The year was 1927 and aviation was both a curiosity and rage for spectators in Spokane and everywhere else in the country. The National Air Derby and Air Races made it to Spokane that September due to the efforts of Major John “Jack” Fancher (1892-1928). Major Fancher’s legacy still abounds-a Spokane street that runs north and south from Felts Field is named after the First Commander of the 41st Division, 116 Observation Squadron of the Washington Air National Guard. What was then called the “Spokane Air Port” would witness a gathering of nearly 100,000 people across several days.
This ticket allowed entrance to the show and cost 75 cents.
The September 20th, 1927 issue of the Spokane Chronicle exclaimed, “Radio, telegraph, telephone, motion pictures and every other known means to facilitate the broadcasting of news in words and pictures will be used to cover the finish of the national air derbies and the national air race at the Spokane Air Port this week.” In fact, an additional nine telegraph lines were installed at the field to dispatch sky-breaking news to “every city, town, and hamlet in the country.”
A newspaper ad promotes the great air derby and race.
Only months before, Charles A. Lindbergh (1902-1974) had made his famous trans-Atlantic flight and all eyes were upon aviation. Interestingly, in 1925 and 1926, Los Angeles and Cleveland had unsuccessfully put on air races. Few people attended the events and there was skepticism that such a program in Spokane would be any different. But it was. After all, Major Fancher had sponsored a popular “Air Circus” in 1925 which kept the community in awe. And with Major Fancher’s enthusiasm coupled with freshly piqued interest from Lindbergh, Spokane would be a ripe venue for a grand air race and derby. Major Fancher understood the need to get financial support and bolster the program. Accordingly, he enlisted the support of William Cowles, Louis Davenport, Harlan Peyton and a number of others who were also influential in the areas of investment, publicity, and hotels. The momentum to attract big money and large audiences was further enhanced by having the very famous, Charles A. Lindbergh visit Spokane in his Spirit of St. Louis on September 12th before the races began.
Charles Lindbergh visited Spokane September 12, 1927 to kick off the program.
“The Spokane Air Port is rated as one of the best flying fields in the entire West,” explained a booklet published by the National Air Derby Association. The field was one and one half miles long by one half mile wide with prevailing winds from the West. Its prominent landmarks consisting of the hills, hangers, and the Spokane River made it easy for pilots to find. Known as a “fast field,” it had a hard gravel base with a “fairly good grass turf.” The airport was only five miles from downtown and had access by the Empire Electric Railway.
Numerous activities were to occur but the major ones were several races that began separately from New York and San Francisco and finishing in Spokane. Hefty prize money attracted aviators to compete and show off their ability to speed across the country or up the coast. An early Association flier boasted $28,250 cash prize money for the New York to Spokane winners; $5000 for the San Francisco to Spokane winners; and other cash prizes to make up a total of $60,000.
Out of 15 pilots who began the transcontinental race from New York, only eight of them would finish. The winning airplane was the National Eagle, a Laird Biplane flown by Charles “Speed” Holman and Lt. Tom Lane. Holman was an airmail pilot for the Chicago-St. Paul run. The National Eagle was classified as a “commercial airplane” because it held two people. Their winning time was 19 hours and 42 minutes. Another contender racing from New York was John P. Wood in his Waco monoplane.
Lt. C.V. Haynes with his first place trophy for one of the many events that took place.
A group of 42 community men brought their resources together and purchased and equipped a Buhl Airster Biplane. Representing Spokane, pilot “Nick” Mamer and co-pilot Art Walker finished third to win a $2000 prize. Their plane was the Sun God and their time was 20 hours and 59 minutes. The winning time for the San Francisco-Spokane race was eight hours and 16 minutes.
Later in 1929 Nick Mamer flies his Buhl AirSedan, the “Sun God,” over what is now Felts Field.
A total of 41 planes completed the transcontinental and Pacific West Coast races. Some pilots were not as lucky, however. Eddie Sinson in one of his Detroit built Stinsons, along with “Duke” Schiller in a Royal Windsor failed the nonstop race when they landed in Montana after 29 hours in the air.
