After the Great War, Air Service Brig. Gen. William "Billy" Mitchell requested the Engineering Division at McCook Field design an aerial dispatch vehicle able to serve as a liaison between battlefield units. Civilian Alfred V. Verville completed the design in early 1920 and the Lawrence Sperry Aircraft Company received the manufacturing contract. Sperry produced approximately 50 Messengers and the civilian two-seat version, the Sport Plane, between 1920 and 1926.
The Messenger's small size, simple construction, and inexpensive cost made it ideal for testing and experimentation. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics used one in its pioneering aerodynamic research programs from 1923 to 1929. Sperry modified twelve into the radio-controlled Messenger Aerial Torpedo and developed the apparatus for a Messenger to make the first successful airship hook on and release in December 1924. This is the last remaining Messenger. It was originally a Sport Plane and was converted to represent the Messenger used in the army's 1924 airship tests.
The Messenger is the smallest manned aircraft ever used by the United States Army. Designed to be the aerial equivalent of an army dispatch motorcycle, the Messenger was to land in small clearings as well as in forward areas to deliver and pick up messages from field commanders. Other duties included aerial spotting and artillery fire control. The Messenger was rugged, structurally simple, and cost only $4,000 per airplane (or $44,000 in 2006 dollars).
In 1919 Brigadier General William Mitchell requested the Army Air Service's Engineering Division, based at McCook Field, Dayton, Ohio, to design a small, light-weight "motorcycle of the air" that could serve as a liaison between field units. The Engineering Division retained its own aircraft designers, both military and civilian, through the mid-1920s and contracted private manufacturers to produce the aircraft. Alfred V. Verville, a civilian known for his innovative work with the army's air racers, completed the Messenger design in early 1920. The Lawrence Sperry Aircraft Company of Farmingdale, Long Island, New York, received its initial contract to build five Messengers on April 14. The first Messenger flight was on November 1. Sperry continued on to manufacture approximately 50 military and civilian Messenger aircraft until 1926.
The Army Air Service simply called the new aircraft the Messenger Airplane in its original specification. Reporters present at the first flight in late 1920 called it the Sperry Messenger, which is the most popular name for the aircraft. Following common practice, the Air Service combined the name of the designer with the manufacturer, which resulted in Verville-Sperry Messenger. Shortly after the first flight, the Air Service added the M-1 designation that indicated the little airplane was the first model of the Messenger type class of aircraft. An improved M-1A Messenger would follow that featured an improved structural design and larger fuel tanks.
The small size, simple construction, and inexpensive cost of the Messenger facilitated experimentation by the Army Air Service. Sperry Aircraft modified Messengers to jettison their landing gear so they could land on dual skids and replaced their wheels with skis for takeoffs and landings on snow. Sperry built approximately twelve Messengers as radio-controlled flying bombs, which the Army Air Service designated the MAT (for Messenger Aerial Torpedo).
In 1924 a Sperry-modified Messenger was the first aircraft to successfully hook-on and release from another aircraft in flight. On December 15 Lt Clyde Finter hooked on to a trapeze attached to non-rigid airship TC-3 at Scott Field, Illinois, the army's lighter-than-air center. He remained attached briefly while the airship made a turn, unhooked, and then came in for a landing. While successful, the Army did not pursue the concept further. The United States Navy employed a similar system on the rigid airships Akron and Macon with Curtiss F9C-2 Sparrowhawks (see NASM artifact) in the early 1930s.
Messenger aircraft also figured prominently in the growth of aeronautical research and development in the 1920s. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), at the request of the army, used a Messenger to flight test different wings representing the six airfoils most commonly used in the United States and Europe and compared the results with tests made in its variable-density wind tunnel with a 1/10th scale Messenger model. The results revealed the importance of drag reduction to aircraft design. The Messenger was an ideal size for testing in the NACA's new propeller research tunnel in 1925, which pioneered the transition to full-scale aircraft wind tunnel testing by the NACA in the 1930s.
Sperry Aircraft marketed a modified two-seat Messenger as a private aircraft officially called the Sperry Sport Plane. Like the military version, the aeronautical community simply called it the Sperry Messenger. Lawrence Sperry gained attention when he landed his personal Messenger in front of the Capitol building and bounced up the front steps in Washington D.C. He also successfully landed his little Messenger at the Lincoln Memorial. Unfortunately, Sperry crashed a Messenger in the English Channel and drowned on December 13, 1923.
The Messenger is an example of the government/industry relationship in American aircraft design and manufacturing in the 1920s. It was a small, simple, and inexpensive aircraft that facilitated experimentation, primarily its being the first to hook-on and unhook from another aircraft in flight, and its inclusion in pioneering aerodynamic research. The Messenger was one of the first aircraft designed solely for battlefield liaison.
NASM's Messenger was originally a Sperry Sport Plane. Charles Lawrance, the originator of the radial engine in the United States and designer of the L-3 engine, was an early owner. It was donated by World War I American ace and Eastern Airlines President Edward V. Rickenbacker in September 1957. The Smithsonian initiated the Sport Plane's conversion to the single-seat M-1 configuration in the early 1960s, which included the fitment of a skyhook and the colors and markings of the Messenger used to make the first successful airship hook on and release in the air (Sperry Aircraft #22, air service serial number A.S. 68533; McCook Field Number P-306). The United States Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB, Dayton OH finished the aircraft after it went on loan there during the summer of 1968.