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This information comes from the biographical file for pilot Birrn, CB-151000-01, reviewed by me in the archives of the National Air & Space Museum, Washington, DC.

Roland Birnn is a founding member of the Order of Daedalians.


Your copy of the "Davis-Monthan Airfield Register" with all the pilots' signatures and helpful cross-references to pilots and their aircraft is available at the link. Or use this FORM to order a copy signed by the author. ISBN 978-0-9843074-0-1.


A description of a motion picture news film (from 1935, four years after Birnn's article, right) of a smoke screen being laid around Manhattan is here. The description begins at 948' and reads: "ARMY WRAPS MANHATTEN [sic] IN SMOKE SCREEN. PARMOUNT NEWS. 952' Series of scenes of several aircraft resembling O-39's, in flight, laying smoke screens around the New York Harbor, an LB-6 in flight trailing smoke screen, people on sidewalks looking up at sky, and the smoke screens enveloping the harbor and buildings in downtown New York." Ends at 1,045'.


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Roland Birnn

Born March 8, 1894. Died October 24, 1982.

In the early 1930s, 1st Lieutenant Birnn was stationed at Bolling Field, Washington, DC. He landed at Davis-Monthan Airfield on March 23, 1930 flying a Curtiss O-1E Falcon, registration number 29-311. He was carrying one unidentified passenger. They arrived from Ft. Bliss in El Paso, TX. They were westbound to San Diego, CA.

His trip was probably for a five-week assignment on the west coast, since he landed again at Tucson on April 28, 1930 flying the same airplane, carrying a Major Griswold as passenger. They were eastbound toward El Paso.

Earlier in his career, he was based at Langley Field, VA, where he flew flying boats as a member of Brig. Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell’s 1st Provisional Air Brigade, which demonstrated that battleships could be sunk by aerial bombs, leading to the development of doctrine and tactics of strategic bombing used in Germany during World War II.

In the late 20s and early 30s, he was a media relations officer of the Army Air Corps. He appears in a photograph of radio announcers who provided color commentary for the 1931 National Air Races (NAR). The photograph, at the link, appears in one of Register pilot Emile Choureé's scrapbooks. Please direct your browser to the link and click on his scrapbook for the 1931 NAR. Also as part of his duties, in October 1931, in “The National Aeronautic Magazine”, he published an article about smoke screens. He described Army airplanes laying actual smoke screens in and around New York City, using a French compound named “FM” (“Fumigerite”).

Chemically, FM is titanium tetrachloride, which, when released in the air, combines with atmospheric moisture and forms a hydrate of titanium tetrachloride (which is the “smoke”), plus dilute hydrochloric acid. After describing the hazards of FM, and of the “slightly irritating” effects of breathing the acid vapor, he depicts this scene in his article:

“For a few minutes the series of screens clung together as one curtain that blanketed the tip of the city. Several airplanes, each with an aerial photographer busy shooting the remarkable scene below, hung on the edge of the smoke. Then the whole curtain blew over into the windowed canyons and beat itself to pieces on the buildings of the financial district.”


Smoke Screen Over New York City!

Above is an aerial photo of the scene he describes in his article. This activity today would, with absolute certainty, cause unimaginable panic among New Yorkers and the world at large. He wrote other articles during WWII, among which is this one on air power (PDF, 6.6MB).

According to the 1942-43 “Who’s Who in Aviation”, Birnn was a 1st Lieutenant from 1920-1934, not unusual during the interbellum. In 1934, he graduated from the Air Corps Tactical School, Maxwell Field, AL, and was promoted to Captain. He was one of 34 members of that class which created the Order of Daedalians, known nationwide today for its support of American airpower through scholarships and recognition of excellence in all phases of aviation operations, maintenance and logistics.

He was promoted to Major in 1940, Lt. Colonel in 1941, and Colonel in 1942. After the death of his son in 1942, he volunteered for overseas service. During 1944-45 he commanded the Allied Air Forces Area Command, Foggia, Italy. He retired from the military in 1946.


THIS PAGE UPLOADED: 09/15/05 REVISED: 04/07/08, 11/24/10

The Register


"Military Aircraft of the Davis Monthan Register, 1925-1936" is available at the link. This book describes and illustrates with black & white photographs the majority of military aircraft that landed at the Davis-Monthan Airfield between 1925 and 1936. The book includes biographies of some of the pilots who flew the aircraft to Tucson as well as extensive listings of all the pilots and airplanes. Use this FORM to order a copy signed by the author. ISBN 978-0-9843074-2-5.


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