Sweeley Was a Member of the Order of Daedalians

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Some of this information is from the Blue Book of Aviation, Roland W. Hoagland, Ed., published in 1932 by The Hoagland Company, Publishers, Los Angeles, CA. 292 pp.

The cover of this handsome book is deeply engraved, and the fly leaves are printed with terrific art deco accents. Inside are brief biographies of contemporary aviation figures, as well as tables of various data.

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Thanks to Guest Editor Bob Woodling for help researching this page.

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WILLIAM ROBERT SWEELEY


 

William R. Sweeley was born in Pittsburgh, PA on November 12, 1892. As such, he was one of the older pilots to sign the Tucson Register. In 1900, his family moved to Pasadena, CA where he completed his secondary education, 1900-1911. The 1900 U.S. Census, his first, coded on June 9th that year, placed his family living in Pasadena at 370 Kensington Place. Today that address is a cul de sac in a business plaza, next to an entry ramp onto Rt. 134 (Ventura Freeway). It is not a residential neighborhood. His father, Philip (34; 1866-1952), was a telegraph operator. His mother, Annie (33) was not employed. Sweeley had two brothers, Frank (11) and a yet unnamed newborn.

The 1910 Census placed Sweeley (15) and his family at 1131 North Raymond Ave. in Pasadena. His father, now 43, was continued as a telegraph operator, and his mother was still not employed outside their home. Older brother Frank (21) was at home and unemployed. Unnamed in 1900, brother Ralph was now nine years old.

Sweeley earned a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of California in 1915. Upon graduation he moved to Cleveland, OH and from 1916 to 1917 worked for the Warner & Swasey Company, manufacturers of astronomical telescopes (think big: Lick, Yerkes and Naval Observatories), turret lathes, machine tools and military-grade rangefinders and optical gunsights. He left Cleveland to attend the aviation school at the Ohio State University, after which he got married and went into the army and learned to fly. He passed through officer grades from lieutenant to colonel between 1920 and 1940. Portraits of Sweeley appear in several of the news articles below.

Cincinnati Enquirer, August 3, 1917 (Source: newspapers.com)
Cincinnati Enquirer, August 3, 1917 (Source: newspapers.com)

 

Sweeley became engaged to be married ca. 1917 to Dorothy G. Wydman as documented in the Cincinnati Enquirer, August 3, 1917, left. The "secret" wedding date was very soon, since their marriage was announced in the Enquirer of August 16th that same year.

San Francisco Chronicle, September 22, 1918 (Source: newspapers.com)
San Francisco Chronicle, September 22, 1918 (Source: newspapers.com)

 

He enlisted in the army and served as an ambulance driver in Europe during WWI. He was commissioned in 1917. His early army career comprised a whirlwind of assignments and transfers for him and Dorothy. Over the first few years it was clear that he was on the fast track.

After commissioning Sweeley was immediately transferred to Houston, TX. Then the San Francisco Chronicle for September 22, 1918, right, announced his move north to San Francisco from Houston. He was assigned to Mather Field in Sacramento, CA.

 

A couple of days earlier, on September 18, 1918, the Sacramento Union had announced with a few more details his assignment to Mather FIeld. The Union stated, "Lieutenant William R. Sweeley, formely of the Ellington aviation field, Houston, Tex., has been assigned to the Mather field as instructor of night flying. Lieutenant Sweeley is a graduate of the first officers' training camp of Fort Harrison, Indianapolis. He was one of the pioneer military flyers of the Wilbur Wright field, Dayton, O. He is one of the few graduate bombing pilots of the Texas field, and is thoroughly familiar with all high-powered aviation, having experimented extensively with both Hispano and Liberty engines. Prior to his appointment as a commissioned officer he married a talented young lady with high social connections...."

Scranton Republic (PA), February 24, 1922 (Source: newspapers.com)
Scranton Republic (PA), February 24, 1922 (Source: newspapers.com)

 

William R. Sweeley can be found online in dozens of news articles that followed his military career and flying experiences. He received good press coverage for his work wherever and whenever he performed it. In 1919 he was involved in high altitude flight tests, and the San Antonio Evening News of May 2, 1919 cited his no-oxygen altitude record of 19,000 feet.

