My Grandfather and the Fort Snelling Bridge

 

This is one of many stories told by my dad many years after his father passed away in the mid-’60s. I was in 3rd grade when he died, so my memories of him are that of a child.  This is a story that I have been unable to confirm but which I am confident my dad believed was true.  You be the judge.  I have tried to fill in some historical details.  It’s a fun story.

Fort Snelling Bridge (MN5) 1909

It was the mid-1920’s and my dad’s father had just earned his pilot wings in the Army Air Corps at Kelly Field in San Antonio.  Aviation was in its early days and while he looked for employment with one of the new “airline” companies that were slowly forming, he returned to his home in Minneapolis to serve with the Minnesota National Guard 109th Observation squadron at Wold-Chamberlain Field, the airport that would eventually become the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

When it was established in January 1921 the squadron was the first federally-recognized National Guard Flying squadron.  It started flight operations with the Curtis JN4 biplane in 1923 and eventually added the Curtis JN6 biplane.

Curtis JN4

Curtis JN6

My grandfather was barely 21-years-old when he joined them three years later.  They were flying all Curtis models by then.

Now, what does this have to do with the Fort Snelling Bridge? (shown above carrying Fort Road –MN5 – over the Mississippi, as it looked after its 1909 rebuild and prior to its 1961 Fort Road Bridge replacement)  According to family legend, his father once won a bet by flying a loop under the bridge, over the top, and back under a second time.  That would have been quite dangerous in the stick and fabric-covered “kites” they were flying at the time.  (OK – it would have been dangerous with almost any aircraft!)  Barnstorming had become popular and young pilots were always looking for ways to show off their unusual skills.  Allegedly, though his fellow pilots were impressed, the base commander was not.  He’d been driving over the bridge and saw the incident.  He didn’t appreciate the risk to government property!

Perhaps the challenge was what made it irresistible to this youngest son of an immigrant Prussian baker of fancy cakes and his German wife Anna.  My grandfather’s parents had married and taken the next boat to America in the 1880s, leaving their families in Silesia Prussia and Kassell Germany respectively, never expecting to return.  I doubt that my grandfather’s parents or four older siblings were enthusiastic about his dream to fly.  They all had proper jobs.  But he was barely 23 years old and the risks and challenges of the fledgling aviation industry appealed to him.

My grandfather at age 22

He flew with the 109th Observation Squadron for about three years, ultimately becoming an instructor before leaving to join the new Airmail Service.  He flew airmail routes out of Kansas City Missouri until 1929.  They flew biplanes like the Boeing 40C and the Steerman MS Speedmail.

Boeing 40C 1928

Steerman MS Speedmail

They flew at night, from bonfire to bonfire – which they paid the farmers to light for them.  If the weather turned bad, they landed.  Or crashed!

One night he was flying under an overcast cloud deck that kept getting lower and lower.  He finally decided to land after a grain silo appeared in the dark, roughly level with him.  He spent that night in the farmer’s field!

One night he successfully bailed out of an airplane that broke up in a heavy thunderstorm while carrying mail to Dallas from Kansas City.  The top wing folded, leaving the aircraft spinning earthward out of control.  He had to crawl along the fuselage to the tail before jumping clear of the broken wires and struts.  His parachute opened and after barely half a swing he landed hard in a plowed field.  The aircraft burned.  The mail was lost.  His only injury: two sprained knees.  It was the lowest recorded successful bailout for many years.  The Irving Air Chute Company, Buffalo, N.Y. used his survival and endorsement of their product in their advertisements – quoting my grandfather’s letter to them:

“…I consider it a great pleasure to be able to write this letter and hereby heartily and conscientiously endorse the Irving Chute to all.” 

My grandmother was six months pregnant with my father when my grandfather joined the Caterpillar Club with his successful bail-out! After he recovered from his injuries, my grandfather began his airline pilot career, flying the Ford Trimotor.  He was a copilot and a new father at the tender age of just 25.

His new son required a change of course and better risk management!  Thanks to both, almost 90 years later, his oldest grandson is still here to tell the story!

Published in History
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  1. JustmeinAZ Member
    JustmeinAZ
    @JustmeinAZ

    What a fun story!

    • #1
  2. JennaStocker Member
    JennaStocker
    @JennaStocker

    Too fantastic to not be true. I take that (new) bridge to the Fort Snelling Chapel where I married my husband. Your grandfather was quite a man. Thank you so much for enriching our lives with this story, and I think it’s safe to say he had enough sense (or luck) to stick around and raise a family.

