Repairs in the Air

Around the Rim with Liberty Engines Sgt. Jarosla “Jerry” Dobias

When the United States entered WWI in April 1917, among the first to enlist for service in the Army was 20-year-old Jarosla Dobias. Immediately recognized as a “Master Electrician” he was assigned training for the fledgling Air Service at McCook Field in Ohio. At 5 feet 9 inches tall, Dobias was nimble, strong, and possessed a remarkable talent for all things mechanical. Commissioned as a Sergeant in training, Dobias quickly became a maintenance expert on 400-hp Liberty engines. The hastily formed base was the center for testing and development of bombers built by the Glenn L. Martin Corporation of Cleveland.

Born in Austria, Dobias immigrated to the United States at the age of 4 with his older brother in 1903. Dobias grew up near Cedar Rapids, IA, where he assimilated into America’s Midwestern work ethic.

Caught up in the WWI push to develop American military aircraft, Dobias was needed at home for maintenance training and never saw action at the front. However, it was not long before his adopted country assigned him to a perilous task for which discomfort was certain, injury was probable, and death quite possible.

The Glenn Martin Bomber No. 1 (GMB)

The Army’s first bomber, GMB was designed with two 400-hp Liberty engines as a prototype which Martin hoped would result in military contracts. The large open-cockpit bomber held a crew of five — a single gunner’s seat at the nose, two side-by-side pilots in front of the wing sections, and two side-by-side seats for the gunners aft of the wings. With a wing span of 71 feet, and more than 46 feet long, the aircraft stood 14 feet off the ground. The fuselage was wood and fabric with a metal prow-shaped nose. Its average cruising speed was about 80 mph.

Second in Command of the U.S. Army Air Service after WWI, was Brig. General “Billy” Mitchell, who was determined to demonstrate the advantages of military air power and convince Americans that landing fields were essential to connect cities coast to coast for commerce as well as defense.

Mitchell conceived a spectacular public relations stunt using GMB. With a crew of pilots and mechanics, GMB was to fly the perimeter of the United States, landing in fields and prairies near towns along the route with a goal of laying out municipal airports for the first time. Officially the mission objective was to test-fly the Liberty engines; evaluate the overall reliability of the GMB; convince local authorities to build an airfield for their towns; and observe ways the bomber design could be improved. They were also to identify unchartered areas for which they would gather important mapping data. Unofficially the crew was a flying billboard for the U.S. Air Service.

Mitchell was able to select the Air Service’s top officers for the rim tour, which began July 24, 1919 at Bolling Field near Washington, D.C. Lt. Col. R.S. Hartz was assigned to command specially chosen co-pilots and mechanics. His team consisted of First Lt. Lotha A. Smith, Reserve Military Aviator (RMA), 2nd Lt. Ernest “Tiny” Harmon, RMA, Sgt. John “Jack” Harding, Master Electrician, and Sgt. Jarosla “Jerry” Dobias, Master Mechanic.

With brief formalities at Bolling Field, Mitchell shook the hands of each crew member, and watched GMB depart for her first stop in Mineola, NY. Base personnel turned out to watch GMB take off, but as aviation historian and author Miriam Seymour put it, “Nobody . . . asked when she would be back.” It turned out to be a four-month adventure of a lifetime.

Encountering everything from frostbite to engine failure, the intrepid crew returned to Bolling Field four months later, having met every objective assigned. Miraculously, despite vicious weather, a crash, and fuel and equipment crises, there was no loss of life. In every town visited and for months following their return, the Around the Rim Flight was lauded in newspapers, making the crew famous.

The Around the Rim Flight: July 24, 1919 – Nov. 9, 1919

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