At some point, Sweeley was assigned to the Philippine Islands. The article at left dated 1922 reports an odd occurrence. Not only does it report his return to the U.S., but it seems that he and Dorothy "adopted" a boy there from the Igorrate tribe on Luzon. It is not clear if the boy returned to the U.S. with them (he doesn't show up in later Census data). The "adoption" may have been a ritual, or just a temporary favoritism. Honesdale, PA is just northeast of Scranton.

Santa Ana Register (CA), June 27, 1925 (Source: newspapers.com)
Santa Ana Register (CA), June 27, 1925 (Source: newspapers.com)

 

 

The April 14, 1922 issue of the Oakland Tribune reported on an accident that occurred in Modesto when he tried to land his deHavilland aircraft, but had to swerve to avoid a flock of sheep on the field. He was forced into some freshly plowed ground and his airplane upended. Neither he nor his passenger were injured, but his airplane reqired an new propeller, vertical stabilizer and rudder.

The New York Times, July 5, 1924 (Source: NYT)
The New York Times, July 5, 1924 (Source: NYT)

 

Another accident occurred when, in 1924, he was assigned to escort the World Flight pilots, specifically Erik Nelson, and their Douglas World Cruiser airplanes from Mather Field, Sacramento, CA to Seattle, WA as they made their way to Alaska and thence westward around the world. This incident was covered by The New York Times (NYT), above, left, of July 5, 1924.

When his engine oil pressure failed and the engine quit, Sweeley and his passenger, a photographer, crash landed their army DH airplane in treetops in a forested area. This accident was also reported in dozens of newspapers around the country.

At right, he was credited with a round trip flight from San Francisco to Salt Lake City, UT, as reported in the Santa Ana Register (CA), June 27, 1925. The Oakland Tribune of June 28th also reported the story, stating that the round trip was a "success."

If his record flights weren't enough, Sweeley also participated by airplane in a manhunt for six San Quentin prisoners who had escaped by stealing a tug boat. Sweeley spotted the tug and coordinated their capture when the boat ran aground on the swampy shores of Contra Costa County. The chase and capture were reported in the Seattle Daily Times, Thursday, August 20, 1925.

Dorothy Sweeley, Ca. 1925 (Source: newspapers.com)

 

In 1926 he graduated the Air Forces Technical School. At some point between 1926 and 1927 he went back to Texas and left Dorothy behind in the north. Dorothy did not travel or live with him in Texas. The Cincinnati Enquirer, June 29, 1919, cited him traveling to Cincinnati from TX to visit with his wife and her parents.

Corsicana Daily Sun (TX), April 19, 1927 (Source: newspapers.com)

 

Not being stationed with him got tedious for Dorothy, right, and finally, in 1927, the article, left, appeared in the Corsicana Daily Sun (TX). We won't discuss the insensitive banner. This article appeared in several other Texas newspapers, including the Abilene Daily Reporter April 19, 1927.

Indeed, Sweeley did have a sweetheart and her name was Ruby LaVelle Sovern. Ruby was born in Oregon and her family moved to Modesto, CA when her father established an undertaking business there. It is not clear if Sweeley and Ruby knew each other in California when he was asaigned or at school there, or when he was flying around on military duty. She and Sweeley were married in (May?) 1927.

Emporia Gazette (KS), May 22, 1928 (Source: newspapers.com)

 

 

Interestingly, the newly married LaVelle Sweeley learned to fly in 1929 and she signed the Clover Field Register, Santa Monica, CA on Friday, May 9, 1930. Please direct your browser west to Santa Monica and the link for details around that landing, and biographical information about LaVelle.

Modesto News-Herald, July 7, 1928 (Source: newspapers.com)
Modesto News-Herald, July 7, 1928 (Source: newspapers.com)

 

Sweeley did not leave LaVelle behind. An article in the Modesto News-Herald of July 7, 1928, left, reported the Sweeley's visit from Galveston with her parents.

Another flight made by Sweeley in particular was given a lot of press. It was an all-day solo flight from Buffalo, NY to Galveston, TX that he made in a, then new, Curtiss Falcon A-3. Dozens of newspapers reported it. The Emporia Gazette (KS) for May 22, 1928, right, reported on the flight as well as his refueling stops.

