Triumph and Tragedy

In Uncategorized on November 13, 2015 by hillermuseum

Lincoln_Beachey_flying_a_loopby Jon Welte

Lincoln Beachey and Panama Pacific Exposition of 1915

San Francisco has long held a place in the popular imagination as a city of unlimited opportunity that welcomes innovation and creative thinking. Spanish explorers brought back the first European reports of the Golden Gate and San Francisco Bay, establishing it as a mythical destination on the remote west coast of North America. Less than a century later, the discovery of gold in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada made San Francisco an essential waypoint for fortune-seekers eager to strike it rich themselves, and the “California Dream” took hold.

The devastating earthquake of 1906 inspired a period of rapid rebuilding, one that coincided with another great American engineering effort: the construction of the Panama Canal. In 1911 it was decided to mark the completion of the canal and linking of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans with a great Panama Pacific Exposition in 1915, and a resurgent San Francisco was selected as the host city. Intended as a celebration uniting the Americas with both Europe and Asia, the Panama Pacific Exposition also served to highlight the United States’ dramatic economic and industrial development and the rebirth of San Francisco.

The airplane embodied many of these qualities. Its invention at the hands of the Wright Brothers and subsequent development by the Wrights and others across Europe and America required equal parts of discipline and ingenuity, perseverance and fortitude. Cal Roberts and William Fowler had just completed the first transcontinental flights in harrowing, months-long ordeals that offered the first hints of the swift and safe transportation system that would one day link the world together. It was natural, then, for aviation demonstrations to feature prominently in the Panama Pacific Exposition, and for San Francisco’s native son Lincoln Beachy, to be selected to fly them.

Beachey began his career with airships, flying in exhibitions across the country. In 1910 Beachey participated in an airship competition at the Dominguez Air Meet near Los Angeles. French aviator Louis Paulhan interrupted the race with his agile Farman monoplane, buzzing around the gas-filled behemoths, inspiring Beachey to switch to flying airplanes later that same year.

It was in the airplane that Beachey’s skill flowered fully. His intuitive sense for the controls of early aircraft coupled with a growing body of experience made him an exceptional aviator. As an airplane pilot, Beachey’s star began to rocket upwards when he successfully recovered an airplane from a spin at an air meet in late 1910. By the end of 1913 he was able to fly extended aerobatic routines, including the elusive inside loop—a maneuver previously flown by very few pilots. Nationwide attention gained through a series of thrilling aerial tours across the country gained him the title “The Man Who Owns the Sky”.

Back in Beachey’s hometown of San Francisco, construction of the Exhibition grounds and facilities were a major endeavor. Many of the luminaries of America’s new industrial age contributed to its design and construction. Sprawled across nearly 1000 acres of marshy land in today’s Marina District, the complex included some 50 miles of roads and pathways and saw the erection of dozens of dazzling buildings and monuments. Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Luther Burbank all took a direct hand in planning various aspects of the venue, which included several thousand individual exhibits from countries and private companies around the world.

Lincoln Beachey, fond of spectacular gestures, added a bit of aeronautical sparkle to the proceedings. As construction of the cavernous Palace of Machinery neared its end, Beachey completed a short flight entirely inside it. The hall was an empty shell at the time of Beachey’s hop, but the walls and ceiling constrained his ability to maneuver and created a difficult environment for an exhibition flight. Beachey’s flight was a success, adding to the buzz of excitement surrounding both himself and the coming exhibition.

In 1914 Beachey supervised the construction of the Little Looper, a Curtiss pusher modified with a powerful 75-hp Gnome rotary engine imported from France to provide a reliable power source when inverted. With the ability to fly upside-down for extended periods, Beachey’s routines grew in complexity and pioneered many of the maneuvers that have since become common features at modern air shows.

The Panama Pacific International Exhibition opened to the public in February 1915. The governor of California and mayor of San Francisco presided over the official ceremony, with President Wilson sending an electric signal by telegraph to open the exhibition. Lincoln Beachey’s first official function came immediately thereafter, as he swooped low over the opening ceremony, releasing white doves from a cage secured to the Little Looper. This was the first of nearly daily flights at the Pan Pacific Exposition. At 3 PM each afternoon, Beachey and the Little Looper would emerge from the Palace of Machinery, alight from the beach, and perform an aerobatic routine over the water.

While the crowds marveled to his airborne achievements, Beachey set his sights on a grander future set on aircraft design and manufacturing. The Little Looper still somewhat resembled the Curtiss-type airplanes that Beachey had learned to fly some five years earlier, but the extensive modifications that Beachey’s team had made to it boosted its performance. Beachey’s hangar became an incubator for new aeronautical ideas, which coalesced even as the great Exposition continued into an all-new airplane.

