By Chris Vaughn
January 10, 2011
FORT WORTH — Somewhere between the Office Depot and the Ross Dress for Less off West Seventh Street, a Frenchman named Roland G. Garros lifted off in his Bleriot monoplane a century ago.
Every other pilot at the Great Aviation Meet, a traveling troupe brought to Fort Worth by several of its leading businessmen, refused to fly. The winds were up, and the aircraft were only eight years removed from Orville and Wilbur Wright going airborne for the first time.
But Garros, determined to please the 15,000 people who had paid 50 cents to watch a plane fly, pulled back on his stick and went airborne into 25 mph gusts, a dangerous decision because his plane couldn’t fly a whole lot faster than that.
At 1,500 feet, he leveled off and took a “seven-mile, cross-country jaunt” and landed perfectly a few minutes later, according to news accounts.
Few, if any, people that day — Jan. 12, 1911 — had ever seen it done before.
A machine flew.
From an area that gave the world the F-16, Ormer Locklear, Horace Carswell, Jeana Yeager and the Huey helicopter, it would seem that the actual birthday of aviation in Tarrant County has been largely forgotten.
“Ninety percent of the people who come to our museum have no idea what went on here,” said Tom Kemp, a retired Air Force colonel who volunteers at the Veterans Memorial Air Park near Meacham Airport.
But three groups of aviation enthusiasts — the Fort Worth Air & Space Museum Foundation, the OV-10 Bronco Association and the B-36 Peacemaker Museum — decided to mark the centennial of flight in Tarrant County with a yearlong campaign designed to remind people that there’s more to local history than cattle and railroads.
Their first event is scheduled for Saturday near the site of Garros’ first flight.
“I think that aviation is so much a part of the fabric here that people don’t think about it,” said Jim Hodgson, president of the Veterans Memorial Air Park and a founder of the OV-10 Bronco Association. “It’s always been here. They don’t think about that initial spark that got everything going. But aviation really did change the complexion of this area.”
‘Reckless’ pilot pleases crowd
Thousands of people saw that initial spark on Jan. 12 and Jan. 13 during the Great Aviation Meet held at the Fort Worth Driving Park, a race track on the site of what is now Montgomery Plaza off West Seventh Street.
The International Aviators had just performed before 20,000 people in Dallas, and several prominent leaders of Fort Worth hastily arranged a stop in Cowtown before the aviators headed to Oklahoma City.
The aviation exhibit was part of a yearlong tour across America organized by wealthy brothers A.J. and John Moisant and featuring well-known pilots of the day. The pilots earned a princely sum of $500 to $2,000 a week, according to a story in The New York Times in 1910.
“It cannot be predicted from what obscure village the inventor shall arise to solve the problem still confronting those who are wrestling with the gigantic task of making aerial navigation as practical and safe as other means of transportation,” the Times quoted A.J. Moisant as saying.
Just a few weeks later, his brother, John, died in an airplane crash in New Orleans. The airport there carried his name for many years.
In addition to flying for the crowds, one pilot would race a man driving a powerful Fiat race car around the track. But the gusty winds and concern about the large crowds getting too close to the track on Jan. 12 led to a shortened aviation meet with only Garros going airborne the first day.
The Dallas Morning News called him “reckless” for doing it, though Garros was quoted in newspapers of the day saying he did it to appease the largest assembly of people ever in Fort Worth.
Similarly, the yearlong tribute to aerospace milestones in North Texas is being put together on the fly.
“It should have been done a year ago,” Hodgson acknowledged.
But because no one else appeared to be organizing anything, Hodgson and friends started throwing together a plan less than two months ago. Each month, the group intends to have a program to commemorate either a historic event, unit, aircraft or person with North Texas ties.
Other aviation milestones
In February, they will mark the 62nd anniversary of the first nonstop flight around the world, which originated and ended at Carswell Air Force Base.
Later in the year, they plan to push programs on aircraft such as the B-36 Peacemaker built in Fort Worth, the British and Canadian pilots who trained in Tarrant County in World War I and the arrival in Ryan Place of “Daredevil Cal” Rodgers on the first transcontinental flight.
The air show at Naval Air Station Fort Worth in April comes coincidentally on the centennial of naval aviation, bringing in many of the Navy’s heavy hitters such as the Blue Angels.
In May, the Fort Worth Air & Space Museum Foundation will unveil a major exhibit at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, which officials hope will whet the public’s appetite for a major aviation-only museum.
“It will be a preview of our ultimate air and space museum we will build at Alliance Airport in 2016,” said Bill Morris, a researcher for the foundation. “It will help us focus the structure of the big museum.”
The groups have also enlisted the help of Tarrant County College, which has an aviation program, to reach out to middle-school students to get more young people interested in the field.
They hope that more groups, schools and cities will get into the act by having their own programs.