Tragedy at the 1931 Omaha Air Races

Aviator Charles Holman was the star of Omaha’s first air races in 1931, but his final race ended with a grisly crash.

Aviator Charles “Speed” Holman, of Northwest Airlines in Minneapolis/St. Paul was a star of Omaha’s first annual air races in 1931. Air racing involved flying at low altitude along courses marked by tall pylons. On May 17, the last day of the races, Holman crashed to his death in his black and gold Laird biplane before twenty thousand horrified spectators.

Wallace C. Peterson was a retired UNL professor in 1998 when he recalled attending the air races with his brother:

Like every other spectator on that warm May afternoon, my eyes were locked onto Holman’s biplane as he dove repeatedly to within a hundred feet of the ground, [and] roared past the grandstands at around 250 miles per hour, and then zoomed and rolled high into the sky, only to turn in a hammerhead stall and start another descent. Holman and his plane were only a hundred feet or so away from the spectators when flying level after each dive.

Holman started his last dive north of the field, flying downwind to give the spectators the illusion of even greater speed, rolling the Laird upside down when perhaps three hundred feet in the air. He clearly intended to roar past the grandstands upside down, giving the crowd, as he told some fellow pilots before the flight, a ‘special thrill.’ He never made it.

As the plane rolled over, everyone came to their feet, blocking my view so I did not see the final crash. But I heard it—it was like a great pop, as if a gigantic light bulb had been dropped onto concrete! For a moment there was absolute silence, as a cloud of dust rose from the spot of the crash. There was no fire….

Spectators reported that just before the crash, Holman’s body seemed to be hanging halfway out of the cockpit, which led to the belief that Holman’s safety belt broke, causing the crash. Some pilots told reporters they thought at the last second Holman managed to control the plane enough to avoid crashing into the stands.

My brother Harold, who brought his sixteen-millimeter movie camera to the air races, took shots of Holman during the dives, turns, flights past the grandstand, and his final, fatal dive. [The original negatives are now at the Nebraska State Historical Society.] I was so stunned and shaken by what I saw that my brother didn’t tell me until several hours later that ‘Speed’ had been killed. I think I knew it, although I didn’t want to believe it.

Omaha hosted air races again in 1932 and 1934. Although air racing continues to this day, the Holman crash (and others) gradually soured aviation industry leaders on the sport. To promote passenger travel they needed to show that aviation was safe and reliable, not a dangerous stunt.

But for a ten-year-old Omaha lad who loved airplanes, May 17, 1931, was a day he would never forget.

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