History Nebraska Blog

A Birdman at the Fair

Charles F. Walsh and his plane at Chadron, September 13, 1911. NSHS RG3340.PH3-49

The star attraction of the 1911 Dawes County Fair in Chadron, held September 12-15, was the twice-daily exhibition flights by barnstormer Charles F. Walsh (1877-1912)., a native of California. Walsh, flying a Curtiss biplane, was advertised by the Chadron Journal on September 15  to be “the first aviator to make a flight in Northwest Nebraska. Our skies are used to ducks and other birds but never before have they had bird men going and coming as gracefully as the eagle.”

Walsh experienced only a slight mechanical problem with an engine switch during his flights at Chadron. But he wasn’t so lucky at Kearney, where during a previous exhibition flight on August 4, the plane ran into a telephone wire and crashed into a cottonwood tree. Walsh, unhurt, arranged for another plane to be shipped to Kearney and on August 9 made six successful flights before a crowd of about four thousand people. From Kearney Walsh traveled to Fremont, where he ran into legal difficulties after his exhibition flight’s emergency landing damaged a farmer’s cornfield.

Walsh flying at Chadron, September 13, 1911. NSHS RG3340. PH3-50

Shortly after his appearance at Chadron in mid-September, Walsh was in Neligh, where “after the first flight the machine was wrecked and the driver thrown out.” Fortunately, the aviator wasn’t hurt. In October Walsh made exhibition flights in Beatrice at the Gage County Fair, October 2-6, where he told the Beatrice Express on October 5 that he had been flying for a year and a half and that “ there is very little danger in a straight-away flight. It is cutting the fancy stunts that has caused the death of so many of the birdmen.”

Walsh’s words now seem prophetic. His flying career came to an abrupt end scarcely a year later,  when he plunged to his death on October 3, 1912, during an exhibition flight in Trenton, New Jersey. He was reportedly attempting his crowd-pleasing “dip of death” stunt at the time.

For more information on early Nebraska aviation, see Vince Goeres’s Wings Over Nebraska: Historic Aviation Photographs, available at the NSHS Landmark Stores. Published by NSHS Books in 2010, it was written with Kylie Kinley and features an introduction by Roger Welsch and more than two hundred photographs from NSHS collections. An associated exhibit, Pioneering Aviators from Flyover Country, at the Nebraska History Museum at Fifteenth and P streets in Lincoln, opened December 1, 2011, and will close October 26, 2012.

- Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

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