More than a road: The story behind Wright-Patt's Skeel Avenue

  • Published
  • By Matthew Clouse
  • 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

It was October 4, 1924, the final day of the International Air Races at Wilbur Wright Field, now known as the flightline on Area B. Approximately 50,000 people came to witness the final event, the prized Pulitzer Speed Trophy Race. The trophy went to the pilot that maintained the top speed over a 200 kilometer course.

The race was open to both civilian and military pilots, but there were only four contestants due to the lack of international competitors. The foreign pilots decided not to attend because they believed their aircraft could not compete with American planes.

One of the contestants was Capt. Burt Skeel, commander of the U.S. Army Air Service 27th Pursuit Squadron at Selfridge Field, Michigan, and regarded as one of the best pilots in the country.

For the race, Skeel was piloting a Curtiss R-6 Racer. The airplane was a single-engine, single-seat biplane developed from the U.S. Navy Curtiss CR and had a maximum speed of 240 mph. Before getting to the start line, he flew his plane up to a high altitude and dove down to get as much speed as possible.

Skeel never reached the starting line.    

Flying at roughly 275 mph, the wings broke away from the fuselage and his plane plummeted 2,000 feet to the ground. The crowd watched in horror, as his body landed in a swampy area next to the road.

Skeel was dead at age 30.      

“The names of streets, buildings and other facilities on Air Force bases that honor a particular person are considered a ‘memorialization’ by our regulations,” said Kevin Rusnak, Air Force Life Cycle Management Center chief historian. “For example, this was done at Wright-Patt in 1977, when the streets around the housing in Area A were changed from letter designations like ‘A Street’ to the names of Air Force and Army Air Corps leaders from Ohio.”

It’s not clear when the road that connects Gate 15A off state Route 844 to the air traffic control tower was named Skeel Avenue, but it was before 1929, according to Rusnak.

There’s a plaque honoring Skeel in the memorial park outside the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. He’s buried in Lake View Cemetery in his birth city of Cleveland, Ohio.