The new design, dubbed the Taube (dove) by many observers, was a sleek monoplane offering less drag and greater speed than the reliable Little Looper while using the same Gnome engine. Always cautious, Beachey resisted calls from the exhibition organizers to use the new plane in his daily routines and continued flying his Little Looper, while testing the new monoplane and working with his mechanics to refine its design.

March 14th, 1915 was designed “Beachey Day”, with a special medal to be given to Beachey at the end of his daily flight for his aeronautical achievements. Beachey finally relented and agreed to fly the new monoplane on this day for his usual performance. Beachey’s routine was shortened by engine difficulties, and he was cajoled into making a second flight by officials who were not yet ready for the medal ceremony, Beachey took to the air again to begin a second routine. This proved to be his last, as the monoplane’s wings failed in a vertical dive and the plane and its pilot fell into the Bay below.

Lincoln Beachey’s death came as a shock to the nation. In 1914 alone, he had performed in over 100 cities and an estimated 1 in 6 Americans had personally seen him fly. In a world without television or even radio, the extent of his notoriety was unprecedented, and the skill with which he flew his aircraft opened the eyes of millions to the potential of the still-new flying machine.

Beachey was laid to rest in Colma three days later after a funeral service described as the largest held in San Francisco. The Panama Pacific International Exhibition continued without its aerial headliner, and closed in December of that year. Most of the exhibits and temporary halls were torn down and forgotten, with only the Palace of Fine Arts left behind as testament to the event held a century ago.

Lincoln Beachey too is a largely forgotten pioneer of the air. His legacy is preserved in the form of his original Little Looper, on display at the Hiller Aviation Museum

Lincoln Beachy: The Man Who Owned the Sky. Frank Marrero, 1997.
San Francisco’s Panama Pacific International Exhibition. William Lipsky, 2005.


Red Elf Rising

In Uncategorized on December 24, 2014 by hillermuseum


NORAD Tracks St. Nicholas

By Jon Welte

Early on in the Cold War, the United States developed a secure and hardened command and control system to guard against surprise attack. In its later days, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, performed this mission from the Cheyenne Mountain command post, buried deep within the Rocky Mountains. In 1955, however, CONAD—NORAD’s predecessor agency—operated its Combat Operations Center from a nondescript but highly secret office block at Ent Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. A cadre of specially selected and highly trained airmen and officers monitored surveillance data gathered from the frontiers of the Arctic, constantly on watch for any sign of hostile aerial intrusion across the North Pole. The COC was outfitted with the most sophisticated equipment available, but to maintain simple and immediate communications with the national command authority a single red phone lay upon the commanding officer’s desk—a red phone with a special direct number known only at the Pentagon and by the commander of CONAD. It was reserved for the direst calls.

On December 24th, 1955, the red phone rang.

The commanding officer on duty was Colonel Harry Shoup. Without hesitation Shoup picked up the phone, no doubt expecting grim news. To his astonishment, the voice on the line was not that of a commanding general but instead a small child, asking if the colonel might be Santa Claus. Confused and bewildered, not sure if the call was a mistake or an ill-conceived joke, Shoup responded sharply and the caller soon rang off, leaving Shoup to ponder how CONAD’s secret hotline had been hacked.

The reason quickly became clear, as more children called soon after. The Sears Roebuck store in Colorado Springs had run a special advertisement in the local newspaper earlier that day, featuring a beaming Santa Claus and an invitation to children to call and speak to him personally. Sears had established a hotline of its own to handle the expected volume of calls, but the number in the advertisement was misprinted by a single digit—and by coincidence, the misprinted number was that of the secret direct-dial hotline to Col. Shoup’s red phone.

Shoup had been trained to respond quickly and decisively in a crisis. As the phone calls mounted and the magnitude of the situation became clear, the colonel quickly established a detachment of airmen to take all calls coming in through the red phone. Their mission would be to provide children with the latest tracking information on Santa Claus’ whereabouts as he made his annual Christmas Eve trek around the world. That night a new institution was born, one that would take just a bit of the edge away from the daunting mission of staring across polar frontiers towards a menacing adversary: NORAD Tracks Santa.

NORAD was established as a joint operation between the United States and Canada in 1958, taking responsibility for the surveillance and air defense missions of CONAD. Its mission, then as now, was to provide early warning of any air- or space-born threats to the North American continent, and coordinate its air defense. Initially, the threat consisted of air-breathing aircraft flying across the North Pole and into North America. To detect such threats well in advance, the Distant Early Warning Line was established along the northern edge of North America. Consisting of a string of radar stations north of the Arctic Circle between Alaska and Greenland, the DEW Line was operated by the United States and Royal Canadian Air Forces and provided advanced early warning of any questionable incursions.

