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About 1911 in the town of Electra my maternal grandfather, Robert B. “Bob” Richardson, built and flew what was probably north Texas’ first airplane. He was born in Philadelphia in 1895 and came with his family from Liber, Ohio, to the newly opened town of Electra in 1907. Created out of the Waggoner Ranch, Electra was then a frontier community full of pioneer spirit.

p.gif (793 bytes)hotos on souvenir postcards show cowboys breaking horses between widely spaced houses. According to my grandmother, Indians often came over from Oklahoma creating much excitement among the locals. Several saloons inflamed Prohibition sentiments. Moody brothers, both barkeepers, fell into bitter conflict with the Richardson’s friend, anti-booze newspaperman, Les Crawford.

Soon after the town was formed, mule teams were hauling oil drilling equipment through the streets. My great-grandfather, a wealthy pharmacist, A. M. Richardson, bought a farm, a house, and some downtown buildings. One of the latter became his drugstore, which doubled as the post office during his terms as Postmaster, and one of the others was where he established the Electra Masonic Lodge.

As always in American history and memory, this was a transitional era. Arthur N. Richardson drove a sporty Apperson Jackrabbit, and though a farm owner, he located his wife and kids in town. Bob Richardson, his son and my grandfather, was trained in music and a 1908 photo shows him with his trumpet in The Electra Cowboy Band. However, he was also mechanically gifted and followed the latest technological developments. So it was there that, living near the old cattle trails, he taught himself all he could about the Wright brothers and other aviation experimenters and made his own contribution to local progress.

quoteA.jpg (38583 bytes)In the absence of newspaper accounts I have had to reconstruct his venture from photos and the lamentably sparse notes I was able to make of his and other’s recollections. His pictures appear to have been taken in the wintertime, so he likely began the planning and construction of the monoplane in the fall of 1911 and first flew in early 1912. This span covers the end of his sixteenth and beginning of his seventeenth years and probably accounts for his remembering the experiment being “about 1910 or 1912”.

With his father’s money to overcome any problems locating materials, he made the aircraft parts in a tin garage opening onto the alley behind the Richardson house at 707 Harrison Avenue. During the winters, a wood stove or kerosene heater were all he had to warm the shed. Bob was aided by his lifelong friends, Wesley Moore, Jim Fisher and John O’Donohough—whose brother had married Bob’s sister, Norma. He must have frequently worked after school, and with meticulous craftsmanship, followed plans he’d drawn with his silvered instruments.

Bob’s plane was built in pieces and assembled where it was first flown. Although his plans have vanished, he documented some of his project’s stages photographically. In one photograph, there is a side view of the basic fuselage which shows a wooden frame tapering back to an end. A rectangular structure inserted near the rear, which is not visible in other pictures, looks like it could be the rudder. Triangular supports attach the front landing gear (bicycle wheels separated on an axle) to the wooden superstructure while one vertical bar seems to hold a rear bike wheel. In another photograph, this time with a front view, Bob stands inside the square frame holding a lever, while a wooden element not unlike a window without panes showing above and behind him serves as the horizontal stabilizer’s frame. No vertical fin appears in any picture. Designed in this way, the pilot had to lay on his stomach or crouched behind the steering wheel, looking through the propeller.

When the monoplane was complete, the side of the tin garage had to be removed to get the wings out. As to why he opted for a single wing when most of the aircraft of the day were biplanes, I have no clue, but maybe it was easier to build. The wings themselves seem designed to catch the wind like a kite; for this they angled downward toward the rear. With an apparent span of about fifteen feet, they appeared to have been canvas stretched between ribs linking wooden rails bolted to the metal motor housing and anchored by wire or cordage.

A clear photo shows him clutching the steering wheel, which was probably an auto or even a railcar brake. Though a lever appears in the head-on frame shot, this wheel is the only unmistakable control device. Every strut and line is clearly visible, as well as the bolts holding the metal piping overhead frame that supports the propeller. The propeller mount is cleanly beveled and has an upright rod behind it that likely held a line running back to the tail assembly. The propeller must have been made by Bob, as no source for it can be found. Though the play of light on texture leaves its material unclear, it was almost certainly wooden.

One can only guess what kind of engine was used, but a good bet would be a motorcycle engine, which was small enough to fit in the overhead frame and light enough to fly. The gas tank was likely housed in the metal frame as well. How original Bob’s plans were and whether he made any innovations are perhaps now impossible for even an aviation historian to discern.

