In 1912, Silas Christofferson brought Portland, Oregon, into the age of the airplane. The 24-year-old took off in a Curtiss pusher from the roof of the 12-story Multnomah Hotel, flew for 12 minutes, then set down in Fort Vancouver, on the Washington side of the Columbia River. Thousands of people crowded the streets to see their first airplane flight, and for a few of them, the moment fixed their path through life.
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Throughout the early 1900s, small communities of young airplane enthusiasts coalesced around nuclei of designers and personalities scattered across the state. One little group operated, tenuously, from the Rose City racetrack on the eastern edge of Portland. Twenty miles west, near the tiny town of Cornelius, a cadre gathered around designer Les Long, who would later be called the father of homebuilding. Other groups formed about a hundred miles south, in Eugene and Springfield. There was even a gathering in remote Klamath Falls, east of the Cascade Mountains.
But the real heart of grassroots aviation in Oregon began to beat just west of Portland, in the hayfields of Beaverton.
One young Beaverton resident, having heard about Christofferson’s plans, walked five miles from his home to catch a streetcar into Portland, where he joined the crowds craning their necks to get a glimpse of the racketing biplane. Charlie Bernard had been hooked on the idea of flying for quite a while. The streetcar he rode to high school ran past the Adcox School of Aviation, where students were building a very simple glider, launched by an elasticized cord. Bernard, fascinated, often skipped school and spent the day there instead, talking and working with the students. “My heart and soul was in Adcox, not my school,” he said in an interview with oral historian John Patton in 1978.
Without his father’s permission, he invited the students to the family farm in Beaverton, where they assembled the glider in the barn. Occasionally, Bernard and his saddle horse would substitute for the launch cord, galloping down the sloping pasture and dragging the glider into the air with a rope cinched around the saddle horn. Flights were measured in seconds. If the wind was right, the glider would gain enough altitude to permit a turn and landing. “Sometimes they’d fly a hundred feet, sometimes they’d fly a thousand feet,” Bernard said. “It depended on the pilot and the conditions. At any rate, the boys were in the air.”
Soon enough Bernard’s father became aware of what he considered immature antics in the family hayfield and put a stop to it, insisting that Charlie finish school and prepare himself for a real career. Charlie reluctantly complied, and in 1916 the field closed and the glider disappeared. For the next 12 years he kept his fascination with flying to himself, indulging his mechanical interests by selling cars. When his father died in 1928, he obtained some property from an uncle, not far from the original glider field, and started clearing brush. He had a plan.
Bernard’s venture into the car business had acquainted him with the local mechanics, and he was drawn to a garage run by a man named Elmer Stipe. Working for Stipe was George Yates, who would become one of the more talented and innovative aircraft designers and builders in the country. Stipe had become interested in flying, and asked Yates to build an airplane that the two of them could use. Bernard offered them the use of his field—“I was interested in the airplane, I was interested in George Yates, and I was interested in Mr. Stipe, so I built them a hangar.” Within weeks, other pilots and aircraft builders began showing up, so Bernard built more hangars along both sides of the field.
Occasionally, the right people come together at the right time and in the right place, and the intersection changes history. In Beaverton, Oregon, in the early decades of the 20th century, the right people banded together to form a new flying movement: a community devoted to homebuilding. It’s a structure that survives today, in local clubs where members help one another build and fly aircraft.
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.”