By the late 1950s the advent of space technology brought the new transpolar menace of intercontinental rocketry, with vehicles capable of flying at enormous speeds well out of the atmosphere and beyond the detection range of the DEW radars. To expand its reach to near-Earth space a new Ballistic Missile Early Warning System, or BMEWS, was developed. Three massive radars were erected at sites in Alaska, Canada and Greenland. Gazing across the pole with electronic eyes, these radars kept watch over near-Earth space against any unknown object, at ranges far beyond what the DEW system could manage. Shortly after becoming operational, the BMEWS radar sited at Thule, Greenland famously detected an object in space rising over the Arctic Ocean—an object that was quickly determined to be the Moon.

With comprehensive air and space surveillance equipment in place across the polar regions, NORAD is perfectly positioned to track the annual voyage of St. Nick. Col. Shoup continued the tradition of answering Santa calls on an ad hoc basis for several years, then in 1958 organized an official Santa Tracking organization under the aegis of NORAD. A force of volunteers from Canada and the United States stepped up to fill the role of Santa Trackers, working with NORAD controllers to monitor the jolly old elf and provide updates to children through a new, officially sanctioned phone number. In 1997 the tracking effort went online for the first time, and in 2011 official Santa Tracking Apps became available for both Apple and Android phones. In 2013 nearly 20 million discrete users from over 100 countries checked in at NORAD’s official Santa Tracking website for information on Santa’s whereabouts.



Women Take Wing

In Uncategorized on August 20, 2014 by hillermuseum


Louise Thaden

Pioneering Women in Aerospace
By Jon Welte

Each year more than ten thousand children visit the Hiller Aviation Museum as part of a school visit or other educational outing. Most visits begin beneath the Museum’s full scale Wright Flyer replica hanging at the entrance to the main Atrium. Many students have heard of the Wright Brothers, but few know of Katharine Wright, the only Wright sister to survive to adulthood. Unlike Wilbur and Orville’s two older brothers, Katharine took an active interest in and provided material support to Wilbur and Orville in their aerial pursuits. Katharine corresponded extensively with both brothers during their field work, supporting them and becoming immersed in their ideas for the future of flight. In 1908 Orville was seriously injured in a crash that took the life of his passenger. Lt. Thomas Selfridge. Katharine left her high school teaching job to aid Orville through his long convalescence, then took a position in the operation of the Wright Aircraft Company. During the brothers’ subsequent European tour she was the public face of the company, and became an officer of the organization shortly after Wilbur’s death in 1912.

Katharine Wright never sought to become a pilot herself, but as the excitement of aviation overtook the nation women fought for a place in the vanguard of aerial pioneers. Driving enthusiast Blanche Stuart Scott took flight in a Curtiss Pusher in 1910, becoming the first woman to solo an airplane. In 1911 Harriett Quimby became the first American woman to secure a pilot certificate, and by 1920 women had established a place in American aviation despite reservations and resistance from male aviators unconvinced that a woman’s place could be in the air.

In the mid-1920s the ranks of female aviators were bolstered by Louise McPhetridge, who would go on to become one of the most decorated aviators of her time. McPhetridge was hired by Walter Beech as a sale representative for the Travel Air aircraft company, and by 1928 had earned her pilot certificate. In 1929 she married Herbert von Thaden. Thaden, a San Francisco-based pilot and aircraft builder, constructed the all-metal Thaden T-1 Argonaut now displayed at the Hiller Aviation Museum. Flying under her married name, Louise Thaden quickly became one of the nation’s pre-eminent female aviators, earning the equivalent of an Airline Transport Pilot certificate and going on to set records for maximum altitude and flight endurance.

Despite these advances aviation remained a field partially closed to women. During the interwar years air racing evolved as a high profile means of developing both planes and pilots to their maximum potential, and well into 1930s women were conspicuously barred from participating. In 1929, Thaden joined a select group of 20 women competing in the first Women’s Air Derby, a near-transcontinental race from Santa Monica, California to Cleveland, Ohio. The race, also known (derisively at first) as the Powder Puff Derby, featured nearly all of the skilled female pilots in the country, plus competitors from Germany and Australia. Thaden won the competition, besting a decorated field that included such notable pilots as Amelia Earhart and Pancho Barnes. By 1936 the ban on female aviators participating in the National Air Races was lifted, and that year male and female aviators competed directly against each other for the first time. Louise Thaden and her copilot, Blanche Noyes, won resoundingly.

