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Early aviators shaped industry
Photo courtesy of Peter Yegen, Jr. Yellowstone County MuseumStunt fliers perform at the Billings Logan Airport circa early 1930s.

Judged by today's buckled-up standards, the risks seem insane.

The leather-jacketed daredevils who dominated the early days of aviation in Montana had the nerve to chase big dreams. A look back at those early years of flight shows how those thrill-seekers helped reshape the nature of travel and commerce.

Within a decade after the Wright brothers' historic flight, aviators dazzled crowds at Montana fairgrounds. "Bird men" raced against motorcars and set altitude records. The earliest exhibitions of powered flights were in 1910, according to Frank W. Wiley, an early aviator and the author of "Montana and the Sky," a history of aviation in the state.

At the 1910 state fair in Helena, J.C. "Bud" Mars thrilled spectators with his death-defying "circular dip." Mars did three flights a day and had three accidents during Helena's fair week.

The early aviators who passed through Montana dreamed and crashed and dreamed some more. They flew without knowing just how big an engine it took to fly at the state's higher elevations, or just how treacherous Montana's crosswinds could be.

Twice during Helena's fair, Mars attempted to cross the Continental Divide. On the second try, he hit a downdraft and sank 2,000 feet in two minutes.

"Just short of going through the pass, the propeller hit a boulder, throwing Mars from the machine and damaging the tail of the aircraft beyond repair," Wiley wrote.

Some of those early aviators died young.

In 1911, Cromwell Dixon, an Ohio teenager, was the first to fly across the Continental Divide, from the Helena fairgrounds to the tiny community of Blossburg. He died two days later at the age of 19, during an exhibition flight at the Spokane, Wash., state fair.

While most of those early pilots were simply passing through the state on exhibition tours, a few aviators, such as Terah T. Maroney, were more or less homegrown pilots. Maroney was a cabinet maker who came to Butte in 1908 and later moved to Great Falls. He made his first flight, a hop of 300 feet, in July of 1911 in Great Falls. He flew a second home-built plane, before he decided he could afford flying lessons in San Diego.

In 1912, at Montana's first air meet in Butte, Maroney made what was then billed as the state's longest flight, to Gregson Hot Springs and back, a non-stop flight of 43 minutes.

Dr. Frank Bell, a dentist who was the first Billings resident to own and fly a plane, wowed spectators during a Memorial Day celebration in 1913.

Walter Beck, from Missoula, was a self-taught pilot, chauffeur, and road race driver. In 1911, on the flats south of Missoula, Beck became proficient in taxiing an airplane. But, when he attempted to take off, the under-powered plane failed to clear some telephone wires. He continued flying, and by 1913 he was doing exhibition and cross-country flights in a plane with a higher-powered 50 horsepower motor.

A few of those daredevils were women.

Exhibition flier Katherine Stinson, a petite, Alabama-born brunette who weighed 101 pounds, was the fourth woman in the United States to receive a pilot's license. Stinson, known on the exhibition circuit as the "Flying Schoolgirl," received the license in 1912 at the age of 21.

In 1913, the aviatrix demonstrated a primitive form of airmail delivery at the state fair in Helena. She dropped air mail from her pouch as she circled the downtown post office. Sworn in as a post office employee, she flew the first airmail route in the West, carrying 1,300 letters and postcards during fair week, according to "Montana and the Sky."

In another stunt, The Billings Gazette hired a pilot to put out an airborne edition of the newspaper on Memorial Day of 1914.

A reporter was assigned to crank out miniature copies of the paper while circulating above the city. When the local typographical union realized the reporter had no union card, members nearly put the kibosh on the venture. They issued him a temporary membership, but the reporter was grounded by weather and plane trouble. The pilot was able to drop pre-printed copies of the newspaper from the air.

It didn't take long after the birth of powered flight for the military to realize that airplanes would revolutionize the way war was fought.

Flying by the numbers On a dune along North Carolina's Outer Banks, on Dec. 17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright soared into history with the world's first powered flight.

