high-pitched whine of an aircraft engine, straining to gain altitude,
is a familiar sound at Gillespie County Airport, but a hundred years
ago mechanical noises of any kind were unusual in rural Texas. Most
folks in Fredericksburg
had never heard or seen a flying machine until 3 biplanes landed
in a field southwest of town on Christmas Day 1919.
The planes left Kelly Field in San
Antonio that morning bound for El
Paso. The pilots, Lt. St. John, Lt. Penney and Lt. Peabody,
were all experienced aviators and instructors at Kelly. Each pilot
carried a mechanic in the second seat.
The trip had 2 objectives. The pilots and mechanics were part of
a nationwide project to map and photograph air routes between cities.
Another purpose of the trip was to encourage an interest in air
The stopover in Fredericksburg
wasn't exactly encouraging.
The planes left San Antonio
at 9:45 am. The weather was good, but soon after takeoff the pilots
hit a 30 mph headwind.
The planes could only fly 60 mpg, and after 90 minutes of hard flying
they had only gotten as far as Fredericksburg.
By then they were low on fuel and needed a place to land.
But there was a problem. Recent heavy rains had soaked Gillespie
County. When the pilots looked for a place to touch down, they
saw pools of water standing in every field. The moisture glistened
in the sunlight.
After spending 35 minutes buzzing the countryside around Fredericksburg,
Lt. St. John, the commander of the expedition, selected a field
southwest of town as the best spot to attempt a landing.
One by one the planes came in. All landed safely. A crowd of country
folk soon gathered to get a closer look at the noisy contraptions
that scattered their cattle, spooked their horses and scared their
chickens half to death. Children thought the airplanes carried Santa
The pilots and mechanics hitched a ride into town where the people
after learning of the aviators' friendly intentions, treated them
The Red Cross entertained the fliers with Christmas lunch at the
Nimitz Hotel. There was another event at the Dietz Hotel.
Later that afternoon a group of townspeople escorted the pilots
back to their planes, now fully loaded with gasoline. But the air
had turned cold, and the pilots had trouble starting the engines.
Finally the engines started, and after warming up for a few minutes,
the pilots positioned the planes for takeoff. Spectators crossed
their fingers as the planes attempted to get back in the air. The
ground was so soft there was fear that the planes could not get
up the speed required for takeoff.
Lt. St John was the first to go. He gunned the engine, released
the brake and sloshed across the soggy field, gaining speed until
he slowly climbed into the air. Lt. Peabody followed and was soon
airborne. But Lt. Penney's plane couldn't get up enough speed. His
machine plowed into the barbed wire fence at the end of the clearing.
No one was injured, but the plane was a wreck.
Seeing the fate of his traveling companions Lt. St. John came around
and landed again, but when he tried to take off the second time,
he could not clear the fence.
Then Lt. Peabody landed in a nearby field. After making sure his
companions were not injured, he managed to take off successfully
a second time although he missed by a whisker some oak trees along
the fence line. He landed safely at Kelly Field 65 minutes later.
Lt. St. John, Lt. Penney and their mechanics caught a ride back
to San Antonio, probably
on the train. Two army trucks hauled the mangled planes back to
Soon other planes flew over Fredericksburg
continuing the job of mapping and photographing air routes.
As to the part about promoting air travel, the people of Fredericksburg
might be forgiven for wondering if travel by airplane was all it
was cracked up to be.
"Three Airplanes at Fredericksburg," Fredericksburg Standard,
January 4, 1919.