Monday, September 4, 2017

On This Date in Minnesota History: September 4

*September 4, 1911 – In the face of a rainstorm and other conditions so adverse as to make the attempt appear foolhardy, Howard Gill, the Wright aviator, soared aloft in his aeroplane at the Minnesota State fair grounds today and skillfully glided down to safety from a hazardous height in midair when his motor stopped, after he had been up almost a quarter of an hour. Gill gave his exhibits in the same plane that stopped powerless in the air several weeks ago at the Chicago meet with another aviator at the wheel.

Howard Gill1

The plane came here direct from Chicago without the engine being overhauled. Gill came from Boston where he won prizes last week in another plane. He found the cylinders of the plane working badly today with pieces of carbon crust in them.

In the crank case was a type of oil that should not have been used. Gill was not aware of the condition of the plane until it stood on the track in front of the grandstand. He removed the oil with his handkerchief. Despite all these drawbacks, any one of which might have meant death, Gill continued with the flight with an unconcern that amazed spectators.

With his engine working poorly at its best, and sprinkles of rain falling as he made ready and part of the time he was in the air, Gill gave an exhibition of nerve and daring that brought cheers from thousands.

Gill added another name to the list of aeroplanes. The hydro-plane, built to rise from water, was outdone with the aero-mud-plane, the name Gill’s plane received after the flight. Gill made his flight from a start, thick and stringy with three inches of black Minnesota soil. His final stop was made in the same mud, and mud was splashed over every part of the plane and himself.

Gill piloting a hydroplane

Early in the afternoon hundreds were gathered round the big tent on machinery hill, where the two Wright planes were housed, when the two navigators reached the fair grounds. The aviators had visited the grounds early in the morning and looked over the field and track but were dubious whether a flight could be made any time that day. The flights scheduled to take place in the morning were abandoned and it was not until 3 p.m. that the two birdmen decided to attempt one.

Mud half a foot deep surrounded the tent and covered a big hill down which the planes had to be dragged before being taken to the field from which it was planned to make the flights. A hard wind blew from the east, but Gill laughed and said he’d try to make the flight. Spectators, watching the moving of the plane out of the tent, scoffed. The plane, number 37 of the Wright planes, was dragged down the hill and onto the track, three inches deep in mud. The shoes of the attendants, William Burnes and Henry Hoefle, sank deep into the stringy mess.

When the plane had been taken in front of the grandstand, the engine, started to make the skidding trip around the track, died. Examination showed it was in bad condition and Coffyn declared the flight should not be made with it in that shape. Gil laughed again. Rain was pouring steadily while Gill was fixing the engine. The mud of the track made it difficult to ascend.

At 4:51 p.m. Gill made his start. Into the teeth of a wind that was turning umbrellas inside out and flying hats to all corners, Gill started down the track, east, to get his plane into the air. A run of 100 feet lifted the plane from the ground. Mud fell from the tires but the plane soared steadily into the air. Up, up, he went and 2,000 people gathered on machinery hill huddled under umbrellas and in the grandstand, cheered him on.

At the east end of the track, Gill veered to the left and turned with his back to the wind. Swifter than an arrow he shot westward and the attempt had become a real flight. He circled the track seven times, giving one spiral dip that brought a gasp to everyone. When he had been in the air 11 minutes and two seconds, the engine gave a wheeze. He was at the west end of the track over the grassy paddock.

His engine stopped. Coffyn, his brother aviator, standing in the mud on the track in front of the grandstand gave a gasp. “The engine’s dead!” he yelled. Gill apparently was undisturbed by the accident. Down he coasted alighting on a grassy knoll outside the track.

The crowd cheered and cheered and thought that it was part of the show, that he had purposely killed his engine.

In five minutes they were given a surprise that took them off their feet. Gill had turned his plane upward from the tall grass on the knoll. He made two circles of the track, then alighted before the grandstand where applause and cheers of the crowd told him his efforts had been appreciated. He was in the air a few seconds more than 13 minutes.

Howard Gill3

To Gill his performance meant nothing. He laughed about the weather and said he would do some real flying tomorrow. “We just made a flight to show the people we could, even in mud and rain like that,” he said after alighting. “We’ll do some real stunts tomorrow.”

The Minneapolis Morning Tribune; “Aviator Gill Defies Storm, Wind and Rain. State Fair Crowds Amazed by Perilous Feats of Air Navigator. Dead Engine Has No More Serious Result Than to Stop Flight. Real Flying Stunts Promised for Today by Aeroplane Sailors.”; Sept. 5, 1911; p. 8.

Close to one year later, on Sept. 14, 1912, Howard Gill was killed during another air show, this one in Chicago. He was fatally hurt on the Cicero aviation field when fellow aviator George Mestach’s monoplane collided with his biplane. They were participating in a race seventy-five feet in the air; the two men and their planes fell to the earth in the dark. Mestach was injured, but recovered. Much of the blame for the collision was put on the darkness at the time of the race.4

Announcement of Gill’s Death5


2The Philadelphia Inquirer; Philadelphia, Penn.; Dec. 24, 1911; p. 4.



5The St. Louis Star and Times; St. Louis, Mo.; Sept. 15, 1912; p. 1.


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