To commemorate their flight, the U.S. Census Bureau offers this statistical snapshot:

612,000 Number of licensed airplane pilots.

$107 billion Annual operating revenue for the U.S. airline industry.

129,000 Number of people employed as airplane pilots and navigators.

126,000 Number of aircraft engine mechanics.

19,000 Number of airports across the country. The majority of them - nearly 14,000 - are private.

218,000 Number of general aviation (private) aircraft. In addition, there are 7,900 airliners.

9 million Number of aircraft departures for the U.S. airline industry every year.

612 million Number of paying passengers that U.S. airlines carry annually. These air travelers fly an average of 1,046 miles per trip.

35 million Number of passengers who used Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in 2002, making it the nation's busiest.

Aeronautical records:24,987 Length in miles of the longest nonstop, unrefueled flight in history. The trip was made by Richard Rutan and Jeana Yeager in the experimental, home-built aircraft Voyager in 1986. The flight marked the first time the world was circumnavigated non-stop by air.

2,193 mph The speed record, measured in ground speed, set in 1976 by Capt. Eldon W. Joersz of the U.S. Air Force.

314,750 feet The highest altitude ever reached by an aircraft. The record was set in 1962 by Maj. Robert White of the U.S. Air Force in a high-performance research aircraft.

Sources: U.S. Census data; soon-to-be-released Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2003; National Aeronautic Association.

Col. Samuel Franklin Cody, who punched cows in Montana in the 1880s, was the first man to build and fly an airplane for the British Army. Even in an age of flamboyant aviators, Cody stood out.

Christened Franklin Samuel Cowdery when he was born in Iowa, Cody changed his name to deliberately cultivate the impression that he was related to W.F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, according to an Internet history done for the Aldershot Military Museum in England.

In 1890, Cody set sail for London, where he developed his own Wild West show. By the turn of the century, Cody was experimenting with man-lifting kites. To thrill spectators, he even sent his wife aloft in a kite. Cody designed military kites for the British Navy and then the British Army before he switched to powered planes.

In 1908, in Army Aeroplane No. 1, Cody made the first successful recorded plane flight in Great Britain. Although the flight lasted 27 seconds, he went on to become Britain's leading aviation pioneer.

Cody died in August of 1913 flying a pontoon plane he designed for a water race around Britain. Thousands lined the route to the cemetery. King George V sent a personal telegram to Cody's widow, according to the museum history.

Eugene Ely, who barely got off the ground when he attempted the first airplane flight in Billings in June of 1910, became famous for making the first takeoff from a warship in November of 1910. Since Ely couldn't swim, he strapped bicycle inner tubes across his shoulders as a life preserver when he made his first landing on a cruiser.

Lt. George E.M. Kelly, who came to Montana from England in 1896, did electrical work at the Anaconda Smelter in Great Falls before joining the military. To sell the War Department on the value of planes for reconnaissance, Kelly convinced an exhibition pilot to fly him over military installations near San Francisco. On the trip, Kelly made sketches and took the first aerial photos by an Army officer from a plane.

After the military reviewed his photos, Kelly was sent to the Glenn Curtiss aviation school in San Diego. In 1911, Kelly became a scout aviator along the Mexican border.

When Kelly's plane crashed in May of 1911 near San Antonio, Texas, he heroically veered away from the tents of a nearby infantry camp, saving the lives of other soldiers. The former Kelly Air Force Base, near San Antonio, was named for him. Several sources describe Kelly as either the first or the second U.S. military pilot to die while piloting a military aircraft.

During World War I, the aerobatics of stunt pilots became the basis for combat maneuvers.

Forrest H. Longeway was one of Montana's early combat pilots. Raised in Great Falls, he left college in Missoula to join the Army Air Corps, according to Wiley.

After 52 hours and 35 minutes of flying time, Longeway reported for combat during World War I. Of the 14 pilots who finished flight training with him in California, only five made it to the front. Longeway was wounded during a low-level bombing run over a German machine-gun emplacement.

