Willoughby: From barnstormer to astronaut, air travel as seen by a boy
Legends & Legacies
Fred Willoughby, my father, wrote about the first time he saw an airplane. Recently, two readers from the North Fork Valley sent me copies of that story, republished on its 100-year anniversary. I enjoyed hearing the story in the same way a kid likes any snippets from a parent’s youth. It takes on new meaning for me as I marvel at the history my father experienced.
During his childhood days in Hotchkiss, cars had settled in as the new normal. But horses and horse-drawn wagons still ruled the ranches and back roads. Smaller towns had no electricity, although Aspen had installed it during the 1890s. No one assumed a home would feature running water, nor that it would tie in to a sewage system.
Father saw these advancements, mostly in small cumulative steps. But airplanes stood out as a demonstrative advancement. The Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903 formed the foundation for rapid development of reliable airplanes. A year before my father saw his first airplane, U.S. airmail service served Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York. A decade after the first flight, military aircraft ruled the European theater. After the war, the military sold off many of the training airplanes and other aircraft. Pilots who had built skills during the war toured the country and barnstormed for enthusiastic crowds.
In my childhood memory of the story my father told me, a plane flew to Hotchkiss and he saw it land. As an adult, I’m more interested in his written story. The community buzzed with the possibility of an airplane exhibit at the Delta County Fair. Father wrote “it was reported that the machine was to arrive by the evening train. I believe that every kid in town and some from nearby were there waiting anxiously for the customary engine whistle at a road crossing nearly a mile west of town.”
The airplane arrived in crates, so he could not see it. A horse-drawn wagon picked it up at the crossing and transported it to a nearby farm.
The day of the fair, Father joined the throng that flocked to the fairgrounds. He wrote that the plane circled “about 500 feet above” the area. When it landed, an excited crowd swarmed the craft and greeted the aviator.
I know Father would have felt excited about the first airplane landing in Aspen, three days before I was born in November 1948. Likely, he watched as airplanes flew in from Grand Junction to test Aspen’s newly created airport.
At one time, the term “barnstormers” referred to theater groups who toured rural areas and performed in barns. Later users of the word stretched its meaning to describe a series of campaign stops. My father’s generation co-opted the word to describe the pilots who traveled the country and performed aerial stunts.
I still recall the feeling when we would drive our car near the Aspen airport and watch planes land predictably. But think of a time when automobiles had only recently appeared on town roads. Soon afterward, airplanes showed up in photographs, silent moves and — a short time later — over your town’s backyard.
To see your first airplane, as my father did at 12 years old in 1919 in Hotchkiss, and eventually to watch men land on the moon, must have felt surreal and sublime in ways that we only imagine.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at email@example.com.
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