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History of Pearson
By Dean Baker   - 06/06/2006

Vancouver Columbian

Bill Alley, author of \"Pearson Field, Pioneering Aviation in Vancouver and Portland,\" holds a copy of his new book in the Pearson Air Museum. Alley, a historian and archivist, is the author of dozens
Bill Alley's dad and uncle both were flying enthusiasts from the 1930s into the 1960s, and their aviation fever rubbed off on the boy as he grew up in Medford, Ore.

So it was natural that Alley, a historian and certified archivist, came to compile a book on Clark County's flying history after he moved to Camas from Medford five years ago.

His book on Vancouver's historic airport is called "Pearson Field, Pioneering Aviation in Vancouver and Portland."

The 128-page collection of photographs includes many pictures seldom seen by the public. It is a quick, visual history of Vancouver's 95-year-old airport, which is in the Vancouver National Historic Reserve off Fifth Street.

Pearson Field, often described as the oldest continuously operating airfield in the United States, had its origin six years before its official opening in 1911.

It all started on Sept. 19, 1905. That's when 18-year-old Lincoln Beachey piloted his Baldwin airship across the Columbia River from the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exhibition grounds in Portland to the polo field at Vancouver Barracks.

His ship was a simple contraption, shown in several photos in the book.

"Beachey just stood on that open metal frame as it went up in the air," said Alley, 52, who has a master's degree in public history from North Carolina State University. "To get it to point upward, he'd walk to the back. To get it to point downward, he'd walk to the front. Gutsy guy. Of course he didn't live much longer either. He was killed in 1915 when his plane failed on him."

The trip was the first controlled, powered flight in the state of Washington.

It took Beachey 40 minutes to reach Vancouver. Then, he headed back to Portland but the wind changed, his fuel ran low, and he landed in a field near Orchards, flying for a total of almost two hours. Beachey's voyage shattered by 20 minutes the world's record for flight duration at that time. It had been set by Alberto Santos-Dumont at the Paris Exposition of 1900.

Beachey's flight also set this community on course to become a simmering hub of early aviation activity.

Namesake never visited

Dozens of additional historic photos include shots of hotshot pilots such as Alexander Pearson, the famed American pilot who never set foot on the airfield that was named for him in 1925. It includes pioneer aviators Oakley Kelly and Tex Rankin and daredevil flyers Danny Grecco, Ann "Half-Pint" Bohrer and Fay "Tiny" Carter.

The field was named for Pearson, Alley said, because Pearson's parents lived in Portland and because Kelly a great promoter of Vancouver aviation was successful in lobbying the U.S. War Department for the designation. At Fairfield, Ohio, on Sept. 2, 1924, Pearson was killed when his experimental airplane crashed in a field at 260 mph.

When the Vancouver field was dedicated on May 7, 1925, 56 aircraft from throughout the West came to Vancouver, drawing 20,000 spectators for a display of hotshot flying. That began a long tradition of flight shows that continued in Vancouver for decades.

12 minutes to Vancouver

The history of Pearson Field took off in 1911 when aeronaut Silas Christofferson, a race car driver who looked up at the sky and decided to build a monoplane, started to operate in the area. In 1912, Christofferson launched his Curtiss pusher biplane off the top of Portland's Multnomah Hotel. He sputtered and soared over downtown Portland and landed at Vancouver Barracks 12 minutes later.

After that, the history of the field sailed forward. Its biggest boost into visibility came by coincidence on June 20, 1937, when a Soviet ANT-25 airplane unexpectedly landed there. The airplane carried three trans- polar fliers: Valery Chkalov, Georgy Baidukov and Alexander Belyakof. After flying over the pole, they had intended to land at San Francisco, but detoured to Vancouver when a fuel pump failed.

Such events fill Alley's treasure trove of old photos and sprightly captions. This book is the fourth in a history series featuring this area by Arcadia Publishing. The others are "Washougal," "Camas" and "Downtown Vancouver."

Alley finished the book several months ago, he said. He's now at work on a museum show honoring the 80th anniversary of the beginnings of airmail service on the West Coast.

Pearson Field played a role in that momentous event, he said. It served as Portland's post office on a route of airmail service from Seattle to Los Angeles, beginning on Sept. 15, 1926.

Dean Baker writes about history. Reach him at 360-759-8009 or e-mail dean.baker@columbian.com.

Vancouver-related history book

* "Pearson Field, Pioneering Aviation in Vancouver and Portland."

* Bill Alley of Camas, archivist, historian and former member of the board of directors of the Pearson Field Historical Society.

* Arcadia Publishing, 2006. $19.99, softcover, in bookstores and at Pearson Air Museum on Monday or online from www.Arcadiapublishing.com.

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