Seymour Elmer Anderson, another World War I Army Air Corps pilot, became a barnstorming pilot based out of Billings after the war. At exhibition flights in Bozeman in 1921, Anderson's act included Bill Strothers, "the human spider," who stood on his head while out on a wing of the plane.

During the Bozeman appearance, Anderson barely escaped death when his plane's engine died a hundred feet from the ground and crashed into some trees, tearing off both wings.

To publicize the practicality of flight as a serious form of transportation after World War I, the Army organized an "Around the Rim" flight. The plane, a Glenn Martin bomber, and crew would cover 10,400 miles, flying around the borders of the United States, in what was the longest air journey ever attempted.

The flight, which started in Washington, D.C., stopped in Glendive and Miles City before landing in Billings on Sept. 22, 1919.

When the crew flew over the Billings landing site, they decided the runway was too short. Their landing, on a cemetery road five miles west of the city, gave the plane's commander, Col. R.M. Hartz, grist for his banquet speech urging civic leaders to support aviation.

Hartz predicted that communities would soon fight to win air routes the ways towns had once fought for railroads.

By the time the Army plane reached Billings, it was covered with graffiti.

"The spectators found amusement in reading the inscriptions written upon the wings and body of the plane by persons in every town in which it has landed since it left Washington, D.C.," according to The Gazette's coverage of the flight.

"There is a map of the United States on the side of the fuselage, and at a point in New York is marked a skull and cross bones in red and white. At that point the Martin fell upon its nose and was laid up for repairs just 31 days."

The Around the Rim flight of 1919 captured the imagination of "Montana and the Sky" author Frank Wiley, who grew up in Miles City.

A year later, Wiley was flying professionally. He made a living as an itinerant, barnstorming pilot, said his daughter, Bernie Mowat, of Billings. In 1920, only about a dozen planes were in the state, Wiley said during an interview for a 1973 newspaper article. Flight lessons consisted of four or five hours of training, and navigational aids were almost non-existent.

"They used to call a railroad the iron compass because the safest way to get somewhere was to follow the railroad," Wiley said.

He was 43 and a chief instructor at Johnson Flying Service in Missoula when he volunteered to serve in the Army Air Corps during World War II. Later, he worked for 16 years as Montana director of aeronautics.

Wiley was in a unique position to write the book, Mowat said.

"He mostly associated with other pilots, and he sure knew a lot of them," she said. She remembers sitting around the dinner table listening to pilots exchange stories.

"He felt that these were stories that had to be written down," she said.

Photo courtesy of Bernie Mowat Johnson Flying Service training program in Missoula is shown. Waco planes are on the right, while Piper Cubs are on the left. A Ford Trimotor is shown in the center. Frank W. Wiley, who wrote “Montana and the Sky,” was the chief instructor when this photo was taken around 1940.

In the era after World War I, barnstorming pilots, many of whom had flown in the war, engaged in constant contests of one-upmanship.

Wiley describes participating with other Miles City barnstormers in an attempt to climb from a speeding car to a plane by using a rope ladder.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service Charles Lindbergh is shown in this 1927 photo at Lindbergh Lake in Swan Valley.

Charles Lindbergh, who learned to fly on the barnstorming circuit, did parachute stunting in Billings before he became a pilot. Clyde "Upside Down" Pangborn, who set a major trans-Pacific flight record, flew at the Midland Empire Fair in 1929. After the fair, Pangborn remained in Billings for nearly a year, according to a Gazette article written in 1935.

Earl Vance, who was an Army flight instructor during World War I, arrived in Miles City in 1920 and became one of Montana's best-known barnstorming pilots. His wife, Esther Combes Vance, of Sidney, became the first Montana woman to qualify for a commercial pilot's license and was a charter member of the "99," an aviation group organized by Amelia Earhart.

The couple, who were married in 1925, combined their honeymoon with a barnstorming tour from Montana to Florida.

In the 1920s, early flying companies in Montana formed to train pilots, carry passengers and sell airplanes. One company advertised transportation charges of 50 cents a mile. Bootleggers also used planes to furtively smuggle liquor across the Canadian border during Prohibition.

