Crunch Bird

Pilot E.H. Thompson tightened the chin strap on his leather cap, flipped a long white scarf over his shoulder, and climbed into the seat of the fragile looking flying machine. It was July 5, 1912.

Thompson adjusted the engine's choke and carburetor then nodded to his mechanic who gave the wooden propeller a hefty spin. The little engine coughed twice and belched a dense cloud of smoke. The pilot told his assistant to do it again. This time the small engine snorted, complained with a couple of backfires before settling into a wheezing, but steady, put-put-put-put.

Aiming the 1,620 pounds of flimsy silk, wood and wire into the wind, Thompson accelerated and the craft bumped across Elko's baseball field straining to free itself from the dusty earth. Hundreds of spectators screamed and cheered.

Just about everyone in northeast Nevada flocked to town for the Fourth of July celebrations. Operators down at telephone central had called to area valleys to remind everyone to come to Elko for the big doings.

A large advertisement in the Elko Independent promised brass bands, a four-team baseball tournament, and a wild west show featuring the only woman in the world to use a sidesaddle on a bucking bronc. There were $500 worth of fireworks on hand and two parades scheduled; one with horseless carriages and the "Horribles" (marchers in costumes and makeup) would perform in another.

Even Nevada Governor Tasker Oddie had traveled over from Carson City to see the big celebration. Elko's world famed saddlemaker, G.S. Garcia, allowed the chief executive to ride his saddle adorned with gold, silver and diamonds that had won first place at the 1904 Columbia Exposition.

The whole affair was shaping up to be an exciting three days, especially when news came that one of those newfangled aeroplanes would be on hand. It was ballyhooed as the first aircraft to ever been seen in or above Elko.

With a hot July sun almost directly overhead, Thompson's kite-like contraption slowly picked up speed. He carefully pulled back on the stick and the plane struggled off the ground, bounced four times, and reluctantly climbed a few feet into the air.
Pilot E.H. Thompson and the fragile flying machine.

Then, the crowd let out a collective groan as the little flying machine faltered and settled back to the ground, yoyoing across the outfield until it hit a ditch. Coming to an abrupt stop, the aircraft nosed down, flipped its tail upright, then fell on its side as one wing collapsed. Thompson was not hurt, just embarrassed. 

He announced that he and crew would do their darndest to repair the craft for another try the next day. True to his word, Thompson and his men sweated and cussed through the warm summer evening replacing wood supports, stretching new silk, and tightening wires.

It was another sweltering hot day. The setting was the same with hundreds of spectators packed into a perspiring mob to see if the thing would really fly. Bets were being made and but only a few favored the flying machine.

Again the machine raced across the bumpy field gasping and struggling to an altitude of about fifty feet then pancaked against the ground, skidding to a halt in a cloud of dust. Damage was more serious this time but birdman Thompson again beat the odds of injury.

He announced that he would repair the aeroplane again so Nevadans could see the true glory of a flying machine soaring into the blue. He explained that all his flying experience had been in the San Francisco area and that he had frequently climbed to as high as 3,000 feet. This is far short of Elko's five thousand feet. He added that the propellor just wouldn't "bite" the thinner air so he ordered a more powerful engine and a larger prop from Denver and would, when the equipment arrived and was installed, demonstrate again.

When both pieces arrived the crew busily changed the engine and prop. Again the stubborn airman was ready to prove the feasibility of man flying in a contraption almost wholly held together with silk and shellac.

On July 12, 1912, after another short aborted flight, Thompson finally called it quits, dismantled the apparatus, loaded it on a railroad flatcar, and headed back to the City by the Bay. His flying attempts in northeast Nevada had all failed but there was one ray of sunshine in the whole mess.

While in Elko he met a young pretty girl, Kathleen Murphy, persuaded her to marry him and go the coast to live. While his head was in the clouds of happiness, his magnificent flying machine never made into the skies above Elko.

20 June 1999

 ©1999 by Howard Hickson. If any portion or all of this article is used or quoted proper credit must be given to the author.

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