COBWEB CORNERS: Testing airplane engines on the Peak

By Mel McFarland

       Up on Pikes Peak there is a marker about testing airplane engines. Back in 1959 an airplane was even brought up there, but it was blown apart by the winds. Over the years I have heard a variety of stories about testing, but I think I've found the first one!
       In 1917, the United States was about to get into World War I. The War Department had already decided to gear up and build airplanes, but the idea of dependable engines was a problem. The government wanted a good American engine, not a foreign one! Many potential engines were being used in automobiles, but most were not really suitable for airplanes. A committee was assembled to design a good engine. The next problem was where best to test it.
       It would be easy to test it in places like Virginia, or Connecticut where some of the manufacturers were located, but someone came up with the idea of testing on Pikes Peak, because of the altitude. There was a reasonably good road up the mountain, with plenty of room to set up shop, as well as facilities for food and shelter at the cog railway station. There were even plans for a new summit house for the road.
       The committee sent J.G. Vincent of the Packard Automobile Company to Colorado to have a look. He brought several men with him from other companies that were interested in building airplane engines. Within a few days the visit was complete. The group was in agreement: This was an ideal place. A crew was sent out to build the test facility, and soon mysterious trucks from all over arrived with secret cargos. We now know they were aircraft engines. The tests were usually done at night, away from the eyes of tourists!
       The same thing happened during World War II, but this time it was jet engines. Later, Bell Helicopters were tested on the top of the mountain, even in the worst of winters! Most people never see the plaque marking the spot, even though it is within yards of the true summit of the mountain! The spot is often buried under a pile of snow! A hundred yards away is the finish line of the car race, and the floor of the old automobile road summit house. Most people look out into the distance, enjoying the tremendous view!