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Lee Eyerly
 
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

Bibliography:
"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 Newspaper

Oregon Aviation Historical Society Newsletter, Cottage Grove, November 2001

"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

 

 
Lee Eyerly, pioneer aviator
Lee Eyerly, pioneer aviator
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Harry Eyerly
Harry Eyerly, Lee Eyerly's son
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Jack Eyerly
Jack Eyerly, Lee Eyerly's son
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Lee Eyerly
Lee Eyerly
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Whiffle Hen
Whiffle Hen
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Roll-O-Plane amusement ride
The Roll-O-Plane amusement ride is a legacy of the Eyerly Aircraft Company, which also produced the Rock-O-Plane, Loop-O-Plane, and Fly-O-Plane. On the Roll-O-Plane, the cars roll as the arm rotates, so you're never actually upside-down.
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Lee Eyerly advertisement
Lee Eyerly advertisement
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Eyerly Aircraft logo
Eyerly Aircraft logo
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