Planes have been flying in and out of McCook since about 1913. McCook’s Ray Search was on hand when Albin Longren, one of the pioneers in aircraft manufacture in Kansas, along with Cessna and Piper, made the first flight from McCook. It turned out to be a short flight around town It ended when Mr. Longren lost power and made a crash landing in a muddy field, in the spot where Felling Field is now located. He was unhurt and the plane was not badly damaged.
Until the airport was moved to its present spot north and east of town, after World War II, McCook’s flying field was located in west McCook, first on the hill where McCook Junior High and Senior High now stands, then later on a flat field east of McCook’s north cemetery, between L and Q Streets. During that period of time a number of celebrities, including Charles Lindbergh, used the field. In the ’30s, one of McCook’s citizens, Fay Lucille Cox, reportedly became the first woman in the world to make a free fall parachute jump.
After World War I, a couple of former U.S. Army Air Corps flight instructors, Harold Sutton of McCook, and Wade Stevens, then of Beaver City (and later of McCook), used the airport extensively.
Harold Sutton was the first McCook citizen to own a plane, an Army surplus Jenny. However, his private flying ended soon after it began, when, on his first flight with his wife as a passenger, his plane crashed upon approach for landing.
Neither Harold nor his wife were injured, but Mrs. Sutton reportedly laid down an ultimatum – either the plane or his marriage. He could not have both. Harold sold his plane and became an ex-pilot.
Wade Stevens was an Army Flight Instructor in both Texas and in France during World War I. Upon his return from service, Wade was involved in a bit of aviation history. His friend, Dr. Brewster of Beaver City, bought an airplane. While Wade was waiting to enter law school, he assembled that plane for the doctor. He became Dr. Brewster’s pilot, taking the doctor on house calls throughout Southwest Nebraska and Northwest Kansas. Thus, Dr. Brewster the first physician in the U.S. to make his calls by air. Subsequently Wade taught Dr. Brewster to fly and the good doctor continued to pilot his own plane well into his 80s.
The early-day McCook pilots were a close-knit group, and at one time several in that group even formed their own fraternity, “The Knights of the Wormy Stump” (named after a worm crawled out of one of the stumps, which were being used for seats before the fire place in Ray Search’s cabin). The members of that group represented the nucleus of McCook flyers in those early days – Steve Tuttle, the manager of the airport, Forrest Garlick, a flight instructor, Paul Batty, Les Neiman, Eddie Malcolm, Chas. Warriner, Glen Hughes and Ray Search. Glen Hughes and Willard Dutton, a local druggist, and also a pilot, were victims of a fatal plane crash in 1933.
Even though facilities at the early airports were minimal, there was considerable activity there. Barnstormers regularly visited, giving demonstrations of flying skills and taking people for airplane rides, often flying over the passenger’s farmstead, giving him the first view of his farm from the air. In 1928 a Ford Tri-motor commercial flight, carrying 14 people crashed between 10th & 11th Street north of C Street. No one was hurt in the crash.
The early pilots were certainly aviation pioneers. Their instruments consisted of a fuel gauge, an oil pressure gauge, and a tachometer – nothing else. There was no wind indicator, no brakes, and no turning wheel. There was a tailskid that dug into the ground, slowed the plane, and helped to hold a straight path. The only way to turn the plane on the ground was to use the rudder and gun the engine. Yet these pilots insisted on testing their endurance, and that of their plane. Ray Search tells of taking an open-cockpit plane aloft when the temperature was 20 degrees below zero, and it was snowing. “I darn near froze to death, but we wanted to find out if it could be done!”
Early on, Steve Tuttle engaged in the buying and selling of planes at the airport. One time Tuttle, Forrest Garlick, and Ray Search even got into the manufacture of airplanes on their own. Their first (and last) plane was constructed of parts that had been salvaged from a number of discarded planes throughout the area.
When they flew the plane to North Platte, to license the craft, they were turned away because of discrepancies on the serial numbers of some of the parts. So they sold the plane on the spot. The new owner proceeded to fly the plane home, but crashed on his maiden trip. Thus ended the budding career of plane manufacture for the McCook trio.
There was, though, in 1928, a fledgling aircraft manufacturing industry in McCook. Glenn Morton established Morton Bros. Aircraft Manufacture in McCook. A man from Kearney purchased their first plane, a three-passenger biplane, for $2,800. Eventually, there were eight of the planes built in the McCook plant, but lack of capital, and suitable facilities were impossible hurdles to overcome, and the project was abandoned.
In 1929 McCook was on the cutting edge of aviation history once again. Harry Strunk, the publisher of the McCook Daily Gazette, always the innovator, decided to deliver his papers via air. He engaged Steve Tuttle to deliver the Gazette, with a Curtiss Robin plane, christened “Newsboy” to some 46 towns in a 300-mile route on a daily basis.
Thus, the Gazette became the first daily newspaper in the land to fly its route via the airplane on a regular basis. (Bill Kimsey and Klick Asbergrand later joined Tuttle as pilots on the project.) For the inaugural flight, Harry Strunk brought governors from three states and a crowd of some 20,000 people to McCook. They watched pilots in more than 40 planes compete in flying contests for over $500 in prize money.
Steve Tuttle was especially accurate in dropping the newspaper bundles on the drop zones. Customers generally liked the service, and the Gazette received favorable publicity throughout the country. But there were problems. A tornado damaged the plane, delivery costs were high, and the onset of the depression had begun. After about a year the aerial deliveries were discontinued. In the early ’50s, Ben Frank resumed the Gazette aerial deliveries, using a single engine Cessna 120. This time there was no tornado, and the Depression was over, but delivery costs were still high. The aerial delivery service lasted about four years.
In the ’30s there was a second generation of avid McCook flyers. Two members of this group were Klick Asbergrand and Ben Frank. Klick went into the Canadian Air Force before World War II, and later became a member of the U. S. Army Air Corps
Airplanes and the men who flew those planes always fascinated Ben Frank. As a boy he worked at odd jobs and saved his money so he could take flying lessons from Steve Tuttle. He took these lessons against the wishes of his parents, but the lure of flight was too strong for him to resist. He got his pilot’s license and flew at every opportunity. When World War II came along he, too, enlisted in the Army Air Corps, and was made an instructor in the Navy’s preflight school, first at North Platte, and later at Grand Junction, Colo., where he remained for the duration of the war. Upon his discharge he started the airport at Imperial, and two years later came to McCook, in time for the move of the airport to its present location.
With limited facilities and three planes, he established McCook’s first fixed-base aircraft operation. In order to lease the land at the airport for his operation he had to work out an arrangement with the college, and thus was born Frank’s “Jr. College Flying Service”. At this facility he offered G. I.-approved student flight training, charter flights, full shop maintenance, and ground school.
Over the years, until he sold out to Jim Baird and Merritt Allen in 1967, Ben taught hundreds of students to fly. He was also instrumental in improving McCook’s Airport facilities, with added storage hangers and maintenance buildings. In 1949 Ben brought an approved Weather Station to McCook. During the blizzard of 1949 he worked with the Southwest Nebraska Sportsmen’s Association to save thousands of starving pheasants by dropping grain to isolated flocks of birds.
Ben liked to make memorable demonstrations for his students. One demonstration showed the flying abilities of the 40 h.p. Piper Cub. This plane could fly at only 20 mph. Going into a 25 mph wind, Ben could throttle the engine back so that the plane was actually flying across the field BACKWARDS. A very graphic lesson for a new student.