Following close on Thaden’s heels was Jacqueline (“Jackie”) Cochran. Cochran had learned to fly in the early 1930s, and in 1938 repeated Thaden’s feat of winning the coveted Bendix Trophy. Cochran excelled in piloting high speed, high performance racing planes and was an outspoken advocate encouraging women to enter the field of aviation. During World War II Cochran lobbied US Army Air Force General Hap Arnold to create a women’s flying corps, and in 1943 became director of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), which allowed female pilots to fly military aircraft in auxiliary roles such as ferry flights and training missions.

With the creation of an independent United States Air Force following the war, Cochran joined the Air Force Reserve and ultimately achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Cochran’s ongoing association with high performance aircraft led her to become the first female pilot to achieve supersonic flight in 1952, and to become an advocate for the inclusion of women in the astronaut program at the beginning of the Space Age.

NASA did not select its first female astronaut until the late 1970s, but thanks to the trailblazing efforts of aviators like Thaden and Cochran the way to space would gradually open to talented female aviators and others. These pioneering women in aviation have served not only as exceptional aviators, but as ambassadors highlighting opportunities for women in aviation and aerospace, disciplines deeply underlain by science, technology, engineering and mathematics—often abbreviated as STEM.

Today, scientists like Emily Lakdawalla continue this important work, inspiring the public in general and young people in particular with the allure and majesty of spaceflight. Lakdawalla, a former middle school science teacher turned planetary geologist, completed her master’s degree researching radar imagery collected from Venus, and has investigated Martian volcanoes using data obtained from spacecraft orbiting the Red Planet. Lakdawalla currently works with The Planetary Society, the world’s largest public-supported space advocacy group, disseminating information gathered from across the solar system and promoting ongoing public involvement in space exploration.

This fall, the Hiller Aviation Museum will welcome Emily Lakdawalla as its featured speaker at the 2014 Benefit Gala, “Unlimited Horizons”, to be held on October 18th. The Gala’s theme this year celebrates women in STEM and aviation fields and supports the Museum’s outreach and education programs.

The Hiller Aviation Museum actively promotes STEM education as a core mission, using aviation and aerospace to encourage all people, and youth in particular, to see science and math as a stairway to the skies. The Museum also preserves part of the history of past pathfinders, exhibiting the 1929 Travel Air flown by Louise Thaden on her record-setting endurance flight.
Throughout its collection, the Hiller Aviation Museum highlights the contributions of a range of remarkable women to the advancement of flight. Come see exhibits commemorating many of these women, or attend the Museum’s fall Gala to lend your support to its ongoing mission.

Resources, Downloaded 5 Aug 2014 , Downloaded 5 Aug 2014
The Sky’s the Limit. Wendy Boase, 1979
United States Women in Aviation 1919-1929. Kathleen Brooks-Pazmany, 1991.
United States Women in Aviation 1929-1939. Claudia M. Oakes, 1991.


Runway to Imagination

In Uncategorized on April 7, 2014 by hillermuseum


The History of Model Aviation
By Jon Welte

For centuries, children around the world have been fascinated by flying toys. Skyrockets celebrating the New Year high over China; fighter kites slashing through the air over the rooftops of Kabul; a simple French-made whirligig, given by a father to his young sons in Dayton, Ohio. Each served to delight and inspire, carrying young minds aloft and, in the cases of young Wilbur and Orville Wright, launching careers in aeronautical innovation that would change the world.

By the 1920s, most model aircraft fell three major groups: Design prototypes, display models, and flying models. Each has played an important part in the development and promotion of aviation.

Prototypes are structural models constructed to test aeronautical concepts without incurring the expense of constructing a full size model. British aviation pioneer George Cayley constructed models of this nature as early as 1792. American designer Samuel Langley famously demonstrated his proposed Aerodrome with a powered scale model flown in 1896. Wilbur and Orville Wright pursued modeling in a different way; after two frustrating years constructing and testing full sized gliders, the Wrights built models of small airfoil shapes to test in a wind tunnel. The brothers built and “flew” nearly 200 small tin airfoils before settling on a design for their future aircraft.

In some cases, scale prototypes proved suitable for use for exhibition. Langley’s hopes of building a man-sized version of his Aerodrome were dashed in the chilly waters of the Potomac River, but the 1896 model remains on display today. Engineering models, however, were not always attractive to look at and lacked fine details present in the finished product. Models specifically designed for display soon began to appear, and in 1920 the Smithsonian recognized the importance of aircraft models by hiring Paul Garber, a leader of a Washington DC-area model club, to build, collect and display models related to aviation. Garber himself constructed highly detailed models of many 19th century aircraft that had not survived into the new century; relying in most cases on fragmented historical accounts of these aircraft, Garber’s work was a major contribution in the preservation and interpretation of a poorly-known period in aviation history.

