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Posted April 18, 2012 | comments Leave a comment

Aviation's first take off in Winchester remembered on 100th anniversary

Joe Beck -- jbeck@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER -- The flight of Charles F. Walsh into Winchester aviation history was remembered Wednesday by airplane buffs who gathered at the regional airport to salute his feat on its 100th anniversary.

Walsh was the first to fly an airplane over city. Local historian Dan Rodgers told the audience that others had piloted hot air balloons with acrobats dangling off of them. But no one had had ever seen a man borne aloft by a motorized machine until Walsh climbed into a cockpit on the drizzly afternoon of April 18, 1912.

Rodgers' lecture on the first flight formed the heart of the anniversary celebration. He brought with him a 1/6 scale model replica of the Curtiss D III biplane Walsh flew above an audience at the agricultural fairgrounds, an area now bordered by Commercial Street, West Oates Avenue, Loudoun Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.

The flimsy-looking looking aircraft measured 26 feet, 3 inches across its wingtips and 25 feet, 3 inches in length. A V-8 engine packing 60 to 70 horsepower gave the 700-pound plane a top speed of less than 60 mph.

Renny Manuel, executive director of the airport, eyed Rodgers's scale model creation with a mixture of wariness and amusement.

"I'm not adventurous," she replied when asked if she would have flown in the biplane. "I'm glad somebody had the nerve. If I had been living back in that era, it would not have been me to be the adventurous one."

The impending flight was front page news in the Winchester Evening Star the day before, Rodgers said. Schools closed in the afternoon to allow teachers and students to watch from the fairgrounds, he said. Special trains carried residents from surrounding towns to the fairgrounds.

"Aviation was a thrilling thing for the city," Rodgers said. "It was a first."

But the sinking of the Titanic only three days before threatened momentarily to eclipse the buildup to Walsh's flight, Rodgers said. But any doubts about the importance of the day vanished as Walsh took off.

The Star's accounts of the flight published over two days reported that Walsh circled Winchester and the surrounding area on three flights, each lasting about five minutes.

At one point, "he dipped suddenly down within 50 feet of the heads of the frightened and scattering crowd, then rose again in a graceful ascent to a height of several hundred feet," according to the Star.

Despite his smooth ride in the skies over Winchester, the risk of primitive aviation technology soon caught up to to Walsh. He met his death a few months later at another air exhibition in Trenton, N.J. Rodgers said. The wing structure of the plane collapsed in the midst of a spiral, and Walsh fell 2,000 feet, according to Rodgers.

Rodgers said the plane that crashed was probably the same one Walsh flew in Winchester for the Curtiss Exhibition Company.

Manuel said the replica of Walsh's plane will be hung from the ceiling of the terminal where it will greet visitors as they enter the building.

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