Few events captured the public's imagination more than Lindbergh's nonstop flight from New York to Paris in spring of 1927. Billings residents, who briefly named North 27th Street, Lindbergh Lane, felt a strong connection to the famous flier.

In the summer of 1922, "Slim" Lindbergh was stranded in Billings after a barnstorming tour went bust. He spent about four months working as a mechanic in a garage owned by Bob Westover. Using an airplane owned by Westover, Lindbergh made several parachute stunt jumps over the city.

"He seemed to jump out of an airplane as easily as he would step out of an automobile," Westover was quoted as saying in a Billings Gazette article from 1927.

After Lindbergh's triumphant transatlantic crossing, the aviator made a national goodwill tour. He stopped in Butte and Helena and spent several days near the wilderness lake in the Swan Valley that bears his name, but he was precluded from stopping in Billings because the city was not on the sponsor's itinerary.

Instead of stopping, Lindbergh flew three close swoops across the landing field at Billings, coming within 25 feet of the ground and skimming past a crowd of a thousand spectators.

"Lindbergh was greeted with a mighty cheer as his plane headed toward the field. He swung across its length and then raised and circled, the silvery sides of his monoplane gleaming in the sunlight, and then came down the long line of spectators. A mechanic's garb of brown, a tall form and a face in shadows could be made out in the plane by those fortunately located. At each low swing, the crowd cheered and invited the master of the air to land," according to a Gazette article.

Lindbergh also dropped a message expressing his regrets, which landed at First Avenue North, between North Broadway and North 29th Street.

Less than two weeks later, Billings was a stop for planes in the National Air Derby, a race from New York City to Spokane.

In the 1920s, plans were launched for airline operations in several Montana cities. National Parks Airways began operating in August of 1928, between Salt Lake, Great Falls and Glacier Park, with stops in several Montana cities.

Arthur W. "Steve" Stephenson, a pilot who made the first flight for National Parks Airways, and another pilot described to Wiley being forced to land in a blizzard on the prairie near Dell, south of Dillon.

"They sat there for two days, waiting out the blizzard as guests of a sheepherder camping there in a sheep wagon," Wiley wrote.

To relieve the boredom, they played poker. By the time the weather cleared, the two pilots has lost their cash and some of their clothing.

In the 1930s, an entrepreneur set up a small aircraft manufacturing plant in Billings. The National Airplane and Motor Co. opened its factory in 1935 on the site of the present Billings Gazette building on Fourth Avenue North.

Designer and manufacturer A.B. Green developed the "Bluebird," a small two-passenger plane, but Green was never able to launch a full-scale production line, and only a few planes were completed.

On March 2, 1933, the first Northwest Airways plane opened airmail service between Billings and the Twin Cities. The flight, which made it possible for mail to travel from Billings to a New York post office in 25 hours and 10 minutes, ushered in a new era of travel and commerce.

Area fatal crashes Billings' worst air disaster happened in December of 1945, when 19 servicemen returning from World War II died in the crash of a military transport plane.

Here are some other fatal aircraft crashes that have happened at or near Billings since the 1930s:

• June 11, 1930. Archie Dean Minamyer was a passenger on what was supposed to be a short ride over Billings. On takeoff, the plane was unable to gain altitude and crashed into a boulder at the edge of the Rimrocks.

• July 8, 1938. A Northwest Airlines Zephyr aircraft lost power on takeoff and crashed causing the first fatality of a commercial passenger airplane in Billings. The plane came to rest at the edge of a 75-foot-deep canyon. A female passenger was killed when she was thrown from the plane.

• Dec. 8, 1945. During a blinding snowstorm, a C-47 military transport plane nose-dived into a field between Poly Drive and Rimrock Road. Nineteen men died, all of them veterans returning from overseas and due for discharge in Seattle. The plane crashed at about 2:10 a.m. in a severe snowstorm. One of the four soldiers who survived the crash said the plane had been lurching for several minutes before the crash.

