Sunday, August 10, 2014

A century ago, a western Pennsylvania man changed aviation: DeLloyd Thompson’s 1914 flight gained the Washington County man great but fleeting fame

As first lady Ellen Axson Wilson’s life was slipping away inside the White House Aug. 6, 1914, due to the ravaging effects of kidney disease, DeLloyd Thompson was more than 1,000 miles away, donning a sheepskin suit in Overland Park, Kan.

Cold-weather apparel of that variety would, in most circumstances, have been unbearable and unnecessary on a typical summer’s day in the community just outside Kansas City. But Thompson wouldn’t long be on the ground and bearing the brunt of the August sun.

After strapping a barometric altimeter to his thigh and firing up the engines of his Day-Gyro plane, a contraption that most of us would now look upon as being as primitive as a caveman’s club, Thompson maneuvered it into the sky.

The 26 year-old who had the nickname “Dutch” kept climbing. And climbing. And climbing. Eventually Thompson climbed higher than any human being had ever climbed before, reaching an estimated 15,256 feet. The air was cool at that height, necessitating the suit, and Thompson’s plane ran out of fuel. But the heart rate of the daredevil pilot who hailed from Buffalo Township probably didn’t budge – instead, he was able to put his plane into a spiral glide and guide it safely back to terra firma.

Since most of today’s passenger jets cruise at about 30,000 feet, a mere 15,000 feet is now painfully routine, something that would barely rouse a traveler from his iPad or laptop. Most turboprop planes, on average, cruise in the vicinity of 15,000 feet. But, a century ago, just a little more than 10 years after Orville and Wilbur Wright got their experimental aircraft off the ground in Kill Devil Hills, N.C., floating in the clouds at 15,000 feet was truly a bold venture into a place where no man had ever gone before.

“He was sort of a man before his time,” said Margaret Thompson, his daughter-in-law. “He was sort of an adventurous loner.”

Though Thompson’s aviation exploits ended a little less than a decade later and he died in obscurity in Washington in 1949 after failed bids to launch his own brand of aircraft and even become the mayor of Washington, his status as an aviation groundbreaker remains firmly intact. Within two years of his record-shattering flight, Thompson went on to other feats, such as launching pyrotechnics from a plane cruising over Washington, D.C., and breaking a speed record. His achievements did, at least for a while, result in plaques bearing his name and outlining his achievements being placed at Washington County Airport, and its field bearing his name.

After a lengthy absence because of vandalism, those plaques were recently restored to Washington County Airport, according to Scott Gray, the executive director of Washington County Airport. They had previously been in the hands of the Washington County Historical Society.

Perhaps part of the reason Thompson’s fame was so fleeting is that he did not hold the altitude record for long. The 1910s and 1920s were a period when pilots of rudimentary aircraft were intent on dazzling audiences, mostly for their own enrichment, and desperately trying to one-up each other and grab their own slice of glory. Within just five years, French pilot Jean Casale (whose full name was Jean Pie Hyacinthe Jerome Casale, Marquis de Montferato) reached 31,000 feet, double the height Thompson attained. In 1963, in fact, the altitude record was twice broken by Joe Walker, another Washington County native, who took experimental rockets 62 miles overhead, just to the borderline of Earth’s atmosphere and space.

The Washington & Jefferson College graduate was killed June 8, 1966, at age 45 when his plane crashed into another plane in the midst of a photo session they were undertaking for General Electric. An elementary school in South Franklin Township bears his name, as does a middle school in Quartz Hill, Calif.

How high have we traveled in the 100 years since Thompson’s derring-do? The current record is held by American Brian Binnie, who took an experimental aircraft 69 miles into the sky in 2004 – 23 times higher than Thompson traveled.

Considering, however, that Thompson’s most famous flight happened just six years after the Wright brothers’ endeavors were even publicized, reaching 15,000 feet in 1914 was “pretty good,” according to Tom Crouch, the senior curator for aeronautics at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Once the world was let in on the secret of flight, audiences could not get enough of Thompson and other envelope-pushing “exhibition” pilots.

“People loved that kind of thing,” Crouch continued. “If you wanted to fly for a living in those days and you wanted to make much money, the only thing you could do is be an exhibition pilot.”

Thriving in a profession that demanded bravado in abundance, Thompson also possessed important insights on how flying machines could be used for purposes other than generating oohs and aahs for earthbound audiences. In his 1916 “bombing” of Washington, D.C., when he set off pyrotechnics from his plane, dramatically emphasized that objects that were infinitely more lethal could be unleashed from planes – a message that carried special resonance since it was being delivered at the same time World War I was rewriting the rules of warfare across the ocean in Europe.

“He was one of the first people who realized that planes were going to be significant in wars,” said Clay Kilgore, executive director of the Washington County Historical Society. “He said the East Coast was at risk … He was one of the first to show that (airplanes) could be a danger, and people didn’t want to listen to him. At a time when people didn’t see the value of aeronautics, he was pushing that.”

Once his days of aeronautical eminence were over, Thompson had a trajectory similar to that of some contemporary professional athletes. He struggled to find an outlet where he could channel his considerable energies and, of course, make a living. He was the proprietor of a coal mine and tried his hand as a construction contractor. His company was involved in the construction of Sunset Beach in his native Buffalo Township in the latter half of the 1920s. But even before the Depression arrived, Thompson’s coffers were exhausted.

As the Depression began to lift in 1937, he tried to market a two-seat airplane called the DeLloydCabinaire, but the venture foundered, as did a bid to become Washington’s mayor two years after that. He was severely injured in an auto accident on Route 40 in 1945, and, a little less than four years later, died in his bed of apparent heart failure at age 61.

Kilgore believes that Thompson’s outsized life is one that deserves to be more widely known.

“I think he is somebody who has been forgotten,” Kilgore said. “He is somebody who was important in Washington County.”

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