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100 years of flight

Utahns were quick to embrace aviation and help achieve mastery of the skies

Twelve seconds, 120 feet. Less time than it takes to hum the first half of the "Jeopardy" theme and less than half the length of a football field.

That was the first airplane flight, achieved by Orville Wright on Dec. 17, 1903, near the sandy dunes of Kitty Hawk, N.C.

It got a little better. Orville got the first flight by virtue of a coin toss, but he and Wilbur each took two flights that day in their Flyer I craft. And by day's end, Wilbur had stayed aloft for 59 seconds and traveled a distance of 852 feet.

It was a rather inauspicious beginning for something that would change the world. Even the people who were there were not mightily impressed. Five witnesses came to watch the activities; few newspapers reported it.

After all, these were simply two bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio. And while there was a lot of interest in flying machines, other more promising experiments were going on. So even though the Wright brothers flew, it took awhile for the world to take note. Interestingly, the Deseret News was one of the few newspapers that did carry a story the very next day. It reported an incorrect distance, but the paper did acknowledge the event:

"A successful trial of a flying machine has been made near Kitty Hawk, N.C., by Wilbur and Orville Wright of Dayton, O. The machine flew for three miles in the face of a wind blowing at the registered velocity of 21 miles an hour and then gracefully descended to earth at the spot selected by the navigator. The machine has no balloon attachment but gets its force from propellers worked by a small engine.

"Prepatory to its flight the machine was placed upon a platform near Kitty Hawk. This platform was built on a high sand hill, and when all was in readiness, the fastenings to the machine were released and it started down an incline. The navigator then started a small gasoline engine which worked the propellers. When the end of the incline was reached the machine gradually rose until it obtained an altitude of 60 feet. In the face of a strong wind blowing it maintained an even speed of eight miles an hour."

The Wright Brothers had been working on their flying machine for several years. Although they were bicycle mechanics by trade, their passion was aeronautics, and they had studied and experimented in meticulous detail.

In a letter to Octave Chanute, dated May 13, 1900, Wilbur noted: "For some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man. My disease has increased in severity and I feel that it will soon cost me an increased amount of money, if not my life. . . . My general ideas of the subject are similar to those held by most practical experimenters, to wit; that what is chiefly needed is skill rather than machinery. . . . "

The brothers chose the Outer Banks of North Carolina for their experiments because they decided, from the replies they got from various postmasters, that it would have the most favorable wind conditions.

Beginning in 1900, they spent several weeks each year at Kitty Hawk, at first testing gliders, and then finally their motorized machine.

Following that first successful flight, they continued to work on and perfect their design. It took them seven years to come up with a practical design.

In 1912, Wilbur died of typhoid fever; he was 45. Orville built an aeronautics laboratory and returned to inventing. He died in 1948 at the age of 76.

The legacy of Kitty Hawk has obviously been far-reaching. And from the very first, it was embraced in a big way by the people of Utah.

"Aviation," proclaimed an ad in the Deseret News on Feb. 10, 1911, "the word that charms the multitude — that thrills the heart — that crowds the grand stand. It's the latest innovation in sportsdom and one that appeals to every nation."

What the ad called "the first great aviation meet for Utah" took place at Barrington Park on Feb. 11-13 and attracted attention all over the country. Over the three-day period, some 10,000 people paid $1 each to view the exploits of such famous fliers as Glen H. Curtiss, who had startled the world by taking off and landing on water in an airplane; Eugene B. Ely, who had had a harrowing experience when he attempted the first flight from Chicago to New York (a piece of chewing gum had clogged a gas vent, forcing him to land every 20 minutes); and stunt-flier Charles S. Willard.

The only thing that detracted from the success of the show was that local aviator Clarence Walker could not get his biplane in the air, but, according to the Deseret News, "he gave the immense crowd, which swarmed over the flying field, a close inspection of a machine in motion." All in all, said the paper, the show kept huge crowds in a "continual state of wonder."

From the first, Salt Lakers seemed to have an uncommon interest in flight. They had followed closely the early experiments and later developments.

