On this date in 1919, a barnstorming pilot was leaving Hope, North Dakota, but not by air as he had planned. Lieutenant Omlee was one of the many daredevil pilots making a living by taking brave passengers for rides in the newfangled airships. While airplane manufacturers had exhibition flying teams almost as soon as planes took to the air, the entertainment didn’t become wildly popular until after World War I, when the government sold surplus military planes for pennies on the dollar. Many former fighter pilots purchased the planes and took to the skies. They gave daring exhibitions that thrilled the crowds. They also gave rides for a fee.
Barnstorming became a popular form of entertainment. Most people had never seen a show, and they turned out in droves. The term “barnstorming” may have come from the way early pilots would put on impromptu shows using farmers’ fields for their runways. They flew low over barns to get the attention of potential customers.
But one pilot found himself stuck in North Dakota. Lieutenant Omlee was on his way to Finley where he was contracted for a show. When his engine began making an odd noise, he decided to land. He chose what looked like a level field, but as he came in for what he hoped would be a smooth landing, one wheel got caught in a furrow. When the plane went into a skid, the propeller caught the dirt and broke. Omlee was grounded.
A new propeller arrived two days later. Omlee installed it and was ready to take to the air. He bid farewell to his hosts, started his engine, and taxied down the bumpy field. His makeshift runway turned out to be just a bit too short. The plane rose into the air, but not high enough to clear a fence at the end of the field! The landing gear caught and was ripped away. In the resulting crash, the lower wing of the biplane was ripped and the brand-new propeller was torn off. The craft was beyond repair. Omlee had no choice but to ship it home in pieces. Instead of soaring through the skies to his next show, Omlee went back to Minneapolis by train.
Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher
Hope Pioneer. “The airplane which arrived in Hope…” Hope ND. 10 July 1919. Page 3.