Timeline Tuesday: Burwell, Nebraska, Flying Machines, 1912 and 1964

 Welcome to our weekly series, “Timeline Tuesday.” Every Tuesday, we’ll post a brief Nebraska history story. The late NSHS historian and Nebraska History Associate Editor Jim Potter authored these columns, which are also printed in newspapers around the state.

The Morrow airplane, probably about 1912. NSHS RG2929.PH0-6


In the summer of 1911 J. A. Morrow and his sons, Everett and Edward, began building an airplane in their Carleton, Nebraska, blacksmith shop. Before the craft was finished, the Morrows moved to Burwell to ply their trade. It was there that the plane first took flight in the fall of 1912. It was a “pusher prop” bi-plane patterned after one developed by Glenn Curtiss in 1910. As with many early planes, the Morrow craft often crashed during demonstration flights in towns around the state, but it was quickly repaired in time for the next exhibition. The Burwell Tribune recorded many of these episodes in the fall of 1912. While the full story of the Morrows and their flying machine has not been written, Wings Over Nebraska: Historic Aviation Photographs by Vince Goeres with Kylie Kinley includes a photo of the Morrow plane taken in Opelika, Alabama, in 1913. The book was published by the Nebraska State Historical Society in 2010. In 1964 Burwell physician Dr. Ben Meckel, who was also an aviation enthusiast, decided to re-create the Morrow airplane as a tribute to the early fliers. The plane, a copy of the 1910 Curtiss pusher and approximating the aircraft built by the Morrows, was constructed by John Thurman in Tucson, Arizona. It was delivered in Burwell in early August 1964 and Meckel made his first flight on August 5, after christening the “Spirit of Burwell” with a bottle of champagne. Perhaps more than he expected, Meckel not only duplicated the Morrow’s plane but some of their experiences.

On its first flight ”Spirit of Burwell” barely rose from the runway before losing power and coming down. Meckel was not injured and there was only minor damage to the plane. In order to get full certification from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly the plane without restrictions, fifty flying hours were required. Meckel began the process by receiving FAA authorization to fly the pusher from Burwell to Omaha. Although he arrived safely at Eppley Airfield on November 17, 1964, the trip was not uneventful. After taking off from Burwell November 8, a bent axle forced a two-day stopover in Columbus. On November 10 carburetor icing forced a crash landing near Boys Town. It took several days to make repairs. When Meckel finally landed at Eppley Airfield, the Curtiss pusher was taxied to a stop alongside a Boeing 727 airliner. Meckel’s craft weighed 640 pounds with a wingspan of 27 feet and a top speed of 35 miles an hour. By contrast, the passenger jet weighed 142,000 pounds with a cruising speed of 550 to 600 miles an hour. According to Meckel, as quoted in the Omaha World- Herald, Nov. 18, 1964, “I’m scared every time I take it up.” He also noted that he did not wear the traditional long white scarf of the early aviators because he was worried that it might get tangled in the engine or propeller located directly behind the pilot’s seat. Because the single front wheel did not turn, Meckel simply planted his feet and lifted the craft’s nose to change direction on the ground. A few years later, according to the 1967 Garfield County centennial history, Meckel sold his plane to Hollywood stunt man Frank Tallman. On Dec, 25, 1977, the Lincoln Star noted that the “Spirit of Burwell” was then on exhibit at the Orange County Airplane Museum in Los Angeles.

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