A hub of creativity for early airplane builders: North Carolina? Ohio? Nope—Oregon. And these Oregonians had an independent streak.
- By Ken Scott
- Air & Space magazine, May 2007
Oregon Aviation Historical Society
(Page 2 of 4)
By then, the state government had taken notice of all the aircraft design and flying going on throughout the state. “Bill Would Curb Fliers” a page 6 headline had proclaimed in the January 20, 1921 Portland Oregonian newspaper. An article the following July noted that “the airplane, in common with the automobile, motorcycle and other vehicles, has been subjected to state regulation under a new law.” The governor appointed a pilot examination board, and the state began requiring aircraft to be examined and registered. For $10, the applicant would receive “a number plate, which must be attached and displayed...on the aircraft.” It was a fairly relaxed form of regulation, and did not appear to discourage aerial experimentation in Oregon. State license plates began appearing on airplanes of all descriptions.
In Beaverton, the airplane Yates built for Stipe was a two-seat tandem design with a parasol wing. Known as the Stiper, it eventually flew some 4,000 hours, carrying hundreds of passengers and students. Other homebuilt designs began emerging from the hangars. Pilot Johnny Bigelow, one of the Beaverton crowd, recalled in another John Patton interview that “experimenting was absolutely uninhibited and unrestricted. You could have a state inspector come out and license your airplane for a few dollars. This created a climate that was pretty hard to beat, anywhere in the world.”
Photographs of Bernard’s field during the 1930s bear him out, showing airplanes of all kinds scattered across the 60 acres, the majority of them homebuilt. There were high-wing airplanes, low-wing airplanes, and even one airplane with no wings at all—a design by Marvin Joy with a halibut-shaped lifting surface and two tiny Salmson radial engines mounted just above the landing gear. (Pilot-mechanic Danny Grecco said he made two brief hops in it and noted, unsurprisingly, that the craft had no lateral stability.) Bigelow himself flew a Heath Parasol, built from plans sold by Ed Heath, who would later become famous for his Heathkits—kits for assembling your own stereos and other electronics. Even though the Henderson motorcycle engine in the nose was supremely unreliable, Bigelow flew the Parasol constantly, excited to be part of the Beaverton gang and the age.
It didn’t hurt the cozy world of state-regulated aviation that the state aircraft inspector was an enthusiastic pilot and supporter of amateur-built airplanes. In 1934 Allan Greenwood was appointed to the Oregon State Aeronautics Board, where he was charged with inspecting and licensing airplanes built within the state. Greenwood issued most of the licenses to airplanes built by experimenters and amateurs, some of which had achieved national recognition. Les Long, who had a small airfield on his farm, had published plans for his Longster in Popular Mechanics, and, by writing for several aviation publications, had become a prominent voice for “the little fellow.” George Yates had established a shop at Bernard’s airport, where he produced several airplanes, including a twin-engine design called the BiMotor, all based on his unique basket-weave construction—an immensely strong material made of geodetic woven strips of wood. Another fixture at Bernard’s was Walter Rupert, who set national altitude records with his Rupert Special, a parasol monoplane with a Salmson radial engine.
While the government of Oregon had established a climate of tolerance for experimental airplanes, across the rest of the country, the federal government was doing the opposite. The Bureau of Air Commerce, created in 1926, became the first federal agency to take responsibility for certifying civilian aircraft. The bureau wrote provisions for licensing general-purpose aircraft. But the closest thing it had to a classification for one-of-a-kind designs was an experimental category, NX, granting manufacturers a 30-day period to test new models. As for homebuilt aircraft, they could not be registered. In 1938, the bureau became the Civil Aeronautics Authority (ancestor of the present Federal Aviation Administration) and began to inspect, regulate, and register airplanes with new energy.
In Oregon, the flying communities met CAA inspectors with everything from polite indifference to outright aggression. When a federal inspector showed up at the Hillsboro airport incognito, flight service operator Ed Ball knew immediately whom he was dealing with. Ball and his designing partner, Swede Ralston, had registered their airplanes with the CAA, but Ralston had friends who were still operating with only state licenses and registrations. A chuckling Charlie Bernard told John Patton what happened next: “Ed called and told me he was sure this fellow was headed for Beaverton to catch unlicensed pilots. When he showed up, I acted like I didn’t know who he was. He wanted to buy a ride, he said, and when I showed him one of the [federally legal] airplanes he said no, he didn’t want to ride in that, he wanted to ride in that pretty yellow one. Then he wanted to take pictures. I pointed him out to George Yates. George was a powerful man, and he put one hand on this fellow’s collar and the other on his belt, took him off the field, and told him he could take all the pictures he wanted from the public road, but he couldn’t come back on to the airport.”
One of the techniques the Department of Commerce used to force pilots into the federal fold—one that really irritated Beaverton’s state-licensed pilots—was to establish “commercial air lanes” between most of the larger airports. An air lane comprised 10 miles on either side of a line connecting two airports; any aircraft within it was subject to federal regulation. The 20-mile width of the lanes made it virtually impossible for a pilot to use the majority of airports without flying through federal airspace.
To the pilots of Bernard’s field, this was a sky-grab, pure and simple. The airmen, who would become known as the Beaverton Outlaws, felt that as long as they stayed within Oregon, they did not need regulating by the federal government, so they flew as much as they could while avoiding anybody that looked like a federal inspector. George Yates did his part. Yates was almost always at his hangar on the north end of Bernard’s and normally kept the doors open year-round. If a federal inspector appeared, Yates would quietly close the hangar doors, and any approaching pilot with an unregistered aircraft would get the message and go someplace else to land.