Curtiss Falcon Model A-3 (Source: aerofiles.com)
Curtiss Falcon Model A-3 (Source: aerofiles.com)

 

An example of his Curtiss Model A-3 is at left, similar to "The Spirits of Ammonia II" cited in the article below. "The Spirits of Ammonia II" is probably a spoof on "The Spirit of St. Louis," flown by Register pilot Charles Lindbergh across the Atlantic Ocean just a year earlier.

Thomasville Times-Enterprise (GA), May 28, 1928 (Source: Woodling)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many articles about his flight followed him in newspapers through Ohio, Kentucky, and into the southwest, including the one at left, from the Thomasville Times-Enterprise (GA) of May 28, 1928, which credited him with a new record.

His itinerary, for what was commonly termed his "dawn to dusk" flight, was published in the form of a chart in the Modesto News-Herald of July 6, 1928, below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Modesto News-Herald, July 6, 1928 (Source: newspapers.com)
Modesto News-Herald, July 6, 1928 (Source: newspapers.com)

After his long distance flights, he was given a seventy-five-day furlough. The details of his furlough were published below on June 30, 1928 in the in his usual hometown newspaper, the Modesto News-Herald. He spent part of it with his parents in Modesto.

Modesto News-Herald, June 30, 1928 (Source: newspapers.com)
Modesto News-Herald, June 30, 1928 (Source: newspapers.com)

The Modesto News-Herald for August 16, 1928 also reported that he would take up his duties at March Field, Riverside, CA on September 21, the day his furlough was over.

Modesto News-Herald, August 1, 1928 (Source: newspapers.com)
Modesto News-Herald, August 1, 1928 (Source: newspapers.com)
Modesto News-Herald, October 6, 1928 (Source: newspapers.com)
Modesto News-Herald, October 6, 1928 (Source: newspapers.com)

 

He also traveled for leisure during his furlough. As reported in the August 1, 1928 issue of the Modesto News-Herald, left, he and LaVelle sailed from San Francisco to Alaska for a two-week vacation.

Although he traveled from Galveston to Modesto by train, one perk of being an army aviator and officer is weekend landings to visit family when in the neighborhood. After his furlough, one such example, right, was from the Modesto News-Herald, October 6, 1928. "Bud Coffee Airport" eventually became the Modesto Municipal Airport.

The Blue Book of Aviation, 1932, Page 197 (Source: Webmaster)

 

 

 

Another article in the Modesto News-Herald, July 25, 1928 reported that, in the aftermath of his record flight, he was detailed to speak to civic groups about his flight to tell them, "How he flew so fast at times in the fog he was unable to keep up with himself..." He did have a tailwind that sometimes pushed his speed to 150MPH.

Well-known Golden Age aviators were sometimes enshrined in The Blue Book of Aviation published in 1932 (cited, left sidebar). Sweeley's adventures to-date qualified him for the biographical entry at left, which also includes a relatively clear photograph. The information contains one error regarding his marriage to LaVelle. The year cited is for his marriage to Dorothy. The month and day are, more reliably, those for his marriage to LaVelle in 1927. We do learn that, besides his military flight qualifications, he earned a civil Transport pilot certificate, T11247. He led a prodigious social life, given his memberships in clubs and associations. In 1932, he was assigned at Long Beach, CA.

A year later, an earthquake occurred in the Los Angeles area in 1933 and the Sweeley/Sovern families were at the Sweeley's home in Long Beach at the time. A report of their observations appeared in the March 14, 1933 issue of the Modesto News-Herald, below, left.

 

 

 

 

Modesto News-Herald, March 14, 1933 (Source: newspapers.com)

 

Sweeley was promoted to captain in1933. In 1934 he completed the Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell Field in Alabama. His move to Maxwell was documented in the Modesto News-Herald, July 16, 1933, below.

Modesto News-Herald, July 16, 1933 (Source: newspapers.com)
Modesto News-Herald, July 16, 1933 (Source: newspapers.com)

 

San Antonio Light, September 29, 1935 (Source: Woodling)
San Antonio Light, September 29, 1935 (Source: Woodling)

 

Notice that his move to Alabama involved a boat trip from San Francisco, through the Panama Canal to New York and then an automobile (or bus?) trip to Montgomery, AL. This would have been an arduous journey in 1933, despite the long boat trip, given that the government plan for a national highway system wasn't promulgated until 1925.

