Aero-daredevil forged a worldwide reputation
September 11, 2014
On June 8, 1912, the streets and parapets of downtown Portland were thronged with about 50,000 people, craning their necks at the roof of the Multnomah Hotel. Atop the roof of the 10-story building, arranged at the end of a tiny 150-foot-long strip of overlapping 20-foot planks, stood one of the spindly box-kite-like contraptions that were still the state of the art in aircraft design.
They were there to watch something that had never been done before, anywhere, and it was about to happen right before their eyes
— here, in the little almost-frontier city of Portland. Local aviator Silas Christofferson was about to launch his “aeroplane” from that tiny landing strip on the roof of a building, right smack in the middle of downtown.
“This is an age of ‘do it first,’” Christofferson explained, when asked why he was risking his neck on such a cockeyed scheme. “Be original; don’t copy. When a feat has been once performed the people tire of it and expect the next performer to give something entirely new. This is the only reason I have decided to make a flight from the top of the Multnomah Hotel Tuesday afternoon. It will be the first exhibition of its kind in the history of aviation.”
The history of aviation, at that time, was full of unplowed ground. As a practical matter, it had started just nine years before, when the Wright Brothers launched an aircraft not much different from Christofferson’s from a dune in South Carolina. At that time, Christofferson had been a lad of 13, living with his family in California.
Not much is known about his teenage years — like so many early pilots, he didn’t live long enough to tell many people about them — but he must have been powerfully affected by the nation’s growing interest in aviation. He was particularly excited when he saw an exhibition flight by legendary French pilot Hubert Latham in California, probably in 1909. Latham had a long string of “firsts” to his credit: first attempt to cross the English Channel; first person to smoke a cigarette in flight; first to shoot a duck from a flying airplane; first successful landing on water. Latham probably impressed upon young Christofferson not only the romance of aviation, but the “do it first” imperative as well.
The following year, at the age of 20, Christofferson moved to Portland to take a job working on those other modern wonders of the new age, automobiles.
Christofferson went to work for F.A. Bennett, an early automobile dealer who had the franchise for a variety of marques (Renault, Ford, Reo, and several more), and an interest in all sorts of motoring, from powerboats to aircraft. He could not have found a more congenial boss.
And that was especially the case after Christofferson had won the Rose Festival auto race in 1910, and again in 1911, followed by the Pacific Coast championship in motorboat racing in the 25-foot class — also in 1911. By that time, Portland had taken notice of the dashing young man, and was proud to call young Silas its own; and, happily for Silas, so was F.A. Bennett.
This was the age of the airplane exhibition, when the entire concept of a person flying through the air was so new that huge crowds would turn out just to watch someone take off and land again. And indeed, just doing this was dangerous enough. Aeronautical engineering was not yet a science; it was still an art, and that art was being refined into a science through a million errors — small errors and large ones, inconsequential errors and fatal ones. Flying was a job that required nearly instinctive reactions to keep the “ship” under control, and thecontrol systems had not yet been standardized into the familiar stick-and-rudder form of modern aviation. Make the wrong move at the wrong moment and it was all over. And many pilots had already died.
Christofferson had come of age toward the end of this era, an era in which airplane design was starting to coalesce into something approximating safety, when exhibition fliers were having to do more and more dangerous stunts to attract public attention.
With the enthusiastic backing of Bennett, Christofferson had returned to California to take flying lessons in a Curtiss pusher plane. Then, upon his return to Portland, he and his brother Harry built one like it and started flying it around, from Portland to Vancouver. In the process, Silas found a sporting girl named Emma Becker, who accompanied him on many of these flights and soon became his wife.
Which brings us to that spectacular event in June of 1912, when Christofferson started up his engine, pointed the spindly pusher plane at the end of the tiny, bumpy runway, and opened the throttle wide.
Doubtless the crowd had cleared the streets in front of the hotel, half expecting the young daredevil to come crashing to the ground in a tangle of cables and broken sticks and fabric and flesh and bone. But it didn’t happen. The boxy kite-like contraption lifted off the roof, soared into the sky and disappeared in the direction of Vancouver, where Christofferson landed in triumph, no doubt eager to celebrate with his soon-to-be wife and see some of the photographs that had been taken of the event.
The stunt made Christofferson famous, and he was soon making flights all over the state. His next trick involved flying his rickety airplane under three Portland bridges, skimming low over the river before landing on its surface; he’d outfitted his plane with floats.
Christofferson later moved to Coos Bay, where he offered locals flights over the bay and at one point tried to save the crew of a capsized schooner by landing on the water — which, if it had been successful (alas, it was not) would have been another “do it first” event in his life.
The following year, Christofferson moved to Redwood City, Calif., where he opened a flying school. No doubt he was eager, now that he was a married man, to dial back the danger a little. Unfortunately, though, this didn’t work. In 1916, testing out a new biplane at the flying school, his instincts — tuned for a different airplane control system, in which the elevators were controlled with the arms rather than the legs — failed him. Based on news reports, it appears that at a critical moment he was trying to drop the nose of the plane to prevent a stall, but used the wrong controls to do so, and the plane went into the stall 200 feet above the ground and plunged into the earth.
His wife rushed out onto the airfield, where the broken and dying Silas managed to gasp out the explanation of what had happened — and to say goodbye. A few hours later, in a local hospital, he died.
(Sources: Harris, Patrick. “The Exhibition Era of Early Aviation in Oregon, 1910-1915,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, Fall 1986; “Western Airman is Killed,” Popular Mechanics, Jan. 1917; Scott, Ken. “The Resistance,” Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine, May 2007)
Finn J.D. John teaches New Media at Oregon State University and is the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. He produces a daily podcast at ofor.us/p . To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.
Image above: Vancouver Columbian. Silas Christofferson’s spindly box-kite-like airplane clears the parapets of the 10-story Multnomah Hotel in Portland. This was the stunt that made Christofferson famous.
Second image: San Diego Air and Space Museu. Silas Christofferson at the controls of his plane in 1914, saying goodbye to his wife, Emma, as he prepares to make a flight from San Francisco to San Diego.
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