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Some of this information comes from the biographical file for pilot Wheatley, CW-428000-01, reviewed by me in the archives of the National Air & Space Museum (NASM), Washington, DC.

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Your copy of the Davis-Monthan Airfield Register with all the pilots' signatures and helpful cross-references to pilots and their aircraft is available at the link. Or use this FORM to order a copy signed by the author. ISBN 978-0-9843074-0-1.

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http://www.cafepress.com/content/global/img/spacer.gifThe Congress of Ghosts is an anniversary celebration for 2010.  It is an historical biography, that celebrates the 5th year online of www.dmairfield.org and the 10th year of effort on the project dedicated to analyze and exhibit the history embodied in the Register of the Davis-Monthan Airfield, Tucson, AZ. This book includes over thirty people, aircraft and events that swirled through Tucson between 1925 and 1936. It includes across 277 pages previously unpublished photographs and texts, and facsimiles of personal letters, diaries and military orders. Order your copy at the link, or use this FORM to order a copy signed by the author.  ISBN 978-0-9843074-4-9.

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WILLIAM BALLANTINE WHEATLEY

William Wheatley was born at Chester, NY December 17, 1902, exactly a year before the Wright Brothers' first flight. He landed twice at Tucson. His first visit was between December 16-18, 1931 (he didn't cite an exact date or itinerary). On this occasion, he flew the Consolidated Model 17 Fleetster, NC700V. He also landed once at Clover Field, Santa Monica, CA in this airplane. Based at Buffalo, NY, he carried a single passenger, Lawrence D. Bell. Passenger Bell, a prolific inventor and entrepreneur, was later the founder of Bell Aircraft in Buffalo. And if that wasn't enough, Consolidated Aircraft also was founded by one of our Davis-Monthan Register pilots, Reuben Fleet.

Below, Wheatley appears at left in front of a new Consolidated Fleetster Model 21-A with 170HP Kinner motor. Joseph Gwinn (not a Register pilot) was the designer of the airplane. Register pilot Jimmy Doolittle is at right. The photograph is from "Reuben Fleet and the story of Consolidated Aircraft" by William Wagner.

William B. Wheatley, February, 1931 (Source: Wagner via Woodling)

 

Tonawanda (NY) News, June 24, 1960 (Source: Web)
Tonawanda (NY) News, June 24, 1960 (Source: Web)

 

Wheatley's second landing at Tucson was almost four years later on Saturday, September 7, 1935 at 11:05AM. This time he flew Consolidated NR33Y. Based at San Diego, CA, he arrived from Buffalo, NY westbound for San Diego. He carried a single passenger, his wife. Please direct your browser to the airplane's link to learn the circumstances surrounding the purpose of their flight.

One handwritten notation on a document in Wheatley's NASM biographical file (cited, left sidebar) states, "Deceased 6/2/41." He was age 38. The circumstances around his death are described in the text box, below.

Google comes up dry for pilot Wheatley. Only this ariticle, right, from the Tonawanda News (NY) of June 24, 1960 comes close. It announces the wedding of Wheatley's daughter to a soldier in Buffalo, NY. Wheatley is identified as, "the late Mr. Wheatley," this announcement being a full 19 years after his death.

Be that as it may, Wheatley had a creditable career in aviation during his relatively short life. His NASM file cites him studying electrical engineering at Pratt Institute and Cooper Union (not clear if he ever earned a degree). He learned to fly in the Army at Brooks and Kelly Fields, TX and graduated March 13, 1926 with pilot and observer ratings, and a reserve commission. He then went into the Army Air Corp Reserve (inactive) from 1926-1937. Simultaneously, he earned commercial pilot certificate number 419, a very low number among Register pilots.

With that credential he was a pilot for Mercury Aircraft, Hammondsport, NY during 1926, and a service representative and test pilot for Pratt & Whitney (P&W) Aircraft Co., Hartford, CT from 1926-28. He was the first test pilot P&W ever hired. In this job he tested the Boeing 40-B mail plane with experimental engines and modifications.

He resigned P&W in May, 1928 to fly the air mail for Colonial Western Airways during May, 1928-January, 1929 (CAM #20: Albany-Buffalo-Cleveland route).

He then became chief test pilot for Consolidated Aircraft Corporation beginning in February, 1929 and service manager beginning in 1935. Over several years he tested a variety of Consolidated aircraft including the Fleet, Navy patrol boats and dive bombers and Army attack and pursuit models.

Specifically, he tested the Fleet Model 21 Trainer, Fleetster Models 17, 17A, 20, 20A, Army Fleetsters, USN Fleetster horizontal bomber, XP2Y-1, XP2Y-1 and Army Y1P-25. He worked on experiments for rail launching aircraft which, at the time, was extensively studied. He succeeded on September 25, 1936 taking off using a Fleet trainer mounted on a railroad handcar.