Construction of aircraft models for display was not merely a pursuit for serious historians, but also for the general public—particularly young people with an interest in aviation. By the 1920s aircraft model kits were popular and widely available. Most models were built of various types of wood and many required a high degree of skill to construct, yet the results could be beautiful and highly detailed. During World War II the United States Navy and Army Air Force found themselves in need of many thousands of realistic model aircraft for use in aircraft identification training, and through 1943 hundreds of thousands of wooden models were constructed by a nationwide network of high school students devoted to the pastime.

By the end of the war wooden display models had given way to mass produced plastic kits. In the postwar boom, manufacturing technology allowed fabrication of detailed plastic model kits of nearly every type of aircraft imaginable. Even a modeler of modest means and skills could, with a bit of patience, construct a realistic display model.

Despite his considerable skills in the construction of display models, much of Garber’s passion was for models that could fly. In 1870, Frenchman Alphonse Penaud constructed the first flying model aircraft powered by twisted elastic bands; it was a model helicopter designed by Penaud that Milton Wright brought home to give to his youngest sons, Wilbur and Orville. By 1909, modeling clubs held tournaments in which rubber-powered airplanes flew distances of half a mile or more. After Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight of 1927 launched a renewed worldwide interest in flight, building detailed balsa-and-tissue model kits became a popular hobby for many American children.

Garber was active in the promotion and preservation of model aviation throughout this period, even as his responsibilities to the Smithsonian grew. He collaborated with the Playground and Recreation Association of America in the late 1920s to disseminate information on the construction and flight of model aircraft, from simple paper gliders to competition-level rubber powered flyers. The abilities of model aircraft continued to grow, however, much as real aircraft reached ever higher levels of performance.

In the most sophisticated flying models, rubber band power gave way to tiny gasoline powered motors as early as the 1930s. By the late 1940s, control line model airplanes appeared—these remained tethered to a ground-based operator by a pair of long control wires, which forced the model to fly in circles around its pilot. The wires were usually configured to operate the model’s elevator and throttle, making precisely controlled circular flight possible.

Radio control for model aircraft actually appeared before control line aviation, with the first demonstration flight held in 1937. The design was straightforward: one radio channel commanded the aircraft’s rudder, providing directional control. The other controlled the aircraft’s engine. Radio control permitted a gasoline (or electric) powered model airplane the ability to fly freely around a field, unencumbered by control wires and able to fly as long as its fuel tank or battery charge permitted.

Model aviation today continues to change in response to evolving technologies. The most sophisticated radio controlled aircraft can be powered by small jet engines and approach the size and speed of small general aviation airplanes. Flying model helicopters are capable of maneuvers impossible for most of their full-sized brethren, and infrared-controlled miniature helicopters have become popular household toys.

The Hiller Aviation Museum celebrates the large and the small in model aviation as it hosts the World’s Biggest Little Air Show on Saturday, May 2nd. The San Carlos Airport runway will close to make way for a dazzling array of miniature aircraft. Model airplanes, helicopters, rockets and more will take to the skies over San Carlos in a series of demonstrations. Join us for a remarkable foray into the world of flying model aircraft.


Building and Flying Model Aircraft. Paul Garber, 1928.

On Miniature Wings. Thomas Dietz, 1995.


The Birth of American Aerobatics

In Uncategorized on November 22, 2013 by hillermuseum

Little Looper at the Museum

Little Looper at the Hiller Aviation Museum

Lincoln Beachey and the Little Looper
by Jon Welte

In January 1910, the first air show in the United States was held at Dominguez, California, just a short road or rail journey from Los Angeles. Over a quarter million people flocked to the meet, with most seeing an airplane fly for the first time in their lives.

One young man attended the meet as both an aviator and as an impressed spectator. San Francisco’s Lincoln Beachey grew up racing bicycles down the hills of his hometown. At eighteen he learned to fly powered airships, and experienced his first taste of the aviation spotlight piloting a dirigible at the Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland, Oregon in 1905. A year later he made an unauthorized but well-received landing on the White House lawn.

Lincoln Beachey piloted one of six airships flown at the Dominguez meet. For Beachey, Dominguez provided a life-changing humiliation. Beachey raced a fellow airship pilot around a closed circuit course and won decisively, yet there was little opportunity to savor the triumph. During the race, French aviator Louis Paulhan took flight in a Farman monoplane. Paulhan had shown a penchant for showmanship throughout the meet, dazzling the crowds with maneuvers more daring than the conservative routines flown by other pilots. As the airship race drew to a close, Paulhan swooped down and circled merrily around the lumbering dirigibles.

Stung, Beachey resolved to learn to fly airplanes. After initial rebuffs from both Glenn Curtiss and the Wright Brothers, Beachey hired on as a mechanic for Curtiss’ flying team and began flying lessons. Unfortunately, Beachey’s aptitude for airships and aeronautical engines did not immediately translate into easy mastery of flight in an airplane—much of Beachey’s mechanical work involved airplanes that he had damaged in the course of his lessons.

