When the “Birdman” Soared: Fred J. Wiseman and Olympia’s First Airplane Flight on May 20, 1911

bird man flying history
Fred J. Wiseman, shown here in Olympia, was already a noted aviator before he flew on May 20, 1911. Photo courtesy private collection.


By Jennifer Crooks

creative officeWith the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903 aviation became an object of national fascination in early twentieth century America. In May 1911, this interest in flight would combine with civic boosterism to bring Fred “The Birdman” Wiseman to Olympia to make the first airplane flight in Thurston County’s history. Wiseman (1876-1961) was already a noted pilot, credited with the first airmail flight in American history.

In the spring of 1911, Wiseman and several other aviators performed in various Pacific Northwest cities. Seeing this as a way to advertise their town, the Olympia Chamber of Commerce wrote to Charles L. Young, Wiseman’s manager, inquiring if the “Birdman” would be interested in flying in Olympia. Wiseman agreed and his flight was announced to the public on May 3.

bird man flying history
Fred J. Wiseman, shown here in Olympia, was already a noted aviator before he flew on May 20, 1911. Photo courtesy private collection.

Young came to Olympia to negotiate Wiseman’s contract after approving Carlyon Driving Park (near present-day Capitol Boulevard and Carlyon Avenue) as the site of the flight. The Chamber agreed to cover advertising costs and rent the track (about $200). Money from ticket sales would be divided between Wiseman’s group and the Chamber of Commerce. To raise the $200, which was needed immediately, a committee of the Chamber of the Commerce solicited donations from local businesses. Richard Butler was hired to handle regional publicity.

However, things did not go as planned. When Wiseman arrived in Olympia on the evening of May 17, the day before his scheduled flight, he declared the chosen area unsuitable for flying because the field was too small and surrounded by trees. A new site, on the Carlyon Fill, where the Swantown Marina is today, was selected. The Chamber of Commerce readily agreed to this change. Having just completed the Carlyon Fill, which added many blocks to the Olympia peninsula in 1910-11, they saw this as a chance to advertise the project. Although now considered a decision with serious environmental consequences, back then most people in Olympia simply saw the fill as a boon to business.

To prepare the site, Wiseman’s flight was delayed until May 19. His plane was reassembled in a shed and everything was on track for a flight in the afternoon. However, high winds delayed it another day. Wiseman had to cancel a Sunday flight in another location to keep his contract with Olympia. Impressed that he canceled this other engagement, tickets for the event were printed with “Boost for Olympia. Be square with a square man.” These tickets sold at 50 cents for adults, 25 cents for children.

People gathered early for the flight on May 20. The Olympia Daily Recorder newspaper estimated about 1,500 people attended but only 350 bought tickets. Most attendees thronged the city streets, beaches, buildings or watched from boats on the water. Olympia schools and most businesses closed for the afternoon.

bird man flying history
Over a thousand people attended Wiseman’s flights, held on the new Carlyon Fill. His plane is now at the National Postal Museum in Washington D.C., on loan from the National Air and Space Museum. Photo courtesy private collection.

Wiseman completed a total of three flights during the afternoon, starting at 3:10. For a first flight that lasted five minutes, he took off flying due north from the shed, rising 100 feet above the ground, going nearly to Priest Point Park, circling around to fly over the crowd, waving to those below. He flew around in a circle and landed near the north end of the field.

Wiseman did two more flights, at 3:50 and 4:30, each of which lasted about three minutes. Both times he circled the Olympia Harbor. Serious propeller trouble caused by an overheated flange curtailed his activities and he had to cancel taking up passengers and flying around the Capitol building’s clock tower. On the second flight he took a photo but the camera failed. The next flight he tried to take another photo of the town, but the photo did not turn out. However, the Chamber of Commerce considered the flights of the “Birdman” an overall success.

His flights completed, Wiseman and his entourage left by train that evening and shipped out his plane. The Chamber of Commerce was unable to meet expenses from the ticket sales and was forced to collect the subscriptions promised by the business people. Still the Chamber hoped Wiseman and several other aviators might perform on the Fourth of July later that year but they did not.

One mystery surrounding Wiseman’s flights on May 20 is the lost moving picture film of Olympia. A “Mr. Harbeck” of the Western State Illustrating Company filmed Wiseman’s three flights as well as places around Olympia, such as the Capitol. This film was shown at the Rex Theater in Olympia May 22 through 28. After that it was sent to Seattle and onto “the regular circuit.” The ultimate fate of the film has never been determined, though its survival is doubtful.

Wiseman retired from flying later in 1911 and eventually became an executive for Standard Oil. Olympia’s aviation history would continue to change and grow, centered on the Olympia Regional Airport which was established in the 1920s. The popular Olympic Air Show, held annually by the Olympic Flight Museum at the airport, demonstrates the continued love of flight in the local community.


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