It was during his tenure at Consolidated that we find him landing at Tucson. He was based at both of Consolidated's Golden Age operations. He began at Buffalo, NY and moved west when the company moved its facilities to San Diego, CA in 1935. Wheatley appears once in the Clover Field Register, Santa Monica, CA. Please direct your browser to the link out in Santa Monica for additional information about him and his family.

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UPDATE of 01/23/12 I received the following from pilot Wheatley's granddaughter. It is his testimonial delivered at the time of his induction into the Buffalo [NY] Aviation and Space Hall of Fame in May, 2011.

William B. Wheatley
Chief Test Pilot, Consolidated Aircraft

In 1929, and at the age of 26, Bill Wheatley was to be awarded the job of his dreams: Chief Test Pilot for Consolidated Aircraft of Buffalo, New York. The corporation, formed by Reuben H. Fleet in 1923, was known in its early years for its production of “flying boats”, and also received acclaim for the design and manufacture of the largest sea plane ever constructed for the U.S. Navy, with a wing span of 100 feet and a speed of more than 130 mph.  It was Chief Test Pilot Wheatley who carried out the dangerous testing of these unprecedented aircraft.

William Ballantine  “Bill” Wheatley was born to William and Mabel Wheatley in Chester, NY on December 17, 1902.  He showed an early interest in mechanics, spending his summer days building an early electric car, that he was able to drive, at the age of 14.

Bill spent two years at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY and majored in electrical/automotive  engineering.  After graduation, he joined the Army Air Corps in 1925, enrolling in pilot training at Brooks Field, TX, and continued his training at Kelly Field, TX for Air Service Advanced Flying School, graduating in March  of 1926.

He encountered his first challenge with unscheduled landings as a student on his maiden cross country flight. When ice formed on the wings of his plane, he successfully crash-landed the plane and emerged unscathed.

Upon graduation, Wheatley worked from 1926 to 1929 for several  companies, including Pratt and Whitney and Colonial Western Airlines, as an airmail and passenger pilot.  He transported mail between  Cleveland, Buffalo and Albany, and small cities  in between.  This part of the country  was an area of challenging weather.  Radios were not used for navigation; runways were elementary and for the most part, unlighted.  Bill stated that in 18 months of flying he made 13 forced landings.

During the summer of 1932, Wheatley successfully tested the “Commodore,” an aircraft designed to carry both passengers and mail from New York to Miami, Florida and then on to Columbia, South America. As chief pilot, Wheatley led the maiden flight, which lifted off the Niagara River in Buffalo in 1933, dutifully delivering the first transoceanic plane from the United States to Columbia.

In the same year, Bill Wheatley was entrusted with flying Associated Press photos of the inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt from Washington, D.C, to Buffalo, NY. Wheatley’s successful delivery of these photos heralded another “inauguration”—the first time Buffalo newspapers would be able to print same-day pictures of the swearing-in of a U.S. president.

These were the kinds of adventures that Wheatley loved. From 1929 to 1941, Bill Wheatley took responsibility as Chief Test Pilot to personally test every model of aircraft manufactured by Consolidated, which in 1935, moved its headquarters to San Diego, where improved weather and coastal waters provided optimal conditions for testing aircraft designed specifically for its dominant “client”, the U.S. Navy.

As agile with a pen as with a plane, Wheatley in 1935 co-authored the first text book on aeronautical engineering for Cornell University: Elementary Aerodynamics (with Karl D. Wood).

In 1939, Wheatley was at the controls of the first flight of the legendary B-24  Liberator bomber, a plane that would have a major impact on the outcome of World War II and which Wheatley tested in a 17-minute maiden flight.  More than 18,000 B-24s were built in just over five years, making it the largest military production in U.S. history.

In June of 1941, Wheatley and his crew of four were killed undertaking the final test  of the B-24 before the aircraft were to be delivered to the Royal Air Force in England.  The crash into San Diego Bay was initially thought to be sabotage, but was later discovered to have been caused by a mechanical anomaly in which the elevator locked in the “up” position, rendering the crash unavoidable.

William Balentine [sic] Wheatley died as he lived-- a true pioneer of aviation, dedicated to the last moment to his passion for flying. Though his life was short, his career was remarkable, and the love of flying filled his days with the adventures he so loved in the skies including the honor of transporting the famed Amelia Earhart in 1933, and acting as a “body double” and stunt pilot of a B-57 [sic] Flying Fortress for Clark Gable in the motion picture “Test Pilot”, which received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture in 1938.

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Dossier 2.1.165

THIS PAGE UPLOADED: 01/05/12 REVISED: 01/23/12, 06/28/16

 
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I'm looking for information and photographs of pilot Wheatley and his airplane to include on this page. If you have some you'd like to share, please click this FORM to contact me.
Thanks to pilot Wheatley's daughter and granddaughter for photographs and information on this page.

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

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