Each day brought huge crowds and excitement to the airport and city. Spokane was transformed during this time. KHQ Radio broadcasted detailed reports of the “greatest aviation event in history.” Many spectators flew in from distant places in commercial planes or in their own airplanes. Many arrived by train and bus. The city was packed and all the hotels were at capacity. In fact, Lindburgh stayed at the Davenport Hotel a week before the races began. Present day Curator, Jerry Turner of Spokane has Lindburgh’s room receipt and pictures from his pre-event visit. While Lindburgh did not have trouble finding a room at the time, 4000 others later would during the events. The derby’s association bureau found accommodations in private homes for those visitors.
Spectators at the event.
The Bozanta Tavern, which was located in Hayden, Idaho, stayed open late to help out with the overflow. A total of 99,199 admission tickets were sold and on the biggest day, 23,000 people were in attendance. All of this was a record for Spokane… and the country.
The news media covered the race and events.
With flocks of people coming into downtown, the Great Northern Railway used some of its new electric trains to transport people to the airfield for 25 cents a ride. Parking a car at the airfield cost 50 cents. Area schools closed at noon and downtown stores closed up at 1:00. There were numerous social events that entertained the dashing pilots and the military brass who came to Spokane with their flying machines. A young woman named Mrs. Vera McDonald Cunningham won a ticket sales contest and became “Queen of the Air,” the official hostess of the program who doled out the winning prizes. Miss Audrey Smithson, Miss Fletcher Appleton, and Miss Mary Hucking of Spokane became princesses.
Here Air Derby Queen, Miss Nixon and Nick Mamer have a photo opportunity on July 21, 1927.
The Air Derby included a ten-mile race consisting of military planes with a pylon turn located right in front of the grandstands. Army, Navy, Marine, and National Guard pilots strutted their stuff bringing shock and awe to the crowds. The fastest plane in this competition was a Curtis X-P6A flown by Lt. Eugene Batten. His speed was a fantastic 201 miles per hour. There were news reports that Jimmy Doolittle and his army pilots frightened downtown shoppers by diving their Curtis Hawks at “terrific speeds of 170 miles per hour and great noise.”
Crewman from the Zerolene Oil Company add fuel to Jimmy Doolittle’s airplane.
Meanwhile back at the airfield, other fabulous events were taking place across the days of the program. A “huge” 6-place Douglas transported military parachute jumpers who amazed the masses below with a race to the ground. Stunt planes twisted, twirled, stalled, dove, banked, and flew upside-down to everyone’s astonishment. There was sky writing and formation flying as well. At night, illuminated stunt planes and lit-up parachute jumpers flashed through the sky. Aerial fireworks also highlighted the evening activities. Two bombing runs performed by pilots Capt. Harold Neely and Lt. Jack Allenburg of the local National Guard took out a fictitious village. Spokane youth had the opportunity to partake in a model airplane competition as well.
On that Wednesday, a parade starting at Monroe and Riverside honored pilots Mamer, Walker, and their flight crew, along with officers of the derby and National Guard. Mamer’s flight crew included R.M. Wilson and Al Coppulla and the crowds cheered the entire bunch as they motored in open cars parade-style.
Promoting the concept of “Airmail” this booth was open for business.
On the days of September 21st through the 25th, 1927, all eyes were on the Spokane skies. The National Air Races put Spokane on the cerebral maps of Americans across the country. This was a time of dreams, competition, and skyward innovations-marked by daring people and great winged machines. What was once known as the Spokane Air Port, is now Felts Field named after John Buell Felts. Much has changed around the airfield over the last 83 years. Pavement has taken the place of green turf and several businesses abound. There is wonderful history here along with a reminiscent eatery. Back in the 1930s, the lunch counter at the airport was called the Zoom Inn-now it’s the Skyway Cafe. Other businesses and organizations like Western Aviation, Med Star, Moody Aviation, Valleyford Metal Crafters, and Spokane Turbine have a presence there now. On a historical note, I would encourage readers to drive up Fancher Road and get an enjoyable bite at the cafe. With a little imagination, visitors can still feel the whirlwind of energy that made history here in 1927.