Wednesday, August 13, 2014

First Aeroplane over Mount Whitney

Silas Christofferson tuning up his tractor biplane in Lone Pine before attempting to
break the American altitude record by flying over Mt. Whitney
Courtesy Virtual Transportation Museum (Eastern California Museum)

100 years ago, on June 25th 1914 Silas Christofferson landed his fragile wood and cloth flying machine to a cheering throng and flying hats;  Mount Whitney had been “conquered,” a term often used in headlines representing turn-of-the-century hubris.  That said the achievement was remarkable since 11 years earlier the Wright Brothers had just lifted off the flat ground at Kitty Hawk.  In reality, both man and machine were severely tested, and pushed the limits of what heavier-than-air craft could do at the time.

Born in 1890, a teenage Silas displayed his genius for invention and mechanical design. By 1913 he started a flying school and soon began building aircraft.  Feeling his duty to promote, through exhibitions, the viability of this new technology, he  flew off roof of the 10 story Multnomah Hotel in Portland, Oregon; Silas was quoted as saying, “This is an age of ‘do it first’. Be original; don’t copy.  When a feat has been once performed the people tire of it and expect the next performer to give something entirely new.”  By 1914 his company built a flying boat and offered regular service in San Francisco.  He was only 24 years old.

This was just the man a local “club” was looking for.  The “club” needed him, and easily convinced him to sign a contract to be the star attraction of Eastern Sierra Aviation Days and make an unprecedented attempt to fly over the highest peak in the continental US.   Silas would be paid $1,000 for an attempt, $2,000 should he succeed.  Silas couldn’t resist and got to work on his latest creation.

The aircraft was called “The Whitney Plane”, created specifically for this attempt.  The design was state of the art with construction methods unmatched at the time. The plans were sent to Curtis Aircraft for the plane’s assembly at a cost of $7,000.  Oddly, his design bore an uncanny resemblance to the future classic “Curtiss Jennie”.  After completion, the aeroplane was disassembled and transported to Bishop. 
On the weekend of June 20th, after reassembly and meticulous testing, Silas began his exhibition flights at the Bishop Driving Field to kick off Aviation Days.  It was a weekend of celebration with dances, bands, races and baseball games. People came by auto, buggy, horse, and foot to join what soon would become the largest gathering of people the Owens Valley had ever seen.  

Monday June 22nd - the ultimate fulfillment of his contract was about to begin.  Festivities behind him, Silas spent the day in Bishop going over the aircrafts entire structure and fine tuning its engine.  Little did he know nature was to severely test him and his machine.  Silas would be the world’s first pilot to encounter the infamous Sierra Wave. The north-south Sierra Nevada crest thrusts nearly 2 miles in to the atmosphere and sometimes forces upper level westerly winds up and over Owens Valley creating exquisite lenticular cloud formations.  But its beauty hides malevolent winds that violently curl over the crest and crash down into the Valley. 

Silas and photographer E.C. Wallen took off from Bishop Early Tuesday morning for a leisurely flight to a local ranch south of Bishop for a quick breakfast and gas.  Pilot, passenger and plane filled up they resumed their 65 mile flight to Lone Pine, a small town near the foot of Mounty Whitney.
With Just 20 miles to go, all was fine. Silas leaned forward to check his instruments when a violent downdraft smashed into the aircraft throwing the wings to a vertical, nearly perpendicular angle to the ground.  He began plummeting hundreds of feet. The aviator forced his control stick as far as it would go but the machine failed to respond; he continued to fall from the sky.  Silas recalls, ”A man is as dead if he falls 500’or 5,000’, but being up gives him a chance to right himself if possible,”  and that proved to be the case as he eventually regained control.  Shaken, he landed in a field to check for damage and found nothing obvious, so he continued his flight and landed without incident in Lone Pine to get ready for the next day’s attempt at Whitney.

It was Wednesday morning and Silas woke up to howling winds.  Never-the-less he made the attempt.  The first launch was aborted...the second attempt, aborted.  Waiting until early evening, he made a third attempt. This time he was able to take off and headed north towards Independence ironically towards the same spot he was nearly slapped out of the sky by downslope winds. Again, he encountered strong winds and abandoned the attempt at Whitney until the next day.

Early Thursday morning June 25th, the winds had died down considerably, at least on the ground.  Silas dared attempt.  His wood and cloth aircraft took off and began climbing above Lone Pine.  His propeller and engine, giving it all they could, took him to 13,400 above sea level.  With just 1,000 feet more he would reach his target elevation before heading towards Whitney... but he once again encountered strong winds.  That plus a lack of performance from his custom high altitude propeller sent him back down to the landing field.   Silas replaced the propeller with the one he used in Bishop, and removed the motion picture camera because of weight.
His second attempt was around 8:30am. To avoid the turbulent winds that seemed to haunt the mountains near Independence, Silas headed south towards Owens Lake. From there he pivoted north, gaining altitude.  Before him stood Whitney and he headed directly towards it.  To record the historic event from the summit, the famous photographer B.C. Forbes took to the Whitney trail with his camera; unfortunately the camera was destroyed when his mule slipped and crushed his equipment.    Silas was feeling great anticipation at the thought of seeing the Great Central Valley of California, but all he saw was row after row of granite peaks as far as the eye could see.
As observers with telescopes and field glasses watched from the Owens Valley floor, and with the terrifying winds still fresh in his mind, Silas aimed his craft towards peak.  He was just 200 feet away and 800’ above the summit.  Still gaining altitude he circled the summit until he reached 1,200’ above the peak.   The craft nosed up a final few feet and there he was- aloft at 15,728 feet, a new American altitude record.  Silas had “conquered” Mount Whitney.

Silas wasted no time and made a bee-line to the valley floor, landing without incident.  Tears from the cold, wind, and emotions from the flight covered his cheeks.  Surrounding his aeroplane a cheering crowd grabbed and hoisted the aviator to their shoulders and delivered him to his wife.  With excitement and relief, Edna greeted him with hugs and a kiss.

The achievement was immediately announced to the world, but not by the hand of Silas.  It was W. Gillette Scott, executive secretary of the Inyo Good Road Club who sent a telegram to all Western Highway Associations and to A.L Westgard, vice-president of the National Highway Association in New York.:

    “Inyo Good Road Club this morning 9 a.m. achieved national prominence by sending Silas Christofferson in a tractor biplane over Mt. Whitney to a height of 15,728 feet, more than 1,226 above the summit, breaking all American records for altitude.”
The real reason for the achievement was apparent... this “club” was looking to secure road funds by impressing state officials of the need for a first class year-around overland automobile route through the Owens Valley.  The real trophy was the Transcontinental Lincoln Highway, the ultimate prize for development of roadside commerce.  It was all a publicity stunt...but that is another story.

Copyright © 2014 Theodore Grant Williams. All Rights Reserved

For images , visit the Eastern California Museum's Virtual Transportation Museum

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