Up in the Air, Junior Birdman

The recent centennial of the end of World War I got me to wondering how the war effort affected our region. It was, of course, the impetus for the Boeing Airplane Company, which started in 1916 and by 1918 was building airplanes for the military. Few appreciated that air power would prove instrumental in ending the war that, unfortunately, didn’t end all wars. But one man did, and he set out to show all of Seattle, back in the day before the FAA. What follows is an abridged account from HistoryLink.org:

July 18, 1914

[Silas] Christofferson took John Evans, a reporter for The Seattle Times, on the ride of a lifetime. War had just broken out in Europe, and aircraft (a relatively new phenomenon) would soon redefine the way wars would be fought. To illustrate this, the two men spent an hour bombing Seattle.

They did not want to use explosives, of course, so they used flour bags instead. The nice white impact bursts would be visible from the air, indicating the accuracy of their bombing raids. They loaded up the plane [a Model D biplane] with 21 three-ounce flour sacks, with which to rain terror on the city below.

Taking off from Lake Union, Evans dropped a few test bombs over the water in order to gauge how far the bags would drift due to the wind. Throughout the flight, Evans acted as bombardier, while Christofferson pointed out targets. Once Evans was comfortable estimating where the sacks would land, the junior birdmen bore down on the city.

Bombs Away

The first bomb was dropped over a vacant lot, but forward thrust carried it a half-block further where it burst open in the doorway of a home. Evans mentally added 150 feet to his calculations as the plane moved closer to downtown.

Flying over the regrade area, they spotted a carnival. They deployed another bomb and it hurtled to the ground, exploding very near to a Ferris wheel. Christofferson grinned fiendishly as they flew on towards the Washington Hotel. They dropped another bomb, but this one hit a vacant lot behind the hotel.

From there, they deviated off course a bit and flew out over Elliott Bay. Evans tried bombing a passing ship, but the bag hit the water. Next, they flew over the old mill at the end of Harbor Island, and Evans scored a direct hit, leaving a white smear on the building’s roof.

City Under Siege

The airship headed straight for downtown, as groups of people stared up and pointed at the marvelous craft above. Realizing that even a small flour sack dropped from 1,000 feet would not have a pleasant effect on a pedestrian’s noggin, Evans had the presence of mind not to pelt the streets. He zeroed in on buildings instead.

First up was the Rainier-Grand Hotel, upon which Evans found great pleasure in scoring a direct hit…. After blitzing the Lincoln Hotel, the plane headed toward the waterfront. Attempting to plop a sack onto the Grand Trunk dock, Evans overshot, just missing the Admiral Farragut, which was moored to the north. Instead, the bag burst aboard the fireboat Duwamish much to the consternation of Acting Chief Engineer Charles Well, who preferred to keep his craft clean.

A few more bombs were tossed out of the plane. An attempt was made to “blow up” Fischer Brothers grocery, but the package caromed off Star Carriage instead. Following that, a perfect strike was made on Diamond Ice and Storage. Their ordnance now depleted, the men headed back to base.

Keep Watching the Skies!

In all, the bombers had hit their targets 20 percent of the time, which they considered a success. “If an inexperienced man with nothing better than three-ounce packets of flour can score 20 percent of hits in guesswork throwing,” asked Christofferson, “what could be achieved by an airman with a compressed air weapon properly sighted and in a plane with range finding instruments?”

“Six aeroplanes can reduce Seattle to rubble or surrender,” he continued. “Five years more and ships of war will be obsolete. The dirigible balloons will be antiquated. There will be nothing left but the aeroplane, armored, equipped with guns, and manned by a crew of absolute scientists. Then must come peace, for an aeroplane war would be too awful to contemplate.”

For the complete story by Alan J Stein, go to: historylink.org/File/3478.

Thanks to Anne Depue, our book critic, for sleuthing out this piece of Seattle history.