In 1923, Lieutenant John F. Whiteley piloted the first transcontinental bomber flight across the United States. Born in 1896, he had a diversified military career, serving 36 years with the Army Air Service, Army Air Corps, and finally the US Air Force. Due to his absorbing enthusiasm for flying, he tried to join the military as a pilot before World War I, but he was turned down because of inexperience. After the US entered the war in 1917, he enlisted and within a year was commissioned in the Army field artillery. However, before he could get to Europe, the armistice was signed.
Whiteley was then redirected to Panama in early 1919 to serve as a field artillery officer attached to the Air Service. When professional military flight training schools closed after the war, he was not deterred from getting into the air and simply taught himself to fly in the JN4-H Jenny. After 2 years in Panama, the "do-it-yourself" pilot was transferred to the 20th Bomb Squadron at Langley Field, Virginia, and in mid-1923 flew a Martin bomber against the battleships Virginia and New Jersey in General Billy Mitchell's historic test that proved the vulnerability of warships to air attack. Later that same year, the Chief of the Air Service approved a suggestion by Whiteley to further " see what the airplane was capable of doing." With another pilot and two mechanics, First Lieutenant Whiteley departed Langley Field in the fall of 1923 in command of a Martin NBS-1 bomber, which they would fly on an 8,257-mile multi-legged trip to San Diego, California, and back again.
Completed on 14 December, this historic journey met with only passing fanfare; however, it was not lost on those of vision who saw the undertaking as an example of military and commercial aviation coming of age. Whiteley again entered the record books in 1936 when he and then Major General Frank Andrews established an international airline distance record for amphibious aircraft. Colonel Whiteley retired in 1953 and has since spent a great deal of time writing and traveling.
John Whiteley's 93-day transcontinental flight in a Martin NBS-1 was a ride to remember. The monstrous, open-cockpit bomber skimmed over the Rocky and Sierra Mountains at 70 miles per hour and sometimes missed treetops "by a mere whisper." According to Whiteley, "At one point we were as close as 50 feet above the sloping ground--so close we could almost count the daisies. The plane literally followed the air currents between the peaks and down into the valleys, often just barely lifting us over the mountains. Some of the peaks were as high as 12,000 feet and the maximum official ceiling of our airplane, which was considered at that time to be a heavy bomber, was 10,000 feet."