Fred W. Kelly (1881-1974), Western Airlines’ first pilot, often flew the Utah-Idaho-Montana route.
He won gold at the 1912 Olympics, buzzed President Wilson’s ship, barn-stormed Cuba in an open-cockpit Jenny, then become a pioneer airline pilot who helped bring commercial aviation to Idaho. But all the glory and accomplishments of an adventurous life couldn’t stop the dark clouds of tragedy.
For 20 years, no one knew where Fred Warren Kelly was until I found him at Shady Acres trailer park in Long Beach, Calif., a driving an old Chevy and living on $137 a month from Social Security. He’d retired as chief pilot from Western Airlines before they had any retirement plans. He joined the company in December 1925 as the first pilot hired as they were getting started.
Fred was born in 1891 in Beaumont, Calif., the son of a rancher. He had four sisters and a brother. He attended USC and excelled in track and football. The great SC Coach Dean Cromwell called him “the greatest athlete I’ve ever coached.” He was good enough to win a berth on the U.S. Olympic team and won the gold medal in the 110-meter high hurdles. His time was 15.1 seconds. (World record today is 12.80 seconds.)
Fred had some illustrious teammates — Jim Thorpe, the Sauk Indian from Oklahoma, Avery Brundage, who won both the pentathlon and decathlon and was later president of the International Olympic Committee; and swimmer Duke Kahanamoku of Hawaii, father of surfing — who always preferred the long wooden surfboard.
At a track meet in France after the Olympics, Kelly lost a race to Thorpe because he was distracted by a plane flying overhead. It was the first time he’d seen an airplane and from then on he wanted to be an aviator. The two raced several times more but Kelly never lost to him again.
In 1916, he left SC and joined the Aviation Section of the Army Signal Corps and learned to fly. He was supposed to go to France to fight but never made it. The war ended and he was stationed on Long Island, New York.
Fred had a keen sense of humor and was ever the prankster. Learning that President Wilson was steaming down the Hudson River on his way to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Fred and a pal flew a Jenny low over the ship “to say goodbye to the President.”
The ship was belching black smoke from the funnel. Fred flew right through it. “I almost hit the antenna wires between the masts,” he said. “I heard indirectly that Mrs. Wilson got scared so they radioed back ‘to give this guy the works!’” He was grounded for two weeks.
Leaving the army, Fred and his friend Stu Jolly went barnstorming in Cuba with two Jennys, charging $50 a ride. One crash landing and broken arm later ended Fred’s barnstorming career, but before he left Cuba he flew from Havana to Santiago — 472 miles southeast near Guantanamo. It was the first flight in history between the two cities and later Fred received a medal for it.
In 1921 during Prohibition, he returned to the U.S., smuggling in a case of rum. He gave it all away to friends — never touching a drop himself.
For the next few years, Kelly was busy with several jobs — including helping with the 1924 Olympics, and being assistant coach to Dean Cromwell at USC.
After World War I, the U.S. Army and Post Office were flying the mail but failed miserably. They were losing too many pilots and planes. With the Kelly Act of 1925, flying the mail was put up for civilian bids. Also that year, Fred married Marie McDonald of Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, Western Air Express was being organized in L.A. Fred was hired as its first pilot by Corliss C. Moseley, the company’s vice president of operations, and Fred’s former football teammate at USC. Kelly helped select the best aircraft for the job — the canvas-covered Douglas M-2 biplanes, powered by a single water-cooled Liberty engine.
The pilot sat in the rear open cockpit while the passenger and mail bags shared the front seat.
WAE won the Los Angeles-Las Vegas-Salt Lake City route, and converted an old movie studio into a hangar in today’s City of Commerce. The runway was a strip of land they called Vail Field.
The first airmail service in Idaho was Varney Air Lines established by Walter T. Varney with headquarters in Boise. He won airmail route Cam-5 between Pasco, Wash., and Elko, Nev., with a stop in Boise.
On April 6, 1926, pilot Leon C. Cuddeback was cheered into the sky by 4,000 to 6,000 spectators in Pasco witnessing the first eastbound flight. He was flying an open cockpit three-seat biplane powered by a single Curtiss OX-5 engine. He was carrying 207 pounds of mail.
The first westbound flight didn’t go so well. The pilot was Franklin Rose who was blown 75 miles off course because of a storm between Elko and Boise. He had to make a forced landing, then walked for two days carrying 98 pounds of mail before he found a farmer with a phone and a horse.
Western started with four pilots — Fred Kelly, Maury Graham, Jimmy James and Al DeGarmo. They called them “The Four Horsemen.” Flying the mail in those rickety biplanes was dangerous duty, and mishaps happened often. Most of the time it was minor — such as forced landings due to adverse weather or engine troubles. But for Maury Graham, it was major.
On Jan. 10, 1930, Maury kissed his wife Alice goodbye in L.A. and headed for Vail to fly mail and a million dollars worth of negotiable securities to Salt Lake City. He never arrived.
Fruitlessly they searched for him. It wasn’t until June that some kids found the crumpled wreck of the plane in the Kanarra Mountains south of Cedar City. The unopened mail bags were there — but no Maury. The boys raced back to town and returned with a search party.
They didn’t find his body until the following month. Someone noticed some wheat strangely growing on the other side of a log. To help quit smoking, Maury used to chew on raw wheat. The wheat had grown right out of his pocket.
Fred Kelly had his share of flying problems too — one of them a memorable crash landing in Las Vegas. It was June 6, 1928, and Fred was flying a single-engine Lockheed Air Express to Salt Lake with two passengers inside. One was Will Rogers who was on his way to the Republican National Convention in Kansas City.
“It was 110 degrees in Las Vegas that morning,” Kelly said. “There was a concrete ‘T’ in the center of the landing strip to show the direction to land. The wind had blown the sand away and left the T exposed about three inches.
“When I came in for a landing, I had pretty good speed. I hit the T with the right wheel and broke the aluminum casting. The axle hit the ground and flipped the plane over. On the way over, I thought it would hang, then fall back — but it didn’t.
“It fell gently on its back. The tail kept my head about two feet off the ground.” Both men were hanging upside down — held only by their seat belts.
That was not the end of Rogers’ troubles that day: In Salt Lake City, he boarded a Boeing Air Transport plane for the rest of a flight to Chicago when almost the same accident happened again on a landing in Omaha.
Rogers later wrote in his column, “It wouldn’t have happened if I’d been going to the Democratic Convention!”
It was a rocky start for airline travel.
PART II NEXT WEEK: Western comes to Idaho; tragedy for Fred Kelly, then glory once again.
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