Heroes Big and Small Make Up Tulsa Aviation History
By CHARLES CANTRELL
MAGNIFICENT MAN IN HIS FLYING MACHINE: Pictured is inventor Jimmie Jones’ own version of an “aeroplane??? in 1906. By a stroke of fate or maybe even in this case good luck the aeroplane was destroyed during a thunderstorm before Jones was able to muster the courage for a test flight.
Courtesy of Tulsa Air & Space Museum
Editor’s Note: This is the tenth article in a multi-part series about the growth of the aviation industry in greater Tulsa and throughout the region. The series explores the many unique contributions made by Tulsans to what has become a major aspect of the area economy. The editors of GTR Newspapers want to acknowledge and thank the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and the Tulsa Historic Society for research assistance and the use of many of the historic photos that accompany these articles.
Throughout this series we have focused on the extraordinary collection of famous early Tulsa leaders who made great contributions to the growth of the aviation industry in the state, the country and the world. We’ve examined the synergistic marriage between oil and aviation and the resulting flourish of accomplishments, innovations and successes that uniquely comprise a big slice of Tulsa history. And yet we haven’t told the whole story if we leave out a tribute to those whose names are not as familiar as Skelly, Getty or Phillips; but who none the less, through their initiative and determination, made significant contributions to Tulsa aviation.
Even as steel plows were busting up virgin tall grass prairie sod around Tulsa and the rest of the state soon after statehood, so too were young individual aviation enthusiasts breaking new ground in the quest to further human flight. Some have left a small print on Tulsa aviation history. Others we will never know. Even though they had risk taking in common with their better know aviation enthusiasts, for little known heroes it was not so much about wealth and power, but more to fulfill the dream of ultimate freedom and accomplishment characteristic of aviation pioneering.
A mere three years after the historic Wright Brother’s famous flight of 1906, a young Tulsan by the name of Jimmie Jones teamed up with a friend and fellow Tulsan, Bill Stringler, to design and build the first known airplane in the brand new state. It was a collaboratively designed monoplane constructed using a cantankerous engine, wood, linen, horse glue, screws, precious little understanding of avionics and, most likely, a whole lot of intuition. Out of necessity this would have been the formula used by many others at the same moment in aviation history scattered about the Midwest and elsewhere whose flying inspiration was rooted in an attitude of, “if them Wright boys can do it, so can I.” And even though the Jones/Stringler airplane was destroyed in a storm before its maiden flight, their effort, along with many fledgling attempts by countless others at early flight, launched a typically American legacy of innovative individuals pursuing their small niche in the grand story of Tulsa aviation.
Riding the wave of novelty, adventuresome barnstorming aviators came on the scene in the first two decades of the 20th century flying in aviation concept of the month aircraft and putting on daring exhibition flying shows to spellbound spectators in communities large and small. Their major accomplishment, other than survival, was to dispel once and for all the deep seated skepticism that humans were not meant to fly. All across the state aviators like Charles Willard, Art Smith, Leonard Bonney and Frank Champion flying in aircraft named Curtiss Pusher, Farmen biplane, Wright Model B and Bleroit monoplane became household names. What eventually followed from all these spectacles would be a transformation of public attitude about aviation as a viable means of transportation in a modern era, thus paving the way for the golden era of aviation to come between 1920 and 1940.
The two world wars of the first half of the 20th century marked periods of great advancements in aviation. World War I saw state-of-the-art American airplane models like the Curtiss Pusher and Bleroit monoplane give way to higher performing, European craft named Sopwith, Fokker and others. The end of World War I would release a bevy of able pilots who had flown these newer planes into the private sector. One such United States Army Air Corps flyer by the name of Duncan A. McIntyre would find his way to Tulsa, settle here and in large measure put the city on the aviation map.
McIntyre is considered by many to be the “Father of Tulsa Aviation.” It was through his concerted efforts that Tulsa hosted one of the nation’s leading airfields of the early 1920s, McIntyre Airport. It had what most airports of the day lacked, a lighted runway long enough to land the larger planes of the times. In time it grew to be the second largest and one of the best-known airports in the nation. Were it not for McIntyre Airport, Charles Lindbergh would not have been able or willing to land his Ford Reliability Air Tour in Tulsa. Until the opening of Tulsa Municipal Airport, the field served to keep the city in the loop of the rapidly growing aviation industry.
On Aug. 14, 1919, J. Burr Gibbons, president of Hofstra Manufacturing Co., along with Tulsa Mayor Charles Hubbard witnessed the take off of a biplane piloted by J. V. C. Gregory and owned by Curtiss-Southwest Airplane Company. Aboard the plane was a shipment of Hofstra Insect Killer on its way to Kansas City. When the plane reached its destination, it was greeted by local dignitaries and there followed a banquet honoring the occasion. The entire hubbub centered on the fact that the flight marked the first interstate freight shipment by air. Although no one could have foreseen the FedEx of today, Mayor Hubbard is on record to have said, “It is only a peek into the future of air travel…” From Kansas City came this message for Gibbons: “Congratulations, most enterprising piece of business I have heard of. It was a great stroke on your part and also establishes for your city the honor of having made the first interstate shipment of freight by air. All Kansas City marvels at unbeatable Tulsa.”
The list of lesser-known Oklahoma aviation contributors must include folks like Paul and Tom Braniff who began their Tulsa – Oklahoma City Airlines in 1929 flying a single engine, single wing Stinson Detroiter. The airline would later become Braniff Airlines and in the 1960s would put an end to “The Plain Plane.”
In 1932 two resourceful Oklahomans named James Herman Banning and Thomas Cox Allen forever established their place in history by completing the first transcontinental flight by black aviators. Dubbing themselves “hobo pilots,” the two made their way cross-country putting on fundraisers and soliciting donations as they went.
Hanging in Tulsa International Airport is a fitting memorial to a celebrated aviation hero of northeast Oklahoma. It is one of
many planes built by Billy Parker. Parker was a self taught pilot and builder of airplanes. Aside from his work with Frank Phillips and Phillips Petroleum developing products for the aviation business, he is also remembered for inventing the first variable pitch propeller, a major breakthrough for powered flight.
During the ‘20s and ‘30s anybody who was anybody nationally in aviation would come to or through Tulsa on their way to fame and often fortune. In Tulsa the likes of Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Wiley Post and Jimmy Doolittle would have their pictures taken with the likes of Art Goebel, Billy Parker, Duncan McIntyre and other home town flyers along with the always notable Phillips, Skelly, Getty and others with the financial resources to feed a hungry, youthful industry. Each in their own way, the famous and the not so famous in ways both large and small, paved the way for the modern era of aviation.