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ISSUE 229 - July 2012
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The Great Plane Pigeon Races

By Roy Mize, Contributing Editor
Mountain View, CA

Regular readers of the eFlyer will recall that we have featured more than one article regarding those brave little flyers who risked their all, carrying messages back and forth across the battlefields of countless wars. So it was with interest that we received the following from Roy Mize of Mountain view California and trust you will enjoy it as much as we did ~ Barnstormers

Major H.H. Arnold, Commander 91st Observation Squadron Crissy Field, The Presidio at San Francisco (left) and DeHavilland DH-4 – Standard U.S. Army Air Service Plane in 1922 (right).

Five star general, and aviation pioneer, Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold was known for his genial disposition and his no-nonsense pragmatic organization and management skills. So why did Major Hap Arnold race pigeons 650 miles from Portland, Oregon to San Francisco in 1922?

WWI Messenger Pigeon Box (left) and World War One Mobile Pigeon Loft (right).

He flew to win a bet about what was the fastest way to deliver a message – airplanes or messenger pigeons. Army brass approved the flight to show that radio for military communications still needed improvement. Bulky airplane radios were actually wireless telegraphs and unreliable. Some of them had to carried in the lap of an observer in the back seat.

1918 US Army Signal Corps airplane radiotelegraph transmitter (left)
and Airplane Flame Proof Radio Key (right).

Arnold and a mobile pigeon loft and were sent to Portland and the race was on. Arnold’s DeHaviland DH-4 had a top speed of about 60 miles per hour and could fly about one hundred miles before it needed to refuel. Pigeons had been clocked at nearly the same speed and could fly up to 200 miles from their release point to their home loft

British Naval Pilot Releasing Pigeon (left) and attaching a message to a US Army Signal Corps carrier pigeon (right). Photos courtesy of "Photos of the Great War" at

Arnold won his side bets when the pigeons arrived two days after he landed at the Presidio’s Crissy Field. Breaking form, the pigeons apparently had a mind of their own. They should have arrived either before or at least about the same time as Arnold.

1930 Crissy Field (Fort Point in upper-right corner) (left), 1922 Crissy Field (top-right), Spinning the prop at Crissy Field, 1923 (bottom-right) and Biplanes lined up on Crissy Field in the 1920s (insert).

Pigeons provided a role in military communications for thousands of years. In World War Two, the first official notice of D-Day success in 1944 came by pigeon, not radio. The last official U. S. pigeon post and loft was disbanded in 1957. Pigeon communication hasn’t been completely discarded. In 2007, the Army turned to pigeons again, to see if they could support communications in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan. But without the infrastructure, the experiment didn’t work.

German Pigeon with Spy Camera (left), Captured World War One German Messenger
Pigeons - 1919 (right) and Pigeon Message Capsule (insert).
By Roy Mize, Contributing Editor

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