Year by year, the old soldiers of aviation are fading away.
Of 596 men and women who seven decades ago qualified for an air corps that would call itself the Early Birds of Aviation Inc., only 19 survive.
Henri Fabre, pilot of the world's first seaplane in 1910, died in France last year at the age of 101. That leaves Sir Thomas Sopwith, 98--near-immortal for having outlived his fighter planes and all the World War I aces they created--as the oldest member of the association and the breed.
Forrest Wysong of Laguna Hills is 92 and knows he will be the Early Birds' last president before the office must be assumed by an associate member, a son or daughter, widow or grandchild of a pioneer. At a Baltimore gathering in 1980, only eight original members attended. In Los Angeles last year, the number was less.
Meeting in Seattle
Who knows how many there will be for September's 58th annual reunion in Seattle? One thing, however, is known. The day will come when an associate will rise and move: "That whereas all qualified members of an aeronautical organization formed by those who flew solo before Dec. 17, 1916, have now taken their final flights, it is proposed. . . ."
"And that's when you become a historical group," secretary Jo Lees Cooper said. "That's when we become the Early Birds Historical Society."
Cooper, of Pasadena, is a perfect affiliate, one of 147 associates keeping the group alive. Her late father was Early Bird Walter Lees. Not a household name, perhaps. But he did teach Billy Mitchell how to fly. Now his daughter is making sure that men such as Walter Lees don't become forgotten forerunners, that their histories are written and taped before it's too late, that their reunions are publicized--and that as many of those 19 old-timers as possible attend the final gatherings.
Ironically, Cooper noted that a number don't attend reunions because of the expense of commercial flights. She gets crusty at the implication. "Yet these (Early Birds) are the people who put 'em (airlines) in business. Without these guys, we'd all be traveling by train."
True. The earliest Early Birds were a worldwide brotherhood of men whose names became companies and endowed airplanes. Glenn Curtiss. Glenn Martin. Allan Lockheed.
Some are better known for their feats: Cal Rodgers in 1910 was the first man to fly across the United States, even if his Wright biplane did take 49 days. Louis Bleriot made the first aerial crossing of the English Channel in 1909. Igor Sikorsky in 1939 designed and later built and flew the world's first helicopter.
But maybe there's a greater tribute to the antiquity of the Early Birds in recalling the fliers who were never considered for membership: Charles Lindbergh (first flight: 1922), Wiley Post (1925), Amelia Earhart (1921), Chuck Yeager (1942), Jimmy Doolittle (1917) and Eddie Rickenbacker (1917).
Early Birds must have gone aloft alone by airplane, balloon, glider, or airship before Dec. 17, 1916.
That deadline commemorates the 13th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first powered flight. More important, it predates the United States' entry into World War I by four months.
Military Trains Pilots
And that, sniffed Early Bird organizers, marks the moment when the gentlemanly standing and dare-devilment of aviation became somewhat tainted by the wholesale training of airmen by the military.
So, in 1928, over a happy dinner that involved pilots and aviation writers attending a flight exposition in Chicago, the Early Birds were formed. Membership sprawled worldwide among men and women who had shared a single feeling: "With tears streaming through our leaky goggles, trousers slapping against our spindly legs, we experienced the thrill that only we Early Birds were to experience," said one founding father, Russell Holderman. He died in the '60s.
They also held a common purpose: "To get together and shoot the breeze about how great we were," Dr. Paul Garber said. Garber, 86, also is a Ramsey Fellow and historian emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. "I'm the oldest thing around here . . . except the mummy on the third floor."
Garber, like so many Early Birds, soloed beneath a wobbly homemade glider. The ribs were barrel staves. Plans were a mental approximation of an existing design. Mother donated the wing fabric, a dressmaker's bolt of red chintz.
On Aug. 15, 1915, he was towed behind a car into the wind and became airborne not too far from what was then an outskirt of Washington. "I must have got about 50 feet high and I easily cleared some 5-feet-tall trees," Garber said.
"I recently pointed out those trees to somebody and told how I glided over them. They are 75 feet tall now . . . at the corner of California Street and Massachusetts Avenue."