    • #2
  3. Max Knots Member
    Max Knots
    @MaxKnots

    JennaStocker (View Comment):

    Too fantastic to not be true. I take that (new) bridge to the Fort Snelling Chapel where I married my husband. Your grandfather was quite a man. Thank you so much for enriching our lives with this story, and I think it’s safe to say he had enough sense (or luck) to stick around and raise a family.

    I’m grateful that you enjoyed the story.  He was definitely a “character” and my dad was a slightly subdued version of his father.  They both packed a lot of love and living into their time with us.  The older I get the more awed I am by the long string of ancestors and the massive number of choices and actions they took that made my existence possible, and by extension, the lives of my own sons.  There were so many times when something that turned out OK could have gone the other way and none of us would be here.  If that doesn’t make you grateful for life, would could?

    • #3
  4. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    Reminds me of Richard Bong:

    Richard Ira Bong (September 24, 1920 – August 6, 1945) was a United States Army Air Forces major and Medal of Honor recipient in World War II. He was one of the most decorated American fighter pilots and the country’s top flying ace in the war, credited with shooting down 40 Japanese aircraft, all with the Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter. He died in California while testing a Lockheed P-80 jet fighter shortly before the war ended.

    On June 12, 1942, Bong flew very low (“buzzed”) over a house in nearby San Anselmo, the home of a pilot who had just been married. He was cited and temporarily grounded for breaking flying rules, along with three other P-38 pilots who had looped around the Golden Gate Bridge on the same day. For looping the Golden Gate Bridge, flying at a low level down Market Street in San Francisco, and blowing the clothes off of an Oakland woman’s clothesline, Bong was reprimanded by General George C. Kenney, commanding officer of the Fourth Air Force, who told him, “If you didn’t want to fly down Market Street, I wouldn’t have you in my Air Force, but you are not to do it any more and I mean what I say.” Kenney later wrote, “We needed kids like this lad.”- from Wikipedia 

    • #4
  5. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Great family story. Thanks for telling it.  I have some family history connections with the next bridge downstream, unless there was some other bridge between the Fort Snelling Bridge and the High Bridge in the 1920s. (There is now, for I-35.)  I don’t know if flying under the High Bridge would have been any safer, but your grandfather probably wouldn’t have had as good a chance to be observed by the base commander there!

    Michigan History magazine recently had a story about the first batch(es) of Tuskegee Airmen when they were training in Michigan, and it included a stunt like that, though I’m not at home where I can check it to see which bridge. It drew similar levels of appreciation from the commanding officer when he found out about it. That would have been early during WWII, and planes were a little different by then.  

    My mother’s favorite grandmother had a story of being bundled up and taken to safety by buggy on the military road when news came of the Dakota “uprising” in 1862.  The grandmother (my great-grandmother) was only 2 years old then, so it wouldn’t have been something she remembered herself.  Mom said they went on the military road; her grandparents and great-grandparents lived in Dakota County 5-6 miles from Fort Snelling as the crow flies, so I presume they were fleeing to the fort for safety. I was looking at old maps a few weeks ago, wondering how that would have worked, and how they would have got across the river in those days, as I’m not sure when the first bridge was built. 

    Anyhow, it’s great to have a bit of bridge history for that location.   Thanks, again.

    • #5
  6. Brian Wyneken Member
    Brian Wyneken
    @BrianWyneken

    I’m a former 109th Squadron Commander. Plans for the centennial celebration have been greatly altered by the COVID situation, but we did update the narrative history. This was the first I’d heard of this escapade – I suspect the base commander (it would have been Ray S. Miller at that time) kept this one close hold! Great story – thank you for posting.

    • #6
  7. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat
    @drbastiat

    Max Knots: The top wing folded, leaving the aircraft spinning earthward out of control.  He had to crawl along the fuselage to the tail before jumping clear of the broken wires and struts.  His parachute opened and after barely half a swing he landed hard in a plowed field.  The aircraft burned.

    Holy Toledo.

    • #7
  8. Max Knots Member
    Max Knots
    @MaxKnots

    Doug Watt (View Comment):

    Reminds me of Richard Bong:

    Richard Ira Bong (September 24, 1920 – August 6, 1945) was a United States Army Air Forces major and Medal of Honor recipient in World War II. He was one of the most decorated American fighter pilots and the country’s top flying ace in the war, credited with shooting down 40 Japanese aircraft, all with the Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter. He died in California while testing a Lockheed P-80 jet fighter shortly before the war ended.

