From barnstorming to wing walking to commercial flying, pilot and historian Norma Kraemer loves everything about aviation.
Kraemer told the crowd gathered for the First Saturday Brunch at the Tri-State Museum in Belle Fourche recently that western South Dakota was an integral part of the state’s aviation history.
An Air Force brat, Kraemer heard countless tales of flight. She went on to earn her own pilot’s license, and over the past 40 years has learned to fly everything from gliders to an airship.
In addition to having her pilot’s license, Kraemer also has a repairman’s certificate, meaning she built her own airplane from blueprints and she is authorized to do the maintenance on it.
And, with the release of her book “South Dakota’s First Century of Flight” (Arcadia Publishing,) Kraemer is the one telling flying stories.
She used more than 200 vintage photographs to tell the story of aviation in South Dakota, from the first airplane flight in Rapid City in 1911 to the invention of the modern hot air balloon in Sioux Falls more 50 than years ago.
She touched on some of those stories at the Belle Fourche program specifically, Black Hills-renowned Clyde Ice.
She said Ice taught himself to fly in 1921 and later used airplanes for everything from wing-walking to herding horses to commercial flight to carrying mail. She said he was still crop-dusting well into his 80s.
“His first flight when he was at the controls, he had two paying passengers. Today that would be frowned on by the FAA,” Kraemer said.
Ice moved to Rapid City and formed a partnership in Rapid Air Lines with Walter and Russell Halley, military veterans and bankers from Rapid City.
The Halleys had 300 acres in north Rapid City just where Interstate 90 now runs (between Rushmore Road and the LaCrosse Street exit). Rapid Airlines had two fields (just smoothed pastures) Halley Airport No. 1 was to the north and Halley Airport No. 2 was to the south.
“While Clyde was out flying, the Halley brothers were scheming,” Kraemer said. “They thought the way to make money on aviation was to own the airports.”
The Halleys wanted to build airports in every town with more than a population of 5,000 so they could charge landing fees. Within a few years they had airports from Wolf Point, Mont., to central Iowa.
“They moved their headquarters to Omaha and opened up big fancy offices,” she said. “In the meantime, Clyde was financing all of this with what he sent them from the airline service.”
The first flight of a heavier-than-air aircraft was in Rapid City on March 11, 1911. The plane was brought in by the Western South Dakota Stockgrower’s Association for their convention and was a contracted exhibition using a Curtiss Model D pusher at a cost of $3,000.
“That ($3,000) was a huge sum of money back then. But they wanted to get as many people as possible to come to the exhibition,” Kraemer said.
The plane arrived by train and had to be put together which took an entire day, she said.
“On the first test flight they hit a rock and damaged the gear and had to fix it,” he said.
The location of the exhibition was in the the area of Fifth and Columbus streets.
“That was the suburbs of Rapid City at that time,” she said.
People across western South Dakota were quite excited to have an airplane exhibition, Kraemer said.
The town of Newell had so many interested individuals, that the community hired a train to take them to Rapid City to see the spectacle. She said they brought nearly 500 people on the special trip, picking people up along the way.
“They even brought a band. They were going to have a good time no matter what,” she said.
Unfortunately, it was a one-day train excursion and on the day the flight was to go up, it was too windy.
“These rudimentary aircraft really couldn’t handle any kind of wind, so the people from Newell had to go home without ever seeing the plane fly,” she said.
It did go up the next day and flew for a short time 400 feet above the ground. The Rapid City Journal report of the flight in 1911 said, “no spectacular work.”
“Even though this was the first time many people had seen a plan fly, they were already jaded,” she said.
In September 1911, the State Fair hired several demonstration companies to perform for the entire week.
“That really got people excited about flight. The state fair was the premiere event in the state at that time and it was where people would see the latest and greatest of everything,” she said.
Over the next several years planes made appearances at Deadwood, Sioux Falls and Yankton (1912), Spearfish, Edgemont and Belle Fourche (1913), Vermillion and Fort Pierre (1915).
Kraemer said Saxe Pitts Gantz has the distinction of being the first South Dakotan to learn to fly. He attended the flying demonstration at Rapid City in 1911 and asked the Curtiss Exhibition Company pilot where he could learn and then traveled to Missouri for lessons.
He built his own version of a Curtiss airplane for $3,000. After demolishing it in his first flight, he rebuilt it. The plane was later destroyed in a shop fire.
The second South Dakota pilot was Frank Aukerman, of Sturgis. Like Saxe Pitts Gantz, Aukerman was at the Rapid City demonstration in 1911. He learned to fly at the Curtiss school in Hammondsport, N.Y., in 1916. Frank Aukerman and his brother, Burt, bought a Curtiss “pusher” at Hot Springs from a financially troubled touring pilot, Andrew Hartman. Unfortunately, when Burt tried to solo the plan, he destroyed it in South Dakota’s first airplane crash.
Kraemer said the truly pivotal year that inspired South Dakotans to embrace the airplane was Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 air tour, during which he landed at Sioux Falls, Stevens (now a part of North Sioux City) and in Pierre.
“He toured all 48 states at that time. That really got people excited about aviation as a possible business, not just a ‘gee whiz’ thing. This was a way to make money and to show how reliable and predictable aviation could be,” she said.
As Lindbergh flew over the Black Hills, he reportedly dropped a map to President Calvin Coolidge at the State Game Lodge.
“He also flew over Deadwood, Roubaix and Rapid City,” she said.
The first airport in Belle Fourche was called Bus Field. At the same time, Black Hills Airport near Spearfish was built.
“It was built with a Works Progress Administration grant,” she said.
The initial reason it was built was to serve as an airmail service hub.
“Black Hills Airport was a county airport owned by Lawrence County and they built some serious infrastructure,” she said. “They had to knock that all down in the 1960s when they built I-90 because they built the road right through the middle of the building.”
Kraemer said that despite their efforts, no South Dakota company ever got an airmail contract in those early years.