World War I transformed airplanes from a novelty into a deadly weapon. Pilots served as aerial scouts at first and then challenged enemy planes in airborne combat, in “dogfights” between fighter planes; and later in bombing runs against cities and troop positions.
On this date in 1919, the city of Grand Forks hosted an air show featuring the most deadly planes from the recently-concluded war in Europe. Direct from France came the Spad fighter; from England came S.E. 5s; from America, the colorfully painted Curtis, and rounding out the show, captured German Fokker fighters with huge black Iron Cross markings.
The U.S. government had authorized this “Flying Circus” nation-wide tour of planes piloted by American and British pilots in order to sell Victory Liberty Bonds even though the war had ended in November, 1918.
The scene on a cloudy April morning was an improvised airfield at J.D. Bacon’s expansive farm, the Lilac Hedge Farm. Mr. Bacon’s son, Jerry Myron Bacon, had served as a pilot in the war.
The planes arrived in crates on fourteen railway cars in the morning’s earliest light. Mechanics scurried to assemble the planes, and pilots scrambled to get airborne for practice flights in the forenoon.
Children and adults alike thrilled to see mechanics wind the propellers; to hear the engines as they “began their thundering whirr” and to witness the fighter pilots ascend gracefully toward the clouds to swoop through the skies above Grand Forks.
Viewers marveled as the pilots put each aircraft through its repertoire of acrobatics. As a Grand Forks Herald reporter wrote, there were “tail spins, nose dives, the ‘Immelman’ [a loop and half-roll], drops, circles, loop the loops and almost every conceivable” maneuver, that a “high-powered war machine of the air” was “capable of producing.” And that was just the morning practices.
The real show began at 1:30, and the first flights featured simulated dogfights with ace pilots showing the spins and counter-moves of war. One pilot took the first aerial photographs of Grand Forks, while another scattered Victory Bond leaflets on homes and neighborhoods.
Alas, April showers put a damper on the flights and the show’s director had to call off the show, much to the disappointment of the citizenry. The Flying Circus packed up and hauled the fighters and fighter pilots to the next stop, at Fargo.
Yet, on that April day in 1919, the technology of modern war came to Grand Forks without the agonies of that world war. The pilots flew without the spray of bullets; and the spectators watched in safety on the grounds of J.D. Bacon’s farm.
Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSUM
“Flying Circus Here To Boost Loan; “U”’ And Schools Close,” Grand Forks Herald, April 22, 1919, p. 1.
“Thousands Are Thrilled With Flying Circus,” Grand Forks Herald, April 23, 1919, p. 1.
“City Saw First Big Air Show in 1919,” Grand Forks Herald, June 20, 1954, p. 26 A.
“J.D. Bacon a Pioneer in Dairy Industry of Valley,” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, July 23, 1922, p. D8.
“Myron Bacon Safe, Is Word,” Grand Forks Herald, December 8, 1918, p. 8.