Monday, December 1, 2008

Early Aviation on Apache Trail

December 1, 2008 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

When we think of aviation, the names of Orville and Wilbur Wright come to mind immediately. These brothers are credited with making the first flight with a heavier-than-air machine. They accomplished this phenomenal feat on December 14, 1903, near Kill Devil Hill, Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Three days later, on December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers accomplished their most successful flight of that year. Their plane flew for fifty-nine seconds and traveled eight hundred and fifty-two feet in the air. This experiment convinced the brothers they had finally solved the problem of flight. One month prior to this date construction began on the Apache Trail below the Roosevelt Dam site in the Box Canyon of the Salt River. This sixty-two mile road would require almost two years [to] build.

Sixteen years later, shortly after the end of World War I, a Wilbur Wright was traveling around the country demonstrating the ability of airplanes. It was about this time a transportation entrepreneur named Wesley Hill wanted to start an airline in Arizona between Globe and Phoenix. Hill knew very little about airplanes, but he had been involved in motor transportation since 1910 in Arizona.

Hill, a transportation entrepreneur, owned and operated the Apache Trail Auto State Company and was interested in developing and promoting business associated with aviation. Hill formed the Apache Trail Aerial Transportation Company in December of 1918. He convinced men like Lt. D.S. Bushnell, a retired U.S. Air Service aeronautical engineer and Lt. J.F. Casey, a retired U.S. Army Air Service pilot to become pilots in his new company.

Hill and J. Robinson Hall were convinced they could operate an aerial stage line. They planned on using a converted Handley-Page bomber to transport passengers and cargo along their line.

The Handley-Page was powered by two 400hp Liberty engines. Hill and Hall were convinced they could open the skyways over Arizona. Their advertisements of the day claimed a flight from Phoenix to Los Angeles would require only three hours and a flight to Globe from Phoenix would only require about an hour.

Hall and Hill released stock in their new company and the periodicals were filled with their advertisements about aerial transportation in Arizona and the Southwest. Sometime around the middle of February 1919, Hall and Hill traveled to New York to purchase their Handley-Page aircraft.

Once in New York they attended a U.S. Air Service reunion and heard a lot of praise about the safety record of the Handley-Page aircraft. Hall and Hill flew in the Handley-Page and further supported the testimony of the Air Service pilots. Hill pointed out the 12,000 pound aircraft landed at 35 mph and was extremely easy to control in flight. They announced that the aircraft would be on its way West within two weeks. Hill announced the Apache Aero Line would start service on August 1, 1919, and the story appeared in the Arizona Gazette on April 3, 1919.

While following the history of Arizona’s first aerial transportation company, I noticed in the Arizona Gazette another article where Wesley Hill sold his Apache Trail Stage Line to another company named Union Auto Transportation for $10,000. Hill had pioneered the Apache Trail Auto Stage Line some seven years prior.

Wesley Hill and Robinson Hall worked long and tedious hours promoting their aerial transportation company, but it never became a reality. Hill and Hall reminded anyone who would listen that a flight from Globe to Phoenix required less than an hour. The company’s stock never sold like Hall and Hill believed it would and the company eventually faded into obscurity.

While researching the aerial transport history of Arizona I came across the following story. On June 16, 1919, the following article appeared in the Arizona Gazette.

Makes Record Flight over Apache Trail
Piloted by Lieut. Wilbur Wright a Curtiss plane came Saturday from Globe, making a record flight of 100 miles in 52 minutes. Capt. F.L. Darrow was a passenger. The flight was made without incident over the beautiful scenery of the mountains traversed by the Apache Trail.

Lieut. Wright made a flight up to Globe last Tuesday, accompanied by a man from the local recruiting station. During the short time spent in the mining town an intensive recruiting campaign gained nine applications for the air service.

The landing Saturday was made in the small oval field within the racetrack at the fairgrounds, as the larger field used by airplanes previously is under irrigation at the present.

Ironically this flight was not piloted by the famous Wilbur Wright who first flew at Kitty Hawk Hill on December 17, 1903. Apparently it was another Wilbur Wright who piloted the plane along the Apache Trail. Wilbur Wright would have never piloted a Curtiss plane according to aviation historians and secondly Wilbur Wright had passed away by this time.

Wesley Hill and J. Robinson Hall dreamed of flight across the Arizona skies a decade too early. Wilbur Wright proved them correct about the one hour flying time between Globe and Phoenix. Did Hill and Robinson take advantage of the fact Wright was in Arizona to demonstrate his airplane? The answer to this question we will probably never know. This story adds an interesting transcript to the history of Arizona aviation, the Apache Trail and the Superstition Mountain region in general.

Many of the Handley-Pages were converted to passenger planes after World War I. The aero company originally built bombers for the British Navy during World War I and after the war produced commercial aircraft by converting the Handley-Page 400. The plane [was] capable of carrying 14 passengers. However none of the Handley-Page aircraft saw service in Arizona. Wesley A. Hill’s dream of commercial air transportation between Globe and Phoenix never became a reality until years later. Today, private aircraft do fly from Cutter Airfield east of Globe to Phoenix.