Aviator Fred J. Wiseman makes the first powered flight in Snohomish County in Snohomish on May 7, 1911.

  • By David Dilgard
  • Posted 2/13/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8491
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On Sunday, May 7, 1911, Fred J. Wiseman (1876-1961) makes the first powered flight in Snohomish County, near the town of Snohomish.  Due to severe wet weather the preceding day, Wiseman's craft, a Curtiss-Wright-Farman biplane, is able to achieve only about 60 feet altitude before the its pilot makes a rough landing at the nearby Bateman farm.  The entire flight lasts for less than a minute in duration.

An Aviation Pioneer

Proclaimed at the time as a remarkable, perhaps unique event for a Northwest community the size of Snohomish, the first airplane flight in Snohomish County history occurred on the afternoon of Sunday, May 7, 1911, just north of the present Harvey Airfield. 

At the controls was Fred J. Wiseman, a former racecar driver from California. He had been flying only a year but had some noteworthy accomplishments to his credit. In May 1910 he piloted the first airplane built in California. In January 1911 he placed second in an air race at Selfridge Field in San Francisco, competing against professional Curtiss pilots H. A. Robinson and Lincoln Beachey. At the same meet he ran up the longest sustained flight (more than six minutes) and spent a total of 49 minutes 43 seconds in the air, the greatest accumulated air time of the entire contest. The following month, flying the same aircraft he brought to Snohomish, Wiseman carried mail between Petaluma and Santa Rosa, a feat later recognized as the first airmail flight in U.S. history.  

The World's Fastest

Wiseman's airplane was a hybrid that combined features of the pusher/canard type biplanes built and flown by the Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss and French aviator Henri Farman. With a wingspan of 33 feet and a length of about 38 feet, it had about 400 square feet of wing surface. Power was provided by an 80 hp Hall-Scott overhead-valve V-8 which drove an 8-foot pusher prop at 1,200 to 1,500 rpm. The airplane was reportedly capable of 70 m.p.h. and Wiseman himself proclaimed it to be "the fastest machine in the world." 

Charles L. Young, Wiseman's advance man, was in Snohomish on the first of May to meet with Everett Chamber of Commerce secretary H. W. Patton and Giles Cook, president of the Snohomish Chamber. Under discussion was a plan for demonstration flights from Snohomish to Everett to take place during the upcoming weekend. While no suitable space for landings or takeoffs was found at Everett, the baseball grounds on the Harvey homestead across the river from Snohomish appeared to be workable.  

The baseball park stood between the river and the railroad tracks, south of the Avenue D Bridge and west of what is now Airport Road. The Great Northern Depot was close at hand to the south, facilitating delivery of the crated aircraft. The ball field provided an enclosed area where admission could be charged to get a close view of the aircraft and witness the takeoff. The west wall of the ballpark would be removed to allow Wiseman to lift off in that direction. 

The airplane was delivered to Snohomish on Thursday, May 4. Wiseman himself reached Everett the same day, having arrived in Seattle the night before aboard the Southern Pacific's Shasta Limited from California. The pilot was described by a local reporter as "a quiet, unassuming, almost reticent man with a wind-reddened face and serious brown eyes and a flashing smile ..." He was accompanied by Don Prentiss, a key figure in the construction of the airplane. Prentiss proved to be a more articulate spokesman for the event, as well as an enthusiastic advocate of aviation and its future.  

Rain Check

On Friday afternoon, as Wiseman and his crew assembled the aircraft and prepared for flight, wet weather threatened the proceedings. Heavy rainfall on Saturday morning resulted in cancellation of the free exhibition flight scheduled for 3 o'clock  that afternoon. Prentiss explained that there had been no building available large enough to shelter the airplane and he feared that the glue holding the machine together might have softened. It was also noted that the fabric was saturated and the airplane was probably too heavy to fly until it had dried out somewhat.  

