Columbia’s century-spanning fascination with flight
Columbians joined world citizens in their fascination with flight when the innovation soared to a start early in the 20th century. But this air-minded capital city earned its civic wings in some unique, yet lesser-known, ways. Even as the Wright brothers’ ambitious experiment lofted at Kitty Hawk in neighboring North Carolina, two inventors with Upcountry South Carolina ties were neck and neck in the race for first in flight.
Charles Manly, whose father was president of Furman University, worked closely with Samuel P. Langley on the development of their steam-powered Aerodrome, successfully launched from the Potomac River in early May 1896. Alexander Graham Bell witnessed the Manly-Langley achievement, which also introduced the world’s first aircraft carrier, a houseboat.
Historically the first aircraft to fly, the initially unmanned Aerodrome was fueled both by steam and gasoline engines. Next, it was manned with Manly as test pilot, establishing a South Carolinian as this nation’s first airplane designer, engineer, and mechanic — and first airplane pilot.
The Aerodrome remains on display at Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian Institution in close proximity to the Wright Flyer. The original engine Manly developed is on view at the National Air and Space Museum in the nation’s capital. Although the Manly-Langley strides went into record books seven years prior to the Wright brothers’ historic Dec. 3, 1903, comeuppance, aviation branding carried the name Wright.
By 1911, the Wright brothers moved one of their established flying operations from Augusta, Georgia, to Aiken, South Carolina, opening the Palmetto State’s first century of flight. That operation entailed demonstrating, teaching, and selling airplanes. Within the decade following the birth of flight, the world poured millions of dollars into aviation, strongly motivated by possible military applications. Flight debuted as a tactical advantage early in WWI, and South Carolinian Elliott White Springs of Fort Mill distinguished himself as a flying ace.
Although by 1923 pioneering American pilots held 33 world flying records, investors realized technological advances and prizes represented only two legs of a three-legged stool. The third was developed airports. That same year in Columbia, young entrepreneur Paul Rinaldo Redfern established this city’s first airport on a patch of land, now the site of Dreher High School. Bolstered by his engineless model designed after the popular Curtiss Jenny and handmade in his Columbia High School industrial arts class, young Redfern next persuaded his parents to allow him to suspend school temporarily. To gain life and flying experience, he immersed himself into the world of aviation by taking a job as an Army Air Corps production inspector at Standard Aircraft Company in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
That aircraft plant closed when WWI ended in 1918, but Redfern stuck around for more air time, barnstorming and performing at aerial shows in a Curtiss Jenny JN4 purchased with his first earnings. When he returned home to his relieved parents — his father was a professor at Benedict College — the ambitious youth purchased a surplus engine at Camp Jackson, now known as Fort Jackson, and ordered letterhead announcing himself as president and chief pilot of his business venture. His offerings were commercial aerial photography, aerial advertising, aerial training, and passenger carrying.
The thrill of introducing Columbians to the phenomenon of flight paled quickly. Even making the first night flight in Columbia July 4, 1923, from a makeshift airstrip at the State Fairgrounds did not satiate young Redfern’s hunger for more excitement and recognition. Reading and listening to news accounts of Charles Lindberg’s daring New York to Paris solo flight whetted Redfern’s appetite for headlines of his own.
Setting his sights on establishing a successful trade route between Brunswick, Georgia, and South America, Redfern envisioned his name in record books as first to solo across the Caribbean Sea. When the audacious venture’s backers asked for Redfern’s choice of airplane, he opted for a Stinson Detroiter SM-1, a high-wing model with a Wright J-5 “Whirlwind” engine, the same type motor used on the “Spirit of St. Louis.” He took off from a packed-sand Brunswick beach into a moonless night Aug. 25, 1927.
The following day the captain of a freighter navigating the Orinoco River in Venezuela witnessed the plane flying above, so Redfern did earn the Caribbean Sea solo crossing record. But soon after that sighting, another witness saw the yellow and green monoplane with a conspicuous curl of black smoke trailing from its nose.
Redfern was never heard from again after that sighting.
By 1929, Mayor L. B. Owens’ vision for a commercial airport for Columbia had gained traction; Richland County had purchased and the city had begun clearing for development the Melton-Belser-Kohn property three miles south of downtown. Columbia signed a contract on Oct. 1, 1929, with the Curtiss-Wright Corporation to build an A-1-A field in accordance with federal guidelines. The first A represented the highest quality hangar; the 1 referred to the size of the landing area. The ending A symbolized lighting for mail planes, but Columbia had no air mail service yet, so officials balked at paying for night lighting.
Emerging initially from that clearing was a temporary wooden structure, not the iconic Curtiss-Wright Hangar that has dominated the in-town airport complex’s corner for close to nine decades. Recently, the historically significant Curtiss Wright Hangar was reclaimed as the Hunter-Gatherer Brewery. By spring 1930, Curtiss-Wright was operating a ground school for Columbians interested in learning to fly.
The hangar hosted perhaps its most celebrated aviator Nov. 31, 1931. Amelia Earhart, who flew in as part of a southeastern autogiro demonstration tour, took local officials, including Mayor Owens, on brief flights over the city before being honored as luncheon guest at the Jefferson Hotel.
L.B. Owens Airport and the architecturally distinctive Curtiss-Wright Hangar continued to represent progress in Columbia throughout the 1930s as aviation claimed its place in the economy’s technology and manufacturing sectors, nationally and worldwide.
One of aviation’s earliest commercial applications was air mail delivery. Columbia finally got its first route Dec. 1, 1932, after Delta Airlines won the contract covering Dallas, Texas, to Charleston. Delta added passenger service July 7, 1934.