On Aug. 6, 1909, readers of the Deseret News got a close secondhand look at planes when local attorney Joel Nibley returned from a trip to the East and brought back some "historic souvenirs in the form of Kodak pictures taken by himself of the flight of Orville Wright recently at Ft. Meyer, Va." The two pictures showed Orville bringing his airplane out of a shed and flying at 15 miles per hour.

On Jan. 30, 1910, Salt Lakers got a chance to see for themselves what it was all about. The first flight in Utah occurred before an enthusiastic crowd of 8,000 people. French aviator Louis Paulhan took off from the Salt Lake Fairgrounds for a flight that lasted 10 minutes and 36 seconds and reached a height of 300 feet.

Paulhan claimed that as a record height, since he was more than 4,300 feet above sea level, and his last highest had been just over 4,100 feet. However, he was counting the elevation of the city in his calculations, so it didn't appear quite as spectacular to Salt Lake viewers.

To cash in on this newfangled popularity, companies began using pictures of airplanes in their ads — even for such things as clothes and shoes. In 1910, the automobile company of Hill, Blake and Irving briefly sold a personal biplane. And in 1911, a group of local entrepreneurs formed the Utah Aviation Co. to begin designing and building aircraft; unfortunately, this enterprise, quite literally, never got off the ground.

World War I established a military use for airplanes. But after the war, the country began to look at commercial enterprises. And one of the first to come along was mail delivery.

In May 1918, the U.S. Post Office established the first overnight airmail route between New York City and Washington, D.C. By 1920, service had expanded to Chicago, and the post office was beginning to think in terms of transcontinental routes. Airmail delivery would be accomplished in much the same way as the old Pony Express worked — a series of shorter hops across the country.

Given its position as a crossroads and transportation center dating back to wagon-train days, Salt Lake City was a natural choice for one of the new airmail stations.

Local businessmen, interested in the economic benefits of airmail service, put up some $27,000 to improve the airfield for this purpose. A cinder-covered landing strip in a marshy pasture called Basque Flats (named for the Spanish-French sheepherders in the area) had been established in 1911.

In 1920, the city purchased 100 acres surrounding the strip for $40 an acre for the construction of a field, hangar and other buildings. Christened Woodward Field, this was the beginning of what would eventually become the Salt Lake International Airport.

The inaugural flight of the transcontinental airmail system took place on Sept. 8, 1920. A pilot took off from Hazelhurst Field, N.J., on the morning of that day, and after a series of relays, the mail reached Salt Lake City by 5:03 that evening. It took three more days before the first airmail reached San Francisco, but enthusiasm for the new system was widespread. "September 8, 1920, will go down in history as the great day when the epoch-making event, the first trip of the transcontinental aerial mail, took place," touted Aerial Age Weekly.

But even bigger and better things were in the wings, so to speak. And Salt Lake City would again have a starring role.

In 1925, when the government was ready to turn mail service from military to private contractors, a company called Western Air Express came into being. After being awarded the mail contract between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, the company, looking for other ways to generate revenue, hit upon the idea of passengers. Two folding chairs were installed in the mail compartment in front of the pilot's cockpit, and on May 23, 1926, Western inaugurated passenger service on both its north- and southbound planes.

Four passengers made that first trip, but prominent Salt Lake businessman and aviation enthusiast Ben F. Redman was first with his down payment on the $90 one-way ticket, and thus claimed the privilege of being the first passenger. Maude Campbell became the first woman passenger a couple of weeks later.

By the close of 1926, the airline had carried 209 passengers, and, according to a company history, "established a perfect safety record despite 38 forced landings along the rugged route, and made a net profit of $1,029.21."

Western Air Express evolved into Western Airlines and continued to use Salt Lake City as a hub of operations. In 1987, it merged with Delta Air Lines.

The 1920s offered a fair share of aviation heroes. It seemed there were always new records to set, and one of those record-setters was Utah's own Russell Maughan. On June 23, 1924, the Deseret News noted that he "wrote a new chapter in the history of man's conquest of the air Monday when he spanned the North American continent in less than a day. The hazardous and gruelling flight was his third attempt." After arriving at Crissy Field in San Francisco, "worn and nervous, the trail blazer was engulfed in a cheering mass of humanity which extended to him an almost unparalleled ovation."