In December 1910, Beachey filled in for an injured pilot during an exhibition back at Los Angeles. During the flight, his engine failed, the wings stalled and the airplane entered an aerodynamic spin—a condition in which one wing of an airplane is fully stalled, while the other continues to generate partial lift. A tight corkscrew and rapid descent ensues. Spins were much feared by early pilots, as the spin is stable and a spinning airplane will continue to drop until reaching the ground. Beachey, however, was able to break his airplane’s spin by pitching down into the descent to increase airspeed and restore lift to the wings.

Within weeks Beachey became one of the leading pilots on the Curtiss demonstration team. He flew at Tanforan in 1911, captivating the crowds with his artistry and showmanship. He flew at venues across the United States and Caribbean. Throughout, his mechanical knowledge added to his flying. Curtiss airplanes of the era typically had two horizontal stabilizers, one each at the front and rear of the craft. When a rough landing damaged the forward stabilizer of his plane, Beachey famously removed it entirely. As he predicted the rear stabilizer was sufficient to maintain directional control, and the reduced weight and drag boosted his airplane’s performance.

After a brief retirement in 1913, Beachey returned to the air to master the inside loop, a maneuver first mastered by a French aviator. Spurred on by national pride and the spirit of competition, Beachey directed Curtiss to design and build a reinforced airplane able to sustain the forces of a loop. Beachey completed his first loop in November 1913.

Despite this, Beachey was not satisfied. His airplane was structurally reinforced to stand up to the forces of aerobatics, but its engine would stop running when inverted. In early 1914 technology advanced and Beachey travelled to France to acquire a pair of Gnome rotary engines. This innovative design was composed of seven cylinders arranged in a circle around the propeller shaft. When running, both the engine and the propeller whirled around. The Gnome operated equally well upside down as right side up. Beachey directed his crew to install a Gnome engine in his newest airplane, giving rise to his “Little Looper”. On tour throughout the United States, Beachey conducted many flights over the rest of the year, expanding his repertoire and exposing millions of people to aviation.

In early 1915 Beachey returned to San Francisco for a yearlong assignment flying as part of San Francisco’s Panama Pacific International Exhibition. Back in his home town, Beachey planned to open an aircraft company specializing in aerobatic machines. Its first product was a sleek monoplane dubbed the Taube, or dove. Beachey had been drawn to monoplanes since his humiliation at Dominguez in 1910, as they had less drag and greater speed than biplanes.

The Taube was a beautiful aircraft and proved significantly faster than the Little Looper, making for more spectacular maneuvers. It also featured a tractor propeller arrangement, considered safer than the traditional pusher configuration. However, the new design also moved the pilot from the very front of the plane, exposed to the slipstream, to a protected cockpit behind the motor. While an improvement in most ways, it was a different experience for a pilot as closely attuned to the movement of his plane through the air as Lincoln Beachey.

On March 14th, 1915, Beachey flew his Taube in a special routine offshore from San Francisco. In a rapid decent he pulled out too quickly, and the Taube’s wings collapsed from the load. Remarkably, corner reports indicate that Beachey survived the initial impact despite the terrific speed, but drowned before rescuers could reach him.

Lincoln Beachey died as the leading aviator in the nation that gave birth to the airplane, and was accorded the largest funeral in San Francisco’s history. Yet today he is largely unknown, overshadowed by the heroes and technologies of World War I. He represents in many ways the best of the early days of aviation—exceptional skills as a pilot and mechanic, dedicated to both advancing and popularizing the science of flight. The Hiller Aviation Museum proudly displays the original Little Looper, preserving a true Northern California legacy in flight.


Lincoln Beachy: The Man Who Owned the Sky. Frank Marrero, 1997.
San Francisco’s Panama Pacific International Exhibition. William Lipsky, 2005.


The Birdling From Chico

In Uncategorized on September 5, 2013 by hillermuseum


Thaddeus Kerns w-plane

The Birdling From Chico

The Thaddeus Kearns Memorial

The Hiller Aviation Museum was established by Stanley Hiller, Jr., a remarkable Californian who had his start in aviation designing and building the unique XH-44 helicopter in his family’s garage. Hiller was just nineteen years old when he successfully piloted the XH-44 himself on its maiden flight at Cal’s Memorial Stadium in 1943.

