This week’s post covers yet another photograph that has made its way around the internet several times over, yet the story which accompanies it remains untold. At this point 100 years ago today soldiers from the United States military had only just begun pouring into France, and nearly 3 years after the first trenches were dug America had finally joined the gruesome chorus of the first World War. World War I was the first major mechanical war in the history of mankind, and though war machines and technologies were nothing new, the massive scale and implementation of industrial age machines and death tech made the Great War a truly horrific affair. Two of the newest transportation technologies, the airplane and the motorcycle were found to be quite useful war machines, and by this point a century ago were essential tools along the front. Naturally, the U.S. War Department was eager to investigate any and all uses of the available technology. The United States military, which at the time was only an inexperienced seed of what it has become today, was looking for every advantage it could find in hopes of making the American presence on the battlefield as effective as possible.
Just before Congress, at the request of President Wilson formally declared war on April 6, 1917, members of Army and Navy senior staff gathered on March 30th in Inglewood, CA, home of the U.S. Army’s 160th Infantry Regiment to observe a rather unique test flight. The Navy had just received an order of three Wright-Martin Model R reconnaissance biplanes, a 150 HP aircraft that came out of the very recent merger between the Glenn Martin Company, the Wright Company, the Simplex Automobile Company, and the General Aeronautical Corporation. On one of the planes a special rigging was fabricated to secure a motorcycle between the wings, held tightly against the fuselage. The theorized advantages of having new, lightweight motorcycles available to pilots along the front were numerous. A motorcycle provided pilots with a solution for forced emergency landings. Either due to mechanical or combat failure, often times pilots had to land their aircraft in remote locations far from any available fuel or assistance, but with another vehicle they could quickly escape any dangerous environments or simply retrieve whatever they needed to get back in the air. In the case of a pilot who survived an aerial attack, the ability to return to friendly territory was another attractive incentive despite the added weight of a motorcycle. With the life expectancy of a WWI pilot being only around 20 days near the front, having a pilot return from battle rather than wind up a POW or casualty was particularly of interest. However, it must be noted that the U.S. military failed to issue parachutes to their fighter pilots in WWI, so perhaps the true motivation was a more proactive role for the motorcycle. It was thought that a skilled pilot could fly above the clouds far past the front and deep into enemy territory. Once safely behind the lines he could then land, put on an enemy uniform, and casually ride his motorcycle right up to the back of the enemy’s command, gathering invaluable intel or perhaps even sabotaging facilities. A bit of a fanciful approach, but nevertheless the idea of having a motorcycle on an airplane was worthy enough for a test.
The motorcycle itself needed to be light as every ounce on an airplane was of critical importance. The machine chosen was the latest light weight offering from Indian, the 257cc Model O. The light weight motorcycle platform had been a new development in the world of American motorcycling. The design was meant to be sort of an everyman’s machine, a smaller motorcycle that was nimble and simple to operate, hopefully attracting those too intimidated by the big twin machines, new-comers, bicyclists, women, and sportsmen. At only $180, Indian’s light weight Model O also provided the market, which was now heavily saturated by an extremely affordable Ford model T with a more economical motorcycle. It is said that Dublin based Indian distribution manager Charles B. Franklin was responsible, in at least some degree for the unusual design of the Model O, which was a transversely opposed twin cylinder side-valve. It would have undoubtedly been the first project that Franklin, who later went onto to create the legendary Scout and Chief platforms that have come to define Indian motorcycles since, would have worked on when he was hired in 1916 into Indian’s engineering department. Franklin’s experience with the eerily similar British-made Douglas motorcycle would have no doubt been a great advantage in developing or refining such a design for Indian. The Douglas was arguably the most battle proven war machine at that point, having been deployed since the first days of the war with over 80,000 being produced by the armistice . At 235 lbs., Indian’s similar 4 HP, 15.7ci Model O was the perfect little motorcycle for such an outfit, it is also a Model O that is strapped to the side of an elephant in another popular historic photograph. Though the baby Indian’s 3 speed would top out at only 45 mph, the machine weighed nearly half of a standard big twin Power Plus model and offered 80 miles per gallon, which when coupled with the Model O’s ease of use made up for its deficiencies elsewhere.
On the morning of March 30th officials from the U.S. Army and Navy, as well as aviation pioneer Glenn Martin himself gathered to observe the maneuver. John E. Hogg, an avid motorcyclist and a member of the Naval Aero Corps joined pilot Wright-Martin pilot Eric E. Springer for the demonstration. With photographers and film cameras rolling the pair took off, climbing to around 6,000 feet with the first ever aero-moro combination. They headed turned towards Los Angeles and set out towards the Pacific. After a considerable flight over open water the men turned back towards the field in Inglewood. In order to demonstrate the Model R’s ability to execute a rapid, combat style descent, upon their return Springer dove through a hole in the clouds and landed in a remote part of the field. Hogg then quickly unloaded the light weight Indian and took off, retrieving a gas can full of fuel from a hanger over a mile away, returned, stowed the can, remounted the motorcycle, and once again the pair took off into the sky. Needless to say the test was a resounding success, impressing all who witnessed the ease in which the actions were performed and how perfectly complimentary the motorcycle and the aircraft were to one another. However, as pragmatic as the rig appeared, the testing phase is a far as the idea progressed as there are seemingly no records of such an outfit ever materializing in actual combat.