• April 27, 1964. A twin-engine plane was attempting to land in Billings when it plummeted into the home of Phillip and Ruth Pope, 2101 11th Ave. N., killing four Idaho men. Ruth Pope, who was home alone, ran - in curlers - from her burning home.

• Aug. 8, 1965. John W. Kuhlman, of Billings, was killed when his plane rammed into a power line and crashed on an island in the Yellowstone River, seven miles west of Billings. The plane ripped out a quarter-mile of power line spanning the river.

• Feb. 22, 1970. Four Billings people were killed in the crash of a single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza west of the airport. The two couples, John "Jack" and Dorothy Bauer and Edward and Fern Williamson, were returning to Billings after a trip to California.

• Aug. 1, 1976. A 9-year-old girl from Cody, Wyo., survived the crash of a light plane that killed her parents and a pilot. Angie Loos spent about 26 hours alone amid the wreckage on a plateau near Silesia before she was reached by rescue crews. Her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Don Loos, of Cody, were killed, along with Roy Shreck, a commercial pilot.

• Oct. 21, 1976. A veteran Billings cropduster, Gordon MacLean, died when his stunt plane failed to pull out of a low-level loop and nose-dived into the ground south of Billings.

• July 9, 1978. A physician from Port Angeles, Wash., was trying to break a world record for distance flying in a lightweight, single-engine plane when he crashed about 10 miles northwest of the Billings airport.

• Aug. 30, 1980. A St. Vincent Hospital helicopter crashed while attempting to evacuate a woman who had been injured while horseback riding in the Beartooth Mountains. Turbulent air currents caused the helicopter to sink in Glacier Lake, drowning the patient, her 11-month-old baby and a flight nurse. The pilot managed to swim to shore.

• July 9, 1982. A Casper, Wyo., man was killed and his wife injured when their plane ran off the end of a runway and into a ravine while landing during a light rainstorm in Billings.

• Sept. 3, 1982. A helicopter crashed in a Lockwood backyard, killing the pilot, James C. Garlitz, who had reported that he was having a fuel problem and was "going down."

• Dec. 23, 1984. A Billings couple and their 21/2-year-old son died when their single-engine airplane crashed minutes after taking off from Billings. The pilot, Jeffrey Strickland, had no instrument rating to fly in adverse weather conditions when he took off in a snowstorm on a trip to Arizona to spend Christmas with his parents. His wife, Sharon, and their only child, Alexander, also died in the crash.

• May 24, 1985. Thomas Lynch, died when his Cessna 414 nose-dived into vacant ground at the edge of the Billings Par 3 golf course. Lynch was one of the family owners of Lynch Flying Service in Billings.

• May 7, 1986. The fiery crash of a mail plane in a wheat field northwest of Billings killed Missoula pilot Lester Barkley.

• June 2, 1989. St. Vincent Hospital's HELP helicopter crashed on the way back from Rapelje at night. The crash killed the pilot, David Rechlitz, flight-crew members Susan Kainz and Armondo Delao, and Tom Kalberg, the patient they were transporting.

• March 7, 1992. A tiny, home-built aircraft carrying Billings student pilots Darwin Audilet, 25, and Edward Jacobson, 27, crashed into the side of a coulee south of the Yellowstone River, south of Billings.

• Dec. 18, 1992. A corporate jet owned by the Western Area Power Administration was caught in the wake turbulence from a larger jet, causing the WAPA jet to crash into the School District 2 warehouse. Eight people on board the aircraft died.

• April 6, 2002. James J. Buzzelli, a Billings pilot, and Daryl Holmes, a passenger and lifelong flying enthusiast from of Shepherd, were killed when a 1956 Piper PA-18 crashed in a field west of Silesia. Buzzelli, an experienced pilot, did not have a current pilot certification at the time of the crash. The probable cause was determined to be an inadvertent stall at low altitude.

Donna Healy may be reached at 657-1292 or dhealy@billingsgazette.com.

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