Idaho History: This year marks a century of aviation in Idaho

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First in a series.

On Dec. 17, 1903, man's first flight in a motor-powered, heavier-than-air machine took place beside the sand dunes at Kitty Hawk, N.C. On that historic day Orville Wright piloted the plane he and his brother Wilbur had built.

Nearly seven years later, on Thursday, Oct. 13, 1910, aviator James J. Ward took off from the fairgrounds in Lewiston, Idaho. The plane had been sent to Idaho by rail by Glenn L. Curtiss, the Wright Brothers' chief competitor in the battle to capture the attention of the American public by demonstrating that men and women really could fly.

In rural America at the beginning of the 20th century, county or state fairgrounds were the logical places to make those first demonstration flights. Fairs always drew crowds of people, grandstand seating was available, along with a race track or infield from which planes could take off and land. Both the Curtiss and Wright companies sent out proposals to fair directors across the country seeking to book appearances of their planes and pilots.

Promotion of the Lewiston flights was all that the Curtiss publicists could have wished. Several photographs of pilot Ward appeared in the Lewiston Tribune in the days before his arrival. After he came to town, while the plane was being assembled and tested, the paper published several interviews with him. Readers learned from the Tribune that Ward was the "official aeronautical instructor" of the Illinois Aeronautical Club of Chicago, and that he had once made a flight of 25 miles and had reached an altitude of 2,200 feet. He had made more than 100 flights and never had an accident.

That, however, was about to change.

Ward told reporters that he had no anxiety about flying, provided he was 200 feet off the ground when something went wrong. He said he was sure he could land safely from that height.

"Most of the serious accidents have happened when the trouble occurred when the machine was about 50 feet from the ground."

The Curtiss Co. had sent specifications for a smooth strip that had to be built in front of the grandstand for safe takeoffs and landings. A large tent was to be provided for assembly of the plane and for its maintenance between flights. For the Lewiston-Clarkston Fair Association, this was easily the greatest undertaking in its history. Securing the event had cost more money than any attraction they had booked in former years.

After a series of tests of the "pusher" engine, mounted immediately behind the pilot, and several short runs along the taxi strip, Ward made the first takeoff ever seen in Idaho on Oct. 13, 1910.

If anyone thought the 13th was an unlucky day for the flight, subsequent events would prove that aviator Ward was not superstitious, and that he was a very lucky man. After that first flight, engine trouble caused a rough landing that demolished the front wheel of the plane's tricycle landing gear. Because it was a standard bicycle wheel, a replacement was found quickly and installed.

The next day, pilot Ward proclaimed the weather ideal for flying and made several flights that thrilled the crowd.

"The cheers that floated up to his ears from the grandstand as he twice passed by in his bird machine must have convinced him that he had made good," the Tribune's article said.

But on Oct. 15, 1910, a special dispatch to the national press went out from Lewiston: "The Curtiss biplane with which J.J. Ward of Chicago has been making daily flights at the fair, tonight lies a heap of junk on the banks of the Snake River, and that Ward himself is not in the morgue or at the hospital, is almost a miracle."

Even after his engine stopped dead some 200 feet above the ground, Ward might still have landed the plane safely had not the forward control mechanism "collapsed totally." Ward escaped with only a sprained ankle and a bruised wrist by jumping clear of the plane just before it hit the ground.

Who was J.J. Ward, the man who made that first flight in Idaho? He was born in Denmark in 1886 and christened Jens P. Wilson. His parents came to America and settled in Minnesota. He ran away from home when he was a teenager and decided to abandon his Danish heritage and become as American as soon as possible. He had learned to speak excellent English in public school, and after he became famous as a flier, never spoke to the press of his family or his Danish origins. To most of his friends and to the public he was often known as just "Jimmie" Ward.

Next week we'll share more of Idaho's early aviation history.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. E-mail This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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