General Ira C. Eaker began his military career during World War I, retiring thirty years later in 1947. Throughout his life, he was an active advocate of air power. His many accomplishments included pioneering air refueling procedures in the late 1920s.
General Eaker’s rescue attempt of the German Junker airplane, the “Bremen”, off of Greenly Island near Labrador in April 1928 led him to undertake the famous “Question Mark” flight. The “Bremen” adventure had taxed the fuel capacities of the airplanes, leaving Eaker and his cohorts on the trip (Lieutenant Elwood R. Quesada and General James E. Fechet) to speculate on the feasibility of in-flight refuelings. General Eaker brought this idea to fruition when he organized the “Question Mark” endurance flight in January 1929. Eaker secured the approval of the chief of the Air Corps, worked out air refueling procedures, and selected the planes and crews. At Eaker’s request, Major Carl Spaatz served as the project commander while he was designated the chief pilot. The “Question Mark” flight which endured in the air over southern California for 150 hours, 40 minutes, and 15 seconds – a world record, proved that in-flight refuelings could extend the range of airplanes by several thousand miles. General Eaker took in-flight refueling a step further when he conceived, organized, and made the “Boeing Hornet Shuttle” flight of August-September 1920, the first nonstop, transcontinental flight sustained solely by air refuelings. The “Boeing Hornet Shuttle” flight firmly demonstrated that air refueling had extended the range of airplanes, even under adverse terrain and weather. The flights were remarkable given their rudimentary nature. The “Question Mark” used a hose borrowed from the fire department, relied on rigging spotlights on the wheels of the refueling plane for night refuelings, and jiggles of a rope for communications. And although the “Boeing Hornet Shuttle” advanced in-flight refueling procedures considerably, contact and refuelings were still made through sheer physical effort. Through these two flights, General Eaker significantly advanced the development of air refueling, giving the military new possibilities, especially in the area of bombing operations.
General Eaker was born 13 April 1896, in Field Creek, Llano County, Texas. Upon graduating from Oklahoma’s Southeastern State Teachers College in 1917, he entered military service as a student at the First Officers Training Camp, Fort Logan H. Roots, Arkansas. He was appointed a second lieutenant in the Infantry on August 15, 1917, and served with the 64th Infantry, El Paso, Texas. At his request, Eaker received flying instructions at Austin and Kelly Field, Texas, earning his pilot’s rating and promotion to first lieutenant by July 1918. Thereafter, he was assigned to Rockwell Field, California.
In 1919, General Eaker was posted to the Philippines, where he commanded first the Second Aero Squadron and then the Third Aero Squadron. Thereafter, he served as the executive officer and then as the assistant to the Department Air Officer in Manila. While stationed in the Philippines, Eaker continued his law studies at the University of the Philippines.
Upon returning to the United States in January 1922, he was stationed at Mitchell Field, New York. There he commanded the Fifth Aero Squadron and subsequently served as the post adjutant. In 1923, he attended Columbia University, New York, taking a course in contract law.
Between 1924 and 1928, he was assigned the duties of executive assistant to the chief of the Air Service and executive officer to the assistant Secretary of War with additional duties of personal pilot. During this time, Eaker was selected as one of the pilots for the Pan-American Goodwill Flight of 1926-27. And in January 1929, while detached from his operations and maintenance officer duties at Bolling Field, Washington DC, Eaker participated as the chief pilot of the “Question Mark” endurance flight. Subsequently, in August-September 1929, he made the first transcontinental air refueled flight in the “Boeing Hornet Shuttle.”
In 1932, he attended the University of Southern California, obtaining a journalism degree in 1933. Thereafter, he commanded the 34th Pursuit Squadron and 17th Pursuit Group at Match Field, California. During that period, he also commanded the Air Mail Route 4, Western Zone. In 1936, Eaker made the first transcontinental flight that relied solely on instruments. He graduated from the Air Corps Tactical School in 1936, and from the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1937.
When General Eaker returned to Washington DC, he served for two years as the assistant chief of the Information Division in the office of the chief of the Air Corps. In November 1940, he assumed command of the 20th Pursuit Group at Hamilton Field, California. In August 1941, Eaker was ordered to special duty with the Royal Air Force in England to observe and fly British fighters.
In February 1942, General Eaker was assigned as commander of the first American headquarters in Europe in World War II, the VIII Bomber Command.
In December of 1942, he became commander of the Eighth Air Force in England. Later, he became commanding general of all U.S. Army Air Forces in the United Kingdom, and in January 1944, was named Air Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces, having under his command the 12th and 15th U.S. Air Forces and the British Desert and Balkan Air Forces.
In April 1945, Eaker was named Deputy Commander of the Army Air Forces and Chief of the Air Staff. He retired from active duty on July 31, 1947 after more than 30 years of service during which he flew more than 12,000 hours as a pilot. Although he left the service less than a month before the Air Force became a separate service, General Eaker was instrumental in planning and drafting legislation for the birth of the separate Air Force.
General Eaker’s military decorations include the Distinguished Service Medal with one oak leaf cluster, the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross with one oak leaf cluster, the Air Medal, and numerous foreign decorations.
After his retirement from the military, General Eaker energetically pursued his interests in aviation. He was promoted to General in 1985.
General Eaker died 6 August 1987 and is survived by his wife, Ruth.