Early Aeronautics in St. Louis

By Wilbur Tackaberry


It would be impossible to say definitely where or when men first felt the desire to soar like the birds. I think all will agree, that the urge to fly is one of the oldest ambitions of men and women. In this series I will try to give you the story of early aviation in St. Louis.  I will share with you many treasured photos that have been made available to me depicting the growth of aviation in St. Louis from its inception to the present time. I will pass on to you stories and anecdotes from some of the early aviators who contributed to recognition of St. Louis as the aviation center of the Nation.

One of the stories will be on Charles Lindbergh, an early air mail pilot and officer of the Missouri Air National Guard. I will relate to the readers the chronology of events and the personal experiences and observations of citizens who lived in the St. Louis area while aviation history was being made. I am most pleased to be able to share this historical "Jennys to Jets" flight through history with the citizens of this area.

The early history of aeronautics in St. Louis is closely identified with the early history of aeronautics throughout the world. In 1859 Capt. Wise made a balloon flight from St. Louis to Menderson, New York—1,150 miles—a record which stood for over 50 years.


In 1904 the Louisiana Purchase Exposition Co. through the personal efforts of Gov. Francis offered $150,000 in prize money, the largest sum of any consequence ever offered in the interest of aeronautics. At this time the airplane was practically unheard of. Alberto Santos Lumont, who arrived from France, brought a tiny airship packed in a crate, but due to a cut in the gas bag was unable to go aloft in the craft.

The story of aeronautics in St. Louis would not be complete without mention of Maj. Albert Bond Lambert and Capt. Honeywell. These two men were instrumental in organizing the St. Louis Aero Club. This organization was very active from 1907 thru 1910. Many young men were trained and qualified as pilots under their supervision. Some of the early balloonists were Sylvester Van Puhl, John Berry, James Bemis, Albert Von Hoffman, Harlow Sperce, Joseph O’Reilly, Ernest Cole, and many others.

In 1907 the international Balloon Race started from St. Louis with 100,000 spectators on hand to witness this great event. Some of those that entered the race were from as far away as Germany, France, and Belgium. It was during this period that a club was formed called "The Early Birds." Maj. Albert Bond Lambert was one of the members.

This was a club for the men and women who flew during the infancy and early adolescence of aviation. There were only 500 persons eligible for membership. When the last of them dies, the club will die also, for no one who is not already qualified can ever join the ranks of "The Talking Birds". Only persons who flew during the first 13 years of dynamic flight or before are eligible to join. Membership was limited to those who piloted a glider, airplane, gas balloon, or airship prior to December 17, 1916.

In 1908 there was a total of four airships in the United States. These four ships were assembled in St. Louis for an air meet. A short course was flown around Forest Park.. After takeoff one ship went off course and landed in East St. Louis, due to strong winds. One landed off course in the park, two pilots completed the course and divided the $5,000 prize.

The first airplane flight in St. Louis was made by Glenn Curtiss in 1909. The Centennial Balloon Race was also held before a crowd of 75,000 persons that year. A short time after this, the first aviation meet of the United States was held at Kinloch Field. In these early days of aviation the spectators of these aerial events were called "Rubbernecks". At Kinloch Field a grandstand was built and for five days several thousand "Rubbernecks" were on hand to view this most spectacular aerial event of the time.

At the field was the complete Wright Company Fleet of six aircraft; also present was a monoplane that was to be flown be LeBlane, a famous French aviator. A world endurance record was established (one hour and ten minutes). LeBlane flew 60 miles per hour in another event to win a speed record.

It was at this event that Col. Theodore Roosevelt offered to fly with Arch Hoxsey, a star pilot of the time. A lot of persuasion went into getting him to board the craft for the flight. The idea of this particular flight was to promote the value of aeronautics to the general public. A point I would like to bring out now is that today it takes a jet approximately one hour and a half to go from St. Louis to New York but in 1911 it took Harry N. Atwood 12 days. He made 20 stops. Actual flying time was 29 hours. That, my friends is progress! Won’t you agree ?

It was in 1914 that Maj. Albert Lambert with "Tony" Von Puhl as an aide, attempted a balloon flight for speed and distance in an effort to hold the Ely Cup in St. Louis. The flight was successful, the balloon leaving St. Louis at 6:30 PM and landing at the ocean hedge at Charleston, SC, at 8 am, the next day.

[Photo: Early proponents for aviation in St. Louis: 1921 Photo J. Reid; H. Perkins; R. Wassal; P. Sultan; O.E. Scott; Frank Robertson. [Enlargement]

It was in the year 1916 that the first Aviation Corps was organized in St. Louis. The services of five flyers and a few broken down airplanes were offered to the War Department. In 1917, when war was declared the Missouri Aeronautical Society was organized and located a training camp at Grand Avenue and Meramec Street. They provided the government with trained pilots and equipment. This organization had trained 340 balloon pilots.

At the same time 450 JN-4 (Jenny) training planes had been built by the St. Louis Car Co. Scott Field had just been selected by the War Department as a training center for lighter air operations, and another flying field was being developed by St. Louis near the Mounted Police Station in Forest Park. This provided facilities for the first air mail flight from Chicago to St. Louis on August 16, 1920.


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