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Aces of Aviation

Curtiss A-12 Shrike of Horace Hickam

Curtiss A-12 Shrike of Horace Hickam

Curtiss A-12 Shrike, piloted by Lieutenant Colonel Horace Hickam, from the Unites States Army Air Corps, the 5th November 1934.

Wingspan: 13.41 meters.

Length: 9.83 meters.

Height: 2.85 meters.

Engine[s]: Wright YR 1820 of 670 horsepower.

Maximum speed: 285 kilometers/hour.

Service ceiling: 4620 meters.

Range: 725 kilometers.

Armament: Five Browning M1919 0.30-inch machine guns; maximum bomb load of 180 kilograms.

When charges for corruption (which later were proven to be unfounded) in the contracts of air service prospered, and with the ensuing cancellations of the concessions granted to the commercial airlines, the task of transporting the mail in United States was entrusted to the military aviation, which began this task in February 1934. Wholly unprovided of adequate equipment and training to perform this task, the pilots of the Navy, who were largely officers in reserve with only two years of experience in flight, set out with courage to carry out their new duty. They were responsible of the central area of United States the pilots of the 3rd Attack Group, who flew the Curtiss A-12 Shrike commanded by a white-haired Lieutenant Colonel: Horace Meek Hickam.

Born the 14th August 1885 in Spencer, Indiana, "Old Hick" (also nicknamed "High RPM Hickman" and "Hickman the tall") graduated in the West Point Military Academy in 1908 and was destined to the 11th Cavalry. Later he served in the famed 7th Cavalry, under the command of General Pershing, entering action in Mexico in 1916, where he earned a Silver Star for his daring service. Transferred to the air branch of the Signal Corps, he received training as pilot and was given the command of the air stations in Florida.

Major Hickam became a member of General "Billy" Mitchell's staff after the First World War and, with high recommendations from the United States War Department, he was sent to command the 3rd Attack Group in June 1932. When the unpleasant task of transporting the mail was assigned to the Air Force, this group was made responsible of the routes between Chicago and Cheyenne. Trained for surprise attacks, flight formation and aiming, the pilots of this group were not prepared for transporting heavy weights at long distances, in good or bad weather conditions and onboard aircraft of open cockpit and single engine as the Curtiss A-12 was. The disastrous ratio of accidents which had been anticipated soon demonstrated to be a very keen appreciation.

Three days before the regular mail service should start, the lieutenants Jean D. Grenier and Adwin D. White died when their Boeing P-12 crashed during a blizzard on a route check flight over Utah. This was the first of a long series of accidents and fatalities that would take place during the three disastrous weeks that followed. Lieutenant James Eastham was the third aviator that lost his life, crashing near Salt Lake City. The beginning of the regular mail service was topped with the loss of the lieutenants Dietz and Gibson, while accidents succeeded each other without interruption.

Colonel Hickam continued occupying his place in the route program, but he expressed his concerns about the long hours that his men had to spend flying, how unsuitable the Curtiss A-12 was and how obsolete the compasses were. The 10th March, in the face of the public protest because of the terrible ratio of accidents, President Roosevelt suspended the mail service. Albeit it was later temporarily resumed, flights during night and bad weather conditions were forbidden and so the ratio of accidents suddenly decreased.

Hickam and his pilots returned to normality in his work and reports appeared according to which Hickam would soon take the command of the 3rd Attack Wing, in Langley Field. However, the 5th November 1934, during nocturnal landing practices with poor visibility carried out in Fort Crockett, Texas, his Curtiss A-12 hit an obstacle during his approximation to land and overturned, causing his death. The 21st May 1935 the airdrome near Fort Kamehameha in Oahu, Hawaii, was baptized as Hickam in memory of such singular aviator.