David S. Ingalls – Naval Aviator #85

Every group needs a mascot, a little brother, someone to tag along and get kidded.  For the First Yale Unit it was the “Baby Daredevil,” David “Crock” Ingalls, known for his penchant for pipe smoking and smashing up the family autos.  He was also the most accomplished flier of the Unit and the Navy’s only verified ace of the Great War – all before he was 20-years-old.  He did not remain the mascot very long.  

David Sinton Ingalls grew up in a prominent family from Cleveland, Ohio, and was always destined for Yale.  His father was an influential vice-president of the New York Central Railroad, and his mother was a Taft.  Ingalls’ maternal great-grandfather, Alphonso, had co-founded Skull & Bones at Yale in 1832.  All of Alphonso's sons had gone to Yale, and one of them, David’s great-uncle, was William Howard Taft, 27th president of the United States.  

Though slim and athletic, Ingalls had his rotund great-uncle’s high-pitched, “infectious chuckle.”  He was popular, and at St. Paul’s prep school he was a hockey star, often mentioned in the same breath with the school’s other great hockey-playing alumnus, Hobey Baker.  

Once at Yale, Ingalls became best friends with Trubee Davison’s younger brother Harry, a friendship that, along with his unbridled enthusiasm for flying, guaranteed him a place in the Yale Aero Club.  After receiving official recognition at Yale and arranging to train in West Palm Beach, Florida, the First Yale Unit was finally given permission to enlist in the Naval Air Reserve Corps, which they did at the base in New London, Connecticut, on March 24, 1917.  Though, at 17, Ingalls was too young to enlist, he still made sure he was on the train at Pennsylvania Station four days later as the Millionaires’ Unit – so dubbed by the press – headed south to begin their first official training.  

On the beach of the facility at West Palm Beach, Ingalls came into his own.  He quickly proved himself to be the most agile and fearless of pilots.  He routinely flew upside down over the base and dropped even the largest planes into tailspins, recovering at the last moment to hit his landing mark.  Some of the other pilots thought him a fool; others got ill just watching his aerial gyrations.  

The United States declared war on Germany just before the First Yale Unit left for Florida.  Seven short weeks after receiving their wings in late July, Ingalls and six other FYU members were on a small merchant ship bound for Europe.  It was the adventure for which they had dreamed and worked.  Most of them felt fortunate they weren’t left stateside to train pilots – particularly when they arrived in London and Paris.  

In London they were put up at the elegant Savoy Hotel and drank champagne as if there was no tomorrow.  English society had thrown off its Victorian mantle after two years of unremitting war, and the young men were dazzled by the friendly women and party atmosphere.  But this was nothing compared to what was waiting for them in the French capital.  

After touring the Felixstowe Royal Navy Air Station on the North Sea coast, the airmen went to Paris.  While 18-year-old Ingalls guarded the luggage on arrival at their hotel, he was propositioned by a local woman.  So began what the fliers referred to as their “Parisian education.”  “I had learned something in London,” Ingalls wrote, “but realized I would learn more in Paris.”  Aviation was still so new that pilots in uniform were regarded with near fascination.  

The pilots still had more training to do, however, and they were sent to the air base in Bordeaux where Robert Lovett filled them in on how poorly the war was going.  Not only did the Germans have control of the skies, their U-boats were sinking Allied ships three times faster than they could be launched.  There were not enough planes on which to train, and those that were available were barely air worthy.  When Ingalls was finally able to take up an obsolete French flying boat, he looped it for all to see and was promptly beached by the commanding officer.  They were subsequently pronounced graduated, and the FYU pilots were dispatched to different assignments and air stations.  Ingalls, Lovett and Gates were sent back to Paris.  

