First Air Tournament Attracts Thousands

First Air Tournament Attracts Thousands

Bolling Field was the place to be in May 1920 as more than 10,000 Washingtonians flocked to the field to see the first Army Air Tournament. It was an aerial show of unprecedented success for the Army Air Service, as its brave pilots performed daring feats of speed and acrobatic agility high above the awestruck crowd. The first day of the show was so successful that thousands of requests to extend the event poured into the office of the Chief of the Air Service, General Menoher. 


The general was pleased to comply and arranged not only the original stunts and flights to be repeated, but he also saw to it that new names and events were added to what would become a three-day aviation extravaganza.

The highlight of the first day was a record-setting flight by Lieutenant Fred Nelson in his German Fokker when he blasted onto Bolling Field from Middletown, Pennsylvania, a distance of 133 miles, in just 59 minutes. The crowd was also thrilled by dozens of daring acrobatic demonstrations and an exciting mock air battle.  An active participant of the day was Bolling Field's staunchest supporter, General "Billy" Mitchell. He deftly performed such stunts as loops, turns and barrel rolls to the delight of admirers below. 

The second day's events  were marked by a magnificent display of American aviation prowess as a number of pursuit planes demonstrated their precision and  maneuverability in combat  by waging a simulated attack on an observation balloon. Adding to the suspense, three airmen parachuted from the beseiged balloon,  facing even more attacks on the way down. 

On  the third day, spectators were treated to the fastest  flying ever seen above  Washington. Ace pilot  Lieutenant C.C. Brown zipped across the sky in his French Spad to finish a 12 and one half-mile heat in just  four minutes and 20 seconds. As on the previous  two days, the crowds also enjoyed various static displays and airplane repair demonstrations in the hangars. 

Two brave airmen brought the tournament to a dramatic close when, during a 1,500-foot parachute drop from a balloon, they drifted off course to Potomac Park across the threatening waters of the Potomac. The success of the first Army Air Tournament, the precursor to the modern-day air show, was especially critical during this era when the future of Bolling Field was still uncertain. It thrust Bolling into the spotlight and served to sway military as well as public opinion in a positive direction concerning the importance of maintaining Washington's aviation readiness, skill and strength at Bolling Field.

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