'Shorty' and the Gnome

Rudolph William Schroeder (1885-1952)


Gnome #755
The Minnesota Air & Space Museum (MASM) located in Blaine, MN, fell heir to a 1909 Gnome Omega 50-hp engine, nearly identical to that which Schroeder maintained for Brodie. The museum’s president and chief mechanic, Denny Eggert, yearned to bring it to life. Eggert has repaired almost anything requiring a power plant for more than 40 years but needed an expert on rotary engines. He hired Fred Murrin of Greenville, PA, known to have built vintage planes from the grass up, who soon had the engine restored, inspected, and ready for a trial run. Now on display at the MASM, the Gnome Omega (Serial #755) is affixed to a test stand and started up once a year for fund-raising purposes. Eggert is at the mag switch each time. “The Gnome is a remarkably quiet engine ... a lot more quiet than an Anzani,” he says, “but I tell you, when you hear that sound it gives you chills down your spine.”

The Farman which Brodie flew under Schroeder’s care had no full throttle nor did it have brakes. The Gnome’s rpms were controlled by an instrument called a “blip switch” which shut off three out of the seven cylinders and decreased the power. A precision landing was achieved by backing off intermittently on engine power using the blip switch, and heading for a place where you could roll for several feet until you were dragged to a stop by the tail skid which dug into dirt and grass (or the occasional inanimate object).

The exhibition circuit
During a routine test flight in 1913, Brodie lost control of his Farman and was crushed to death by the Gnome engine which broke loose from the impact of the crash. He was 25.

Schroeder then hooked up with aviator Mickey McGuire, who flew a Curtiss Pusher. Within a year, McGuire was also killed, leaving Schroeder to finish the season making exhibition flights of his own, and working for other fliers as a mechanician.

For a while he worked for Katherine Stinson, affectionately known as the “Schoolgirl of the Air” who thrilled spectators with loops and night flights in both the United States and Japan. A fellow aviator described meeting Stinson and Schroeder in 1916, just before she made one of her famous night flights with lighted flares on her Wright biplane.

“Across the field through the darkness … Katherine and her mechanic, Shorty Schroeder were preparing for her flight ... She appeared perfectly calm as she and her mechanic checked over the plane, revved up the motor to be sure it was running properly, and making sure that the magnesium flares which were attached to the edge of the lower wings were secure. She could well feel confidence in her capable mechanic because he was none other than Rudolph “Shorty” Schroeder ... she was fortunate enough to be able to persuade him to be part of her team. He was all business as he tested wires, controls, etc. Soon a megaphone announced [her flight] ... Shorty spun the wooden propeller with one swing to start the motor and signaled Katherine away ...”

When Stinson landed Schroeder was waiting for her near their bonfire. After a fireside chat, Schroeder staked the plane down, and covered it with canvas for the night. He would be back at dawn preparing for the next show on the road.

Many “early birds” lived long and relatively healthy lives, but during 1913, in addition to Brodie and McGuire, Cicero Field also lost two popular local aviators: Max Lillie and Andrew Brew. Exhibition flying did not fill the ambitions of Schroeder, however, and he soon enlisted in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, eager to be among the first Reserve Military Aviators at the onset of WWI.

“The Peace Time Ace”
“[Schroeder’s] adult life spanned the whole period of commercial and military aviation, to which he made great contributions at great personal cost.” Chicago Tribune, 12/31/52

McCook Field near Dayton, OH, where dozens of famous military aviators began their career, was operated as an airfield, training field, and test station from 1917-1927. Among the aviators was “Shorty” Schroeder, who advanced to the rank of Major within two years, assigned as chief test pilot. Perhaps influenced by the deaths of fellow exhibition fliers, Schroeder focused on safety features for aviators, favoring the new parachute designed by Floyd Smith. Schroeder was the first military aviator to wear Smith’s parachute pack in 1919, and was the first instructor to open a night-flying school for military instruction. He made altitude records during the fall of 1919, in a Lepere biplane built by Packard Motor Car Company (which used a Liberty engine.) One of his attempts at the altitude record is well described as a near death experience, on Feb. 27, 1920:

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