WWI Aviation Repair Depot

Location: Just south of 1151 N. Main St., between Gilman St. and Ford St. in Speedway (Marion County, Indiana) 46224

Installed 2018 Indiana Historical Bureau, Rolls-Royce North America, Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust - Allison Branch, and Town of Speedway 

ID#: 49.2018.2

 Visit the Indiana History Blog to learn about how the Speedway became an aviation hub during World War I.

Text

Side One:

U.S. entry in WWI spurred rapid aviation expansion in the country. Due to city's strategic location to military airfields, railroads, and industry, U.S. Army opened an aviation repair depot here in early 1918. 809th, 810th, 811th, and 821st Aero Squadrons repaired, modified, and tested training aircraft and engines. The Speedway provided hangars and a flight test field.

Side Two:

Speedway area became an innovative aviation hub during WWI. Work at the depot increased pilot safety and aircraft structural integrity. Italian Pomilio Bros. Corp. developed aircraft here for the Liberty engine produced by Nordyke & Marmon with parts by Allison Experimental Co. The depot repaired 313 planes and 350 engines in 1918. By fall 1920 it ceased operations.

Annotated Text 

Side One:

U.S. entry in WWI spurred rapid aviation expansion in the country.[1] Due to city's strategic location to military airfields, railroads, and industry, U.S. Army opened an aviation repair depot here in early 1918.[2] 809th, 810th, 811th, and 821st Aero Squadrons repaired, modified, and tested training aircraft and engines.[3] The Speedway provided hangars and a flight test field.[4]

Side Two:

Speedway area became an innovative aviation hub during WWI.[5] Work at the depot increased pilot safety and aircraft structural integrity.[6] Italian Pomilio Bros. Corp. developed aircraft here for the Liberty engine[7] produced by Nordyke & Marmon with parts by Allison Experimental Co.[8] The depot repaired 313 planes and 350 engines in 1918.[9] By fall 1920 it ceased operations.[10]

 

Note: All newspapers were accessed via Newspapers.com unless otherwise noted. Copies of the Speedway Dope, the newsletter of the aviation repair depot in Speedway, are located at the Indiana State Library.

[1] “Aviation Repair Depot at Speedway City May Become Permanent When Aerial Mail Service is Extended to Midwestern Country,” Indianapolis News, August 10, 1918, 13; “The Third Side of Aviation─Rebuilding,” Speedway Dope, November 30, 1918, 1, no. 10, 1; “Future of the Airplane,” Speedway Dope, January 4, 1919, 1, no. 15, 1; Lee Kennett, The First Air War, 1914-1918 (New York: The Free Press, 1991), 94-95; “World War I Begins,” National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, accessed http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil; “WWI Production,” National Museum of the U.S. Air Force; “WWI Training,” National Museum of the U.S. Air Force; Christoph Bergs, “The History of the U.S. Air Service in World War I,” Mission Centenaire, accessed http://centenaire.org.

The United States lagged far behind the British, French, and Germans in military aviation when it entered World War I in April 1917. Those countries had been fighting the war for three years and in that time had understood and capitalized on the value of military aircraft for combat and reconnaissance. American entry in the war spurred rapid expansion of the industry here. Although the U.S. had to purchase much of its military aircraft from the British and French during this period due to time constraints, the country made great strides in the production of engines and training aircraft, and in preparing pilots for air service abroad. One of the country’s biggest contributions to the war effort was the development and production of the Liberty engine. The United States used the Liberty engine to power a variety of aircraft during the war and it remained valuable into the 1920s and 1930s.

For detailed information on the U.S. Air Service during the war, see Maurer Maurer, ed., The U.S. Air Service in World War I (Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Albert F. Simpson Historical Research Center; Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, Headquarters USAF, 1978-1979), accessed www.archive.org. For a chronology of World War I aviation events, see “WWI Aviation History Timeline,” The United States World War One Centennial Commission, accessed www.worldwar1centennial.org.

