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Oregon Trails: Eugene Ely

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MEDFORD, Ore. — Every year, more than 600,000 people fly in and out of the Medford Airport. But a hundred years ago, only one man had flown an airplane over Medford, and with that flight, began a short but legendary career in the air.

In front of the airport is a pair of whimsical model airplanes symbolic of the early days when flying helped put Medford on the transportation map. One is a biplane reminiscent of the mail planes that flew in and out of the Valley and formed the basis for what became United Airlines.

The other is a more primitive aeroplane, similar to the pushed aircraft that made it’s first flight in Medford in 1910, then an encore performance a year later, in 1911. The man who brought the air age to Southern Oregon was an Iowa native, by way of Portland, Eugene Burton Ely.

As a self-taught rookie pilot, Ely went on an exhibition tour with a four cylinder Curtiss Pusher airplane. He first made an attempt at Sutherlin, and had trouble getting off the ground, so he packed up the plane and came to Medford to try again.

“He was just travelling an exhibition circuit,” explains Bill Miller. “Wherever you could find somebody who’d never seen an airplane before, they would pay money to see it.”

But Ely’s first try in Medford wasn’t much better than the one in Sutherlin. He flew a little ways, but most who came to see were certainly underwhelmed, even if it was their first time they had seen an aeroplane.

“I think he was inexperienced, first of all,” Bill says. “The engine was only 35 horsepower. He was still learning the game and, and any kind of wind. Not just for gene Ely, but any kind of wind on those planes early on especially in 1910 could cause problems for them.”

But his biggest success came later in November when he flew a Curtiss model “d” bi-plane from a platform built on the deck of the Cruiser Birmingham, at Hampton Roads, Virginia. Then, two months later, he bettered that in San Francisco when he landed on a similar platform built on the U.S.S. Pennsylvania, ate lunch, then took off and landed on shore again.

He ditched the regulation navy life vest for several bicycle inner tubes wrapped around his body, in case he had to ditch in San Francisco Bay. He also wore a leather football helmet for protection. That was in January, 1911. By this time Ely had made quite a name for himself, and was one of a select number of aeronauts, as they called themselves, to wow small town crowds all across the country by flying their sputtering birds of linen, wood and bamboo across the sky.

“If you go to the historical society, they’ll show you a picture of him standing by the plane and he’s got a lot of weight on him,” Bill says. “And then if you look later on, it’s a completely different guy! He’s almost a scarecrow and he said that they flying was taking it out of him. Well, most of their year and a half together, he and his wife, was spent on trains, going to a city. Getting on an aeroplane, making flights. Getting on a train.”

That’s how he travelled from city to city, not by airplane, “What they would do was, after an exhibition was over, the mechanics would disassemble, pack them away in crates, put it on a railroad car that was destined for the next exhibition.”

“When those crates got to the next exhibition, mechanics were there and they’d put it all back together so they had to take it apart, put it together.”

Finally, in June of 1911, Ely came back to Medford. By now he was called the “Birdman” for his world famous exploits flying on and off a ship. At first he was supposed to land at a ball park where McLoughlin Middle School is now.

This didn’t happen though as Bill explains, “But the mechanics got there and he got there and looked around and said, ‘I can’t fly from this place!’”

“So they moved him down to South Medford, which at that time, was at the end of Oakdale Avenue the Oakdale neighborhood at that time was an open field, and so he tried to fly there both times.”

The crowd was apparently pleased and Ely success fly winged his way over Medford but the wear and tear of the schedule he was keeping was taking a toll. He promised his wife that when 1911 was over, he would quit flying.

“From what he would say, most of the aviators of the time just assumed that this was so dangerous that they would die. Now of course, people say that. They don’t believe it’s ever going to happen but he was worried.”

And then it happened. After removing the front ailerons from his plane to get more speed, Ely plowed into the ground while performing a spiral stunt at the Georgia State Fairgrounds. That was October 19th, 1911. Just a few months after his Medford performance, and a day before his 25th birthday. He died of his injuries soon after.

Although Eugene Ely’s flying career was relatively short, barely 2 years, he made a mark on aviation history that also has a chapter written right here in Southern Oregon.