Without the Saturday demonstration to spur ticket sales, Wiseman and company faced serious financial disappointment. As the hour for the Sunday flight approached only 416 people had paid the $1 admission to enter the ball park, where the fragile-looking biplane was resting at home plate. An estimated 4,000 souls crowded various vantage points in the immediate vicinity to watch the show for free. Although the weather was tolerable, the ground was still saturated and to make matters worse, the engine was running badly. It is likely that magneto problems, which were exacerbated by wet weather and had plagued earlier Wiseman flights, were a factor. But Wiseman billed himself as the flyer with the money-back guarantee and the disgruntled pilot climbed aboard and taxied across the field. 

The Historic Flight

After several attempts, Wiseman finally lifted off and headed westward, achieving an altitude of about 60 feet before the engine quit and he was forced to make a very rough landing on the Bateman farm near the present Highway 9. The entire flight took less than a minute and covered less than half a mile. 

The airplane came to rest face down in the mire with collapsed front elevators and the tail skewed skyward at an odd angle. The damage included a broken propeller blade and some snapped struts, but Wiseman was able to walk away, muddy but without serious injury. Despite the efforts of Wiseman and his ground crew, some of the crowd reportedly carried chunks of the airplane away as souvenirs. 

Notwithstanding the physical, financial, and mechanical ill effects of the Snohomish event, Wiseman and crew headed south to the state capital. On May 18, several successful flights were made from a landfill on the Olympia waterfront. The pilot even took a movie cameraman aloft and the resulting footage, almost certainly the earliest aerial cinematography in Puget Sound history, was later shown at a local movie theater.   

Moving On

Late in 1911, Wiseman decided to give up aviation and the airplane was sold to another California aviator named Weldon B. Cooke early in 1912. It was put on display at the Oakland Airport in the early 1930s. In May 1947 the Smithsonian Institution officially recognized Wiseman's  1911 trip between Petaluma and Santa Rosa as the first airmail flight. In May 1948 the airplane was acquired by the Smithsonian. Now known as the "Wiseman-Cooke" aircraft, the machine was restored by the National Air and Space Museum 1983-1985. Today it is proudly displayed in the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. 

Wiseman eventually became an executive for Standard Oil. He explained, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, that he didn't figure there was any future in aviation. He remained a favorite son of his old hometown, Santa Rosa, especially after his official recognition for the airmail feat. 

He died in Oakland, California on October 4th, 1961, a month before his 86th  birthday. Quoted late in life, he confessed that "We thought all you had to do was build a kite and put a motor on it ... but we found it was more complicated than that" ("Early Birds of Aviation CHIRP"). 

Sources: “Airships to be Seen in Snohomish,” Everett Daily Herald, May 1, 1911, p. 1; “Bird Man Will Fly to Everett”, Everett Morning Tribune, May 2, 1911, p. 1; “Aviator Who Will Fly from Snohomish to Everett and Give a Number of Exhibition Flights at Snohomish,”  Everett Daily Herald, May 4, 1911, p. 1;  “Bird Man to Fly at Snohomish,” Monroe Monitor-Transcript, May 5, 1911, p. 1; “Will Make Long Flight on Schedule,” Everett Daily Herald, p. 4; “Wiseman Will Fly Today in his Curtiss Machine from Snohomish to Everett and Return and Will Circle Over the City of Smokestacks,” Everett Morning Tribune, May 6, 1911, p. 1; “No Flight Today; Flies Tomorrow,” Everett Daily Herald, May 6, 1911, p. 4; “Why the Aviator Did Not Make Flight to Everett Yesterday,” Everett Morning Tribune, May 7, 1911, p. 7; “Engine Works Badly; Flight Ends in Field,” Everett Daily Herald, May 8, 1911, p. 4; “Bird-Man Flies Over Gazing Throng,” Snohomish County Tribune, May 12, 1911, p. 1; “Snohomish Drew Big Crowd Sunday,” Monroe Monitor-Transcript, May 12, 1911, p. 5; Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum website accessed in 2007 (http://www.nasm.si.edu/search/search_result.cfm); "Early Birds of Aviation CHIRP," No. 67 (November, 1961), reprinted on Early Birds of Aviation Inc., website (http://www.earlyaviators.com/ewiseman.htm).

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