By Penny Rafferty Hamilton, Ph.D.
Before we needed airports, we had to have airplanes. North Dakota has always been an “early adapter” for anything aviation. On July 19, 1910, at the Grand Forks Air Meet, Wright Exhibition Team member Archibald Hoxsey astounded the crowd in his Wright Model B.
Orville Wright is quoted as saying about these early years, “Flight was generally looked upon as an impossibility, and scarcely anyone believed in it until he had actually seen it with his own eyes.” In those early years, aeroplanes were viewed more for their entertainment value than for commerce. The demand for seeing aeroplanes in flight was high, and fantastic sums were paid for even marginal demonstrations. Wilbur Wright reported to his company’s board of directors that between March and August 1910, the Wright exhibition team earned $186,000 (equivalent to over $5 million in 2019 dollars).
In the early 1900s, cars in North Dakota were restricted to town speed limits of five to eight miles an hour so flying must have seemed miraculous to many. On June 9, 1911, a Curtiss biplane named “Sweetheart,” piloted by Robert “Lucky Bob” St. Henry flew at the Fargo Fairgrounds before an audience of 12,000 spectators. According to Census Bureau documents in 1910, Fargo only had a population of 14,331!
July 12, 1911, was another big day for North Dakota aviation history when Thomas McGoey flew the very first North Dakota-designed and built aircraft, called the Kenworthy-McGoey flying machine at Grand Forks.
In these early years, “shared use” of large areas at race tracks and fair grounds for “air exhibitions” were the norm. After the well-publicized air event, the large open space went back to its original purpose. Over time, as air commerce, especially the U.S. Air Mail Service, expanded across the country, dedicated site-specific airport design was mandated to get this important service.
In July 1916, Bismarck hosted its first flight. Airports began to develop across North Dakota in the 1920s. Most began from humble beginnings, from cow pastures or donated acreages by early aviation and business boosters. For example, Fargo honors Martin Hector, who first leased and then donated the original 50 acres of land to the city.
In September of 1927, Hector allowed, without cost, the City of Fargo to use a 160-acre-tract north of the city known as Hector Field. On March 27, 1931, in a formal dedication, Hector presented Hector Field as a gift to the city. In later years, Margaret Hector, his daughter-in-law, would donate additional parcels to the city for airport expansion.
Did you know that the United States has over 20,000 public and private use airports? According to the Central Intelligence Agency, the U.S. has about one-third of all the world’s airports and the most of any single country. North Dakota has 89 public use airports. Airports are so important to our communities, as they are often used to honor our aviation legends.
Casselton Robert Miller Regional Airport honors Vietnam combat pilot Bob Miller. While a commercial airline pilot, he played a key role in the airport’s growth, as well as serving as a founding member of the Fargo Air Museum. He is in the North Dakota Hall of Fame.
Another important airport is Mercer County Regional Airport Al Joersz Field (KHZE) which recognizes Hazen native and decorated combat pilot, Major General Eldon (Al) Joersz. A former Vietnam-era Air Force pilot and Wing Commander, Joersz was chosen as a flight instructor for the SR-71, a long-range, high-altitude, strategic reconnaissance aircraft nicknamed “Blackbird” and “Habu.” On July 28, 1976, Joersz jointly set the World Air Speed record flying over 2,193 miles per hour, making the North Dakota aviator one of the world’s fastest pilots.
A very early North Dakota aviation pioneer is Carl Benjamin “Ben” Eielson, born in Hatton. One of our nation’s premier military airports, Alaska’s Eielson Air Force Base, is named in his honor. Eielson was a legendary aviator, airmail pilot, and celebrated explorer. At age 20, Eielson began his aviation training in the World War I U.S. Army Air Service. By 1918, he was an early volunteer for the newly formed U.S. Army Signal Corps aviation section. At the end of the war, he returned to Hatton to work in the family business. He formed North Dakota’s first flying club, Hatton Aero Club. In 1923, Ben became the sole pilot for the Farthest North Aviation Company, formed in Alaska. By 1924, Eielson was Alaska’s first air mail pilot on the dangerous Fairbanks-to-McGrath route. He flew that air route in under three hours, when that distance by dog sled took up to 30 days. In 1926, he even flew the first air mail route from Atlanta, Georgia to Jacksonville, Florida.
In March 1927, with George Hubert Wilkins, the Australian polar explorer, Eielson explored the drift ice north of Alaska. They touched down in Eielson’s airplane as the first land-plane descent onto drift ice. In April 1928, Eielson and Wilkins became the first to fly across the Arctic Ocean from North America over the North Pole to Europe. Later, these adventurers became the first to fly over other polar regions when they were on an Antarctic expedition. In the Antarctic summer of 1928-29, they charted by air several islands previously unknown.
These adventurous flights brought Eielson his lasting fame. He was decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross and won the 1928 Harmon Trophy for the greatest American aviation feat of the year. In the summer of 1929, Ben returned to Alaska as a local, national, and international hero. He then established Alaskan Airways for the Aviation Corporation of America. Sadly, in 1929, Eielson died in an airplane crash in Siberia attempting to rescue personnel from a cargo vessel trapped in the ice of North Cape. Even with all those worldwide adventures, Ben Eielson never forgot his North Dakota roots. He came full circle and was buried in Hatton.
North Dakota has a stellar cast of aviation pioneers and contemporary leaders whose vision and hard work created our amazing airport system.