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Acosta, Bertrand “Bert” B.

Enshrined 2014 1895-1954

Biography

Bertrand Blanchard Acosta was born on January 1st, 1895, in San Diego, California, the second of three sons by Miguel Acosta and Martha Blanche Reilly Acosta. Known as Bert, in August 1910, at age 15, he built his first airplane and taught himself to fly. In 1912, he entered Throop Polytechnic Institute in Pasadena to study mechanical engineering, and apprenticed for Glenn Curtiss.

Curtiss was impressed with the young man’s quick mind, cool head, and innate skill, and soon promoted Bert from mechanic to flight instructor, test pilot, and exhibition pilot for the Glenn Curtiss Aviation School in San Diego. There, Bert tested every Curtiss aircraft from the first pushers to the larger amphibians.

When Curtiss opened a flying school near Toronto in 1915, Bert – at age 19 – became the chief flying instructor for the Royal Flying Corps and Canadian Air Service. Bert trained over 400 pilots in Canada without an accident, unheard of at that time.

In 1916, Bert’s engineering and flying skills were in demand as a light aircraft and heavy air transport test pilot, no matter the manufacturer. He also joined the Liberty Engine Development Team.

In 1917, Bert was appointed Chief Pilot Instructor and Director of Flying and Engineering for the Army Air Service. He was solely responsible for pilot testing, rating other engineers, and approving all planes seeing combat in World War One. By 1918 he became one of the first civilians to receive an officer’s appointment in the Air Service, with the rank of Captain.

November saw Bert promoted to assistant director of aircraft production, naval stations, overseeing the stations at Buffalo, Dayton, and Washington D.C.

Following World War One, Bert surveyed and mapped the country’s first airmail routes. In July of 1920, Bert and Eddie Rickenbacker established the first route between New York and San Francisco. A month later Bert and Samuel Eaton established a transcontinental air mail record.

In November 1921, in the Curtiss CR-1, Bert became the first civilian to win the Pulitzer Race and Trophy, setting a speed record in the process. Three weeks later, in the same airplane, he became the first American to exceed 200 mph. He was commissioned a Naval Lieutenant, one of the few civilians to hold both Army and Navy commissions and pilot ratings.

In April of 1927, Bert and Clarence Chamberlin answered Giuseppe Bellanca’s call for someone to test the endurance of a plane he had reconditioned, a Bellanca WB-2 named Columbia. Taking off from Mitchel Field, Long Island, with 385 gallons of ethylated gasoline, the pair managed to stay aloft for 51 hours, 11 minutes and 25 seconds, breaking world records for protracted flight.

Thirty-three days after Lindbergh’s 1927 solo transatlantic flight, Bert, the Chief Pilot, along with Admiral Richard Byrd, Navigator, George Noville, Radio Operator, and Bernt Balchen, co-pilot, flew the Fokker C-2 Tri-motor America from Roosevelt Field, Long Island to Ver-sur-Mer, France, a grueling flight of 46 hours and 6 minutes of which Bert was at the controls for 32 of those hours.

Bert was to be the first pilot to lift into the air a record 15,000 pounds of fully loaded aircraft with cargo and four crew, a first at the time. It was the first heavy multi-engine transport plane to cross the Atlantic, and the first transatlantic airmail delivery.
As the 1920s came to an end, sadly so did Bert’s days of glory. Over the next ten years Bert was in and out of jail, the charges ranging from flying without a license, drunkeness, to non-payment of alimony. An attempt to found his own aircraft company ended in disaster with the onset of the Depression.

Bert made a dubious comeback from November 1936 to January 1937, joining a handful of American pilots flying for the Loyalist Air Force in the Spanish Civil War. He returned to America and his former ways; drinking too much and brushes with the law. By December 1951 Bert had contracted tuberculosis. His friend Admiral Byrd arranged for him to go to the National Jewish Consumptive Relief Society Hospital in Colorado. On September 1, 1954, Bert succumbed to his illness, age 59.

Tonight the National Aviation Hall of Fame honors one of America’s first test pilots, engineers and record-setters, Bertrand B. Acosta, for his many contributions to aviation.