After working at minor jobs at naval aviation headquarters and impressing the French women in his uniform, the pipe-smoking ladies’ man got the dream job: training on fast, single-seater, land machines such as the English Sopwith Camel and the French Nieuport and Spad scouts.  Ingalls was sent to an acrobatic flying school in Gosport, England.  He was joined at the School of Special Flying by Kenney MacLeish and Ken Smith's younger brother, Shorty Smith and they became the envy of most all the other Unit members.  Their cheery C.O. told them if they were lucky enough to survive the training, they would be “shot down like birds” once they were sent to Dunkirk.  This was no idle taunt.  Of the 14,000 British pilots who died in World War I, 8,000 of them died in training.  But Ingalls declared it “a paradise for a flier.”  

The three Americans were the least experienced pilots at Gosport. They were initially taken up in two-seater Avros with an instructor seated behind them talking them through acrobatic maneuvers.  It was important that the hand-picked fliers at Gosport pushed their abilities to the limit to demonstrate they had “flier’s temperament.”  The philosophy behind the training was not to avoid dangers and difficulties, but to manage to get out of them.  This made the atmosphere one of pandemonium.  The unregulated skies around the base were overly crowded and constant attention had to be paid in the midst of the stunting, mock dogfights, and constant showing off.  Ingalls had several close calls, one of them almost smashing him nose first into the ground after he caught some telephone wires with his wheels.  Each encounter left him more fearless.  

What captured the American’s fancy and admiration most of all was the Sopwith Camel.  Skittish and agile, the Camel would become the most deadly Allied plane in the war, racking up 1,300 victories.  With a nine-cylinder, 130-horsepower rotary engine, the Camel could climb thousands of feet in mere seconds and turn on a dime.  It was so responsive, it barely gave a pilot time to think.  “It’s so touchy,” Ingalls wrote, “it just seems to jump if you shiver, and goes into a spin every time you make a turn unless you do it perfectly.”  After his first test flight, he was “full of pride that I got back in the same World as when I started.”  

In response to Germany’s Operation Michael, in which they attempted to take western Flanders and drive the British against the coast at Dunkirk, Ingalls and MacLeish were assigned to join the RAF’s No. 13 squadron.  They flew high-altitude bombing raids in the freezing, oxygen-depleted air of their open cockpits.  They made low-altitude bombing runs on the Zeebrugge Mole, the massive seawall that marked the Belgian port of German U-boats.  As they made successive dives through flack and anti-aircraft fire, they were both sure they wouldn’t come back.  

All six planes returned from the coordinated attack, however, and the German offensive was stopped.  With the halt of the operation, the Americans were recalled to their base in Dunkirk.  “All my joy is over,” Ingalls lamented at being grounded again.  “So goodbye to the Camels.”  But soon after, Ingalls and MacLeish were pulled into Bob Lovett’s grand scheme.  They would be flying land bombers.  

Lovett formed the Northern Bombing Group (NBG) and sent Ingalls, MacLeish, and others off to Clermont-Ferrand to become commanders of the navy’s first day-bomber squadrons.  Both of the FYU fliers found the two-man French Breguet bombers clumsy and boring after flying Camels.  Both became depressed without active flying.  It became apparent they might be made commanding officers; while being an honor, it also meant they would be grounded.  However, the point became moot when the Marines insisted on taking over the day-bombing operations, stalling Lovett’s dream of the NBG.  Ingalls and MacLeish returned to flying bombers out of Dunkirk.  Then, MacLeish was sent to England to receive aircraft and arriving Yankee soldiers, and Ingalls was reassigned to RNAS No. 213 at Couderkerque where he would begin the greatest string of air combat victories of any American navy pilot in the First World War.  

On his third day at the new base, Ingalls and the English flight leader (who had recognized Ingalls’ potential) took off in their Camels “watching for meat.”  Shortly, they spotted a camouflaged German observation plane, dove on it, and Ingalls’ tracers struck home.  Next, Ingalls joined what was thought to be the largest aerial raid of the war to date on a vast German aerodrome.  In a dawn raid they attacked from sea, dropping down to 150 feet, catching the Germans asleep as they sped overhead at 125 MPH.  His tracers strafed Fokkers warming up on the runway.  His first payload of bombs missed, but he turned back around.  By now the field was an inferno of burning fuel, ammo, and aircraft.  The strafing Camels were thick above the fray, silencing every battery that returned fire.  Not a single plane was lost.  

