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There is no biographical file for pilot Willits in the archives of the National Air & Space Museum (NASM), Washington, DC.




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, while supplies last.


http://www.cafepress.com/content/global/img/spacer.gifThe Congress of Ghosts is an anniversary celebration for 2010.  It is an historical biography, that celebrates the 5th year online of www.dmairfield.org and the 10th year of effort on the project dedicated to analyze and exhibit the history embodied in the Register of the Davis-Monthan Airfield, Tucson, AZ. This book includes over thirty people, aircraft and events that swirled through Tucson between 1925 and 1936. It includes across 277 pages previously unpublished photographs and texts, and facsimiles of personal letters, diaries and military orders. Order your copy at the link.


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, while supplies last.


Art Goebel's Own Story by Art Goebel (edited by G.W. Hyatt) is written in language that expands for us his life as a Golden Age aviation entrepreneur, who used his aviation exploits to build a business around his passion.  Available as a free download at the link.


Winners' Viewpoints: The Great 1927 Trans-Pacific Dole Race is available at the link. What was it like to fly from Oakland to Honolulu in a single-engine plane during August 1927? Was the 25,000 dollar prize worth it? Did the resulting fame balance the risk? For the first time ever, this book presents the pilot and navigator's stories written by them within days of their record-setting adventure. Pilot Art Goebel and navigator William V. Davis, Jr. take us with them on the Woolaroc, their orange and blue Travel Air monoplane (NX869) as they enter the hazardous world of Golden Age trans-oceanic air racing.


Clover Field: The First Century of Aviation in the Golden State. With the 100th anniversary in 2017 of the use of Clover Field as a place to land aircraft in Santa Monica, this book celebrates that use by exploring some of the people and aircraft that made the airport great.


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Floyd Bennett Field Pilot

Sanford Leland Willits (he was sometimes identified as Sanford or Leland) was a VIP in aviation in the northeastern US for over a decade. Local newspapers documented his duties as an inspector and then chief inspector with the Department of Commerce.

Sanford Willits was born in Castana, IA, June 6, 1895. According to the 1900 U.S. Census, his first, he was part of a large family. Besides his father, Sanford (age 41), and mother Virginia (38), Willits (4) lived with sisters Lela (20), Ethel (10), Genevieve (9), Mildred (6), Wanda (3), Ruth (2) and Anita (5 months), and a brother John (17). His father was a merchant. The 1905 Iowa State Census placed the family at the same location, as did the 1910 U.S. Census when Willits was coded as 15 years old.

Willits attended Washburn University, Topeka, KS. I'm not sure of his major or if he graduated. The only yearbook information I found for him was dated 1917 and he was a freshman. In addition, U.S. Census forms coded him as having one year of college. He volunteered for military duty during WWI. His WWI draft card, ca. 1916-17, is below. We learn that he was of medium height and build and had blue eyes and auburn hair.

S.L. Willits, Draft Card, Ca. May 28, 1917 (Source: ancestry.com)
S.L. Willits, Draft Card, Ca. May 28, 1917 (Source: ancestry.com)

As with many things, the details are in the fine print. If you look carefully at the diagonal printing at the lower left of this card, the text says, "If person is of African descent, tear off this corner." Some things change; some things remain the same.

The next year Willits appeared in the 1918 Washburn yearbook Honor Roll of enlisted soldiers. His entry in the yearbook appeared as follows.

Willits' Honor Roll Entry, Washburn University, 1918 (Source: ancestry.com)
Willits' Honor Roll Entry, Washburn University, 1918 (Source: ancestry.com)

I am not sure where he learned to fly, but at least one Web source stated Kelly Field, TX.

French wings (Brevet D'aviateur), Ca. 1918 (Source: Web)
French wings (Brevet D'aviateur), Ca. 1918 (Source: Web)


Regardless, he sailed to France and was in Tours November 29, 1917. He then moved to St. Maxient-l'École late January and early February, 1918. He received his French wings (Brevet D'aviateur, right) and was assigned to the First Aero Squadron in October, 1918. He flew with The 1st Aero Squadron, October- November, 1918. After the war he went to Germanay and was home by the spring of 1920. 

After his military service, the 1920 Census placed him at age 24 living as a boarder in a rooming house in Sioux City, IA. His sister Ruth (21) was with him. His occupation was listed as a "Clerk" in a "Bank." This is of interest, because the 1921 city directory for Sioux City listed him living at a different address and working as the general manager of the Sioux City Flying Club. At some point he moved to the west coast.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 27, 1932 (Source: newspapers.com)
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 27, 1932 (Source: newspapers.com)


He apparently continued flying with the army into the 1920s, because an accident report dated August 14, 1925 cited him as the pilot of a Curtiss JNS "Jenny," army registry number 25-55. This airplane was stalled, spun and destroyed at Rockwell Field, CA on August 14, 1925 while it was flown by Willits. It must have been a serious crash, because the spin began at 150 feet altitude. I have no record of injuries to Willits.

He remained on the west coast for at least another three years, because, according to this REFERENCE, page 170, published in 1928, Willits lived at 1161 South Main St., Los Angeles, CA. I could not find 1930 U.S. Census information for Willits.

In 1930 he moved to New York and was employed as an inspector by the Department of Commerce (DOC). The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (NY) of December 20, 1930 reported one of his first official acts. Eleanor Leith Speiden, 25, was administered her flight test by Willits for a private pilot's license. She passed. The next day she departed for England to be married.

And the same newspaper on December 5, 1931 documented a meeting of 25 DOC Aeronautics Branch inspectors at Roosevelt Field. Willits was identified as the supervisor of the first district (New York inspection district). Among the topics discussed was, "... the importance of enforcing the regulation forbidding flying without lights after dark, especially at airports from which planes operate on schedule."

