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Russell Lowell Maughan: Dawn-to-Dusk Pioneer of the Air

By: Ardis E. Parshall - March 06, 2011

Swiss immigrants Johann and Anna Naef came to Utah in 1860. Their travel with a Mormon wagon company from Kanesville, Iowa, required 77 days.

English immigrants Peter and Mary Ann Maughan left the outfitting point on the same day with another company, but were on the road for 90 days.

Eventually the Naefs’ daughter married the Maughans’ son, and from that marriage a son, Russell, was born in Logan in 1893. Russell Maughan grew up listening to stories of his pioneering grandparents, but he was very much a man of the 20th century. He graduated from Logan’s Agricultural College in 1917, then enlisted in the Army as an aviator and participated in combat with the 139th Pursuit Squadron. Two weeks before the end of World War I his heroism earned him a Distinguished Service Cross.

After the war, Maughan became a military test pilot with the Air Service, his duties ranging from testing innovative aircraft to participating in air shows. 1922 was an especially rewarding year as he pushed his Curtiss R-6 racer past 200 mph, setting successive speed records until he had reached nearly 250 mph.

Maughan set his sights on a new goal in 1923: to be the first pilot to fly from coast to coast during a single daylight period, leaving the Atlantic as the sun rose and landing on the Pacific shore as the sun set.

His first attempt occurred on July 9, as he lifted off from New York at 3:16 a.m. A blocked gasoline line forced him down in Missouri at 12:30 p.m. His landing gear was torn away as he made a sharp turn to avoid a cow, bringing to an end his hopes for that trip.

Maughan made a second attempt on July 19. The flight began well, but Maughan lost 40 minutes at Cheyenne while cracks in his oil cooler were welded. He took off again, but new cracks forced him down again at Rock Springs, Wyo.

Maughan was eager to make a third attempt, but Maj. Gen. Mason Patrick, chief of the Air Service, declined to give his permission for another dash that year.

But the race was on again as daylight hours lengthened in 1924. Stretching the definition of “dawn,” and after a breakfast of cantaloupe, bacon, scrambled eggs and toast, Maughan lifted off from Mitchel Field, Long Island, at 2:58 a.m. on Monday, June 23. A cameraman aboard another plane filmed Maughan’s Curtiss PW-8 as it passed over Manhattan, the Brooklyn Bridge in the background. His plane, designed to remain aloft for only three hours, had been fitted with additional gasoline tanks, but no modifications had been made for the pilot’s comfort.

Maughan touched down at 8:15 a.m. at McCook Field near Dayton, Ohio. As the plane was refueled, a nervous mechanic using an oversized monkey wrench twisted off a fuel line valve; repairs prevented Maughan from taking off again until 9:48 a.m.

Other refueling steps were made near St. Joseph, Mo., Cheyenne, and Saldura, Utah. With little more than an hour before sunset, Maughan crossed the California line and sped on toward San Francisco, the nausea that had plagued him from New York pushing his endurance to the limit.

At 9:48 p.m., one minute before official dusk and nearly 22 hours after leaving Mitchel Field, he landed at San Francisco’s Crissy Field to the cheers of a waiting crowd. Stepping from his plane, Maughan presented a copy of that morning’s New York Times to San Francisco’s mayor.

Speaking at Logan two weeks later, Maughan predicted that the fame of his achievement would quickly fade.

“It is just one more step in progress,” he said. “In a few years it will be common. It has been only a little while since our grandparents crossed the country with ox teams, and only a short while more until the coming of the automobile and the train.”

Transcontinental flights have become routine; Maughan was right about that. But time has not erased that young Utahn’s pioneering achievement, any more than it has erased our memory of other pioneers.



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