The exultant Ingalls flew every day the weather allowed, sometimes up to eight hours.  Flying in two patrols of five or six Camels each for protection, he engaged in dogfights so pitched he twice witnessed German planes colliding with each other.  On his fifth day back at the front, he went up alone in the evening and was attacked from behind by three German monoplanes.  Ingalls swerved, climbed, dove, and spun about, returning fire all the while until all three planes broke off the attack and raced for home.  Ingalls followed firing, then found himself deep in enemy territory and turned for home himself.  Upon landing, his plane was so badly shot up, it had to be junked.  Ingalls giggled and was reprimanded.  “Believe me,” he wrote, “I didn’t need any fatherly advice then or ever again….[I] had been a perfect fool.”  

When a German Rumpler attacked a member of his patrol, Ingalls chased it down and sent it burning into the sea.  With two other planes he dove on a protected observation balloon, ignoring the shrapnel that pierced his fuselage and leg.  He dove a second time, his incendiary bullets engulfing the balloon in flames.  The burning mass floated down on top of the balloon shed igniting it and two more sheds until the entire station went up in flame.  Ingalls returned to base again to find his plane so badly shot up it was replaced.  When a bomber he was escorting developed engine trouble, Ingalls dove on two Fokkers that were hoping to pick off the wounded plane.  Ingalls sent them both smoking to the ground.  He now had a confirmed kill all his own.  Four days later, he took down another Rumpler, but at low altitude he was hit in the engine, gas tank and ailerons, barely managing to limp home where he mashed his landing gear.  David “Crock” Ingalls now had quite the reputation.  

Ingalls’ Camel squadron began flying low-altitude raids in support of attacking troops.  On one of the busiest days they annihilated a German artillery train of horses and men.  At the end of the day, only seven Camels of eighteen that started that morning remained.  The survivors went out and destroyed a troop transport train.  Despite their losses, the Allies were turning the tide in the war.  In six weeks, Ingalls had flown 110 hours, generally six to eight hours a day excepting days of bad weather.  His commanding officer finally decided the Baby Ace needed a rest and Ingalls, against his wishes, was transferred to Eastleigh where he changed places with Kenney MacLeish.  Both considered the best fliers from the Unit, the two friends would never see each other again.  

A month later, the Armistice was signed.  Both Kenney MacLeish and Di Gates were missing, both assumed to be prisoners of war.  On November 12, Ingalls flew a DH-4 from Eastleigh back over to France.  He crossed into Belgium, former enemy territory, and took a bird’s-eye view of the destruction and devastation.  Still thinking he heard machine gun fire, he flew over the aerodromes he had helped bomb, amazed at what he had lived through.  He felt like a conqueror.  

Ingalls returned to Yale and received a law degree from Harvard.  He co-sponsored the Ohio Aviation Code, and became known as “Flying Ingalls” while campaigning for a House seat by airplane.  He served Ohio in the House for two years.  He became the nation’s first Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Aeronautics, under Herbert Hoover, and tripled the number of naval aircraft while pushing for a fully deployable carrier task force.  He was appointed lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve, and when Pearl Harbor was attacked, he helped develop the Naval Air Station at Honolulu and later became commander of the Pearl Harbor Naval Air Station.  After the war he became a director of Pan Am World Airways, then president and publisher of the Cincinnati Times-Star.  After leaving the paper, he went on to practice law.  Throughout his career, he kept flying.  

The Millionaires’ Unit – The Aristocratic Flyboys Who Fought the Great War and Invented American Air Power by Marc Wortman
The First Yale Unit – Naval Aviation 1916-1919 by Ralph D. Paine

Photo: Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-npcc-17468

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