Posted on August 27th, 2012 No comments
The following article was originally printed in the Fall 2007 issue of Forward in Flight magazine. The magazine is published quarterly by the Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame (WAHF). Membership in the organization including magazine subscription is available for $20 annually. Alfred Lawson was inducted into the Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame on October 24, 1992.
It was August 27, 1919 when Alfred Lawson, assisted by a crew of four, departed the New Butler, Wisconsin, flying field in his airliner. This was the second flight of the “House on Wings.” Their destination was Ashburn Field in Chicago. The 100-mile trip would become the first leg of a demonstration tour lasting more than two months. Lawson wrote of the journey in the publication, A Two Thousand Mile Trip in the First Airliner. The 12-page journal includes images taken during the trip and other posed publicity photos.In addition to Lawson, the crew consisted of Charles Cox, assistant pilot; Vincent Buranelli, Lawson factory superintendent; Carl Schory, engine mechanic and Andrew Surini, mechanic. Lawson explained his plans for the flight crew, “I had decided that I would act as captain and navigator of the airliner and that my assistant would do most of the steering…”
Lawson was secretive about his plans for the trip, even keeping the crew in the dark. “Even the crew did not know that I intended to take the airliner to Chicago and Andrew Surini arrived there in his shirt sleeves and overalls while Carl Schory had left most of his raiment in his automobile, which remained standing upon the flying field at Milwaukee.”
The trip would resume on Sunday morning, August 31, 1919. Lawson continues his report, “After spending a day or two in Chicago, inspecting the different fittings of the airliner …I decided to make a two hundred and fifty mile flight from Chicago to Toledo.” In addition to the crew, three Chicago newspaper reporters and Ralph Diggins were passengers on this leg. Diggins was a well-known aviator of the day and owned Checkerboard Field.
The crew and passengers would rest overnight in Toledo and continue their odyssey on Monday, September 1. The passenger list changed somewhat. Ralph Diggins would return to Chicago, while two additional newspaper reporters joined the history-making flight. The airliner departed Toledo at 5:30 PM, Lawson described their arrival at Cleveland, “It was 6:50 o’clock P.M. when we landed, and although daylight was disappearing, a monster crowd was at the flying field to cheer us. The people there looked with surprise and pleasure at the mammoth visitor from Milwaukee.”Lawson would spend two days with Glenn Martin at Martin’s facilities in Cleveland. While there, the aircraft was inspected for the next leg of the journey. Alfred spoke very highly of Martin and his employees. After spending time in Cleveland, Lawson made some changes to the passenger list before departing for Buffalo. The two Toledo reporters left the flight while adding three Cleveland reporters. The total number of people aboard had reached eleven. Lawson described this portion of the trip for us. “Nothing of any importance took place in the trip from Cleveland to Buffalo to warrant special mention; the weather was good and the airliner flew along with hardly a movement of any kind.
The flight departed Buffalo for Syracuse on September 4 and is notable for three facts. First, and possibly foremost in Alfred’s view, a woman joined the group of passengers. Second, the opportunity to race a New York Central train ended with the airliner winning handily. Third, the flight ended poorly. Lawson described it thus: “It looked like we would come out of a bad landing all right when, just before coming to a standstill, we ran into a ditch and the airliner went up onto its nose and remained in that position, with its tail sticking up at an angle of about 45 degrees.”
The aircraft damage, while minor in nature according to Lawson, caused a week’s delay in the flight. Lawson picks up his tale, “On September 13th, with nine people aboard, we left Syracuse at 7:50 o’clock A.M. and arrived at Mitchell Field, Long Island, New York, at 10:33 A.M., making a remarkable run of 313 miles in 2 hours and 43 minutes.”
Lawson and crew would spend six days in New York. While there, Lawson invited each newspaper to send a representative “to take a joy ride in it.” On September 15, Lawson took five reporters, a motion picture operator, two photographers and several aviation experts on a 30-minute flight. Among the passengers was Augustus Post who was serving as Secretary of the Aero Club of America. According to Lawson, “Thousands of people went out to Mitchell Field to look at the airliner, and among them some prominent aircraft men who manifested great delight at the sight of the air monster and its surprising performance.”
The journey continued on September 19, when the crew of five took off bound for Bolling Field, Washington DC. Lawson described the flight, “The weather was hazy and cloudy, but as the land and water marks along the route were good, I found no difficulty in keeping the airliner in a true course, but it kept both Cox and me busy dodging in and around clouds between Baltimore and Washington.” There were nine passengers on this leg including Flying magazine editor Evan J. David.
In his journal Lawson told of the many dignitaries he met with while in Washington. He said, “I believe I shook hands with all the United States Senators in Washington at that time, one of whom, Senator Warren G. Harding, afterwards was elected President of the United States.” He continued, “I was introduced to so many prominent men in Washington during the few days that the airliner remained there that it would be out of the question to name them all…”
The flight would continue on September 25 when it departed Washington for Dayton, Ohio. This leg would prove to be disastrous for Lawson, his crew, and passengers. Lawson explained, “Everything went smoothly until we got beyond Cumberland and then we struck some of the roughest weather I have ever experienced. We let the airliner climb up to 17,000 feet, trying to find better conditions, but it was just as rough at that altitude as at a lower one. We could have climbed much higher but as the gas supply was diminishing and as I knew that in that headwind we could never reach Dayton without refueling, I decided to land at a farm near Collinsville, where Cox said he thought he saw a good field. But on trying to make the field aimed at, the airliner was struck by a top wind of tremendous force, which brought us to the earth suddenly in an adjoining cornfield…”
The aircraft was only damaged slightly but the landing field and all nearby were unsuitable for a safe takeoff. Lawson elected to dismantle the airliner and ship it to Dayton. It would be nearly a month before the airliner was again airworthy. On Friday, October 24, the trip continued again with Indianapolis its next destination.
Weather delayed the planned departure for Chicago until November 6. Lawson described this leg, “The weather was foggy and it was a good thing that I was familiar with the topography of Chicago or we may never have reached Ashburn Field, for we were almost over Lake Michigan before it became visible.”Lawson recorded, “It was zero weather the day we flew from Chicago to Milwaukee, but the 15 passengers didn’t seem to mind it at all as we journeyed along above and to the left of Lake Michigan at an altitude of 10,000 feet. Most of the passengers kept themselves warm by walking up and down the aisles as I had not installed the heating apparatus in the first airliner that I put into the second one.”
The last lines of the journal reported, “We were met at the field by a large crowd of enthusiastic people and thus ended safely the 2,000 mile demonstration trip of the first airliner.” We do not know when Lawson wrote, A Two Thousand Mile Trip in the First Airliner. We do know that Lawson wrote the journal as part travelogue, part flight report and part marketing commentary. This long flight of his airliner displayed to the country, and the world, Lawson’s greatest aviation achievement.