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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.
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.
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.
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.
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