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Free as a bird – First airplane flights over the Sierra Nevada

The dream of flight is as old as humanity. The appeal of cresting the Sierra Nevada in some sort of winged contraption was immediate as soon as human air travel became possible.

Today, flights over the Sierra Nevada are a commonplace, everyday event. But, in the pioneering days of aviation, these voyages were heroic adventures.

The aspiration arrived early. During the California Gold Rush in the 1850s, entrepreneurs advertised trips to the Gold Country in “aerial locomotives,” steam-powered machines carrying as many as 100 passengers at up to 100 miles per hour. Some would-be transportation moguls were more modest, offering single-seated versions.



These devices were so widely promoted to the gullible that they were even lampooned by artist C.E. Madeley, who invented the intrepid traveler Mr. Golightly, who flew everywhere on his seemingly rocket-powered machine concocted by the inventor team of Professors Quick and Speed.

Whatever the size, these magnates promised a pleasant trip. Although balloon travel was possible, these particular powerful gadgets did not exist. Nice dream, though.




Experiments in glider flights occurred near Luther Pass in the 1890s, but actual attempts to cross the Sierra by motorized aircraft did not occur until 1911. The trips were extremely perilous.

Even with today’s more powerful airplanes, the Sierra Nevada is

forbidding ” rarefied air, turbulent cross currents, and unexpected updrafts make the crossings constantly dangerous. As the first pilots soon discovered, early aircraft were underpowered and flimsy.

This made the flights even more dangerous. And they continued to be risky for years. For instance, the first successful flight into Yosemite Valley occurred in 1919 ” the second successful landing was four years later.

The first pilot to endeavor airplane flight across the Sierra was Bob Fowler in 1911. Fowler was competing for a $50,000 prize for the first transcontinental flight. The prize was to be rewarded for the first pilot to successfully complete the trip in 30 days or less. Fowler attempted a route that would traverse Donner Pass. But, en route, near Colfax, his airplane, a Wright Flyer, flipped in blustery winds and crashed into the trees. Fowler was briefly marooned in the treetops, but escaped injury.

His plane was repaired in 10 days. Fowler tried again. Three more times, in fact. Each time he failed. Finally, he flew south to Los Angeles, crossed the desert and flew across country.

He did not win the award ” his flight took 45 days.

The first to successfully fly over Mount Whitney in the Southern Sierra was Silas Cristofferson in 1914. He was triumphant on his second attempt. On his first attempt, he was accompanied by a movie photographer who was recruited to document the historic event. The camera operator would make the flight straddling the gas tank.

During the flight, crosscurrents disabled the plane and it plunged like a stone from 10,000 feet in altitude to a mere 1,800 feet.

Cristofferson righted the plane and landed safely. He made plans to try again after a two-day respite. Understandably, upon sober reflection (or perhaps, not-so-sober reflection), the cameraman refused to make the second attempt.

Lyman Gilmore of Grass Valley claimed to be the first to fly a powered aircraft ” not the first over the Sierra Nevada, but the first ever. Gilmore had experimented with flight for years.

In the late 1890s, Gilmore had constructed a glider with an 18-foot wingspan. When pulled by a horse, the glider could fly. On its first flight, Gilmore borrowed his employer’s horse as the power source for the contraption. It soared, but the horse was terrified, and Gilmore was fired.

In 1902, Gilmore built a 32-foot plane that was powered by a steam engine. At that time, no one had yet attained mechanized flight.

In May of that year, Gilmore claimed that he successfully flew his steam airplane-well in advance of the Wrights. Few, if any, witnesses were brought forward and many doubted whether Gilmore had flown. Most believed the heavy device had never left the ground.

When it was confirmed that the Wright Brothers had actually flown in 1903, Gilmore was crestfallen.

He continued experimenting, however, and soon afterward produced a large fuselage, enclosed cabin behemoth that no contemporary engine on earth could have possibly lifted.

Gilmore continued to press his claim that he was the first to fly, but few credited him. He did have a more substantial argument that he had built the first commercial airport in the world. Others more modestly felt Gilmore’s airfield was more likely to have been the first airport in the United States or in the West, but this documented accomplishment was significant regardless of scope.

In describing their efforts, the early pilots in the Sierra Nevada most certainly would have echoed the words of Orville Wright, who said after his first flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903: “The course of the flight up and down was exceedingly erratic, partly due to the irregularity of the air, and partly to lack of experience in handling this machine.” But, there is little doubt that these pioneers would have also endorsed the words of George Bernard Shaw: “You see things and say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were and say ‘Why not?'”

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Gary Noy, director of the Center for Sierra Nevada Studies at Sierra College’s Rocklin campus, appears monthly in The Union. Contact him at gnoy@sierracollege.edu.


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