WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — A World War I airplane identical to the one that was piloted by the only Wichitan to be awarded an aviation Medal of Honor, Erwin Bleckley, is undergoing restoration in the Air Capital of the World.
The group of Wichitans working on this project say that they are working to learn more about who flew this specific aircraft, reiterating to KSN that this was not the aircraft flown by Bleckley.
About the aircraft: The DH-4
“This aircraft is as authentic as you can actually get. It’s got the 1918 manufactured data plate in it, it’s got all the original air instruments in it, the throttle controls, it has the original 400 horsepower Liberty engine!” Bleckley Airport Memorial Foundation Board Member Grant Schumaker told KSN in May of last year.
The aircraft, an Airco DH-4, or de Havilland, was a two-seater airplane that was modeled after a British design. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps only had 132 obsolete aircraft, according to the National Museum of the United States Air Force.
The Smithsonian National Postal Museum says that in 1917, Colonel R.C. Bolling went to Europe to look at designs of Allied aircraft to replace the Air Service’s fleet. The DH-4 stuck out to Bolling because of its simple design and potential for mass production.
The largest producer of the DH-4 aircraft in World War I was the Dayton-Wright Company who, by the end of the war, delivered over 3,000 of the aircraft to the Air Service. The Air Service actually ordered 12,000 DH-4’s, but production quality and design conflicts caused significant problems with delivery.
All told, the total amount of DH-4s built and delivered to the Air Service was 4,846, over 7,000 short of their order of 12,000.
- Dayton-Wright Company: 3,106
- Fisher Body Division of General Motors: 1,600
- Standard Aircraft Corporation: 140
According to the National Museum of the United States Air Force, The DH-4’s primary use was daytime bombing, observation, and artillery spotting. The first American-built model arrived in France in May of 1918, and the first combat mission using the aircraft was flown in early August by the 135th Aero Squadron.
After World War I, the DH-4 was used in many different roles with the Air Service, and was developed into a lot of different variants of its original design before it was officially retired from service in 1932.
It was used in a lot of different roles throughout the Air Service, such as forest fire patrol, training, and even mail-carrying with the United States Postal Service.
About the hero: 2nd Lt. Erwin Bleckley
Erwin Bleckley, who is the only aviation Medal of Honor recipient, piloted an exact replica of the airplane being restored during his time with the 50th Aero Squadron when he and 1st. Lieutenant Harold Goettler flew a mission to find the famed “Lost Battalion” on Oct. 6, 1918.
According to the Bleckley Airport Memorial Foundation, during the first run to locate the Lost Battalion on Oct. 6, 1918, Bleckley believed he had located the battalion. The mission was extremely dangerous and actually grounded the DH-4 from enemy gunfire.
Nevertheless, Bleckley volunteered for a second mission. The plan, which was risky, was to fly low and slow to the ground to attract enemy fire, thereby pinpointing the missing unit’s location.
According to the foundation, Bleckley updated his will prior to the second mission, as he knew it was highly unlikely that he would be returning. When warned by Squadron Commander Captain Daniel Morse of the danger facing him, Bleckley replied, “We’ll make the delivery or die in the attempt.”
If you want more information about the Bleckley Airport Memorial Foundation, you can visit their website by clicking here.