[2] “Speedway Now Aviation Base,” The [Munster, IN] Times, January 31, 1918, 5; Map, “Sewer Layout and Plot Plan,” Engine and Plane Repair Depot, Indianapolis, Indiana, April 30, 1918, submitted by applicant; “Repair Depot Built up in Few Months,” Speedway Dope, October 5, 1918, 1, no. 2, 1; “Cost of Aviation Depot, Indianapolis, $644,000,” [Muncie] Star Press, October 21, 1918, 6; “The Third Side of Aviation─Rebuilding,” Speedway Dope, November 30, 1918, 1, no. 10, 1; William Menkel, “’New Plans for Old’: The Work of the Aviation Repair Depots,” Aerial Age Weekly, September 1, 1919, 1129-1133, 1144, accessed Google Books; “Annual Report of the Chief of the Construction Division for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1919,” U.S. Congress, House of Representatives. House Documents, 66th Cong., 2nd Sess., Rept., Vol. 17 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. G.P.O., 1920), 448, 550, 732-733, accessed Google Books; “Aviation Repair Depot No. 3,” The United States World War One Centennial Commission, accessed www.worldwar1centennial.org.

On November 30, 1918, two weeks after the end of WWI, the Speedway Dope, the newsletter of the aviation repair depot in Speedway, reported on the importance of repairing and reconstructing damaged airplanes, engines, and parts in the war effort. According to the article, “it is that part of the game [of aviation] that must be done and done right, or the other parts would fail to accomplish anything. . . Not a man among the repair men chose to remain at home but still everyone [sic] of them can return to civil life when the time comes certain that he has done his best to win the war.”

The U.S. Army established the aviation repair depot in Speedway on February 4, 1918 with the arrival of the 810th Aero Squadron from Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas. In his summary and review of the site in Aerial Age Weekly in September 1919, William Menkel, former Captain in the U.S. Air Service and Commanding Officer of the depot, wrote that it was the first of the repair depots to get under way and begin production in the U.S. Other repair depots later opened in Dallas, Texas and in Montgomery, Alabama.

Indianapolis’ central location made it a prime site for aviation repairs and flight testing. Nearby flying fields included Chanute Field in Rantoul, Illinois and Scott Field in Belleville, Illinois, McCook Field and Wilbur Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, and Selfridge Field in Mt. Clemens, Michigan, among others. Pilots coming from these fields frequently used the aviation repair depot and the Speedway, which was converted to a flight test field, as a stopping point and shipped damaged aircraft there for repairs.

Additionally, the repair depot was close to railroad lines in the city and automobile centers in Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois. This made it easier to access raw materials such as steel, aluminum, and lumber, as well as supplies and spare parts used in repairing wrecked aircraft.

[3] “Another Aero Unit to be at Speedway Depot,” Indianapolis News, March 16, 1918, 25; “Will Do Repair Work,” Indianapolis News, March 30, 1918, 17; “Airplanes Add Interest to Day,” Indianapolis Star, April 6, 1918, 26; “Repair Depot Built up in Few Months,” Speedway Dope, October 5, 1918, 1, no. 2, 1; William Menkel, “’New Plans for Old’: The Work of the Aviation Repair Depots,” Aerial Age Weekly, September 1, 1919, 1129-1133, 1144, accessed Google Books.

The U.S. Army established the aviation repair depot in Speedway to complete repair work on training aircraft, engines, and parts primarily from Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Kansas, and other nearby states. On March 16, 1918, the Indianapolis News reported on the addition of the 821st aero squadron at the repair depot. Plans called for the 821st to be composed of 150 men and serve as a headquarters, administrative, and supply squadron. It would join the other three squadrons already located there (the 809th, 810th, and 811th) which were tasked with repairs. Each of these squadrons also had 150 men. According to the article, the 821st sought for volunteers to enlist and would likely be put into service by April 1.

