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HERITAGE SERIES: Maughan’s Visit to Selfridge Made Him the (Unofficial) Fastest Man in the World

  • Published
  • By TSgt. Dan Heaton
  • 127th Wing Public Affairs
(Part of an ongoing series of stories highlighting key Airmen and events in the history of Selfridge Air National Guard Base)

His name was Russell L. Maughan and in between being a World War I flying hero and carrying a paratroop division into World War II, he was the fastest man at Selfridge Field. In fact, Russell Maughan was the fastest man in the world.

Col. Russell Maughan's service record over a 30-year period included scores of accolades and combat service in two world wars. Among his many accomplishments, it was his airmanship during a week in October 1922 at Selfridge that brought his name to national prominence. On Oct. 14, 1922, he became the first man in the world to be clocked traveling in excess of 200 miles per hour during the Pulitzer Trophy airplane races. Two days later, he shattered his own speed record by clocking in at 248.5 miles per hour.

Maughan enlisted in the Army in 1917 after graduating from college in Utah. America had just formally declared war on Germany and was quickly moving to mobilize an army for World War I. Maughan was assigned to the fledgling Air Service. Serving in France with the 139th Aero Squadron and flying the SPAD XIII, Maughan scored four aerial victories. On Oct. 27, 1918, he endured what was likely his most harrowing experience of that war. On that day, Maughan and two wingmen were attacked by a larger group of enemy aircraft while flying over enemy lines. During the combat that ensued, Maughan, outnumbered 11 aircraft to three, shot down one enemy aircraft and then positioned his aircraft between the enemy and the battle-damaged aircraft of one of his squadron-mates. As Maughan and his fellow 139th Squadron pilots reached the American lines, one of the enemy Fokker aircraft began to strafe the U.S. trenches. Maughan re-engaged the enemy, shooting down his second enemy aircraft of the encounter. Maughan would later be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second-highest military honor for his actions that day. He completed the war with four aerial victories.

Following the conclusion of World War I, Maughan worked in a variety of flying assignments and eventually was assigned as a test pilot. In October 1922, he was assigned to compete in the Pulitizer Races being held at Selfridge Field. Flying in a Curtiss R-6 (some sources refer to the aircraft as a Curtiss D-12), Maughan won the events first race on Oct. 14, flying at an average speed of 205.8 miles per hour. It was the first time anyone in the world had ever been clocked in excess of 200 mph.

On Oct. 16, flying eight laps on a 1-kilometer course marked out over Lake St. Clair, Maughan was clocked at 248.5 mph on his fastest lap.

Afterward, the pilot, still a first lieutenant, talked to a reporter:

"My speedometer broke on the first lap," Maughan reported. "When it stuck at 240, and I had no idea what speed I was making after that. I only knew I had her wide open. There was a haze and sometimes when taking the pylons (turns in the course), I couldn't see anything. I seemed to go blind. Once I saw red and green. When I came to the old ship had righted herself and was zipping over the judge's line."

Despite Maughan's speed, his name did not go into the record books. The official judges from the France-based Federation Aeronautique Internationale did not arrive at Selfridge until Oct. 18. That's when they recorded Brig. Gen. William "Billy" Mitchell - flying in the same plane Maughan had used - traveling at 224.05 mph, which then become the new official speed record.

In 1923, Maughan did hold the official speed record for a time, when he was recorded - this time with observers present! - flying at 236.5 mph.

The 1922 air races were one of the most significant events in the early non-combat development of the Army Air Service and likely one of the most lasting contributions made to aviation at Selfridge Field.

Maughan hardly rested on his laurels after those races. In 1923, he made two failed attempts to make a dawn-to-dusk flight from the U.S. East Coast to the West Coast. He tried again and succeeded on June 23, 1924, in a flight that was made in six legs over 18 hours and 20 minutes. The first-ever coast-to-coast flight was banner headlines news across the nation, transfixing even the White House, where President Calvin Coolidge demanded an immediate telegram from San Francisco as soon as Maughan landed.

After serving as a consultant in the Philippines government in the early 1930s, Maughan took on a top secret assignment as the 1930s drew to a close and a new war was brewing in Europe. In 1939, he led a small, highly secret mission to select potential air fields in Greenland and Iceland, should the need arise to send an American Air Force to Europe. Those airfields were later used extensively during World War II.

During the war, Maughan held a number of assignments including short stints as the commander of a Troop Carrier Wing - which transported thousands of paratroopers into combat -- and a bomber command, both of which were based in England. Maughan retired from the Army in 1946, about a year before the creation of the U.S. Air Force.

Maughan died in 1958, age 65. Though he only spent about a week at Selfridge Field, his impact on the young base - and the Air Force - was great.

Selfridge Field opened as a military air field in 1917. In 1947, it became Selfridge Air Force Base. In 1971, the base was transferred to the control of the Michigan Air National Guard and is now known as Selfridge Air National Guard Base.

Comprised of approximately 1,600 personnel and flying both the A-10 Thunderbolt II and the KC-135 Stratotanker, the 127th Wing supports Air Mobility Command, Air Combat Command and the Air Force Special Operations Command by providing highly-skilled Airmen to missions domestically and overseas. The 127th Wing is the host unit at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, which marks 97 years of continuous military air operations in 2014.