The Resistance

A hub of creativity for early airplane builders: North Carolina? Ohio? Nope—Oregon. And these Oregonians had an independent streak.

In the 1930s, a group of air-minded Oregonians started one of the first homebuilding clubs. Here, the pilots and builders banded together against a new threat: federal regulation. (Oregon Aviation Historical Society)
Air & Space Magazine

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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.

The Outlaws also faced threats from within their own state. In October 1939, Republican governor Charles Sprague fired Greenwood for the sin of serving as president of the state’s Young Democrats. When the state aeronautics board adopted a resolution praising Greenwood’s service and granting him another month’s salary, the governor sacked the board members too. “The attitude…of the Board shows a lack of cooperation I will not tolerate,” Sprague snarled in a press release. “I shall ask the reorganized Board to make a fresh study to determine how much need there is for a State Inspector or Director of Aeronautics.”

One of those appointed to the new board was Salem businessman and aviator Lee Eyerly. Eyerly was starting a company to produce a small airplane based on a Les Long design, so he was vitally interested in the question of how aircraft were to be licensed within the state. Early in his tenure he met with federal officials. In February 1940, he sent a letter to Sprague, describing a meeting with a Mr. Walker and E.B. Cole, CAA authorities from Washington, D.C. “[They] accompanied us to the Beaverton airport,” wrote Eyerly. “[T]hey let it be known that it was their wish that we fall in line with their regulations; but after showing them our side of the picture, Mr. Cole seemed somewhat perplexed…an alternative suggested by both Mr. Cole and the Board was for the CAA to cite some individual for a violation and make a test case of it to determine whether the CAA or the State holds jurisdiction over intra-state flying.”

A month later, Harold Wagner and Donald Wray, both licensed by the state of Oregon, became Eyerly’s case. They took off from Bernard’s, which was one end of the shortest airmail route in the country—the 15-mile Portland-to-Beaverton trip—and thus part of an air lane. Both were promptly issued citations and fined $100.

Late in 1940 the case went to court. But before it could be resolved, Pearl Harbor was attacked.

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