1922-1924. After a three-year tour of duty in Hawaii at Wheeler Field and Ford Island, he returned to Selfridge Field and assumed command of the 94th Pursuit Squadron.

A superb gunner who mastered the fine art of deflection shooting, Hugh won the Army Air Corps aerial gunnery competition at Langley Field, VA on 16 July 1927 with the highest score ever recorded.

Hugh and 1st Lieutenant Irvin A. Woodring became entangled in some of the strangest coincidences ever to befall airmen from 1927-1933. On 14 July 1927, the two were involved in a ground collision at Selfridge Field. Hugh had no sooner made a landing in a P-1 Pursuit plane when a Transport plane, piloted by Woodring who was given improper clearance and was just taking off, collided with it. The left wing of the Transport slid up along the fuselage of Hugh's plane, striking him on the top of his head and crashing him down in the cockpit. Hugh broke his back and damaged his spinal cord. He remained hospitalized for months at Walter Reed Hospital.

In July, 1927, after recovering from the accident, he returned to flying status. He was assigned to command the 95th Pursuit Squadron at Rockwell Field, San Diego, CA. His work there focused on developing tactics for combat at extremely high altitudes.

On 12 April 1930, nineteen pilots led by Hugh set a record for high-altitude formation flying. The P-12 pilots reached 30,000 feet, shattering the old record of 17,000 feet.

On 23 April 1930, during the Air Corps Maneuvers at Sacramento, CA, Hugh and Woodring engaged in a mock dogfight as part of the program arranged in honor of the people of Sacramento. During the demonstration, Woodring was seen to shoot out of his plane. He fell a hundred feet or so. Successfully deploying his parachute just in time, Lieutenant Woodring barely escaped with his life. According to Woodring, his plane had started to spin out of control and he realized that a crash was inevitable. He loosened his safety belt at about a thousand feet and was immediately catapulted into space.

In 1931, the Detroit Aircraft Corporation, parent company of the Lockheed Aircraft Company, built a two-seat single-engine fighter aircraft based on the Lockheed Altair high-speed transport as a private venture. The prototype, the Detroit-Lockheed XP-900, flew in September 1931 and was purchased by the United States Army Air Corps as the Lockheed YP-24. Its performance was impressive, being faster than any fighter then in service with the Air Corps, and an order for five Y1P-24 fighters and four Y1A-9 attack aircraft was placed for the new aircraft, despite the loss of the prototype on 19 October 1931. The Detroit Aircraft Corporation went into bankruptcy eight days later, however, leading to the cancellation of the contract.

When the Detroit Aircraft Corporation failed, the chief designer of the YP-24, Robert J. Woods was hired by Consolidated Aircraft. Woods continued to develop the YP-24, the design becoming the Consolidated Model 25, with all-metal wings replacing the wooden wings of the YP-24 and a larger tail. The Army Air Corps ordered two prototypes as the Y1P-25 in March 1932, to be powered by a Curtiss V-1570-27 engine, fitted with a turbo-supercharger on the port side of the forward fuselage. The order for the second prototype was quickly changed to a Y1A-11 attack aircraft, omitting the supercharger. First to fly was the Y1P-25, which was delivered to the Air Corps on 9 December 1932. It demonstrated promising performance, reaching a speed of 247 miles per hour (398 km/h) at 15,000 feet (4,600 m).

Consolidated Y1P-25

In January 1933, both Lieutenant Woodring and Captain Elmendorf were assigned by the Air Corps Chief of Staff to test fly the Consolidated Y1P-25 prototype and the ground attack variant, the XA-11.

After a series of test maneuvers in the Y1P-25 on Friday, 13 January 1933, Hugh was seen to slump forward and become unresponsive. His rear seat observer, Captain O.D. "Monk" Hunter managed to escape the doomed aircraft at only 100 feet above the ground. It was felt that the old spinal injury had caused Hugh to lose consciousness or motor control in the high G-forces. Exactly one week later, Lieutenant Woodring joined Hugh in death as the XA-11 plummeted to the ground. Both accidents were not attributable to design flaws in the new aircraft which subsequently went into series production as the P-30 and the PB-2.

In the slow promotion period of the 1920s and 1930s, Hugh attained only the rank of Captain, but his friends and students went on to lead the largest Air Force ever assembled in World War II and he doubtless would have become one of the more important leaders of the U.S. Army Air Forces had he lived. As it was, his friends did not forget his faithful service and selflessness, appealing to congress that the new airfield near Anchorage, Alaska be named in his honor. On 12 December 1940, War Department General Order No. 9 made it official.

Hugh was survived by his wife Irene, and young daughter, Virginia. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery on Monday, 16 January 1933. Planes from Bolling Field flew over the grave during the last rites.


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