An Exhibition of Man’s Defiance:

Hickory’s First Airplane Flight

On Saturday, November 16, 1912, "a perfect autumnal day", spectators witnessed the first airplane flight in Hickory. James B. McCalley, from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, flew his Curtiss biplane from the Shuford Ball Park on a short but demonstrative flight. Directors of the Catawba County Fair had arranged for this exhibition.

The flight had been advertised previously in The Hickory Democrat, promising maneuvers like the "Dip of Death" descent during a program of two or more 20-minute flights. McCalley’s plane was shipped to Hickory in a boxcar, traveling from a fairground show in Elizabeth City. After the plane was assembled, it was placed on exhibit in a tent at the ballpark.

This Curtiss Model D biplane was produced by the Curtiss Aeroplane Company, founded by Glenn L. Curtiss, one of the pioneers of American aviation. It was known as a "pusher" biplane; its propeller, situated behind the pilot, pushed the craft through the air. The pilot sat at the front of the plane and controlled it with a steering wheel and aileron cables connected to the seat. A 60-horsepower eight-cylinder engine powered the biplane, enabling it to fly between 60 and 85 miles an hour.

James B. McCalley at 25 was an accomplished aviator. At that time, he had made over 400 flights "without serious accident", and had broken an altitude record in Pennsylvania with an ascent to 10,500 feet. The "first licensed aviator in Pennsylvania", he had gained his license at the Curtiss Aviation School in San Diego, California.

Shuford Ball Park, which was located near the Green Park School area, did not offer much space for a takeoff run. Preparing for takeoff, McCalley opened the throttle while "5 portly gentlemen" restrained the plane. When they "released their hold, the beautiful Curtiss biplane ran over the grass for 150 feet, then gracefully left the earth at the speed of 60 miles per hour."

An audience of nearly 6,000 crowded the area for the flight. 2,000 of them were on the field, wearing their 25-cent admission badges. Approximately 4,000 more were watching near the field, some from roofs and vehicles.

McCalley first flew south, then to the east. He turned back to the field, circling for the benefit of the onlookers, and then quickly flew back to the south. The plane ascended until it was nearly invisible, then it turned. At this point, "with daring rapidity the bird man descended to terra firma and made a spectacular landing not more than 25 feet…" from where the flight began. The following week, the Democrat headline reported "FLYING MACHINE CIRCLED OVER TOWN 6000 FEET HIGH".

Dr. R. Wood Brown, writing for the Democrat, described the flight as "…an exhibition of man’s defiance against one of Nature’s laws, the attraction of gravitation." To Brown, McCalley was "the king of the air". Alan W. Jones was another captivated spectator, relating that " ‘I was about four years of age, and held on to my father’s hand to witness this ‘miracle’". He also commented " ‘It was then that I determined one day to be a pilot.’"

Undoubtedly, many other Catawbans were equally inspired – an inspiration that would serve them well later in the 20th century.

[This story has been graciously contributed by Mr. Alex Floyd of the Catawba County Library]

Pre-War One ‘Aeroplane’ Top Catawba Fair Attraction.


©Carroll Gray


The first airplane to come to Hickory arrived in a boxcar. When the fragile flying machine was reassembled and flown over Hickory it looked much like a king-size box kite as it flitted here and yon, piloted by a man whose name has been lost in antiquity.

Somewhere between 1912 and 1915, a biplane not unlike the one flown by Orville and Willbur Wright at Kitty Hawk in 1903, was brought to Hickory. The airplane – or aeroplane, as it was called—was in Hickory as the principal attraction of a Catawba County Fair held in the old St. Paul’s Lutheran Seminary grounds.

There was no suitable place for a safe landing of the aircraft, which explains why it was shipped to Hickory in pieces for assembly. It left Hickory in the manner in which it arrived—crated in a boxcar.

The flight, according to J. Weston Clinard, was made from a baseball field east of the Seminary, where Wilson’s Florist greenhouse is not located, and it extended on through what is now a part of the Green Park School playgrounds. Therre were no streets dividing the area at that time.

There was no take-off run. The aeroplane was tied down with ropes until its small engine whirred at maximum speed. When the ropes were cut the aircraft literally bolted into the air.

Alan W. Jones, a Hickory native and now a resident of New York City, recalls seeing the Curtis pusher-type biplane take off. It attained an altitude of about 200 feet and flew over Brookford and Hickory. "I was about four years of age, and held onto my father’s hand to witness this ‘miracle’." Jones said. "It was then that I determined one day to be a pilot.

The plane was kept in a small tent to prevent its being blown away if the wind got over a few miles per hour—or so the attendant said.

A pasture on the old Catawba Springs Road, about four miles east of Hickory, was used as a landing site in about 1920. The first passenger-carrying plane in Hickory was a World War One trainer, a Standard J-1 with a water-cooled Hispano-Suiza engine. "I carried water from a stream about a half-mile away from the leaking radiator." Jones said. " My pay: I was allowed to sit in the rear cockpit and move the stick and rudder pedals."

Harrison Winkler, a Hickory sports enthusiast, w as the first paying passenger—flight fee were $25.00. The name of the pilot has since been forgotten.

