The DH-4 was an ever-present element of the U.S. Army Air Service both during and following World War I. When the United States entered WWI in April 1917, the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps only had 132 aircraft, all obsolete. Modeled from a combat tested British De Havilland design, the DH-4 was the only U.S. built aircraft to see combat during WWI. With inadequate funding to buy new aircraft, the newly created U.S. Army Air Service continued to use the DH-4 in a number of roles during the lean years following the war. By the time it was finally retired from service in 1932, the DH-4 had been developed into over 60 variants.
The Great War
During WWI, the Air Service used the DH-4 primarily for day bombing, observation and artillery spotting. The first American-built DH-4 arrived in France in May 1918, and the 135th Aero Squadron flew the first DH-4 combat mission in early August. By war's end, 1,213 DH-4s had been delivered to France.
Unfortunately, the early DH-4s had drawbacks, including the fuel system. The pressurized gas tank had a tendency to explode and a rubber fuel line under the exhaust manifold caused some fires. This led to the title "The Flaming Coffin," even though only eight of the 33 DH-4s lost in combat by the United States burned as they fell. Furthermore, the location of the gas tank between the pilot and observer limited communication and could crush the pilot in an accident.
Perhaps the most notable mission flown in the DH-4 was the brave attempt by 1st Lt. Harold Goettler and 2nd Lt. Erwin Bleckley of the 50th Aero Squadron to find and assist the famed "Lost Battalion" on Oct. 6, 1918. During a resupply mission to this surrounded unit, their DH-4 was shot down. Both men were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Of the three U.S. companies that built the DH-4 during WWI, the largest producer was the Dayton-Wright Co. of Dayton, Ohio. The Air Service ordered over 12,000 DH-4s, but a number of problems kept initial production figures low and construction quality poor. The many changes involved in converting the design to American production standards, along with the use of the American Liberty 12-cylinder engine rather than the Rolls Royce engine of the British model, contributed to early production delays.
As the months of 1918 passed, however, quantity and quality improved considerably. By the end of the war, Dayton-Wright delivered 3,106 DH-4s, while the Fisher Body Division of General Motors built 1,600 and the Standard Aircraft Corp. added another 140, bringing the total to 4,846. The remaining 7,500 DH-4s still on order were cancelled.
With few funds to buy new aircraft in the years following WWI, the Air Service used the DH-4 in a variety of roles, such as transport, air ambulance, photographic plane, trainer, target tug, forest fire patroller, and even as an air racer. In addition, the U.S. Post Office operated the DH-4 as a mail carrier.
1,538 DH-4s were modified in 1919-1923 to DH-4Bs by moving the pilot's seat back and the now unpressurized gas tank forward, correcting the most serious problems in the DH-4 design. A further improved version was the DH-4M whereby over 300 DH-4s received new steel tube fuselages.
Mexican Border Patrol Continued raids by Mexican bandits on American homesteads led to the creation of the United States Army Border Air Patrol in June 1919. Comprised of eight squadrons and a photographic unit at its peak, the Border Air Patrol operated out of a string of rough airfields along the U.S.-Mexico border. Despite the loss of aircraft and aircrews to the harsh conditions in the Southwest, the Border Air Patrol put an end to bandit attacks by the summer of 1921.
The museum's reproduction DH-4B is marked as a photographic aircraft used by the 12th Aero Squadron in 1920 to take pictures of the U.S.-Mexico border and potential emergency landing fields.
Crew: Two (pilot and observer/gunner) Armament: Two .30-cal. Marlin machine guns in the nose and two .30-cal. Lewis machine guns in the rear; 322 lbs. of bombs Engine: 400-hp Liberty 12 Maximum speed: 128 mph Cruising speed: 90 mph Range: 400 miles Ceiling: 19,600 ft. Span: 43 ft. 6 in. Length: 30 ft. 6 in. Height: 10 ft. 4 in. Weight: 3,557 lbs. loaded Cost: $11,250