The Speedway Dope reported that “The commissioned and enlisted personnel [at the depot] constitutes a cosmopolitan community. Mechanicians, clerks, cooks, and chauffeurs have come from all parts of the Union, and at the Speedway there is no East or West or North or South.” The majority of these civilian mechanics had little knowledge of aircraft before American entry in the war, but within a short time they became experts in the industry and in repair work. The U.S. Air Service established training schools for these men across the country and provided classes in engine assembly and wing and fuselage construction, while also teaching skills such as making and fastening metal parts to the aircraft, sewing fabric on wings, and applying dope varnish to the aircraft.

Although some of the planes that arrived only needed minor repairs before being shipped back out, others were total wrecks that needed to be completely rebuilt, tested, and, at times, modified to increase pilot safety. Wrecked aircraft was unloaded and often sent to the Dismantling Department where the engine, landing gear, tail surfaces, and other parts were removed, cleaned, and worked on separately before reassembly began.

For detailed information on repairs, including the different processes at the repair depot, see Captain Menkel’s article in Aerial Age Weekly, September 1, 1919. For information on modifications made to aircraft to improve pilot and aircraft safety, see footnote 6.

[4] “Threat of War Cancels Great Motor Classic,” Fort Wayne Sentinel, March 23, 1917, 1, accessed NewspaperArchive.com; “Speedway Offered as Aviation Camp,” Indianapolis News, March 29, 1917, 1; “To Have Three Aviation Fields,” Brook [Brook, IN] Reporter, January 11, 1918, 7; Letter, N. H. Gilman to Carl G. Fisher, September 18, 1918, submitted by applicant; “Two New Hangars for the Speedway,” Speedway Dope, November 2, 1918, 1, no. 6, 1; “Speedway Boon to War Fliers,” Indianapolis Star, May 30, 1919, 30; William Menkel, “’New Plans for Old’: The Work of the Aviation Repair Depots,” Aerial Age Weekly, September 1, 1919, 1129-1133, 1144, accessed Google Books.

In March 1917, with the United States on the verge of entering WWI, the owners of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway canceled the Indianapolis 500-mile race scheduled for May 30 of that year. James Allison, Secretary and Treasurer of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Company reported that many of the materials and supplies used in racing would become necessities during the war. Carl Fisher, President of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, agreed and by the end of that month formally offered use of the Speedway to the U.S. Army as a training camp for aviators. Fisher recognized the value of the Speedway as an experimental flying field and understood that much of the work that went into producing racecars and parts could be converted to use for aviation purposes.

In a letter to Fisher in September 1918, N. H. Gilman, Treasurer of the Allison Experimental Company, referred to the Speedway as an “ideal experimental flying field.” The Indianapolis Star used similar language in describing the Speedway in a May 1919 article. According to the Star, “The Speedway as a prepared landing field saved the government a large sum of money and the detachment of hundreds of laborers, who were sorely needed at that time in other work.” Not only did it serve as a landing site for fliers from nearby airfields, but it also served as a flight test field for aircraft repaired at the aviation repair depot.

[5] “Further Parade Plans,” Indianapolis Star, March 30, 1918, 9; “Needed at Repair Depot,” Indianapolis News, June 21, 1918, submitted by applicant; “Unconditional Surrender,” Speedway Dope, November 2, 1918, 1, no. 6, 4; “Post Report to Washington,” Speedway Dope, January 18, 1919, 1, no. 17, 1; William Menkel, “’New Plans for Old’: The Work of the Aviation Repair Depots,” Aerial Age Weekly, September 1, 1919, 1129-1133, 1144, accessed Google Books; Letter, N. H. Gilman to Carl G. Fisher, September 18, 1918, submitted by applicant.

As described in footnote 4, the U.S. Government used the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and much of the surrounding area for aviation work to aid the war effort beginning in the spring of 1917. In addition to the Speedway’s use as a flight test field, James Allison also donated his machine shop, located just south of the track, for wartime purposes. The Italian Pomilio Brothers Corporation and the British Aviation Mission used hangars at the Speedway to work on and store aircraft.