Stan Hiller was not the only young man to take to the skies of Northern California as a teenager in a flying machine of his own creation. Chico, nestled at the junction of the Cascades and the Sierra Nevada, was the home of another aspiring aviator some three decades earlier. Thaddeus Kearns was inspired by the growing national excitement in aviation stemming the public flights of Wilbur and Orville Wright in 1908, and soon built and flew a number of model airplanes. Kearns quickly expanded beyond models and by early 1910 had constructed and flown an ambitious biplane hang glider not far from his boyhood home.

In the autumn of that same year, Kearns constructed a home-built copy of a Curtiss Model D airplane. The Model D was developed by Glenn Curtiss as a development of airplane designs he had built and flown competitively in 1908 and 1909. Curtiss’ pusher-propeller, biplane design was widely emulated after the previously unknown pilot and designer flew the machine to a shocking win in a speed competition at an air meet in Reims, France, in 1909. Defeating the storied French aviator Louis Bleriot among others, Curtiss returned to the United States and made what became his Model D the world’s first mass-produced airplane.

Perhaps due to his own lengthy patent battle with the Wright Brothers, Curtiss did not discourage emulation of his own design and many early aviators built machines of a similar mould, such as the Hiller Aviation Museum’s own Black Diamond airplane. It was natural that Thaddeus Kearns would construct his own airplane following the pattern of the Model D. Once complete, Kearns launched a series of test flights from his family home at Chico. Much like the Wright Brothers nearly a decade earlier, Kearns did not have the benefit of a flight instructor and had to teach himself to fly.

Exhibition flying came to Northern California in January 1911, as pilots and machines from around the world alighted at the Tanforan Air Meet, near modern-day San Francisco International Airport. Kearns and his airplane traveled to the Bay to observe the cutting edge of aviation and to enter the meet’s amateur competition. Although the sixteen year old prodigy crashed at the end of his second flight, his two successful takeoffs were more than most competitors in the amateur field managed and the resilient attitude he displayed after walking away from a harrowing accident won him widespread acclaim from spectators and professional aviators alike.

Kearns persevered through a number of accidents and growing pressure from his parents to abandon aviation for other, safer pursuits—pilots in the early 1910s suffered from an appalling mortality rate. Reports published in Chico newspapers indicate that the young Kearns had agreed to hang up his wings repeatedly, but inevitably returned to the air on each occasion. A century ago this summer he reached the end of his good fortunate, and perished in a structural failure of an airplane he was testing, within sight of his parents’ home in Chico. Just nineteen years old at the time of his death, Kearns made a lasting impression on the Chico community as its earliest aviator.

The Hiller Aviation Museum has honored the adventurous spirit of Thaddeus Kearns since its opening, as a full-scale statue of Kearns and his 1910 glider graces the Museum’s front parking lot. This monument to the fallen teenage aviator has historically been one of the Museum’s least visited exhibits, since the original landscape design precluded visitors from approaching the statue closely. All of this changed due to the enterprising efforts of another Northern California teen, Serra High School student and San Mateo resident Conor McCann.

Conor has been involved with Scouting for the past twelve years and currently belongs to Troop 42 in the Pacific Skyline Council. This year he is working to reach Eagle Scout, a level of advancement that fewer than 5% of all Boy Scouts attain in their Scouting careers. Achieving the rank of Eagle Scout requires completion of at least 21 Merit Badges, fulfilling a number of leadership roles within a Scout Troop, and completion of a service project within the community.

Making the journey to Eagle Scout is a long-term project that requires resolve and dedication on the part of the Scouts who undertake it. In selecting the Thaddeus Kearns Memorial as the venue for his Eagle Scout service project, Conor has chosen to honor a pioneer of early aviation who exhibited exactly the same qualities. The newly landscaped Memorial in front of the Museum, replete with seating areas and interpretive signage, elevates the story of Thaddeus Kearns in the tapestry of aviation history preserved at the Hiller Aviation Museum.

The Hiller Aviation Museum will dedicate its newly renovated Thaddeus Kearns Memorial on Saturday, September 21st. This is a Scout Saturday, a day on which Boy and Girl Scouts of all ages are invited to visit the Museum at no charge. Join the Museum and the local Scouting community on this day as we celebrate the achievements of Thaddeus Kearns and salute Conor McCann for his service to the community.


La Peninsula, “A History of San Francisco International Airport”, 1991
San Carlos Airport Association. Downloaded
6 May 2013
San Mateo County Planning Commission. “Airports & Airways Master Plan”, 1950
Svanevik, Michael. “San Mateo County Chronicles”, 1995


Gateways to the Sky

In Uncategorized on August 29, 2013 by hillermuseum

San Carlos Airport circa 1966

San Carlos Airport circa 1966

The Airports of San Mateo County

The birth of the modern airplane could not have occurred without the simultaneous birth of the modern airfield. Wilbur Wright, searching for a location with favorable weather for flying the gliders that he and his brother envisioned, used both US Weather Bureau data and recommendations from aviation pioneer Octave Chanute to settle on Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, as a flying field. Its open beaches, rolling dunes and solitude were ideally suited to those first tentative steps into the air, but by 1904 the Wrights shifted their ongoing experiments to Huffman Prairie, a spot near to their Dayton workshop despite the disadvantage of poorer flying conditions– a catapult was usually needed to ensure a safe takeoff.

