The Three Musketeers of the Air took flight 83 years ago in Los Angeles.
The Army Air Corps’ precision flying team began in late 1927, composed of Lt. J.J. Williams of Utah, Lt. William Lewers Cornelius of Antlers, and Lt. Irvin A. “Bert” Woodring of Enid. The three young aviators were at the top of their game, performing stunts and battle formations for the national air races.
On Sept. 11, 1928, Williams crashed while performing an inverted formation.
The races were to continue through Sept. 16. Famed aviator Col. Charles A. Lindbergh, who flew across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927 and had flown with the pilots of the Musketeers, filled in, so as not to disappoint the crowds.
On Sept. 25, 1928, while flying in a battle formation known as the Lufbery Circle with a new member, pilot Lt. Roger Williams, Cornelius, known as “Wick,” crashed when their planes collided. Both planes fell to the ground.
As Woodring was accompanying Cornelius’ remains to his hometown of Antlers and then on to the Fort Smith National Cemetery, he was interviewed by The Oklahoman.
He described the crash for the Sept. 26, 1927, edition:
“The planes dropped together like bullets, and Wick didn’t have a chance to jump from the wreckage. We found him lying the length of his parachute strings from his ship. The other end of the parachute was caught in the plane.
“Roger Williams escaped death by a narrow margin. We thought he was gone, too. He fell and his parachute didn’t open. They were 1,200 feet up. Just before Williams’ feet touched the ground his parachute opened: another second and it would have been too late. As it was he was deeply bruised and received a number of deep cuts.”
This was the end of The Three Musketeers, but Woodring continued to fly as an early-day test pilot.
On Saturday, Jan. 21, 1933, The Oklahoman reported:
“Dayton, Ohio — Death reached into the air lanes Friday for Lieut. Irvin A. Woodring — and thus passed the last of the army’s ‘three musketeers of aviation.’
“Like his fellow musketeers, Lieutenant Woodring died in harness trying to advance the standards of army aviation. He fell 2,000 feet from the sky near Wright field.
“The daring flier’s experimental attack-type ship flew to bits and his body was thrown clear. Apparently he had no chance to use his parachute, the device that twice before had saved his life, as it was found unopened.”
Enid, hometown of Woodring, on May 30, 1933, would name its airport for the pilot.
The Sept. 26 story ended with this paragraph:
“Flights by the “three musketeers” and by the “three sea hawks” naval aviators, were the points of highest interest at the aviation maneuvers. These trios vied with each other in bring gasps of admiration and wonderment from the thousands who gathered at the flying fields to witness their hazardous performances.”
While the Three Musketeers were no more, the Army Air Corps and then its successor the U.S. Air Force, continued to fly precision teams. So, when you look up in the air to see the Air Force’s Thunderbirds or the Navy’s Blue Angels fly in their amazing formations, think of the Three Musketeers and the two Oklahoma pilots who were there at the beginning.