The year 1935 marked the founding of the South Carolina Aeronautics Commission, headquartered in downtown Columbia’s Carolina Life Building, with Dexter Martin as executive director. The commission’s mission was guiding and assisting the development of airports throughout the state, and in 1937, Martin also spearheaded the construction of an administration building. Its offices, a hangar, and a machine shop were established within the airport complex, just north of the Curtiss-Wright Hangar.
Aviation naturally was high on the nation’s mind in 1939 as the sabers of war rattled in Europe, though America vowed to support its allies from the safety of its own borders. In Columbia, Hawthorne Flying Service began teaching civilian pilot courses through the University of South Carolina. Within a year, Caroline Etheridge Hembel became the Southeast’s first female to earn her pilot’s license through the Civilian Pilot Training program, and she soon became one of Hawthorne’s flight trainers.
Interest in flying ramped up activity at the Curtiss-Wright Hangar, further compromising space as the Eighth Division of the Army stationed an air squadron at Owens Airport. When the 105th Observation Squadron was ordered to report, its personnel took over the aeronautics commission hangar for work and slept in tents set up north of the building. Just across the Richland County line, the commercial Lexington County Airport was being constructed to also meet military requirements, even as America continued to avoid entering the war in Europe.
When the Imperial Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941, the nearly complete complex was immediately militarized, just days ahead of its scheduled ribbon cutting. The observation squadron at Owens Field was ordered across town as the new air base’s first personnel.
That the Midlands’ air base was designated early on as a B-25 bomber training center became one of the most history-shaping decisions to affect aviation in the area. The B-25 was the only aircraft Col. James Doolittle determined suitable for America’s top-secret retaliatory mission targeting Japan. To recruit the crews he ultimately would lead to Japan’s mainland from the pitching deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, the highly decorated aviator came in person to then-renamed Columbia Army Air Base. From the time the world learned the Doolittle Raid’s origins were here, Columbia, its aviation legacy, and civic persona have been inextricably tied to the B-25.
A B-25, on a skip-bombing training mission over Lake Murray April 4, 1943, became known as the Lake Murray Bomber when the ditched aircraft finally was rescued in late September 2005. When no South Carolina museum offered the fragile artifact a home, the plane was accepted at the Southern Museum of Flight in Birmingham, Alabama, where its fuselage is exhibited as though still underwater.
On D-Day, another B-25 that also was part of the CAAB-assigned fleet, at that time on loan to Greenville Army Air Base, ditched into Lake Greenwood during a June 5, 1944, routine training mission. When finally rescued in 1984, the rare Mitchell bomber began its return to Columbia, where it served as a backdrop for three Doolittle Raiders reunions: 1992, 2002, and 2009.
Additionally, the aircraft continues to play an educational role. Now in the stewardship of the South Carolina Historic Aviation Foundation, the B-25C attracts visitors to Open House at Hangar Y-1 on Second Saturdays at Hamilton-Owens Airport, according to SCHAF president Ken Berry.
Ron Shelton, SCHAF vice president for education, says, “Restoration objectives to achieve education purposes have warranted two $10,000 grants from the Richland County Conservation Commission. SCHAF volunteers work on the plane weekly.”
WWII introduced flight to legions of American service members. Post-war, sustained interest in recreational and business-related flying was fueled by a robust economy and jobs that afforded the workforce recreational time. Long-time volunteer airport manager Jim Hamilton says, “The GI bill was responsible for approximately 85 percent of civilian flight training during that period.” Jim explains that a Richland County Council (the airport owner) resolution dated Dec. 16, 2008, officially changed the airport name to the Jim Hamilton-L.B. Owens Airport because of his almost 50 years’ commitment to the airport.
National interest in recreational flying paralleled the 1953 chartering of the Experimental Aircraft Association. Jim Herpst, president of EAA Chapter 242, formed locally in 1965, says that introducing the general public to the aviation experience continues as the organization’s mission.
“For us that introduction includes more than 11,000 kids, ages 8 to 17, who have come through our EAA’s Young Eagles program since 1992. Flying their own general aviation planes, burning their own fuel, this chapter’s volunteer pilots take kids up for what are often their first flights.” Jim adds that Young Eagles fly at Hamilton-Owens Airport on the second Saturday of each month.
Camaraderie within the membership also extends to cooking for aviation-related events, including the South Carolina Breakfast Club, as well as working on planes, some home-built. After Melinda Harrill’s retirement as a commercial pilot flying Boeing 767ERs, primarily to Europe, she built the RV-7 plane she has flown from Hamilton-Owens Airport regularly since 2016.
South Carolinian Charles Duke’s 1972 NASA moonwalk represented flight technology’s advancement into the space age. Other astronauts with Palmetto State ties are Frank Culbertson and Charles Bolden, who served as NASA administrator from 2009 to 2017. From its 1997 formation, Celebrate Freedom’s contribution to Columbia’s air-mindedness has been characterized by air shows, flyovers, and other educational and patriotism-inspiring events.
Among leaders inducted into the 1991-founded South Carolina Aviation Hall of Fame is Columbia native Robert Sumwalt. Robert recently was named chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. He began his NTSB tenure in 2006 when appointed by President George W. Bush, and he was reappointed in 2011 by President Barack Obama. His oversight covers aviation incidents such as the Miracle on the Hudson and the recent Amtrak derailment outside of Columbia.
Columbia’s aviation legacy has an expansive wingspan, and the sky is the limit to its future.
The Columbia Metropolitan team extends our heartfelt sympathy to the family of the late Camden native and local writer Rachel M. Haynie. This article on aviation history, already prepared for production in our September issue at the time of her death July 23, was among her last endeavors. For years, South Carolina readers have been enriched by Rachel’s eloquent and sensitive observations on art, culture, history, and science through hundreds of articles and a number of books. We mourn this loss and celebrate her life and contributions.