Part one of the story
Great enterprises often start out with simple questions. At age eleven, Allison Sawyer asked her father: Who was the first person to fly in Utah? Finding the solution led Richard "Buz" Sawyer, a public research assistant at the Hill Aerospace Museum in Roy, on an interesting search for the fascinating answer: the nervy son of France, daredevil Louis Paulhan.
The aviator had hoped to make Utah's first flight on Saturday, January 29, 1910, but the weather dictated otherwise. The flier and his "mechanicians" said they had never met such adverse conditions. Sunday's weather was murky and cold, but perfect for flying. Madame Paulhan remained at the Knutsford Hotel, perhaps fearful for her husband's safety after his three failed attempts the previous day. Flight in 1910 was a risky business. The previous year, the designer of Paulhan's plane, Captain Louis Ferber, had died in a crackup while landing. But on this Sunday, the intrepid flier didn't even run his usual test of the upper air currents with box kites.
To manage the crowd at the state fairgrounds, Lt. John C. Waterman, cavalry commander at Ft. Douglas, detailed twenty mounted troopers to patrol the track. Salt Lake Police Chief S.M. Barlow pledged to have every available policeman at the gates and in the packed grounds.
Paulhan's forty-two-foot Farman two-seater biplane was wheeled into position. The pilot seemed to radiate confidence. Mechanics Masson and Miscarol started the air-cooled Gnome radial engine and let its fifty horses warm up for a few seconds. At 3:36, Louis Paulhan "threw out his arms" in signal and he was off for the clouds. The little plane bumped over snow-covered sod for 100 yards as the crowd held its collective breath. The wheels lifted and the craft cleared the first fence and then shot skyward. Cheers from the crowd drowned out the noise of his engine.
For more than a minute, the plane was lost to view. It startled horses in their pastures along the Jordan River. The shout, "There he comes!" went up when the plane appeared four miles to the west and turned back to the stands. The machine reportedly startled a flock of resentful birds. Ten-thousand voices roared their admiration as the biplane buzzed the grandstand.
After a flight of 10 1/2 minutes, Paulhan landed with "the grace of a waterfowl alighting in a pond." He had established a new world altitude record, having sailed to an altitude of about 4,600 feet above sea level but never more than 300 feet above the ground. The crowd broke into a storm of applause that lasted several minutes. The "daring little Frenchman" was disappointed he had been unable to fly higher, The Salt Lake Tribune reported, but the exhibition provided a discovery "of interest to the aviation world." Paulhan learned that high flying was difficult at this altitude. Lighter machines and more powerful engines were needed, he concluded.
Paulhan traveled on to make the first flights in Colorado, Louisiana and Texas before the Wright brothers impounded his planes for patent infringements, producing an unprintable stream of French invective directed at the inventors. The outraged pilot returned to France. Later in the year, Paulhan reached the height of his renown when he won The London Daily Mail's aviation prize. The aviator died in 1963. He also made his mark in Utah. As Commercial Club Secretary Joseph Caine wrote: "We will look back upon this Sunday as a red-letter day in our lives." It still is in Utah history.
Utah Historian Will Bagley thanks "Buz" Sawyer for his help.