'Shorty' and the Gnome

Rudolph William Schroeder (1885-1952)


“After climbing for an hour and 47 minutes to an altitude of 33,114 feet with a temperature of -6 F, Schroeder began to suffer from oxygen deficiency and carbon monoxide poisoning from the engine’s fumes. When he raised his goggles for a moment to locate his emergency oxygen supply, the film of moisture between his eyelids and his eyeballs froze. He attempted to put the plane into a gentle descent, but instead fell in a vertical dive and passed out. He regained consciousness after diving nearly six miles and was able to pull out an altitude of 2,000 feet. “

As a result of this flight, Schroeder’s vision was slightly impaired for the remainder of his life. The accident did not diminish his passion nor his ability to fly. In the summer of 1920 he flew the Air Service Corp.’s Verville-Packard aeroplane in the Gordon Bennett Race at Paris. Forced down by an overheated engine, his team did not finish.

When Schroeder stepped out of uniform, he went to work at Ford Airport in Detroit. Henry Ford’s design engineer, William Stout, was developing the Ford Tri-Motors which were to become the first commercial aircraft to regularly carry passengers across the United States. In order to demonstrate the safety of air travel and boost sales of his Tri-Motors, Henry Ford sponsored the “Ford Reliability Tour” in 1926, in which 23 planes flew 2,500 miles over a predetermined circuit. Schroeder was chosen to command one of Ford’s Tri-Motors, yet again was forced down and did not finish when he lost two of the three engines. A VIP on board later described the emergency landing in Nova, OH, as “gentle,” a testament to Schroeder’s steady nerve and skill.

From Detroit, Schroeder returned to Chicago employed by Curtiss-Wright, and in 1937 was appointed assistant director of the Bureau of Air Commerce. He was described in a contemporary newspaper article as “one of the few Bureau men whom everybody admires.”

From this time forward, Schroeder’s contribution to aviation was on the ground instead of in the air, developing airports, flying schools, and supporting the design of safer aircraft and equipment for pilots. In 1940 he became vice president of safety for United Airlines. Just one year into the job, he had a stroke from which he never fully recovered. Infirm, he continued to work on aviation projects from his sick-bed. In 1945, Schroeder was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for experiments in high altitude flying. On his 67th birthday in August of 1952 he was honored at Chicago’s airport by fellow aviators. No doubt there was the sound of an accordion at the party. He died four months later. Mechanician and flier “Shorty” Schroeder cast a long shadow in aviation history.

Giacinta Bradley Koontz is an aviation historian and author. She was the founder and director of the Portal of the Folded Wings Shrine to Aviation and Museum from 1995-2001 (the site of Charles Taylor’s grave in North Hollywood, CA). Giacinta holds a BA in anthropology with a minor in U.S. history and has given presentations on pioneer aviation since 1995. Most recently she has been awarded a partial grant from the Wolf Aviation Fund to write her second book, highlighting the life of Amelia Earhart’s mechanic, Ernest Eugene Tissot Sr.

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