Scholarly Albany flyer was true father of Oregon aviation
In a race with Portland neophile Henry Wemme to be the first owner of an airplane in Oregon, Cornell-educated John Burkhart was two weeks too late; but unlike Wemme, he designed, built and flew his own machine.
By Finn J.D. John — October 26, 2014
In January of 1910, deep in the bowels of an old, obscure building at 10th and Everett in Portland, Albany natives Johnny Burkhart and “General Willie” Crawford were hard at work on a secret project when they heard a knock on the door.
They waited for the knocker to go away. He did not. The knocking grew more insistent. Finally, unable to ignore it any longer, Johnny and Willie opened the door.
Their visitor was a newspaper reporter. Apparently their secret project wasn’t as secret as they’d thought. Somebody had told somebody, and this newsman had come to see for himself.
Johnny was alarmed at the security breach. He wasn’t ready to share the details of their project with anyone, and wanted to send the reporter packing. But then he talked it over with Willie, and Willie prevailed upon him to let the reporter in.
It turned out to be a big mistake.
The next day, the newspaper breathlessly reported on the Albany men’s project in minute detail. And every word was read avidly by a wealthy Portland merchant named Henry Wemme.
Henry Wemme had made his fortune in canvas — first the great sails that propelled Portland’s merchant fleet across the oceans, and later tents for Klondike gold prospectors and the U.S. Army; his company, after its sale to Max Hirsch, was later renamed White Stag.
Wemme was an ardent neophile. A few years earlier, in 1899, he had become the proud owner and driver of the first automobile in Oregon — a Stanley Steamer. Now he had his heart set on becoming the first Oregonian to have an airplane. He had already arranged to buy one of the new machines from Glenn Curtiss’s factory, back east.
Needless to say, he was not pleased to learn, at this late date, that a couple men whom he probably thought of as hayseeds from an insignificant upcountry hick town were about to ace him out of his prize.
Wemme came down to see the airplane, with Will Lipman. Lipman was producing an auto show coming up the following month — February 1910 — and ostensibly that was the purpose of their visit; to talk about exhibiting the plane, along with Wemme’s, at the show. This was something Wemme really didn’t want to do, but Lipman insisted, so the invitation was extended.
Wemme probably thought, at first, that Burkhart and Crawford were just another pair of ignorant dreamers, innocent of any principles of aeronautical engineering, building something that looked like it should fly but probably would not. He soon learned otherwise. The relative obscurity of his origins notwithstanding, John Burkhart was far and away the most knowledgeable aeronautical engineer in the Northwest.
Burkhart had developed his interest in aviation through his other great interest in life: photography. One fine spring day in the early nineteen-oughts, he had snuck up on the Wright Brothers while they were undertaking their first experimental flights with the Wright Flyer at Kitty Hawk, N.C., and got caught. To his surprise, instead of sending him packing, they cordially invited him to come look things over, visit, and photograph their efforts. At the end of the day, he was an ardent airplane enthusiast.
He followed his new passion to the engineering program at Cornell University, and while a student there, in 1908, he and another student built and flew an airplane on a three-mile flight.
Back home in Albany, he and his cousin Del Burkhart built another one, powered by a heavy and wheezy Buick auto engine, which flew nicely after it was launched via catapult, but could not be induced to make turns. The two of them soon become locally notorious for crashing through fences and ruining crops while making forced landings in the thing, but miraculously neither was ever seriously hurt.
So that’s who it was that Wemme suddenly learned was in Portland and just weeks away from actually taking flight, for the first time in Oregon history, in a working aircraft. (One that would turn, that is.)
Wemme made his feelings about the Burkhart-Crawford project pretty clear in a comment to an Oregonian reporter a few days later:
“My machine will be the first owned in Portland,” he boasted. “The other one that will be exhibited will not be fully completed by the time mine arrives and there is no assurance that it will really fly.”
Clearly, it was his fervent hope that it would not.
The battle lines were drawn, and everyone knew what was at stake. It was Wemme’s money against Burkhart’s skill. The winner got to be Oregon’s first owner of a working airplane.
The exhibition took place in early February, and it was a resounding success. Thousands of Portlanders flocked to see the airplanes — paying an extra 75 cents for the privilege.
And then, knowing their cover was blown and that they would have to move quickly, Burkhart and Crawford hastily arranged to move their plane back to Albany to get it in the air.
It’s not clear why they did this, rather than finding a place around Portland to undertake their test flight. It’s also not clear how much the transportation time delayed them. But it wasn’t until early April that Johnny Burkhart launched his “katydid on ice skates” for the first time, making several short flights in it that were duly witnessed by officials.
But a week or two earlier, out at the old Rose City Track, Henry Wemme’s “store-bought” airplane had already been in the air. Wemme had hired a professional pilot, Charles Hamilton of New York, to make the flight, which had gone off without a hitch.
So Henry Wemme got his bragging rights: he’d owned the first automobile in Oregon, and now he’d also owned the first airplane to make a successful controlled flight — even if he himself had not been in it. Burkhart and Crawford had to content themselves with having made the first successful controlled flight in an Oregon-built plane.
Over the next few years, Johnny Burkhart went on to be a successful pioneering exhibition flyer, and became the toast of his home town of Albany. He and “General Willie” Crawford continued to develop Johnny’s unique design and flew all over the Willamette Valley in their increasingly sophisticated aircraft, hoping to raise enough interest to finance a factory. This never came through, but Burkhart seemed poised on the brink of nationwide fame as a pioneer aviator when the unexpected happened:
He fell in love.
The new-found apple of Johnny's eye was a local girl named Mabel Goss. He fell hard, and soon he popped The Question. But she and her parents were adamant about one thing: She would not live the terrified life of an aviator’s wife. To have her, he would have to give up the sky.
Johnny doesn’t seem to have hesitated. On June 2, 1913, he married Mabel, and after that his interest in aviation became purely technical and photographic.
He went on to find great success in both of these fields. He was commissioned a captain in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War I, but the Armistice was signed while he was still waiting in New York to go overseas — and while he was there, he contracted tuberculosis.
The dreaded disease took just eight years to wear John Burkhart down and kill him. He died in 1926, just 43 years old.
(Sources: Albany Historical Museum; Harris, Patrick. “The Exhibition Era of Early Aviation in Oregon,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, Fall 1986; Santee, Evelyn. “John Burkhart: First Oregon Plane Builder,” Sunday Oregonian, 27 Apr 1947)