Articles

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.

Resources

La Peninsula, “A History of San Francisco International Airport”, 1991
San Carlos Airport Association. http://www.sancarlosairport.org/?p=21. Downloaded
6 May 2013
San Mateo County Planning Commission. “Airports & Airways Master Plan”, 1950
Svanevik, Michael. “San Mateo County Chronicles”, 1995

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