The aviation repair depot was centrally located near all of this activity. In a March 1918 article, the Indianapolis Star described it as a “miniature city in itself,” with barracks and buildings dedicated to engine repair, airplane supplies, and assembly. The men serving at the depot may not have been fighting and flying overseas, but their contribution was no less significant. The Indianapolis News reported in June 1918 that “these men will be in direct work with the aviators. They are virtually the force which keeps the men in the air.” Articles in the Speedway Dope seconded this sentiment, noting that those who trained or repaired airplanes in the Speedway area might be inclined to downplay the role they played in the war effort because they were not in the trenches abroad, but that the work done at the repair depot was “one of the most important jobs that the American soldiers are called upon to perform.” While the source was a little biased, one should not discredit the quantity or quality of aviation work conducted by the men at the repair depot. 

For specific examples and details of the work at and nearby the aviation repair depot see footnotes 6, 7, and 8 and see the Allison Machine Shop historical marker.

[6] “Post Report to Washington,” Speedway Dope, January 18, 1919, 1, no. 17, 1; William Menkel, “’New Plans for Old’: The Work of the Aviation Repair Depots,” Aerial Age Weekly, September 1, 1919, 1129-1133, 1144, accessed Google Books.

In his report on the aviation repair depots in 1919, William Menkel, former Captain in the U.S. Air Service and Commanding Officer of the repair depot at the Speedway praised the routine repair work conducted at the site, while also crediting the workers there with “making ingenious innovations in construction, resulting in greater safety for the pilot and increased efficiency of the plane.” Menkel described how those working at the repair depot analyzed incoming wrecks in order to find patterns in destruction. They used this information to make improvements in design of the aircraft. For example, Menkel noted that many planes that came in had smashed instrument boards. The instrument board was located so close to the pilot that in the case of a crash their head was likely to hit it. Workers at the depot moved the instrument boards farther away from the pilot’s seat. This extra space reduced the chance that the pilot would hit it in a crash, thereby improving the pilot’s safety and lowering the chance of damage to the instrument board.

The information learned from wrecked aircraft that arrived at the depot also resulted in other modifications, including the reinforcement of longerons and other parts of the plane to lower the chances of damage or fatal injury of the pilot and cutting out sections of the cowl frame to provide more distance between it and the pilot.

[7] “Italians on Secret Mission at Speedway,” Indianapolis News, August 9, 1918, 25; Letter, N. H. Gilman to Carl G. Fisher, September 18, 1918, submitted by applicant; “Liberty Motors Ordered by Great Britain,” Speedway Dope, October 19, 1918, 1, no. 4, 1; “Plan to Build $500,000 Plant in Indianapolis,” Indianapolis News, July 12, 1919; Original affidavit, Pomilio Brothers Corporation, May 7, 1920, filed May 24, 1920, Ed Jackson, Secretary of State, submitted by applicant; Foreign Corporation Annual Report of Pomilio Brothers Corporation, submitted by applicant; Department of State Certificate, Pomilio Brothers Corporation, submitted by applicant; “Aviation in WWI,” National Museum of the US Air Force.

In an official affidavit signed May 7, 1920, Alessandro Pomilio, President of the Pomilio Brothers Corporation, reported that the U.S. Government invited the Italian company to the country to carry out experimental work manufacturing airplanes during the war. The corporation was organized under the laws of the State of New York in August 1918 and secured a plant in Indianapolis soon after. A certificate from the Indiana Department of State dated October 18, 1918 described the company’s business as follows:

To manufacture, sell and operate or otherwise deal in airplanes and other aviation equipment and the motors, machinery, equipment and materials used in or connected with the manufacture or operation of airplanes and other aviation equipment, including all apparatus, machinery, tools and property useful in connection therewith.

