A homebuilt constructed with glue rendered from horses' hooves,
with doped Irish linen and questionable wires,
by my uncle and my father in rural Iowa in 1915.
No electricity—no busses or trains—no telephones.
Photo and legend from L. Weeks, 7-27-08
via email from L. Weeks, 5-3-06
In the fall of 1909, a restless teenager cast aside his father's plow, freed his horse and strode across the furrows of his family's Iowa farm. Not once did he glance back.
He intercepted a grain train and rode in a bed of shucked corn to Chicago, where he enrolled in a chauffeurs school. While there, he joined an original cadre of fledglings pioneering the birth of aviation. Elling, and his conspicuous pilot friends, would soon become well-known as the Early Birds.
The Early Birds were flying Wright Brothers' Flyers and homebuilt innovations. The pilot controlled the aircraft with canards, wing warpers and rudders. His body, lacking a seat belt and completely vulnerable, jutted out over the lower wing's leading edge. He was balanced precariously, in a wicker seat. Close behind his shoulders, two partially guarded oil spraying motorcycle chains hummed as they drove the hand carved propellers.
The Flyer demanded over 68 feet of wing to leave the ground. With heart thumping fallibility, no favorable wind to assist, the underpowered aircraft strained to clear the wires surrounding the stamp sized airfield. It untrustworthy engine's radiator, often fuming, was at the pilot's right elbow. Its streamlined gas tank brushed the tip is his right ear.
Crashes just happened. Frequently.
If an accident were inevitable, the pilot would tightly grip the aircraft's frame hoping the resulting impact wouldn't be too painful.
There was no room aboard for an instructor, therefore, there was zero practice time before first solo ride. Listen carefully to the other fledglings, observe their shaky take-offs, uncoordinated turns and crude landings.
Then .. it's your turn. Climb on the peculiar seat, lock your heels in place, adjust your goggles, and nudge your personal courage button as you sweep forward the engine's spark control. Now . . just do it.
Elling described his first solo in May, 1910: " Unexpectedly, a delegation of Chicago citizens and reporters came out to our airfield at Cicero. The group insisted upon seeing a flying demonstration. No pilots were available."
" I had never flown before. Against my better judgment, I decided I would give them a very limited demonstration, anyway. I planned to hop the aircraft a few feet off the ground, then land immediately, just to satisfy them."
" Unfortunately, I froze on to the stick and went airborne. I was forced to 'zoom up' to escape hitting a string of telephone wires. I had no idea how to bring the ship down."
" I soared and fell, then finally 'pancaked it in ' [ landed hard ]. The crowd had the impression I had been stunting. They gave me a big ovation I didn't deserve".
PILOTS’ LICENSE # 214
Flying was threatening and expensive. Within a handful of flying hours, each airplane was crippled or destroyed . . then rebuilt, scavenged, or salvaged. Standards of safety and quality control were unknown to Chicago's Early Bird flyers.
Each of their airplanes was a reeking, oil stained patchwork of doped muslin, glued joints, flying wires, pulleys and turnbuckle screws. In an effort to maintain maximum flyability, Elling Weeks and his friends bought odds and ends of questionable origin from a nearby livestock feed and hardware store.
Most Early Birds owned pilot license numbers below # 99. But because a license wasn't required to fly, Elling was in no hurry to apply. Two years after his first solo, he earned pilots license # 214.
His primary goals were personal high adventure and achieving aviation records. Magazines and newspapers focused on Elling's exploits, much the same as media attention concentrated on the early astronauts. He was the first pilot to carry daily newspapers between cities . . the 21,000 yards from Scranton to Carbondale, Pennsylvania.
Elling went on to set numerous flight endurance and altitude records during those early years. He shared two implausible predictions with the reporters : " Airplanes will soon be safer than automobiles, and they will be able to carry 500 passengers "
His kid brother, my father, helped him build seven innovative aircraft from scratch. In one way or another, each of the aircraft was destroyed. It was so risky, my grandfather forbade Elling's numerous brothers and sisters from accepting his offers of free rides. He didn't want to have two children maimed or killed in the same accident.
Dangers were real and appeared quickly from inconceivable directions. For example, one cold, dry winter day in Pennsylvania, uncle Elling was preparing for a bomb style delivery of theater tickets and prizes over a distant fairground. He was so excited about the flight he neglected to cover his face with his chamois mask equipped with eye-slits.
Worse, he forgot to place his protective goggles over his eyes. This essential equipment was just inside his coat, squeezed between thick layers of newspapers insulating his body from the cold wind. As it turned out, it could have been a dozen yards away from his hands . . instead of inches.
Shortly after takeoff, the slipstream's icy impact on his naked eyes made him painfully aware of his overlook. Elling moved his gloved hand from the touchy controls to retrieve his goggles. Instantly, the unstable aircraft headed for the ground. He groped for the control sticks, and he wrenched the Flyer out of its diving turn.
No choice there !
[ No goggles either. ]
His next mistake was identical to a pilot error causing thousands of pilots' deaths in future years :
It was show time !
An expectant and large crowd was waiting for him. In addition, his debts were past due. His $500 flight bonus was in jeopardy. Elling ignored the accelerating danger and the growing pain. He pressed on with his flight.
Elling off-loaded the tickets and prizes over a throng of excited people at the fairground, then twisted the wing tips to warp-turn the Flyer for the return trip. The excitement of his achievement momentarily drained away the adrenaline masking him from his pain.
But now, Elling had blinked his wind-dried eyes, to the point where he had severely abraded his corneas. Constant blinking had literally sand-papered his eyes. Nearing his home field, he thought to himself :" Man it's cold ! My eyes hurt so badly, I don't know if I can do this [ landing ]. I'll close my eyes tightly . . JUST FOR A MOMENT . . to warm them a little."
By this time, Elling had severely damaged his depth perception and deteriorated his vision. He later recounted : " When I opened my eyes, I could not see a thing. lt was a white haze. I was certain I had frozen my eyeballs ! I started hollering at the top of my voice. I don't know why. But I was certain that I was going to crash. But, I headed downward . . praying that I could make out my field. "
" Down and down I went. And I still couldn't make out the ground. Then, I flew by a familiar tall, white shaft [ Custer Massacre Monument ] and I knew I was safe. "
Several feet above a farmer's field, Elling stalled out the fragile biplane, and it plummeted into a granite hard landing. The farmer found him, still in his white fog, stumbling around his slightly damaged aircraft.
A pilot's most extreme and visceral-twisting fear is to be flying solo . . without a parachute . . sightless . . in an airplane that's out of control and heading for the dirt.
Elling later said:" Escaping my death was the biggest thrill of my life. "
Later, as his damaged eyes healed uncle Elling recovered his eyesight.
Source : Family album clippings and personal discussions