    Bong was reprimanded by General George C. Kenney, commanding officer of the Fourth Air Force, who told him, “If you didn’t want to fly down Market Street, I wouldn’t have you in my Air Force, but you are not to do it any more and I mean what I say.” Kenney later wrote, “We needed kids like this lad.”- from Wikipedia

    Yes exactly! That seemed to be the attitude of the base commander. He was grounded for two weeks to discourage others from such blatant and potentially-disastrous stunts but no further action was taken.  If this had been attempted during my flying years, it would have meant immediate and permanent grounding and loss of flying status. And that’s in the Navy. In the Air Force we were led to believe the punishment would be even worse – Loss of golf course privileges!  (sorry – that’s another inside joke with my AF C-17 pilot son.)   :-)   

    • #8
  9. Max Knots Member
    Max Knots
    @MaxKnots

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Great family story. Thanks for telling it. I have some family history connections with the next bridge downstream, unless there was some other bridge between the Fort Snelling Bridge and the High Bridge in the 1920s. (There is now, for I-35.) I don’t know if flying under the High Bridge would have been any safer, but your grandfather probably wouldn’t have had as good a chance to be observed by the base commander there!

    Michigan History magazine recently had a story about the first batch(es) of Tuskegee Airmen when they were training in Michigan, and it included a stunt like that, though I’m not at home where I can check it to see which bridge. It drew similar levels of appreciation from the commanding officer when he found out about it. That would have been early during WWII, and planes were a little different by then.

    My mother’s favorite grandmother had a story of being bundled up and taken to safety by buggy on the military road when news came of the Dakota “uprising” in 1862. The grandmother (my great-grandmother) was only 2 years old then, so it wouldn’t have been something she remembered herself. Mom said they went on the military road; her grandparents and great-grandparents lived in Dakota County 5-6 miles from Fort Snelling as the crow flies, so I presume they were fleeing to the fort for safety. I was looking at old maps a few weeks ago, wondering how that would have worked, and how they would have got across the river in those days, as I’m not sure when the first bridge was built.

    Anyhow, it’s great to have a bit of bridge history for that location. Thanks, again.

    I enjoy the way these stories nudge memories and prompt others to tell theirs. Like your great grandmother’s story! Thanks for  your kind comments.

    • #9
  10. Max Knots Member
    Max Knots
    @MaxKnots

    Brian Wyneken (View Comment):

    I’m a former 109th Squadron Commander. Plans for the centennial celebration have been greatly altered by the COVID situation, but we did update the narrative history. This was the first I’d heard of this escapade – I suspect the base commander (it would have been Ray S. Miller at that time) kept this one close hold! Great story – thank you for posting.

    Wow. What are the odds?! That you would read this story! Good luck with the centennial celebration. Do you have the old rosters from that era? I wonder if you could confirm the years and duties when my grandfather flew? l’ll send you a side note.

    • #10
  11. Brian Wyneken Member
    Brian Wyneken
    @BrianWyneken

    Max Knots (View Comment):

    Brian Wyneken (View Comment):

    I’m a former 109th Squadron Commander. Plans for the centennial celebration have been greatly altered by the COVID situation, but we did update the narrative history. This was the first I’d heard of this escapade – I suspect the base commander (it would have been Ray S. Miller at that time) kept this one close hold! Great story – thank you for posting.

    Wow. What are the odds?! That you would read this story! Good luck with the centennial celebration. Do you have the old rosters from that era? I wonder if you could confirm the years and duties when my grandfather flew? l’ll send you a side note.

    I sent a reply via message – I was going to stop by the museum anyway to see if they’ve started on my statue (not sure what’s taking so long).

    • #11
  12. Max Knots Member
    Max Knots
    @MaxKnots

    Brian Wyneken (View Comment):

    Max Knots (View Comment):

    Brian Wyneken (View Comment):

    I’m a former 109th Squadron Commander. Plans for the centennial celebration have been greatly altered by the COVID situation, but we did update the narrative history. This was the first I’d heard of this escapade – I suspect the base commander (it would have been Ray S. Miller at that time) kept this one close hold! Great story – thank you for posting.

    Wow. What are the odds?! That you would read this story! Good luck with the centennial celebration. Do you have the old rosters from that era? I wonder if you could confirm the years and duties when my grandfather flew? l’ll send you a side note.

    I sent a reply via message – I was going to stop by the museum anyway to see if they’ve started on my statue (not sure what’s taking so long).

    A very Large statue no doubt?

    • #12
  13. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    Max Knots: According to family legend, his father once won a bet by flying a loop under the bridge, over the top, and back under a second time.  That would have been quite dangerous in the stick and fabric-covered “kites” they were flying at the time.

    But I expect the ridiculously slow speed of the early planes would tend to work in your favor.  Assuming the plane can handle the stress and has the power to do the loop in the first place, it would most likely be a better choice than something modern.  Plenty of time to aim your flight path and adjust if necessary that you wouldn’t get with an F-16.

    Also assuming you know how to do a loop.  Wouldn’t want that to be your first attempt.

    • #13