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.