Aviation came to the Bay Area not long after the Wrights unveiled vastly improved versions of their flying machine to the world in 1908. That year, Wilbur launched a series of public flights in Europe using a race track at Le Mans, France. The track combined wide fields with public viewing areas and made a fine venue for demonstration flights. The same criteria held sway when the Bay Area hosted its first public flight demonstrations some two years later. In January 1910, thousands of spectators flocked to the Tanforan Race Track in San Bruno for the state’s first Air Meet. Tanforan’s facilities, combined with easy road and rail access from San Francisco and the Peninsula, made it a compelling location. The following year the Air Meet returned to Tanforan, and the adjoining Selfridge Field– named to honor US Army Lt. Thomas Selfridge, killed in a test flight of a Wright airplane in 1908– served as the launching field for Eugene Ely’s history flight to the cruiser Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay.

For a short period of time airplanes were operated from open fields in nearly any location, but technology advanced rapidly during and after the First World War and airplanes required longer takeoff runs to reach flying speed. In 1926 San Francisco City Engineer Michael O’Shaughnessy reached the conclusion that an appropriate airport could not be built within the city limits, and instead recommended purchase of a 200-acre site and adjoining baylands owned by Ogden Mills. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors ultimately approved this site, and the airfield– originally named Mills Field, partly in the hope that the Ogden Mills estate would ultimately donate the desired parcel– was dedicated on May 7th, 1927. Within its first year of operation the future San Francisco International Airport celebrated the arrival of Charles Lindbergh, on a publicity tour with his Spirit of St. Louis airplane of transatlantic crossing fame.

Despite an auspicious early send-off, Mills Field quickly fell into disrepute. Even along the newly-renovated Bayshore Highway it was an interminable 22-minute drive from downtown San Francisco, and foggy weather frequently interfered with flight operations. Boeing Air Transport, the predecessor of today’s United Airlines, abandoned Mills Field for the better weather and facilities found at Oakland Airport. And in what could have been a final indignity, Lindbergh himself was mired in mud at Mills Field while piloting a 1929 demonstration flight in a large airliner carrying over 30 passengers.

While commercial operations fled San Francisco and the Peninsula for the sunnier climes of the East Bay, smaller fields for so-called general aviation sprung up across its length. San Carlos was a leader in this regard, with the original San Carlos Flying Field established by 1917. Operating at a site about 1/2 mile northeast of the current airport location, the field’s airstrip roughly followed the modern course of Twin Dolphin Drive. Originally constructed under the direction of J. Pauling Edwards, the field became known as Cooley Field when acquired by Charles Cooley. Hemmed in by sloughs and surrounded by dikes, Cooley Field’s 1,200′ dirt strip proved adequate in fair weather for early biplanes, but sadly wanting as more sophisticated machines became available.

Despite its modest size, San Carlos boasted two separate airports during this period. The field that actually held the name San Carlos Airport was located east of the Bayshore Highway and just west of the Southern Pacific Railroad station at San Carlos. Opened in November 1941, this airfield was used for military flight training but fell into relative disuse shortly after the end of World War II. It remained active through 1950, by which time operations were consolidated at a new airfield built at the location of the current airport.

Today San Carlos Airport hosts more than 150,000 aircraft operations each year. No commercial airline service is available at the airport, as its half-mile long runway is too short for use by most airline aircraft. Instead, San Carlos Airport supports a wide range of personal, business, and emergency services operations ranging from flight instruction to aero-medical evacuations. It is also considered a “reliever” airport, as many transient aircraft that land at San Carlos carry passengers bound for San Francisco, reducing congestion at the larger field just eight nautical miles up the Peninsula.

Meanwhile, back at San Francisco, matters finally began to improve shortly after the Lindbergh debacle of 1929. The Board of Supervisors officially changed the airport’s name to San Francisco Municipal (later International) Airport in 1931, and the following year the first radio aids were installed at the field. A new, mud-free terminal opened in 1937– a replica of which exists today inside the SFO Airport Museum, found in the modern airport’s International Terminal. SFO is now the county’s seventh-busiest commercial airport, serving some 20 million passengers each year. To this day, however, travelers still chafe at the commute to downtown San Francisco and find that fog still disrupts flight operations on a regular basis, just as at the field’s inception over 85 years ago.


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