July 2015 Business History: Aviation

Region takes to skies

Capt. Frank Burnside, far right, was the first to successfully pilot an airplane in Northern New York. His flights occurred at the Jefferson County Fair in September 1913. A crowd of more than 3,000 witnessed  as Capt. Burnside and his Thomas airplane took off from the exhibition field, soared to a cruising altitude of 2,000 feet, and reached an astounding 50 mph, before safely landing on the makeshift airstrip. Photo Courtesy earlyaviators.com.

Capt. Frank Burnside, far right, was the first to successfully pilot an airplane in Northern New York. His flights occurred at the Jefferson County Fair in September 1913. A crowd of more than 3,000 witnessed as Capt. Burnside and his Thomas airplane took off from the exhibition field, soared to a cruising altitude of 2,000 feet, and reached an astounding 50 mph, before safely landing on the makeshift airstrip. Photo Courtesy earlyaviators.com.

Aviation opens doors for business, community

By Lenka Walldroff, NNY Business

It may surprise some visitors to learn that the north country boasts a number of international airports. Here in Watertown, the “International” in “Watertown International Airport” has raised a few eyebrows, but small as it may be, our humble airport gets the job done, ferrying passengers to and from Northern New York to destinations around the world. Eyebrows and square footage aside, north country airports are but a whisper in the region’s long-standing relationship with aviation.

Following the Wright brothers’ first successful flight in December 1903, like the rest of the world, north country residents were of mixed mind regarding air travel, the latest technological marvel to come from the Industrial Revolution. While some people were in awe of this new discovery, others remained staunch skeptics, believing that flight was merely a lucky accident or a haphazard stunt. The numerous, and often comical, abortive attempts or downright failures at flight that occurred in the north country during the opening years of the 20th century did little to win over those critics.

One of the early successful attempts at flight, or at least in elevating a person off the ground in a controlled manner, was presented to north country crowds courtesy of Capt. John J. Frisbie of Oswego. Mr. Frisbie would go on to become an aviation pioneer before his untimely death at an air show in 1911. At the 1909 Jefferson County Fair, though lacking an actual airplane, he astounded his audience by rising some distance off the ground after affixing himself to an arrangement of kites.

The first incident approaching motorized aviation to occur in the area was in September 1910 when an airship, essentially a cigar-shaped balloon fitted with a two-cylinder engine, rose 100 feet above the Jefferson County Fairgrounds. While also technically not an airplane, the craft’s pilot, who kept the balloon housed in a tent at the fairgrounds, was widely considered to be both a maverick and a daredevil who in the course of his airborne adventures courted certain death.

The previous month, in August 1910, a man named Philip W. Wilcox traveled from Long Island to Pine Camp, now Fort Drum, with his airplane in tow. Mr. Wilcox’s expressed purpose was to demonstrate for Pine Camp’s top brass the usefulness of the new technology for military maneuvers. The craft, a Farman biplane with an eight-cylinder, 60 horsepower motor, was considered one of the largest airplanes in the United States, boasting a seating capacity of two. Citing the roughness of the ground at Pine Camp, however, Capt. Wilcox resolutely refused, on a number of occasions, to actually fly the craft, and, much to the disappointment of the assembled crowds of military personnel and local residents. Within a few days of his arrival, he decisively dismantled his plane and sent it back to Long Island.

The following year, in the months leading up to the 1911 Jefferson County Fair, it was widely advertised that yet another attempt at flight would be made at the fairgrounds in August. This time, a pilot from the Rex Smith Aviation Company would make daily flights during fair week. Playing into the already heightened public interest, fair organizers sought a volunteer from the local business community to serve as a passenger.

Alas, the stage was set for the first north country airplane flight: the crowds were assembled, passenger volunteers found, and the pilot paid his requested fee of $500 — equivalent to about $12,500 in today’s currency. The first day, the pilot refused to fly on account of a strong wind. The second day he refused to fly on account of the wind blowing in the wrong direction. By the third day, and another excuse from the pilot, fair officials were visibly nervous as the pilot’s fee had already been paid and the fair was nearing its end.

As the old saying goes “the more things change the more they stay the same.” In the end, the matter was handed over to attorneys to sort out. In short order, it was decided that the pilot ought to either fly or return the money; the pilot chose the latter.

Air Travel Skeptics: 3, Believers: 0.

It was not until 1913 that Jefferson County would see a successful flight, not in a kite contraption, or a motorized balloon, but in an actual airplane. The event occurred at the Jefferson County Fair in September of that year. An assembled crowd of more than 3,000 stood in nervous anticipation as Capt. Frank Burnside and his Thomas airplane took off from the exhibition field, soared to a cruising altitude of 2,000 feet, and reached an astounding speed of 50 mph, before safely landing on the makeshift airstrip. Mr. Burnside repeated this exhibition, which lasted about 10 minutes, each day of the fair.

And alas, the skeptics were silenced.

Lenka P. Walldroff is former curator of collections for the Jefferson County Historical Museum. She is a former museum specialist and conservator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. She lives in Jefferson County with her husband and two children. Business history is a monthly feature from the archives of the Watertown Daily Times. Visit watertown dailytimes.com to access digital archives since 1988, or stop by the Times, 260 Washington St., Watertown to research materials in our library that date back to the 1800s.