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"Hindsights"

Looking back at:

Early Aviation was Exciting and Dangerous

By Michael Barr
Michael Barr

I have heard pilots describe the sensation of flying as peaceful, exhilarating, thrilling, glorious, divine and even erotic. They say all your earthly troubles vanish when you leave the ground. It's those darned takeoffs and landings that cause anxiety.

As exciting as aviation is today, it was more so in the early 20th century. There were few navigation aids back then. Pilots flew from one landmark to another, or they followed road maps. They sometimes took wrong turns and got lost.

There were few airfields in the early years. Pilots flying across the country typically flew until they ran low on gas, landed in a goat pasture and thumbed a ride to the nearest town for more gasoline.

Flight-time was often serene, carefree and even playful. The takeoffs and landings were the tricky parts. Airplanes were built to fly. They were graceful in the air but awkward on the ground.

A landing near a town like Fredericksburg always drew a curious crowd, whether the airplane was a part of the military or a private barnstormer who would perform stunts, and even give rides to paying customers.

The crowd held its collective breath every time a plane took off or landed. The success of those maneuvers was never a sure thing.


In April 1919, 2 military biplanes left Kelly Field in San Antonio, headed for Brady. Over Fredericksburg the planes, by now low on gas, circled the town a few times (causing a great deal of excitement in village below) before the pilots chose to land in a clearing behind the high school (today College Street).

Robert Penniger, editor of the Fredericksburg Standard, heard the whine of the engines overhead and ran from his office on Main Street to the high school. He got there in time to watch the first aircraft land safely, although it bounced in like a flat rock skipping on water. The other plane touched down in good shape but ran out of runway and collided with a tree and a garden fence. The sudden stop damaged one of the wings.

Broken equipment could be repaired. As long as no one was hurt, the spectators took the frequent minor crashes in stride. "Hast du keinen Finger haben," the Town Creek Germans would say. (Loose translation, "At least you didn't lose a finger.")

Penniger got the two pilots a room at the Dietz Hotel at 218 West Main Street (today the Schmidt-Dietz Building). An army wrecker came for the damaged plane and hauled it back to San Antonio. The undamaged plane took on a load of fuel and flew to Brady the next morning.

On the return trip the aircraft made another fuel stop in Fredericksburg, landing safely behind the high school. After refueling the plane tried to take off but failed to gain the necessary altitude. It hit a tree and crashed into the school yard. The pilot walked away.


On May 1, 1919, 3 more planes appeared in the sky above Fredericksburg during the noon hour. The planes gave an exhibition of fancy flying over the city and landed safely behind the high school. A fourth plane tried to land east of town but suffered a nasty crackup near Kramer's Gin.

The pilot of the wrecked plane tried to make repairs, but the aircraft was too damaged to go on. The other planes took on fuel and got back in the air without hitting anything.

Before leaving Fredericksburg airspace the pilots put on a show for the town. They performed the celebrated Immelmann nosedive (named for German WWI ace Max Immelmann). They "cut the pigeon wing" and turned "salto mortales" (full somersaults), forward and sideways. Those old pilots were notorious showoffs.


Aviation has a lot changed in 100 years. I live near the airport, and I hear airplanes coming and going all day. Navigation is more sophisticated. Takeoffs and landings are more routine.

Still, I can't help but think that inside each of those calm, methodical pilots flying over my house is the soul of a barnstormer just itching to buzz Main Street at treetop level and do a barrel roll over Marketplatz.

Michael Barr
"Hindsights" April 1, 2023 Column

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