Indianapolis newspapers reported on the arrival of Italian aviation officers, including engineers Ernesto Pomilio, Corradino di Ascanto and Amini Sactaldi, as early as August 9, 1918, noting that they were on a “secret mission at Speedway.” On September 18, 1918, N. H. Gilman, Treasurer of the Allison Experimental Company, wrote to Carl Fisher, President of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, to ensure there were enough hangars at the Speedway for the company to carry out its mission. Gilman credited himself with the company’s arrival and its experimental work in the Speedway area.

In July 1919, the Indianapolis News provided details of the work of the Pomilio Brothers Corporation during the war, stating that aviation authorities invited them to the U.S. to experiment in building aircraft suitable for the Liberty engine. The company completed its work and left Indiana that month.

[8] “Threat of War Cancels Great Motor Classic,” Fort Wayne Sentinel, March 23, 1917, 1, accessed NewspaperArchive.com; [Untitled], wanted ads, Indianapolis News, December 20, 1917, 20; [Untitled], wanted ads, Indianapolis News, January 5, 1918, 15; [Untitled], wanted ads, Indianapolis News, January 2, 1918, 16, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; [Untitled], wanted ads, Indianapolis News, April 13, 1918, 20, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Liberty Production Leadership is Stake,” Motor Age, 34, October 31, 1918, 14, accessed Google Books; “Marmon Wins Liberty Engine Production Pennant,” Motor Age, 34, November 7, 1918, 17, accessed Google Books; The Bulletin of the Airplane Engineering Department, War Department, Bureau of Aircraft Production 1, no. 2 (July 1918) (McCook Field, Dayton, OH: Airplane Engineering Department), 143, accessed GoogleBooks.

Nordyke & Marmon Co. got its start producing mill equipment in Richmond, Indiana before relocating to the west side of Indianapolis in the 1870s. By the early 1900s, the company began manufacturing automobiles and, according to the Indiana Historical Society, soon became a leader in automotive design. During WWI, Nordyke & Marmon, like other automotive and manufacturing companies at the time, turned its attention to mobilizing its resources for the war effort. Help wanted ads from the company called for draftsmen, motor builders, toolmakers, jig, and fixture markers for aviation engine work. These ads appeared in Indianapolis newspapers in late 1917 and 1918.

The company was one of five to build Liberty engines during the war (see footnote 1 for more on the Liberty engine). The other factories were General Motors, Ford, Packard, and Lincoln. A wanted ad published in the Indianapolis News on April 13, 1918 stressed the importance of this work and stated:

Your brothers, sons and friends are fighting over there. You are needed here and needed badly. The airplane is the greatest defensive and offensive weapon of the war. In no way can you so well help them as to work on the ‘Liberty motor.’

Articles in Motor Age in October and November 1918 also described the company’s production of Liberty engines and reported that it won the Liberty engine production championship for October by producing twice its quota of engines that month. These engines were used in airplanes such as the De Haviland, in tanks, and speed boats.

Allison Experimental Co., located in a machine shop at Twelfth and Main. St. in Speedway, worked with Nordyke & Marmon during this period to make parts for the Liberty engine. The Bulletin of the Airplane Engineering Department, published by the Bureau of Aircraft Production of the War Department, showed that by mid-1918, Allison Experimental Co. was awarded government contracts to build these parts.

For more information on Allison Experimental Company’s work during the war, see the Allison Machine Shop historical marker text and annotations at http://www.in.gov/history/markers/4144.htm.

[9] “The Third Side of Aviation─Rebuilding,” Speedway Dope, November 30, 1918, 1, no. 10, 1; “Post Report to Washington,” Speedway Dope, January 18, 1919, 1, no. 17, 1; William Menkel, “’New Plans for Old’: The Work of the Aviation Repair Depots,” Aerial Age Weekly, September 1, 1919, 1129-1133, 1132, accessed Google Books.

