Captain Ernest Emery Harmon: Aviation Pioneer During the Golden Age of Flight

by Bill Harmon

Ernest Emery Harmon (Photo: The Harmon Family)

Ernest Emery Harmon (Photo: The Harmon Family)

As a trailblazing Army pilot during the golden age of aviation, Capt. Harmon was a towering figure both literally, and figuratively. With a stature of 6'6", he would have exceeded the height limitation for pilot training candidates in the Air Force today. Popular among his contemporaries, it was only fitting that they nicknamed him "Tiny".

His contributions to early aviation are significant. He participated in many air races during the 1920s, winning many. And, he set many speed records when flying between cities. On one occasion in 1919, he flew several military passengers from Washington, D.C. to New York City. Also on board for that flight was his wife, Harriette Alexander Harmon. This event is documented in newspapers at the time recognizing her as the first female ever to travel by air between the two cities.

While he was a flight training instructor at Gerstner Field, Louisiana, one of Harmon's students was Edmund Chamberlain. Chamberlain was later deployed to Europe where he was heroically credited with having shot down 5 German planes in a single sortie during World War One.

In 1919 Harmon was selected to pilot the historic "Around The Rim" flight. The goal of this mission was to fly, counter-clockwise, from city to city around the border of the continental United States, often navigating simply by the "iron compass" (i.e. following railroad tracks). The intent was to test the endurance of the Martin MB-1 bomber and it's Liberty motors. It was also intended to promote the development of more landing fields and aviation safety procedures and to inspire more young men to enlist in Army pilot training.

Often, during The Rim mission, which took four months to complete, Harmon was required to land his open cockpit Martin MB-1 bomber in farmer's fields due to the lack of a nearby airstrip. On one occasion in a field in Jay, NY his "heavy" bomber broke a landing gear strut, causing the plane to rapidly tilt forward and nose dive into the ground. Harmon and his crew spent the following month rebuilding the airship on the spot where it had crashed in order that they could continue their assigned mission.

Ernest Emery Harmon in cold weather gear.jpg

A permanent display is on exhibit at the United States Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, that pays tribute to Harmon, and his crew, for the successful completion of the "Rim" flight. It was a milestone aviation achievement in its day, making headlines in newspapers across the country. Hundreds of fans, including movie stars, dignitaries, and politicians, would show up at the local airfield just to witness the Martin MB-1s arrival and departure.

On a lighter note, in 1924, while stationed at Bolling Field in Washington D.C., Harmon learned that the quarterback of the University of Maryland football team, Pete Quesada, had taken on a summer job as a lifeguard when swimming was still allowed in the Tidal Basin on the Washington mall. Harmon swam out to Quesada's lifeboat, hopped in, and offered to take Quesada flying. Recognizing this as a rare opportunity, Quesada jumped at the opportunity. After their flight the next day, Quesada eagerly enlisted in the Army's flight training program. Harmon had completed his hidden agenda, recruiting a talented quarterback for his intramural military football team.

Meanwhile, Pete Quesada was promoted through the years to the rank of General. He is credited with developing the breakthrough strategy of providing close air support to ground troops during warfare. Most notably, General Quesada was the commanding officer of all air support, under Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower, during project "Overlord", the WWII D-Day invasion.

During the 1920s, while stationed at Bolling Field, Harmon, and his family (wife Harriette & 3 sons William, Robert, Ernest Jr.) resided in Takoma Park, Maryland. He and his children became quite popular with the other kids in the neighborhood. Long before all the FAA airspace restrictions that exist today in the D.C. area, Harmon was known to often "buzz" (fly low) over his neighborhood, just above the treetops, and drop bags of candy to the ecstatic children below.

Also while living in the DC area, Harmon performed extensive patent research at the United States Patent Office. He became a recognized expert in the emerging field of aeronautical engineering, and in parachute technology. From this perspective, it is both ironic, and tragic, that Harmon lost his life while trying to find a safe landing spot in dense fog on a flight to Mitchel Field, Long Island. In an open cockpit Douglas O-25C, with no electronics (i.e. no IFR), Harmon was desperately trying to find a break in the weather when he ran out of fuel. At the last minute, he jumped from the plane in an attempt to parachute safely to the ground. By that time, he did not know that his plane was too low.

In a tribute to him five years after his death, an old pal of his, William Joseph Collins wrote the following:

"Tiny" old friend I wish that you knew

How all the boys at the field miss you

Your booming voice and your happy smile

Your glad "hello" to both rank and file

Your outstretched hand, and encouraging word

And an optimism undeterred

But the one thing we'll ne'er replace

Is that boyish grin upon your face

And I'll wager, if only us mortals could see

That you're leading the flight into eternity

In his own words, the "Wizard of the Air", as Harmon was often called, described his love of flying:

"There is nothing like it. It is much easier than driving a motor car. Nothing in your path but a few birds, and no check on your speed. You know, down on earth there are so many speed traps and a motorist must check up, even though he has a high powered machine and could sprint a bit. But, the only regret I have is the fact that I was kept from getting overseas and into action. I would liked to have had a chance at the Kaiser's airmen. They would have had to hustle to get away if I was driving a LePère".

An annotation to his biography published in "Who's Who in American Aeronautics" states "The Army lost some of its potentially great leaders during the 1920s and 1930s. Capt. Harmon was one of them".

In his honor, Harmon Field in Newfoundland, Canada was commissioned by an act of Congress on June 23, 1941. It was later renamed Harmon Air Force Base on July 1, 1948. It was the home base for the U.S. Air Force strategic air command during the Cold War.  Harmon Drive on the grounds of Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Tx. provides a lasting tribute to his memory.


Note: Captain Harmon died in a plane crash in 1933, and never had the opportunity to meet the young, fresh-faced beauty named Elaine Danforth, who would marry his son, Robert, in 1941. Like her father-in-law, Elaine loved to fly, even going against her mother's wishes, and joining the WASP. Also, like Captain Harmon, Elaine was interred, with full military honors, at Arlington National Cemetery.

We are grateful to the Harmon family for sharing their stories with us.