When the monoplane was finished, assembled, and photographed, early in 1912, Bob took to the air. He stated that it was “pulled along the railroad tracks by Jim Fisher’s four cylinder Maxwell.” The railroad was the longest unobstructed straightaway available. The mind boggles to think of three boys roaring down the tracks, pulling a hand-made flying machine not knowing if success or death is emminent. At any rate, the engine revved, the plane lifted, Bob disengaged the line, and flew about a mile, maybe fifty feet up in the air. The monoplane landed undamaged and nobody was injured. It is easy to visualize the young men in their long sleeved dress shirts and their ties, donning boaters and caps as they retrieved their coats, jubilant with their victory over gravity on the stark Texas prairie.

More than a mechanical triumph, the flight involved real danger. There were no emergency medical teams. The nearest hospital was probably twenty-six miles southeast in Wichita Falls, and in case of accident someone would have to find a telephone, maybe make several calls, even drive place to place before locating a doctor. The danger must have upset my great-grandmother. Sue Dale, my future grandmother, who was fourteen in October of 1912, once mentioned going out to see Bob fly and hearing Mrs. Richardson exclaim, “Bob and Wesley have gone out to kill themselves!”

The monoplane’s first flight wasn’t its last. Bob and his friends flew the plane at least several more times and probably found it a good way to meet girls. Electra was a small town so it brought a measure of local fame. Newspaper accounts are lost, but a couple of Bob’s pictures of his plane exist on the same souvenir postcards that commemorate such noteworthy subjects as cowboys, oil rigs and building fires, and Electra’s Trade and Sale Days.

The Electra monoplane was so much a part of the frontier momentum that pressed toward the techonolgical future John’s unusual hobby was accepted as a normal part of community life. Once the novelty wore off, people already became used to the idea of powered flight and so to its reality. Many dismissed flying as a fad, a rich kid’s toy, others surely wondered what use it had besides amusement. Practical applications probably did occur to many, but apparently not to the young aviators. There weren’t any landing facilities and they couldn’t continue using public land and the property of others. Where they kept the plane is not clear; maybe it was disassembled between flights, maybe stored intact in a barn, maybe either as occasions required.

No one had ever flown over that piece of land before. It must have been exciting to briefly see the countryside from above, red dirt and gray cement roadbeds, miles of glinting rails, grass waving with patterns of wind where panicked rabbits scampered. People would look up and wave, including children inspired then and there with flight; but the startled livestock and scattering chickens must have annoyed farmers and ranchers. The possibility of a crash was irritating to the older generation. The young pilots probably found flying had limited entertainment value considering the hassles of hauling, towing, finding the right time and place to get airborne, the cost of gasoline and not to mention weather problems. Eventually wear and tear and rough landings damaged the airplane.

The Electra Monoplane’s pieces gathered dust in the tin garage or someone’s barn, or rusted away in snow and searing wind. Likely his brief aviation career contributed largely to his mother’s decision to send Bob to Indiana, where she had relatives, to attend the Valparaiso School of Music and spend summers at Culver Military Academy.

Bob Richardson returned to Electra in 1916 and soon married Sue Dale, but his flying days weren’t over. The military had found a practical use for aircraft and Bob joined the Army Air Corps when the US entered World War I and trained at Call Field near Wichita Falls, a base long since turned to tract housing. Just before he was to ship out to France the War ended. He may have quit flying to support his family, though his job search during the Great Depression resulted in a career at the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station. I never heard of any other reasons for his later opinions about aviation’s stunning progress.

In 1965 I managed to get some information about his airplane from my grandfather, a man so modest as to be almost self-effacing, when we went to an open house at the naval air station. When I bought us tickets for a brief city flyover in an already outdated DC-3 he said that it was his first flight in almost fifty years. It was also his last before his death a few weeks before his eightieth birthday. As that decade reached its frantic conclusion he declared NASA a waste of money, weather satellites superfluous, lunar exploration worthless and he remained a staunch Prohibitionist to the end.

As a man who also insisted that history is useless, Bob Richardson would be surprised that his early flights would be interesting to people other than his family.

Americans take to technological development because we enjoy the freedom and challenge to experiment with science and its applications. Our government has never had to impose material progress because its means are available for experimentation, whether to young aeronauts in 1910 or young cybernaughts in 1990. I doubt that my grandfather would see his teenage adventure the same way he would the doings of computer hackers, but he and they are participants in the same democratic process of technological development.

He lived through the very end of the Texas frontier and contributed to the heartland’s popular acceptance of a new technology simply because he thought aviation would be fun, and he had the means and ability to let his imagination take flight.