Willits remained in the army reserves and was reported in the July 27, 1932 issue of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, left, as satisfying a two-week obligation flying with the army. He wasn't far from his duties at Floyd Bennett Field, since Mitchel Field was just a short distance away on Long Island.

An interesting aspect of the article above is that just following it was news of the first flying lesson taken by Jacqueline Cochrane (not a Register pilot). Please google "Jacqueline Cochrane" for information about her.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 29, 1931 (Source: newspapers.com)
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 29, 1931 (Source: newspapers.com)


We find Willits logged in the Floyd Bennett Field Register on April 8, 1933 at 10PM. He flew the Monocoach 225 NS22 (S/N 5029). It looks from the Register like he carried a passenger, Joseph Bouduin, who was signed on the line just below Willits. They arrived from Roosevelt Field. He gave his license number as "14." If this is accurate, he held a very low number. The number of crew and passengers he listed in the Register for this airplane (3 & 8) were absurd. NS22 was a four-place cabin, high-wing monoplane.

An interesting digression is to describe what aviation was like in the greater New York area during this time. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle published a daily column entitled, "Daily Aviation Record and News From Fields."

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 19, 1933 (Source: newspapers.com)
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 19, 1933 (Source: newspapers.com)


The column (sample, right, from July 29, 1931) included a weather summary (visibility, barometer, humidity, ceiling, wind, temperature), and arrivals and departures from area ports. The record of arrivals is at right. Among the cited departures, Frank Hawks appeared on pages one and three of the Register. I'm sure if we had Register pages for 1931, we would probably find the names of the others logged for posterity. The fact that these "minor" arrivals and departures made the newspaper was an indicator of how important and interesting aviation was at the time.

In addition to arrivals and departures, Willits used the column as a place to publish DOC business, describe new regulations and guidelines, and announce meetings of inspectors. Other articles in the Daily Eagle and other papers described Willits' dealings with pilot and aircraft violations of DOC regulations. Willits and the broader topic of aviation had excellent coverage in the metropolitan New York newspapers of the day. Curiously, none of the many articles in various newspapers included a photograph of Willets. End digression.

Below, from this REFERENCE, is a listing of DOC personnel of the Air Regulation Division, ca. 1933. Willits' name was highlighted as supervising district one out of Garden City, NY.

DOC, Air Regulation Division, 1934 (Source: Link)

This organization chart was about to change. About four months after he signed the Floyd Bennett Field Register, Willits was appointed Chief Inspector for the northeastern U.S. for the DOC. His new job was reported in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of August 19, 1933, left. His new territory ranged from New England to Washington, DC. His new headquarters were established at the Floyd Bennett Field, which also agreed to hangar the DOC aircraft used by the inspectors and others. Some of his duties reported in issues of the Daily Eagle included prosecuting (1931) Register pilot Clarence Chamberlin for wreckless flying and flying without a license, and renewing Charles Lindbergh's pilot license (1935).

S.L. Willits, Grave Marker, September 13, 1948 (Source: findagrave.com)




In June, 1937 Willits had the sensitive task of invalidating an under-aged pilot's student permit. The student, Edward Somers was twelve years old and misrepresented his age as 16 in order to acquire a student permit. He had performed a solo flight from Floyd Bennett Field before he was found out. It turned out that he was the son of State Representative Andrew L. Somers of New York's 10th Congressional District.

In 1940, according to the Census, Willits (46) lived with his wife, Elizabeth (38) at 22 Dartmouth St., Hempstead, NY. They lived with their four daughters, Patricia (14), Carolyn (13), Virginia (6) and Sally Elizabeth (5). Their maid, Lugenia Leak (30) lived with them. They owned their home, valued at $6,800. Willits' occupation was coded as "Supervisor" in the "Aviation" industry. Elizabeth worked as a "Secretary" in "Aviation." He earned $4,800 per year and she $1,455. The 1942 city directory for Rockville Center, NY listed them living in that town.

Willits served during WWII, ultimately rising to the rank of Lt. Colonel. I could find no references to what he did for the military during WWII. Nor could I find records like his WWII draft card or assignments. If you can help fill in those gaps, or if you have photographs of Willits, please let me KNOW.



Willits flew West on September 13, 1948. He was buried at the Arlington National Cemetery. His grave marker is above, right. His interment form for Arlington National Cemetery is below dated September 20, 1948.

S.L. Willits, Arlington Interment Record, 1948 (Source: ancestry.com)
S.L. Willits, Arlington Interment Record, 1948 (Source: ancestry.com)


Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 15, 1952 (Source: newspapers.com)



Willits' daughter Virginia was married in 1952, just four years after his passing. Her wedding was reported in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of April 15, 1952, left. Younger sister Sally was maid of honor. She would have been about 18 years old. I could find no other references to him or his family after his death.

Willits also appeared twice in the Register of the Davis-Monthan Airfield. First as a passenger with Walter F. Parkin on Tuesday, August 30, 1927 at 11:45AM, and as a passenger with pilot Lee Willey. Willey and Willits flew in the Fokker Universal NC3317. They landed on Monday, January 9, 1928 at 5:00PM, arriving from Los Angeles, CA. They remained overnight and Willey and the Fokker returned to Los Angeles the next day, departing at 8:00AM. I have no record of Willits returning with him, although his address in 1928 (see above) was in Los Angeles.



The Register

I'm looking for information and photographs of Willits and his airplane to include on this page. If you have some you'd like to share, please click this FORM to contact me.


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