By Jeff Murphy, November 6, 2023
Treyton Culp, a University of Central Missouri freshman Aviation-Professional Pilot major from Rolla, Missouri, takes a turn behind the controls of the virtual reality flight simulator, Spirit of St. Louis, which will be used to help to re-create virtually the first transcontinental air race.
WARRENSBURG, MO – “The Great Air Race: Glory, Tragedy and the Dawn of American Aviation,” is a recent book by journalist and amateur pilot John Lancaster about America’s famous 1919 transcontinental air race. The story of that race has inspired a group of University of Central Missouri aviation students and their faculty advisor to develop a virtual re-creation of the groundbreaking, cross-country flight that captured the world’s attention over 100 years ago. The virtual re-creation is intended to bring renewed awareness to this piece of trailblazing American history while also raising funds to support student activities.
David Jupp, assistant professor in the UCM Department of Aviation, recently met with representatives of four aviation student groups to plan the event, Jan. 14-20, 2024, leveraging flight simulation equipment in the Virtual Reality lab at the T.R. Gaines Technology Building. Student groups involved will begin seeking funds from individual donors in November.
Contributions will be based on financial support for virtual fuel vouchers that would cover the estimated per-gallon cost of fuel (at today’s prices) to fly a single-engine airplane from Long Island, New York to San Francisco, California. Fuel use is calculated virtually by the flight simulator, and it is estimated that at least 200 gallons of fuel will be needed to make the trip. Each team will seek to raise at least $1,000 to cover their fuel cost with contributions going to support student organization activities.
“If a group doesn’t get the full 200 gallons, they can start the race, but will only get as far as the fuel will take them,” Jupp said. “So, if a team is stranded in Omaha, for example, maybe someone could write them a check for whatever it takes to finish the race.”
Students entering the race will keep a flight log and track their fuel usage virtually. The flight simulators will give the students the opportunity to complete the trek in Cessna 172s, the same airplane they train with at the Max B. Swisher Skyhaven Airport. That flight simulation experience will serve to enhance their perspective and appreciation of the modern Cessna 172 versus the ill-suited DH-4s and Fokker aircraft of the early 1900s. Team members are seeking Bachelor of Science degrees in the Professional Pilot, Aviation Management, and Airport Management programs. Unlike those earlier aviators who put their lives in danger to participate in the 1919 air race, the students’ single-engine aircraft will be flown virtually, with the simulators also creating virtual, realistic situations in which the student pilots must respond.
Jupp said each team will schedule blocks of time each day from Jan. 14-20 to fly the route. Teams competing include Alpha Eta Rho, Women in Aviation, American Association of Airport Executives/Missouri Airport Managers Association (AAAE/MAMA), and the UCM Flight Team.
“We will post each team’s progress on the aviation department’s Facebook page, so alumni, friends, family or whoever donated money can look at the page and see where the team has been,” Jupp noted.
He believes this event is an opportunity to celebrate a piece of aviation history that often gets overlooked. Although Jupp has worked more than 40 years in aviation, he said reading the 2022 book, “The Great Race,” and learning more about its impresario, Brigadier General Billy Mitchell, shed new light on the importance of this event that took place more than a century ago.
“The Great Air Race” details the thrilling contest that was sparked by the vision of Mitchell, who believed that the nation’s future rested on its ability to embrace aviation in ways that were unimaginable to many Americans at the time. The headline-grabbing spectacle he promoted began on Oct. 8, 1919 with 60 military pilots who competed to be the fastest person to fly round trip from coast to coast. Behind the controls of flimsy war-surplus airplanes with crude instruments and unreliable engines, only eight daring aviators finished the 5,400-mile round-trip journey.
Through the race, Mitchell blazed a trail for the first formal air route across the nation and inspired a coast-to-coast airmail service on the same flight path. However, his hope for bolstering federal spending for an independent Air Force that would exist along with the Army and the Navy fell short. That vision would not be realized until Sept. 18, 1947 when the Department of the Air Force was created under the National Security Act.
Comments about the value of this historic aviation event were shared on the back cover of “The Great Air Race” by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Frankel. He noted, “In narrating the story of the great 1919 air race, John Lancaster is also describing the birth of arguably the single most enduring technological breakthrough of the twentieth century, one that still wields enormous power over our daily lives and the fate of the world.”
Individuals who want to learn more about the UCM aviation students’ virtual Great Air Race are encouraged to contact Jupp at 660-543-4457 or firstname.lastname@example.org.