By Brad Dison
Lieutenant Frank Wead was one of the best-known “fliers” in the early years of the United States naval aviation service. In 1912, Frank, then sixteen years old, entered the U.S. Naval Academy. Two years later, much of the world was engaged in “the war to end all wars,” World War I. United States President Woodrow Wilson’s policy was for strict and impartial neutrality, and most of the country supported his policy. The American military made preparations for war just in case.
In 1916, Frank graduated from the naval academy as America continued to build up its military strength. In early 1917, Germany began unrestricted submarine warfare on all ships including American ships, and on April 6, 1917, the United States was forced into World War I. Frank spent the remainder of the war as an ensign aboard the USS Shawmut from which he aided in the laying of mines in the North Sea. On November 11, 1918, Germany surrendered, and the war was over.
Following the war, Frank requested and was accepted into naval aviation flight training at the Naval Aeronautic Station Pensacola in Florida. After flight school, Frank promoted naval aviation through air racing competitions. On September 28, 1923, Frank commanded a team of American Navy pilots who competed in and won the Schneider cup seaplane race near Cowes, England. In June 1924, Frank and copilot John C. Price set an endurance record when they piloted a giant Curtiss CS-2 seaplane for 13 hours 23 minutes 15 seconds and travelled 963.12 miles. In the following month, Frank and his copilot beat their world record in the same plane when they stayed aloft over the Potomac River for 15 hours 19 minutes and covered a distance of 1050 miles. The distance would have been greater had a heavy fog not forced Wead to land the plane with five hours of fuel remaining. In June 1924, Frank and Prince broke four world records in the same day. Newspapers reported on his daring feats in airplanes and Frank became something of a national hero.
On Tuesday night, April 13, 1926, Frank had an accident which broke his neck. Surgeons at the Balboa Park naval hospital in San Diego, California, feared his injury would prove fatal. On Friday, April 16, surgeons operated on Frank in what they called “one of the most delicate ever performed at the medical institution.” For several days, Frank remained in critical condition. His chances of survival, according to his doctors, rose to about fifty percent.
Frank had a habit of beating the odds. Three months after his accident, despite his poor condition, Frank was promoted to lieutenant commander. His health gradually improved over the course of two years, but he remained paralyzed from the waist down. Frank eventually learned how to sit up and stand with the aid of steel braces.
Frank needed a new career. At the suggestion of a friend, Frank tried his hand at writing. Initially, Frank wrote non-fiction books pertaining to aviation. In between books, he wrote short historic fiction articles for magazines, which garnered the attention of Hollywood movie producers. He began creating aviation-themed scripts for movies, three dozen of which were turned into films. In 1938, Frank was nominated for two Academy Awards for Test Pilot starring Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, and Spencer Tracy, and The Citadel starring Robert Donat and Rosalind Russell. Frank wrote about what he loved but could no longer do, which was flying.
Frank’s accident was not the result of an ill-fated flight in an aircraft, but a flight of a different sort. Frank Wead, the famous aviator who broke numerous world records before he broke his neck, ended his flying career when he tripped down a flight of stairs in his own home.
- Los Angeles Evening Post-Record, April 16, 1926, p.11.
- The Austin American, April 16, 1926, p.1.
- The Fresno Morning Republican, April 18, 1926, p.15.
- The Courier-News (Bridgewater, New Jersey), September 7, 1923, p.14.
- Honolulu Star-Bulletin (Honolulu, Hawaii), June 23, 1924, p.15.
- The Modesto Bee (Modesto, California), July 12, 1924, p.2.
- Pisano, Dominick. “Hollywood’s Representation of Naval Aviation: Frank W. ‘Spig’ Wead and John Ford’s ‘The Wings of Eagles’ (1957).” National Air and Space Museum. Last modified January 5, 2012. Accessed July 11, 2022. airandspace.si.edu/stories/editorial/hollywoods-representation-naval-aviation-frank-w-%E2%80%9Cspig%E2%80%9D-wead-and-john-fords.