But when was that first Idaho flight, the inception as it were of Idaho aviation history?
The Idaho Statesman declared, in an article on April 20, 1911, that Walter Brookins had launched into the air on “the first aeroplane flight ever made in the Gem state” the day before. This, in spite of the fact that the same paper had reported on October 16, 1910, that several flights had taken place above the fairgrounds in Lewiston, the last one ending in disaster.
Lewiston, still smarting today more than 150 years after losing the territorial capital, could be forgiven for being a little perturbed at this oversight.
James J. Ward of Chicago made the first Idaho flight on October 13, 1910. In Lewiston. His engine sputtered, causing him to land a little rougher than he’d hoped and destroying the front wheel of the Curtiss biplane. There were plenty of bicycle wheels in Lewiston, so that was easily replaced. He made several successful flights for the cheering crowd in the grandstand at the Lewiston-Clarkston fairgrounds.
His luck ran out, some would say, on October 14. His engine conked out when he was some 200 feet in the air. That was unlucky. But, luckily, Ward was able to jump free of the plane just as it crashed sustaining only minor injuries. The Idaho Statesman printed a dispatch from Lewiston that read, “The Curtiss biplane with which J.J. Ward of Chicago has been making daily flights at the fair, tonight lies a heap of junk on the banks of the Snake River, and that Ward himself is not in the morgue or at the hospital, is almost a miracle.”
Lewiston can also claim the first attempted flight in Idaho, though it was going to be just a glide. That came about on July 30, 1904, less than a year after the first successful flight of the Wright brothers. Captain Stewart V. Winslow, who during his working hours operated a dredge in the Snake River, tried to get into the air by pedaling a bicycle with wings over a cliff. He planned to glide across the river to the Washington side in triumph. He may have considered it bad luck when his front bicycle wheel collapsed before he could ride the contraption off the cliff. Luckily, he never did make a second try.
But what about that 1911 flight in Boise? It didn’t qualify as the first in the state, but it was the first in Boise, and it was accomplished by an aviation pioneer.
Walter Brookins, the first pilot trained by the Wright brothers, took to the air a few minutes after 5 pm on April 19, 1911 from the center field of the racetrack at the fairgrounds in Boise. Note that the fairgrounds were not located where they are today. They were roughly on the corner of Orchard and Fairview, thus the name of the latter street.
Promoters of the spectacle had cancelled the flight, allegedly because the weather had turned too cold for spectators. The many spectators who had shown up began to grumble and speculate that brisk winds were the real reason for the cancellation and casting aspersions on the pilot. When Brookins heard this he immediately rolled out his biplane and made preparations to meet the winds, which were described as gale force, head on.
One spectator was particularly interested in how Brookins would take to the Boise air. W.O. Kay, of Ogden, Utah, had followed the aviator to Boise, disappointed because he had not been able to take a ride in the Wright Biplane when Brookins had flown in Utah. Kay, who weighed 164 pounds, would have been too great a load for the plane to get into the air over Utah’s capital city. The air was too thin to keep both men aloft at Salt Lake’s elevation of 4,220 feet. Kay and Brookins both thought Boise’s 2,730-foot elevation would allow a passenger.
Without a hint of drama Brookins rolled along in the rough pasture for about 200 feet and rose steadily into the air. He would fly around the racetrack five times, a distance of about three miles, before an easy landing. He could not resist putting on a show for the crowd.
The Idaho Statesman described what happened after the pilot seemed to take an unplanned dip, then recover. “Shortly after thrilling the crowd with this feat he increased his speed as though to descend right into the mob. He shot down at a terrific rate, the terror-stricken people scattering right and left.”
He rose at the last moment and made another circuit of the track before landing. The flight had lasted about 12 minutes, securing Brookins place at the head of the line in Boise’s aviation history.
Brookins performed further feats in the days to come, took Kay on his promised airplane ride, and raced an automobile around the track. He was a sensation. His flights moved Idaho Lieutenant Governor Sweetser to present Walter Brookins with a commission as a colonel in the Idaho National Guard, making Idaho the first state to so honor Brookins for his contribution to aeronautics.
Brookins went on to establish numerous aviation records. Chancy as flying was in those early days, he was never seriously injured (a few broken ribs) while flying. He died in 1953 and is buried at the Portal of the Folded Wings Shrine to Aviation in Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery, Los Angeles.