But that event would soon be eclipsed by the exploits of Charles Lindbergh, who flew solo over the Atlantic to land in Paris on May 21, 1927. Salt Lakers cheered with the rest of the world. And when Lucky Lindy flew his Spirit of St. Louis to Woodward Field just four months later, some 35,000 gathered to see this latest conquering hero.

For these early pilots, flying was still very much a seat-of-the-pants operation. Lights were installed at Woodward Field in 1926, but radio signals were a thing of the future. Most pilots flew by visual landmarks. And to help them find their way to Woodward Field, the LDS Church allowed the words "Salt Lake Airport" — and an arrow pointing the way to the airport — to be painted on the roof of the Tabernacle in 30-foot white letters.

An article in the Deseret News on Sept. 28, 1928, told the story:

"Salt Lake has again taken the leadership in aviation and is the first city in the west to have an official air-highway sign. It has been painted on the rood of the Tabernacle and can be seen for miles before the pilot reaches the center of the city.

"Pilots who have flows over nearly all the large cities of the United States declare it the most practical sign they have seen. The marker was painted through the courtesy of the First Presidency and the Presiding Bishopric of the Church. . . .

"As it is now, the sign is easily seen and clearly legible within a radius of ten miles and in the language of one Boeing Air Transport pilot who flied over the building daily, 'You'd have to be blind to miss it.'"

The sign apparently remained in place until the late 1940s.

In February 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt canceled the government's airmail contracts and returned delivery of the mail to the Army Air Corps. It was a short-lived experiment, mostly proving how inadequate this new arm of the military was.

Those in the know began pushing for an independent corps, and in 1935, as a step in that direction, Congress directed Secretary of War George H. Dern (former governor of Utah) to determine the location of permanent Air Corps stations and depots in strategic areas of the United States.

Once again, Utah's geography came into play, and after a bit of political maneuvering, a site was selected seven miles south of Ogden and 25 miles north of Salt Lake City for a base. The War Department named the site Hill Field, in honor of Major Ployer P. Hill, who was killed on Oct. 30, 1935, while testing the original model of the B-17 Flying Fortress in Ohio.

Lt. Col. Morris Berman was assigned as Hill's first commanding officer on Nov. 7, 1940, the date celebrated as the base's activation date. During World War II, Hill served as a maintenance and supply base, with round-the-clock operations.

In 1947, the Army Air Corps became the United States Air Force, and in 1948, Hill Field was redesignated as Hill Air Force Base. Over the next 25 years or so, Hill grew to be one of the largest bases in the Air Force and Utah's largest employer. By 1965, some 17,000 military and civilian personnel were assigned to the base, which had a payroll of $107.4 million.

Another Utah field with an important military connection was Wendover Field, established as a gunnery and bombing range in 1940. During World War II, bomber crews from all over the country came to Wendover for training before being assigned to overseas bases. One of the most famous crews was the 509th Composite Group, which trained for atomic warfare from December 1944 to April 1945. It dropped the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Utah was one of the first states to establish a body to "supervise and promote aviation within the state and to adopt and promulgate rules and regulations to enhance the industry."

The Utah State Aeronautics Commission was established in 1937, and operating funds were provided by a tax on fuel used in aircraft.

Now a part of the Utah Division of Transportation, the Aeronautics Division still carries out that original mission, says aeronautical planner Monte Yeager.

Utah now has 51 airports that fall under the division's jurisdiction, 35 of which are part of the National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems and thus eligible to receive federal funding. The rest are small and/or private enterprises.

There are three primary commercial airports — Salt Lake City International, Saint George Municipal and Cedar City Municipal.

In recent years, says Yeager, both the state and the nation have demonstrated a strong commitment to aviation by providing additional funding for maintenance and improvements. "In the last two or three years, we've made tremendous strides. You go to any airport in the state and you'll see that something has been done."

And that's as it should be in a state that, for the past 100 years, has seemed to always have an eye on the sky.