According to the Speedway Dope, the first wrecked planes arrived at the repair depot in April 1918. Repair work began at a slow pace, as the workers trained and learned how to meet plane specifications. By July, the pace increased and output rose to three completed planes a day.

In a post report to Washington in January 1919, the Speedway Dope reported 313 airplanes repaired at the depot during 1918, representing a total value of $1,195,550.00, and 350 airplane motors valued at $638,699.00. In addition to these figures, the report noted repairs of wings, ailerons, elevators, rudders, and other miscellaneous parts valued at approximately $300,000.00. Added together, repairs at the depot exceeded $2,130,000.00.

[10] “Aviation Repair Depot at Speedway City May Become Permanent When Aerial Mail Service is Extended to Midwestern Country,” Indianapolis News, August 10, 1918, 13; [Untitled], Speedway Dope, November 16, 1918, 1, no. 8, 4; “The Future of this Depot,” Speedway Dope, November 23, 1918, 1, no. 9, 4; “Speedway Aviation Depot to be Closed,” Indianapolis News, March 12, 1919, 3; “Second Anniversary of the Nation’s Call to Arms Reveals Old Camps Vanished and Boys Back in ‘Cits,’” Indianapolis News, April 5, 1919, 17; “Aviation Major on Way to City,” South Bend News-Times, July 24, 1919, n.p.; “U.S. Aviation Service Means Opportunity,” Indianapolis Star, June 20, 1920, 13; “Repair Depot Removal Approved; Starts Soon,” Indianapolis News, July 9, 1920, 1; “Uncertain about Depot,” Indianapolis Star, July 10, 1920, 9; “N.G. Air Unit Sought,” Indianapolis Star, September 22, 1920, 10; Advertisement, “War Department Sale of Buildings & Utilities at Air Service Repair Depot,” Indianapolis News, November 22, 1920; “G.M.C. to Add 4 Units; Work Opens at Once,” Indianapolis Star, July 21, 1935, 1.

Newspapers began reporting on the post-war future of the aviation repair depot as early as August 1918. That month, the Indianapolis News quoted Major Guy L. Gearhart, former Commanding Officer of the depot, who noted the value of the airplane and spoke on the important role it would play in transportation after the war. Maj. Gearhart believed the repair depot would become permanent, stating: “there will have to be repair depots for them [airplanes] the same as there are garages for automobiles. And, of course, Indianapolis, centrally located, will be an important point in aerial mail routes.” Later articles in the News also speculated on repurposing the depot for postal air routes.

In the days immediately following the armistice on November 11, 1918, the Speedway Dope wrote that even though the war had ended, production at the depot should continue, as there was still plenty of work to do before completion of the final peace terms. The depot’s future remained unclear though. By November 23, the newsletter reported that plans for a training school for engineer officers and for two new hangars had been stopped on orders from Washington. Additional orders in March called for the closing of the depot by the end of the month, with civilian mechanics completing any unfinished work. However, the South Bend News reported that recruitment for men for the U.S. Air Service at the Speedway aviation repair depot continued as of July 1919. In June 1920 the Indianapolis Star reported on the excellent working conditions and educational trade opportunities at the site.

By July 1920, the status of the aviation repair depot was again called into question. Newspapers that month reported on the conflicting accounts regarding its future, with some at the depot stating that it would be removed from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and relocated to Fairfield, Ohio. These reports contended that officials at the Speedway would no longer permit planes to land on the track infield. At the same time, other officials at the site reported that plans were in place to renew the lease on the land and continue work at the Speedway site. By September 1920, the government ordered the abandonment of the repair depot. An ad in the News in November 1920 publicized the sale of buildings and utilities, noting: “The Air Service, War Department, Washington, D.C., offers for sale all of the government owned buildings and improvements located on the Air Service Repair Depot reservation at Speedway, Indianapolis, Indiana.” In July 1935, General Motors razed the remaining aviation repair depot structure on the site, “the last physical reminder of the repair depot,” in preparation for the construction of Plant 2 for the Allison Division.

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