'Bird Boy' Art Smith made Fort Wayne look up

The plane truth
The plane truth
A group of aviation history buffs built a replica of Art Smith's earliest homemade biplanes in the 1970s. Now the fully workable plane hangs in the terminal at Fort Wayne International Airport.
By Kerry Hubartt of The News-Sentinel

They called him Fort Wayne's "Bird Boy."

It was Jan. 17, 1911, when 20-year-old Art Smith made his first attempt at flying his homemade airplane in the old Driving Park, a fairgrounds and horse racing track at what is now Forest Park Boulevard. There was snow on the ground when he taxied on two bicycle wheels up to 50 mph, then pulled back on the stick to rise from the ground and become Fort Wayne's first aviator.

But that first flight attempt ended abruptly when his oversensitive controls sent the machine plunging 40 feet to the ground in the young pilot's first of many brushes with death.

A year earlier, Smith had been inspired by the belated acclaim of the Wright brothers' historic 1903 flight in North Carolina and the possibilities of flying above the clouds in a heavier-than-air machine. Heconvinced his parents, James and Ida Smith, of his dedication to the dream of flying. He told them of his plans to build and fly his own airplane.

The Smiths were of modest means, though, and Smith earned only $5 a week as an apprentice in the office of local architect Charles Weatherhogg. The nearly $1,800 needed to buy the materials and the engine necessary to construct the flying machine seemed as far out of reach as the clouds. But Smith's parents mortgaged their home at 323 E. Berry St. to give their only child his spot in history.

Smith began building his airplane early in 1910. He even traveled to Indianapolis in June to see one of the first exhibitions of the Wright brothers' traveling team of flyers demonstrating their Wright biplanes to a huge crowd. Like the Wright machines, Smith's was a fragile biplane held together with a network of wooden spars and crisscrossing piano wire. His was powered by a 40 horsepower engine behind the pilot's seat that would spin a propeller to push the machine.

Later that fall the local papers began touting Fort Wayne's own aviation meet -- its first. (FORT WAYNE'S FIRST BIRD-MAN EXHIBITION, read one local headline.) It featured the Glenn Curtiss team of aviators, which was becoming as famous as the Wright team. The two-day meet was held Oct. 22-23, and Smith was there to watch and learn.

It took until January 1911 for Smith to complete his first airplane. It was a biplane, patterned after Curtiss' famous "June Bug" pusher plane. (Smith later called his own airplane "Honey Bug.") After that disappointing first flight attempt and a period of recuperation from a badly wrenched back, Smith and his buddy Al Wertman and mechanic Winfred Peters set to work to repair the broken airplane.

They put it back together in a tent at the circus grounds between Washington Boulevard and Maumee Avenue, which is now Memorial Park. It was October before the plane was ready to fly. Smith "trimmed the daisies" regularly to practice getting a feel for the controls, never taking it more than a few feet off the ground.

He planned to make a practice flight from the circus grounds to New Haven and back to demonstrate his airplane for all to see. On Tuesday, Oct. 10, 1911, he took to the air with his mascot kitten, 'Punk,' in a cage on the wing. Although he had to make a forced landing in a farmer's field to repair a broken radiator connection, he completed the six-mile return trip to Fort Wayne, touching down before an exuberant crowd.

His first publicized exhibition was Saturday, Oct. 21 at the Driving Park. Smith tacked up posters and sold tickets all over the area. Despite 25 mph winds and cold temperatures, Smith thrilled a crowd the next day's Journal-Gazette reported as 300. The newspaper called the exhibition "the first public flight made by a Fort Wayne boy aviator in a Fort Wayne-built aeroplane."

Smith was billed to fly again Sunday, but the weather was so bad the exhibition had to be canceled. He rescheduled for the following Sunday, Oct. 30. And although the weather was still poor, Smith flew before a crowd of 2,500. According to the newspapers, the city's streetcar system couldn't handle everyone who wanted to get out to the east side of town to watch.

Not long afterward, Smith received an offer from Mills Aviators of Chicago, another of the several exhibition teams that had been touring the country in 1910 and 1911. His first exhibition was to be held in Bay City, Texas.

Meanwhile, Smith had been courting his childhood sweetheart, Aimee Cour. But he had to contend with the disapproval of Cour's father, who liked Smith but was against his daughter's involvement with an aviator. He considered it an unwise and unstable avocation. Still, Smith and Cour became engaged before he left for his first trip as a true "birdman" barnstorming the Midwest.