 

After he graduated from Air Corps Tactical School, Sweeley was promoted to major and assigned to Kelly Field, TX. This new assignment was documented in the San Antonio Light of September 29, 1935, left. He then moved to Selfridge Field, MI.

 

In May of 1937, Sweeley participated in war games on the west coast. He flew a "new-type stratosphere fighting plane" from Selfridge Field to Modesto. The games were described in the Oakland Tribune, May 7, 1937, below. Sweeley and his cross-country airplane were mentioned at the bottom of the second column.

 

 

Oakland Tribune, May 7, 1937 (Source: Woodling)
Oakland Tribune, May 7, 1937 (Source: Woodling)

 

Williamsport Sun-Gazette (PA), October 16, 1937 (Source: newspapers.com)
Williamsport Sun-Gazette (PA), October 16, 1937 (Source: newspapers.com)

 

 

Fitchburg Centinnel (MA), August 12, 1938 (Source: newspapers.com)
Fitchburg Centinnel (MA), August 12, 1938 (Source: newspapers.com)

 

 

As Sweeley moved up in rank he took on the additional duties of public relations. For example, he flew a group of military and civil personnel through Williamsport, PA enroute to Pittsburgh, PA to discuss flood control. The October 16, 1937 issue of the Williamsport Sun-Gazette reported their landing, left.

In 1937, now a major and assigned to Selfridge Field, MI, he took part in a search effort to find the body of a missing person who had fallen off a cabin cruiser near Detroit, MI. The results of the search were successful and were reported in the Fitchburg Centinnel (MA) of August 12, 1938, right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sault Ste. Marie Evening News (MI), June 13, 1939 (Source: newspapers.com)
Sault Ste. Marie Evening News (MI), June 13, 1939 (Source: newspapers.com)

 

 

In 1939 as WWII approached, Sweeley oversaw the expansion of Selfridge Field as reported in the Sault Ste. Marie Evening News (MI) for June 13, 1939, left.

The 1940 Census placed LaVelle (36) and William (47) living together in army housing at France Field in the Panama Canal Zone. Their marriage wouldn't last a whole lot longer, because they divorced sometime between 1940 and 1943 (see below).

Sweeley was appointed lieutenant colonel on May 15, 1941, then colonel on January 5, 1942. He was redesgnated lieutenant colonel on September 5, 1942.

At some point he and LaVelle divorced. He remarried a third time to Betty Lou Cobb, December 27, 1943 in Spokane, WA. The Seattle Times of January 27, 1944 pictured the new couple in a Seattle Hotel enjoying a refreshing beverage while he was enroute to another "undisclosed destination overseas." From this article, it appears that he touched most continents in the line of duty during WWII.

Seattle Times January 27, 1944 (Source: Woodling)
Seattle Times January 27, 1944 (Source: Woodling)

 

Fresno Bee (CA), December 26, 1944 (Source: newspapers.com)
Fresno Bee (CA), December 26, 1944 (Source: newspapers.com)

 

Another example of public relations and talking up the benefits of the military life was during late WWII on December 26, 1944. The article appeared in the Fresno Bee (CA), right, one day before his wedding to Ms. Cobb. Note mention of fellow Register pilot and friend Ralph Snavely.

A week earlier, Sweeley and Betty Lou had hosted Snavely for dinner in Fresno, CA on December 17, 1944. The Fresno Bee for that day reported the event, below.

Fresno Bee, December 17, 1944 (Source: newspapers.com)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately, Sweeley's union with Betty Lou Cobb did not last long, as evidenced by this article from the Spokane Daily Chronicle, October 24, 1947, below.

Spokane Daily Chronicle, October 24, 1947 (Source: newspapers.com)

 

 

I have no information about Sweeley after WWII and beyond. I do know he lived the rest of his life, after retirement, in Guadalajara Mexico. If you can help fill in the blanks, please let me KNOW. He flew West from Texas in January 1984, age 91 years and two months, an old, bold pilot.

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Dossier 2.2.168

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