The Tall Legacy of “Shorty” Rudolph William Schroeder (1885-1952)

In 1908, siblings Louis, Augustin and Laurent Sequin created the first practical challenge to water-cooled engines based upon their automobile and marine power plants manufactured near Paris. They named it the Gnome after a hard working, small mythical creature that guarded underground treasure. By 1909, they convinced their country’s most famous aviator, Louis Paulhan, to affix Gnome Omega No.1 to his Farman aircraft with which he won the Grand Prix prize at the Rheims Air Meet (Grande Semaine d’Aviation de la Champagne). During 1909 and 1910, Paulhan thrilled spectators at air meets in Europe and the United States. He flew his Farman (with a new Gnome engine) in the 1910 Los Angeles International Air Meet at Dominguez Hills, CA.

That same year, Otto Brodie (a recent graduate of the Curtiss Flying School) needed a mechanician to keep his Curtiss pusher in one piece while he made exhibition flights in the Midwest. He met Schroeder while based at Chicago’s Cicero Field. At six feet, four inches tall, Schroeder was already known for his mechanical skills. He was otherwise described as a “serious, sad looking man who played a fine accordion.” Brodie is said to have nicknamed him “Shorty.”

Born in Chicago during 1885, Schroeder was a gifted student who progressed through educational training at Crane Technical School. He was experimenting with his own glider designs in 1909, just prior to meeting Brodie. Although of different backgrounds, they were a good match. Schroeder’s mechanical skills kept Brodie flying, but the Curtiss did not last long. In 1911, Brodie acquired a used Farman aircraft with a 50hp Gnome engine from wealthy New York aviator Clifford Harmon. Schroeder added metric tools to his trade and got his hands greasy on the Sequin brothers’ rotary-engine Gnome. The image of a colorful, mischievous garden gnome is nothing like the solid, all-business, metal construction of the odd-numbered cylinder engine that bears the same name.

“In this type of engine, the crankshaft is mounted on the airplane, while the crankcase and cylinders rotate with the propeller,” writes engine historian Matt Keveney. When he initially learned how the Gnome worked, Keveney’s reaction was that, “the only person crazier than the engine designer was the one who paid money for it. At first glance, it seems ridiculously backwards.”

Brodie made hundreds of exhibition flights in the Midwest and used the Farman at his aviation school in both Florida and Illinois. Along with him was “Shorty” Schroeder, mechanician.

The Farman that Brodie flew under Schroeder’s care had no full throttle nor did it have brakes. The Gnome’s rpms were controlled by an instrument called a “blip switch” which shut off three out of the seven cylinders and decreased the power. A precision landing was achieved by backing off intermittently on engine power using the blip switch, and heading for a place where you could roll for several feet until you were dragged to a stop by the tail skid that dug into dirt and grass (or the occasional inanimate object.)

Touring with Katherine

Brodie lost control of his Farman during a routine test flight in 1913. The Gnome engine broke loose from the impact of the crash and crushed him to death. He was 25.

Schroeder then hooked up with aviator Mickey McGuire, who flew a Curtiss Pusher. Within a year, McGuire was also killed, leaving Schroeder to finish the exhibition season working for other fliers who needed his expert help with repairs. He briefly worked for Katherine Stinson, affectionately known as the “Schoolgirl of the Air.” She thrilled spectators with loops and night flights in both the U.S. and Japan. A fellow aviator described meeting Stinson and Schroeder in 1916, just before she made one of her famous night flights with lighted flares on her Wright biplane.

“Across the field through the darkness … Katherine and her mechanic, Shorty Schroeder, were preparing for her flight. She appeared perfectly calm as she and her mechanic checked over the plane, revved up the motor to be sure it was running properly and making sure that the magnesium flares which were attached to the edge of the lower wings were secure. She could well feel confidence in her capable mechanic because he was none other than Rudolph “Shorty” Schroeder. She was fortunate enough to be able to persuade him to be part of her team. He was all business as he tested wires, controls, etc. Soon a megaphone announced [her flight] ... Shorty spun the wooden propeller with one swing to start the motor and signaled Katherine away ...”

In Uniform

Schroeder learned to fly amid the exhibition fliers between 1910 and 1916. Many “early birds” lived long and relatively healthy lives. However, in addition to Brodie and McGuire, Cicero Field also lost popular local aviators Max Lillie and Andrew Brew during 1913. Exhibition flying did not fill the ambitions of Schroeder, however, and he soon enlisted in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. He was eager to be among the first reserve military aviators at the onset of WWI.

At McCook Field near Dayton, OH, Schroeder (who advanced to the rank of major within two years) was assigned as chief test pilot. Perhaps influenced by the deaths of fellow exhibition fliers, Schroeder focused on safety features for aviators., favoring the new parachute designed by Floyd Smith. Schroeder was the first military aviator to wear Smith’s parachute pack in 1919 and was the first instructor to open a night-flying school for military instruction. In the summer of 1920, he flew the Air Service Corp’s Verville-Packard aeroplane in the Gordon Bennett Race at Paris. Forced down by an overheated engine, his team did not finish.

When Schroeder stepped out of uniform, he went to work in Detroit for Henry Ford who was developing the Ford Tri-Motor commercial passenger aircraft. Ford sponsored the “Ford Reliability Tour” in 1926 to demonstrate the safety of air travel and boost sales of his Tri-Motors. Twenty-three planes flew 2,500 miles over a predetermined circuit. Schroeder was chosen to command one of Ford’s Tri-Motors, but he was forced down and did not finish when he lost two of the three engines. A VIP on board later described the emergency landing in Nova, OH, as “gentle,” a testament to Schroeder’s steady nerve and skill.

From Detroit, Schroeder returned to Chicago and was employed by Curtiss-Wright. In 1937 was appointed Assistant Director of the Bureau of Air Commerce. He was described in a contemporary newspaper article as “one of the few Bureau men whom everybody admires.” From this time forward, Schroeder’s contribution to aviation was on the ground instead of in the air, developing airports, flying schools and supporting the design of safer aircraft and equipment for pilots. In 1940, he became vice president of safety for United Airlines. Just one year into the job, he had a stroke from which he never fully recovered. Infirm, he continued to work on aviation projects from his bed. In 1945, Schroeder was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for experiments in high-altitude flying.

The “serious-looking man” who cast a long shadow among pioneers in aviation heard the last music of an accordion during a party given in his honor at Chicago’s airport four months before he died in 1952.  

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