|Lee Eyerly, one of Oregon's old-time aviators,
went broke a half dozen times trying to build an fly real honest-to-goodness
airplanes that would do what the birdies do. Then, quite by
happenstance, he built a plane that wouldn't fly - and his fortune
was made. Since that day in 1931, he has made thousands of "dodo"
planes that can't get off the ground.
Lee Eyerly was born February 22, 1892 in Fulton county, Illinois.
he was a natural tinkerer as a boy. When the family moved
to Montana in his youth, farms offered many machines and gadgets
to needle with. In 1911, young Lee traveled to California
to spend time at Dominguez Field. Here he was introduced to
early aviators of the era and their stick-and-fabric machines.
But without the funds to finance his dreams, he returned to
Hobson, Montana to set up his own auto shop. he continued
to experiment with gliders. He married June 22, 1913 to his
wife, Meta. They had two sons, Jack and Harry and Daughters,
Mrs. Kenneth Smith and Mrs. James Smith.
When Eyerly moved to Salem in 1919, he had a job driving
for Oregon State Engineer Nunn and also founded the city's
first "greasing station" which lubed and greased
automobiles, named the "Grease Spot". He also worked
in the Ford garage as the top mechanic for which he got 25
cents an hour for a ten hour day. He managed to save money
for a special event. Local barnstormer Elmer Cook introduced
him to the Curtis Jenny airplane in 1920. After three hours
of flying instructions costing $200, Eyerly soloed. Eyerly
moved to Waldport for family reasons where he operated a ferry-boat
service and a garage, but the Willamette Valley still called.
During his coastal stay, Eyerly served on the Lincoln County
School Board from 1923 to 1927 and on the Alsea Port Commission.
But, it was Salem where his mark upon Oregon's aviation history
would be made.
Eyerly returned to Salem in October, 1927 and set up a flying
school and repair shop named the Pacific Airplane Service.
His first flying school was along the State Fairgrounds. He
lobbied city fathers hard for Salem's need for a modern flying
field. When the City funded the municipal airport, he moved
his school and operations to that location. Eyerly had modern
ideas for building airplanes and came up with an advanced
design, a three-place cabin monoplane that was the first successful
modern type to be designed and built in Oregon. It flew in
1928. While attending a pioneer celebration in Eugene in July
1929, Eyerly had a crash in a competition, leaving him with
a broken arm and cracked ribs.
Undaunted by the setback, Eyerly returned to Salem and designed
and build a number of planes expanding on his original concept.
Most notable was the Whiffle Hen, a high-wing cabin plane
that reportedly featured an early tricycle landing gear in
its original configuration. The elevator and aileron controls
were overhead, hung from the ceiling the PBY flying boats.
Eyerly loved this airplane. "It worked too. It was beautiful.
But, the danged thing offended the sight of the old timer
pilots who thought they knew what an airplane ought to look
like. They called it a high behind or a Whiffle Hen. "
Due to the economic conditions of the Great Depression, however,
only two were built. " I was just about 25 years ahead
of the times." Eyerly recalled.
Prosperity was to come via another avenue. In 1931, Eyerly
had designed a device for his flying school that simulated
flight conditions while remaining on the ground. It was powered
with a 15 horsepower electric motor and a real aircraft propeller.
It had conventional controls - elevators, ailerons and rudder.
Hung on double swivels, it would climb and dive, loop and
roll like a sky-climbing airplane. It would do everything
but stall and spin. It was the forerunner of flight simulators
in use today. Many people sought amusement to keep their minds
off the Depression, so it made sense to convert the device
into a midway attraction. The then Secretary of the State
Board of Aeronautics, Art McKenzie, saw the potential for
an amusement ride in the simulator, and before Eyerly could
say, "You're crazy", McKenzie had brought back more
orders than Eyerly could handle in his aircraft maintenance
shop. So he set up a production line, which turned into a
factory, which turned out 50 Acroplanes at $1200 to $1400
each. The "Acroplane" soon became a staple at carnivals
and fairs across the land. Acroplane was followed by the Roll-O-Plane,
the Loop-O-Plane, and the Octopus, among others. They offered
decades of entertainment to people world wide. By 1940, Eyerly
Aircraft employed a peak season crew of 75 and had enlarged
its working space to 40,000 square feet. Assisting in operating
the company was his sons, Harry and Jack. Lee's son ,Harry,
become a champion race car driver, started the Volkswagen
car dealership in Salem, and was stunt pilot . Harry Eyerly
dies in a air show event ahead of his time.
By this time the former impoverished pilot Eyerly was able
to pay his bills for the first time. He built up engineering
and manufacturing staff and settled down to business. He developed
seven fundamental types of aerial rides and sold thousands
of them. The business a success, he developed an airport with
his ranch, the Flying E Dude Ranch at Wickenburg, Arizona.
He also developed the Flying E Ranch in Illahee Hills in the
Salem area. His flying and career continued to be enlivened
by adventures. With three other men, he ditched a Stinson
aircraft in foggy San Francisco Bay when the engine quite.
They were fortunate to be picked up by the ferryboat Mendocino,
ironic in that the former ferryboat operator was now rescued
by one. He took in a 12 year old girl as a flying student,
which attracted much media attention. She successfully completed
her training and became a full-fledged pilot. He served as
a member of the Oregon State Board of Aeronautics from 1930
to 1958. He also served on the Salem Airport Advisory Commission.
He built the Cherry city Bowling Alley. He was an owner of
a mobile home part in Arizona, experimenting with building
mobile homes as early as the 1920s. Lee U. Eyerly passed away
March 23, 1963 at age 71 after a battle with cancer. He left
a long list of accomplishments truly a pioneer in Oregon aviation.
Compiled by Monica Mersinger
"Eyerly Plunges in Golden Gate Bay, is Rescued",
Salem Statesman newspaper, March 10, 1932
Hitchcock, Constance, "Eyerly Blames Self: Injured Aviator
Tells how Accident at Air Derby Friday Occurred". Unknown
newspaper, August, 1929
Phelps, Cassandra "Eyerly Airplane Manufacturer on Coast,
an Amateur Inventor and Auto Mechanic at Hobson". Unknown
Montana newspaper, March, 1934
Prange, Con Ad. G. "Salem's Barnstorming Days of Aviation
Filled With Color, Crackups", Salem Statesman, newspaper
August 31, 1955
Richards, Leverett. "Planes that Can't Fly" Oregonian
Oregon Aviation Historical Society Newsletter, Cottage Grove,
"Lee Eyerly, Businessman, Pioneer in Aviation, Dies"
Oregon Statesman newspaper, March 25, 1963
"Business Leader Succumb" Oregon Statesman newspaper,
March 28, 1963
"Eyerly Aircraft Company brochure", 1940