On this day in (engineering) history…
By Stephen Phillips
The short life of Philip Orin Parmelee took a turn in September 1912 when he was taught to fly an aeroplane by the inventors of powered flight, the Wright Brothers.
Two months later, today, 7 November 1910, 23 year old Philip would pilot the very first commercial flight and the first flight to carry freight, between Dayton and Columbus, both in the great state of Ohio.
The Wright Model B
Beside Philip in the pilot’s position was his cargo ten bolts of silk, weighing in at 45.4kg. It was tightly wrapped in brown paper and strapped to the body of the Wright Model B plane. It had to be because this was an open bodied wooden frame, with canvass coverings to make the wings and control surfaces. There was an engine with propellers and very little else. Navigation was a map, fixed to a wing. The plane was still rudimentary, compared to what would take to the air even just a few years later.
Parmelee could fly only enough to avoid trees, electrical wires and tall buildings. Newspaper clippings quote the Wrights giving a journey time of 66 minutes, but Phill was credited with a flight time of 57 minutes, a record for the day.
Why, How, Who?
The flight was a publicity stunt, conjured by a local businessman with a dry goods store to promote. The entrepreneur in question, Max Morehouse, president of the Morehouse-Martens Company of Columbus wanted to raise the profile of his store in Columbus. But how?
After reading of a flight between Sandusky, Ohio to Cleveland, Ohio, he knew what to do. Moorehouse contacted the Wright Brothers asking if they could deliver fabric from Elder & Johnston Co. of Dayton to Columbus.
The contract was drawn up and the Wright Company charged Moorehouse the princely sum of $5000.
Not quite to plan
The plan was Phil would take off from Huffman Prairie Testing Ground, follow the route of a train, with passengers heading to the landing point at the Driving Park, a racing circuit in Columbus. Naturally, they would arrive before the Wright Model B. A chase car would follow Phil’s flight, just in case he got into trouble.
The whole thing went like clockwork, with two exceptions. The chase car got stuck in mud and Phil’s Wright Model B overtook the train. As a result, there were ‘only’ a thousand spectators at the Driving Park were there to welcome the intrepid aviator.
The cargo was delivered to Mr Moorehouse by car, not only was it the first commercial flight, but an early multi-modal delivery.
Commercial cargo flight at this time was simply not commercially viable. The 1920s would mark the beginning of airmail services. These could be used to send goods on tight deadlines – mechanical parts, mail, fashion, jewellery, movie reels – but the kind of cargo flights we now take for granted would have to wait until after the Second World War.
Now, carrying freight by air is a massive business circling the globe. It can move everything we can think of - railway rolling stock, refrigerated products, livestock (in pressurised compartments), construction equipment and cars and military vehicles. Even space shuttles.
A sense of an ending
Phil Parmelee became a pioneer. He took part in the first military reconnaissance flight, along the Texas border with Mexico in 1911. He piloted the plane that ‘launched’ the first man to jump with a parachute. He picked up a reputation as a daredevil and flew all over the US. Until one afternoon at an airshow in North Yakima, Washington, on June 1, 1912. His plane ran into turbulence, which sent him into a nosedive. His body was found behind the engine of his plane, in an apple orchard at Moxee, Washington.
By coincidence, this was day of Wilbur Wright’s funeral at the 1st Presbyterian Church, Dayton, Ohio.
Stephen Phillips is an IET Content Producer, with passions for history, engineering, tech and the sciences.
It could be argued that Philip Parmelee’s achievement was unnecessary. It is questionable whether air-freight has added anything important to our lives, except sending foreign aid to disaster zones. Ultimately, regular shipping or even road transport is just as useful and wouldn’t have put so much greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. What do you think?