He crated up his airplane and traveled by train to places such as Sterling, Ill., Beresford, S.D., Muncie, Elkhart and on and on through the end of 1911 and into the summer of 1912. Time and time again he crashed his airplane and had to have it carted back to the Mills factory in Chicago to put it back together. Time and again he struggled to make ends meet until finally he hit it big in Deadwood, S.D. He was such a hit there that he earned his biggest purse ever, $1,250. And before he left, the town gave him a send-off that included a medal made from gold from one of the mines in the Black Hills.

In October 1912, after one last exhibition before a crowd of enthusiastic Fort Wayne fans, Smith asked Cour to elope. They flew together in Smith's plane toward Hillsdale, Mich., about 70 miles from Fort Wayne.

As he leaned against the controls to swing the machine in the direction of a smooth landing field near Hillsdale, he discovered his ailerons would not respond.

"It was the most terrible moment I ever spent in an aeroplane," Smith stated in a brief autobiography written by Rose Wilder Lee, daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder of "Little House on the Prairie" fame.

Smith brought the machine down in a farmer's field. The wheels sank into the soft sand, and the airplane flipped over, throwing both pilot and passenger, who later woke up in a Hillsdale hotel that served as a makeshift hospital. When Smith came to, he asked for a preacher right away, and they were married with Smith lying on the bed beside Cour. Newspapers all over played up the story as the first elopement by airplane.

The next flying season, Smith toured the country with his wife at his side. By 1914 he had built a special new plane that could do "fancy flying," such as looping the loop. The New Orleans Times Picayune reported on Feb. 25, 1915, that aviation history had been made in New Orleans the night before when Smith, "the youthful birdman who has given several flights here during the past week accomplished a feat heretofore dreamed of by aviators but never before executed, that of flying at night in an illuminated airplane and looping the loop at that."

Smith's name became known around the country. In 1915 he was contacted by the organizers of the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco to replace renowned flyer Lincoln Beachey, who had been killed when his plane crashed into San Francisco Bay.

Smith's first flight for the Exposition was in April 1915, with what he thought were Roman candles attached to the wings of his plane. He went up at night, painting wide brush strokes of fireworks in the black California sky over the Pacific Ocean. Little did the thousands watching from the ground know that the fireworks Smith had hastily purchased were the wrong kind and had ignited the canvas wings of his airplane as well as his coat. He quickly descended, put out the fire and stored away his scorched machine before the eager San Francisco press could discover his near disaster.

It was his Exposition appearances in San Francisco that built Smith's fame. Suddenly money was no longer an object. He became a darling of the press and popular everywhere he went. He met Teddy Roosevelt, Charlie Chaplin and Buffalo Bill Cody, Smith's boyhood hero since his Wild West show first came to Fort Wayne years before.

The San Francisco sojourn wasn't all positive. Smith filed for divorce from his wife in early 1916, just before he and his mother, Ida, began an exhibition tour of Japan in 1916. Smith even flew for the emperor on one occasion. But the trip was cut short when Smith suffered a badly broken leg. His divorce became final in early 1917. Smith completed the contract for his Japan tour in 1917, continuing to delight huge crowds in cities all over the island with his flights.

When the United States entered World War I, the 5-foot-6 Smith was unable to join the military effort as an airman due to injuries suffered from his many crashes. But he was put to work as a flight trainer.

He became a test pilot at McCook Air Field in Dayton, Ohio, in 1920. In 1922, he met a young woman named Garnett Straits after a forced landing in her father's field near Flatrock, Mich. They were later engaged to be married.

In 1923 Smith joined the fledgling airmail service, moving with his parents to Cleveland. He became one of the first airmail pilots to fly at night. And it was during one of those flights from Chicago to Cleveland on Feb. 12, 1926, that he crashed into trees near Montpelier, Ohio, not far from Fort Wayne. He was pinned in the burning wreckage and died. It was the same night as Straits' wedding shower.

Smith's body was returned to Fort Wayne for the funeral. People lined the streets as the funeral procession made its way to Lindenwood Cemetery, where Smith was buried after ceremonies attended by the mayor and chief of police, among other dignitaries. A squadron of Army pilots from McCook Field in Dayton flew overhead and dropped flowers over the cemetery.

For the next two years Fort Wayne individuals and groups donated money toward a memorial for Smith, which was unveiled in August 1928. A squadron of Army fliers dropped flowers on the dedication ceremonies. The 50-foot monument was erected and stands today in Memorial Park, where Smith made several of his first flights in 1911.

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