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Following the Sky: Celebrating Beloit Aviation

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In March, 2003, the Society received an e-mail research request from Ann Roth, the Gallery Director of Air at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina. Women in Aviation was the theme of a planned exhibit and he question concerned Bessica Faith Raiche. Bessica was the first woman in America to fly a plane, on September 10, 1910, and Ann wanted us to confirm her information that Bessica was born in Beloit. Our research led us to Rockford, Illinois, not Beloit, as the birth place of America’s First woman aviator.

Although Rockford may be the birthplace of American’s first woman aviator, Beloit has the honor of being the place where the first private owner of an airplane, the first flight of an airplane in Wisconsin on November 4, 1909, and the home of A. P. Warner, the pioneer aviator who made this all possible.

Less than a year earlier, A. P. Warner of Beloit, Wisconsin, a man of industry and adventure, had made his historic flight at the Morgan Farm here in Beloit. Mr. Warner, while on a trip to the East Coast, had witnessed a flight by Glenn Curtiss of his Curtiss Pusher, and on June, 23, 1909, Mr. Warner was the first American to purchase an airplane. The aircraft was not available until after it has been shown at the World Fair in St. Louis, but then shipped by rail to Beloit, boxes, and assembled by Mr. Warner.

On November 4, 1909, A. P. Warner took flight, his first flight as a self-trained pilot, in his Curtiss Pusher, and at age 39, became the 6th American to pilot a powered aircraft, and the first in Wisconsin. He first of several flights attained the height of 50 feet, and he maintained that height for a quarter of an hour. As Mr. Warner did not have the initial skill to turn his aircraft in flight, his initial flights were one way, landing, turning the aircraft around and repeating the flight back.

A one-quarter size replica of Mr. Warner’s airplane hangs in the front lobby of the Lincoln Center of the Beloit Historical Society.

Another early Beloit aviator was Hiram Morgan, the son of Fred Morgan, owners of the Morgan Farm used by Mr. Morgan as his airfield. Hiram Morgan “flew” five months before Mr. Morgan, but in a glider he launched from a hill behind the Morgan Barn over Turtle Creek, he rose 8 feet but records do not show the distance of the flight.

Another Beloiter, Jess Brabazon, was an early aviator, as he was a member of the “Early Birds” an organization founded by Mr. Warner, consisting of men who had soloed in flight from 1903 to 1916. The membership of the “Early Birds” did not exceed 300, and they were identified by a checkered hat each member was privileged to wear.

In 1918, Lt. Manderson Lehr, a pilot in the Lafayette Escadrille, and a student at Beloit College, was killed in action while flying in France. In the 1920's following World War I, flight continued to become more popular. The “Eaglet Club” promoted flying in the area, and members included Russell Van Galder, Si Smith, Stiles Whipple and Kayo Edwards. More Beloiters were flying and aviation was gaining in importance. First Flight air mail to Beloit started September 1, 1930, putting Beloit on the air map, as one press release expressed it.

The desire to move people and merchandise faster and more efficiently created a need for airports. The first airfield in the immediate area was opened in 1928, just across the highway from the present day Rock County Airport. The latter airport opened to the public in 1947, and scheduled airline service began May 14, 1050; the first manager, John C. Fredendall, was a pilot for Parker Pen, managing the airport on a part time basis. It would be another 37 years for Beloit to get its own airport. The first manager was Roy True and his tenure as a manager would come to a tragic end when he died in a plane crash in 1971. South Beloit got its airport in 1939, which was first managed by Pete and Ralph Tumelson, and later by Russell Van Galder.

Wisconsin Central Airlines advertised flights in 1950 from Beloit to Buenos Aires in 34 hours, or form Janesville to Jerusalem in 30 hours. Other aviation stories of the times included Adams Korn Kurls fling to “Hungry Texans” in Houston, ten tons of Rock County products heading out on one of the first flights form the Rock County Airport, and Parker Pen shipping $55,000 worth of pens to Hong Kong. Parker Pen and Freeman Shoe Co. both had private hangers at the County Airport. GM and the Beloit Iron Works used the airport for their businesses. Flight had taken on a whole new meaning since the days of A. P. Warner.

Highly recommended reading for people seeking the history, and stories, of our early aviators is a book written by Marge Van Galder, herself an outstanding pilot who with her husband, Russell Van Galder, was a veteran of numerous flying circuses’s and air shows, the book entitled: “Taming the Blue.”