Repairs in the Air

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

GMB’s journey was chronicled in Hartz’s Flight Log, retrieved from the National Archives by Seymour. The log is the basis of her book, “The Around the Rim Flight,” an almost-daily account — including some of the most perilous accidents and innovative repairs by Harding and Dobias.

“As a pilot myself, I find the entire flight awesome,” says Seymour. “But weather was the biggest single threat to survival. They had no help with that — no radio contact — no wind socks. They flew through viciously cold air . . .” There is no doubt in her mind that the mechanics ensured the safety of the crew due to meticulous routine maintenance. Prior to take-off, fasteners, cables, fabric, propellers, landing gear, tires, and hoses for water and gasoline were checked. Remarkably, Dobias also made two heroic airborne repairs — which should have qualified him as a wing-walker as well as a mechanic.

A repair at 12,000 feet high and 80 mph . . .

GMB’s crew faced daily crises, resembling scenes from “Mission Impossible.” On the third day out, the pilots navigated through a violent thunderstorm, losing their compass when the magnets fell off mid-flight. In the freezing cold, the crew removed their goggles so they wouldn’t freeze to their skin. Over mountains and in a fierce storm, they hoped to fly out of bad weather and land safely — anywhere they could. At 12,000 feet, the right engine began to run rough. Dobias and Harding huddled in the rear gunner’s pit, second-guessing the cause of the problem. There seemed no choice but to have a closer look. Seymour describes it from the log entry:

“They reach up, grasp the rail on top of the fuselage and scan the motor. There’s oil spewing out and it could be coming from the cam shaft. There may be a way to tighten up the protective covering.

Dobias moves forward, lowers himself slowly over the side until his feet touch the bottom wing, grabs a firm hold on cross-bars, and makes his way out to the laboring motor. As they suspected, the problem centers on the cam shaft. He turns and nods to Harding who passes him a hammer and chisel. With nearly frozen fingers he manages to make some adjustments and turns back toward the fuselage . . . His whole body is shaking . . .”

. . . And a workshop in a field

The right engine ran smoother, as they flew out of the storm and past the mountains. But darkness was approaching and fuel was low. Harmon piloted a forced landing in a field near Jay, NY, with GMB’s nose dug into the ground due to a collapsed landing gear. Miraculously, the only injury was to Lt. Smith’s ankle. The engines and props escaped ruin, but the rest of GMB didn’t fare as well. Besides the shattered nose, damage included: blown tires, broken struts, bent axles, broken wing ribs and rigging wires as well as tears to 50 percent of the fuselage fabric. Both engines were unmounted and sat in the weeds protected by a tarp. When the new parts arrived at the crash site from Martin’s factory, the crew welcomed the willing hands of locals to dig a pit which allowed positioning of the aircraft for access to replace the metal nose. A restoration of this magnitude in a fully operational maintenance facility would have been challenging — to have completed the task in less than 30 days in the middle of the field, took leadership, skill, and innovative teamwork.

The trip was not without its lighter moments. GMB’s “relief tube” had to be disconnected mid-flight by quick thinking Sgt. Harding when Lt. Harmon anxiously indicated pressure from the device was cutting off his circulation. In Montana, with no aviation oil left the crew substituted castor oil, purchased from a pharmacy in Missoula. The engine ran fine, but Dobias later noted he was glad GMB didn’t normally use the “stinking” lubricant. More pleasant was an aerial tour over Southern California (without military approval) for both the King of Belgium and actor, Douglas Fairbanks.

GMB returned to Bolling Field on Nov. 9, 1919 without ceremony. After their Rim Flight, Dobias apparently did not keep in touch with the GMB crew. The exciting advancement of aviation between 1920 and 1930 included Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic, but if Dobias felt a kinship to airmen, he never revealed it.

Decades later a family hero revealed

Richard Dobias, “Jerry’s” son, had never questioned why he alone among 10 siblings, was driven to earn his private pilot’s license and buy his own plane. In 1978, decades after both his parents had died, he visited the Air Force Museum in Ohio. Unexpectedly, he faced the image of his own father pictured among the crew of a 1919 bomber. (The display has since been removed.)

Dobias, and eventually his entire family, were stunned. The affable young man pictured in a flight suit was a man they did not know. It was the stuff of which mystery movies are made. “None of us knew he had even been in the service,” says Jerry Jean Dobias Perry, his namesake daughter.

Perry had only been told her father was a mechanic for the Ford Motor Company in Michigan before moving to Tucson, AZ, with her mother, Ethel, and her two children. “It was the second marriage for both our parents, and I guess they left their memories behind when they moved here following the Depression.” In Tucson, Dobias worked in construction supervising road blading and installation of drains.

When Perry learned about her father’s remarkable talents as an aviation mechanic she found it in keeping with his character. “He was a detail person, very precise. Everything had to be perfect or he wouldn’t use it. He’d send pipe back to the vendor if it didn’t look right to him. He was a family man too, always there with us at dinner. He often took my mother for evening drives to check equipment at the job site.”

Perry eventually connected with fellow Tucson resident Seymour, at that time finishing the details of her book on the Rim Flight. “It was almost too good to be true,” says Seymour, who was glad for the family input. “I had trouble finding relatives because his name was often misspelled.”

Perry considers her father a “hero,” although she acknowledges he would not have been comfortable with the recognition. “If we had found out while he was alive he would have shrugged his shoulders and said he was just doing his job.”

The GMB crew received a military Commendation for their service. Sgt. Jerosla “Jerry” Dobias was honorably discharged in January 1920 from the U.S. Army noting his “Honest and Faithful Service.”

He was “doing his job” — as a Master Electrician. Dobias died in 1956, leaving us the privilege to finally recognize his contribution to aviation history.

 

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