The third field was Robert Carlson’s pasture at the south end of Twelfth Street, beginning at the old Brookford Road. It was used by many barnstorming pilots, including Captain M. A. C. Johnson, a veteran World War One pilot who later attained a high position with Eastern Airlines. Johnson also piloted a Standard. Other pilots who later used the field were Johnny Crowell of Charlotte. and Ed Newkirk. When Lieut. Howard Council, a son of the late Superior Court Judge W. B. Councill of Hickory was killed in a Navy plane crash in Washington about 1924, three navy DeHavilands, powered with Liberty 450-horsepower engines flew to Hickory in his honor and landed on this field.

Next in succession was a landing field located between Southern Pig Barbecue and the present Longview School. Ben Seagle, Jr., an affluent young sportsman pilot, erected a hanger at the site, and owned a Monocupe. Later he purchased a Golden Eagle parasol-type monoplane with two open cockpits—a plane that was very fast for its day, and by any standards was a handsome craft. Seagle’s young mechanic was a Mr. Stafford. Seagle also brought the first and only Pitcairn autogiro to Hickory for a weekend. IT was the forerunner of today’s helicopter, and the pilot demonstrated amazingly short takeoffs and landings.

Other barnstormers who used the field included the Lat e Lieut. John (Red) Harmon, Shelly Charles and Roy Ahern. Harmon lost his life while testing a rebuilt airplane at Winston-Salem. Ahern, practicing for a benefit air show in New York, drove his craft to a speed which tore the wings away, causing him to plummet to his death.

It was from this field that Jones, Hickory’s first and only male professional parachute jumper, made his first jump, using the delayed opening technique from 3,000 feet with a free-fall to about 1,200 feet. Harmon was pilot of the craft which took Joines aloft for jumps in many cities during 1930-31.

The fifth field used for an airport was Winkler’s Flying field, a thousand feet long, located in the center of what is today Hickory Municip0al Airport. Many pilots, including Miss Mary Nicholson, North Carolina’s first woman transport pilot, flew passengers from this field. Miss Nicholson was killed in England during World War Two while flying for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Harry Culler of Greensboro also flew passengers from this field, as did Jones.

The sixth site was known as Deaton Field, which Jones opened for a small flying school in 1936. It lay at the east end of the present municipal airport, and was absorbed into it when construction began. It was from this field that Mayo Hefner, an early Hickory pilot, and Jones taught many Hickory people and those from the surrounding area to fly.

The seventh field was opened by Bob Soehner. He came here from New Jersey in about 1939, and operated the Sandy Ridge Airport on the Sandy Ridge Road. The runway was about 2,000 feet long and was adequate for the planes of the day. He ran a successful operation for about three years, and launched the Civilian Pilot Training Program in cooperation with Lenoir Rhyne College. He ceased operation of the airport when the municipal field was opened in 1940.

The first locally owned Hickory-based aircraft belonged to Ben F Seagle, a sportsman pilot, who in the spring of 1929 had an Eagle Rock housed in a hangar at Greenville, SC. On September 4, 1929, he brought from Moline, Illinois, a new Monocupe which he flew directly to Hickory from the factory, and newspaper accounts of the day said at least five thousand people were at Seagle Field in Longview for the momentous occasion. The field and hangar had been prepared earlier.

Seagle, a debonair pilot attired for flight with togs characteristic of the era of open-cockpit flying—such as boots, jodhpurs, goggles, helmet, gloves, and silk scarf—served for three months as test pilot for the Golden Eagle manufacturer in Columbia, SC, in the late twenties.

Brad Hall, Jr. now deceased, also was an early flier in Hickory, owning a biplane. Corbin Greene of Hickory painstakingly built a glider, which came to grief on its maiden flight in the early thirties. The craft was towed until it gained flying speed, rose a few feet, and then plummeted to its destruction.

At about the same time John Steelman and Klutz Settlemyre (the latter a pilot) brought a JN-4OD biplane to Hickory, circa 1929. Steelman and Settlemyre had purchase a surplus U.S. Army Air Corp. plane in a very dilapidated condition and spent much time rebuilding it. They bought another, also know as Jenny, a short while later. The Jenny, so nicknamed from the JN designation, was built by Curtis and was used to train American pilots during World War One.

The planes had fuselages constructed of wooden longerons and struts, with much wire connecting the wings. The engine was mounted on wood, the wings were covered with doped linen to make it taut, and a tale skid was affixed.

The late R.E. Ballenger probably became the first victim of an airplane crash in Hickory. He was accustomed to flying British planes in World War One, and the throttle operated opposite to the manner in which American planes function. Through habit, he pulled backward on the throttle instead of going forward—and the airplane lost power and crashed. He suffered a broken wrist.

On January 17, 1921, Cupid rode high over Hickory. On that date Reid C. Seaboch and Miss Martha Garrison had a portion of their marriage ceremony performed while they were passengers in a stunt plane, "New Standard," with Lieut. Harmon at the controls. Frank A. Clinard, a Justice of the Peace, was the officiating magistrate. On the flight the couple and the Magistrate were accompanied by a witness, Dick Banks, then a reporter for The Record. At the completion of the exchange of vows, the pilot put the plane in a loop to tie the nuptial know.

[This story has been graciously contributed by Janey Deal of the Patrick Beaver Library]
[Hickory Democrat (no date, ca 1912)

Derick S. Hartshorn - ©2008-present
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