Saturday, November 01, 2014

Clarence "Cap" Cornish: Fort Wayne man a key figure in aviation history

This photo shows the late Oscar Foellinger, then owner and publisher of The News-Sentinel, standing next to the Yankee Clipper, the plane he owned and Clarence "Cap" Cornish flew for him. (Courtesy photo)

His name hasn't been attached, in honor, to that of any local airport. But Clarence "Cap" Cornish did as much or more than others to promote flying in the Fort Wayne area.

His daughter, Ruth Ann Ingraham of Indianapolis, will share Cornish's story during a George R. Mather Lecture Series presentation at 2 p.m. Sunday at The History Center. Admission is free.

Ingraham recently published a book about her father, "'Cap' Cornish, Indiana Pilot: Navigating the Century of Flight."

"I thought this story needs to be told, and no one else is going to do it," Ingraham, 76, said during a telephone interview from her home. She always felt, as did her father, that he made a difference in aviation in Indiana.

Born in Canada, Cornish grew up in Fort Wayne and started his flying career at age 19 while training to be a U.S. military pilot during World War I. However, the war ended in 1918 before he had a chance to go overseas for combat duty.

Cornish returned to Fort Wayne, where he became a strong advocate for a city airport and local airmail postal service, Ingraham says in her book. He also took to the skies to perform acrobatics in air shows, compete in air races and to lead air tours and cruises, the latter of which helped promote air travel.

During this time, he also flew commercial aircraft, including serving as the pilot for the Yankee Clipper, the airplane owned by the Foellinger family, which operated The News-Sentinel newspaper.

Flying this plane "had to be the high point of his life," Ingraham said. Cornish not only took newspaper owner and publisher Oscar Foellinger to Washington to meet with President Herbert Hoover and congressmen. Foellinger also used the plane, with Cornish as pilot, to give rides to disadvantaged children and to celebrate the achievements of local young people by treating them to a short flight.

In 1934, Cornish was named manager of the city's municipal airport, which now is known as Smith Field, the book says. During World War II, he served as chief of the Army Air Forces' flight operations division, which coordinated air traffic and airspace use in the United States.

He later served as the first director of Indiana's Aeronautics Commission.

Cornish continued flying into his 90s, and, based on a 1995 flight at age 96, was recognized by Guinness World Records as the World's Oldest Actively Flying Pilot. He died about four months later age 97.

Ingraham said the idea for the book came about in 1996, when she was cleaning out her parents' home after her father had died and her mother had moved into a nursing home. In a neatly crafted wooden box, she found about 135 handwritten letters he had mailed home during his World War I service, which offered detailed insight into his experiences.

"It was like a treasure. It was gold," she recalled.

She also found journals, documents and old scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings.

Ingraham was working on a memoir about plant and animal life around the cabin she and her late husband owned in Brown County, "Swimming with Frogs: Life in the Brown County Hills." She started on "'Cap' Cornish" in 2009.

The research broadened her view of her father.

While she was growing up, her father had been very involved in his work, not one for much conversation at home and, while Ingraham knew he loved her, he wasn't very affectionate.

"He was a reserved person with his family — probably far less so with his flying buddies," she said. "He could be very funny."

He never talked about the dangers inherent in early aviation, she said.

"He was in several accidents that could have been killers," she noted, including one in March 1931 in which the Yankee Clipper's left axle broke during landing in Winslow, Ariz., and the plane flipped upside down. All aboard escaped without serious injury.

Ingraham treasures what she learned through researching the book.

"Very few people get to know their parents as well as I got to know my parents, particularly my father," she said.

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