Those crazy flying machines

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LOOKING BACK AT ... Hindsights

The high-pitched whine of an aircraft engine, straining to gain altitude, is a familiar sound at Gillespie County Airport. But a hundred years ago, mechanical noises of any kind were unusual in rural Texas.

Most folks in Fredericksburg had never heard nor seen a flying machine until three biplanes landed in a field southwest of town on Christmas Day 1919.

The planes left Kelly Field in San Antonio that morning bound for El Paso. The pilots — Lt. St. John, Lt. Penney and Lt. Peabody — were all experienced aviators and instructors at Kelly. Each pilot carried a mechanic in the second seat.

Their trip had two objectives.

The pilots and mechanics were part of a nationwide project to map and photograph air routes between cities.

Another purpose of the trip was to encourage an interest in air travel.

The stopover in Fredericksburg wasn’t exactly encouraging.

The planes left San Antonio at 9:45 a.m. The weather was good, but soon after takeoff, the pilots hit a 30-mile-perhour headwind.

The planes could only fly 60 mph, and after 90 minutes of hard flying they had only gotten as far as Fredericksburg. By then they were low on fuel and needed a place to land.

But there was a problem. Recent heavy rains had soaked Gillespie County. When the pilots looked for a place to touch down, they saw pools of water standing in every field. The moisture glistened in the sunlight.

After spending 35 minutes buzzing the countryside around Fredericksburg, Lt. St. John, commander of the expedition, selected a field southwest of town as the best spot to attempt a landing.

One by one, the planes came in. All landed safely. A crowd of country folk soon gathered to get a closer look at the noisy contraptions that scattered their cattle, spooked their horses and scared their chickens half to death. Children thought the airplanes carried Santa Claus.

The pilots and mechanics hitched a ride into town where the people of Fredericksburg, after learning of the aviators’ friendly intentions, treated them as heroes.

The Red Cross entertained the fliers with Christmas lunch at the Nimitz Hotel. There was another event at the Dietz Hotel.

Later that afternoon, a group of townspeople escorted the pilots back to their planes, now fully loaded with gasoline. But the air had turned cold, and the pilots had trouble starting the engines.

Finally, the engines started, and after warming up for a few minutes, the pilots positioned the planes for takeoff. Spectators crossed their fingers as the planes attempted to get back in the air. The ground was so soft, there was fear that the planes could not get up the speed required for takeoff.

Lt. St. John was the first to go. He gunned the engine, released the brake and sloshed across the soggy field, gaining speed until he slowly climbed into the air. Lt. Peabody followed and was soon airborne. But Lt. Penney’s plane couldn’t get up enough speed. His machine plowed into the barbed wire fence at the end of the clearing.

No one was injured, but the plane was a wreck.

Seeing the fate of his traveling companions, Lt. St. John came around and landed again, but when he tried to take off the second time, he could not clear the fence.

Then Lt. Peabody landed in a nearby field. After making sure his companions were not injured, he managed to take off successfully a second time although he missed by a whisker some oak trees along the fence line. He landed safely at Kelly Field 65 minutes later.

Lt. St. John, Lt. Penney and their mechanics caught a ride back to San Antonio, probably on the train. Two army trucks hauled the mangled planes back to Kelly Field.

Soon, other planes flew over Fredericksburg continuing the job of mapping and photographing air routes.

As to the part about promoting air travel, the people of Fredericksburg might be forgiven for wondering if travel by airplane was all it was cracked up to be.

Source: “Three Airplanes at

Fredericksburg,” Fredericksburg

Standard, Jan. 4, 1919.

Michael Barr is a retired

teacher and principal, living in

Fredericksburg where he spends

time writing books, columns and

magazine articles. Contact him at

mikbarr@aol.com.