January 26, 2012
Group Seeking to Return One of Only Three Remaining Pheasant Airplanes to Birthplace
Dr. Harlo Donelson stands in front of a H-10 Pheasant biplane that is housed in New York. Efforts are underway to buy the plane and return it to Memphis, where it was originally manufactured.
More than 80 years ago, a group of area residents joined forces to help the community take flight, literally. Now, numerous community boosters with similar vision are making every effort to land a piece of this town's history back home for good.
In the late 1920's Memphis was home to the Pheasant Airplane Company. An untimely accident and a financial downturn that devastated the entire nation, made the venture short lived. Despite its brief tenure as the community's top manufacturer, the airplane builders put Memphis on the map.
On a recent trip to New York, a local dentist discovered that a big piece of this local history could be had for the right price.
Dr. Harlo Donelson took time out his Christmas trip to visit his son, to do some special sight-seeing. Doc had learned of a fully-functional Pheasant airplane, which was on display at the Bayport Aerodrome Museum.
"There are only three of these planes still in existence as far as anyone can tell," said Donelson. "One is in Wisconsin, one in Canada and this one in New York. Not only did I get to see her, but I got to touch her and boy is she a beauty."
As his words demonstrate, Donelson quickly fell in love with the plane. Anyone that knows Doc, knows he is not shy when it comes to promoting his community. Before he had departed the hangar, the plan had been hatched to return the plane to its birthplace.
"Somehow, some way, we are going to get that gal back to Memphis," Donelson stated.
Just weeks after returning to Memphis, the tales of the plane and its availability had led to the formation of a committee to make the dream come true.
Local pilot Fred Clapp is heading up the group that consists of numerous other flyers and community boosters.
The first task at hand will be raising the estimated $75,000 it will take to purchase the plane from owner Tim Dahlen of Vintage Aero Collection.
The plane was originally restored by Bill Schwenk of Southampton, NY. According to a November 22, 2007 article in the Southampton Press, the then 94-year-old sold the plane to Dahlen and his partner, Ed Katzen. As part of the transaction, Dahlen concluded the 77-year journey for the former owner, by taking Schwenk for a flight in the 1927 biplane.
Schwenk reportedly had purchased the plane back in 1930 from a Southampton junkyard for the price of $50. Over the years, the new owner worked to restore the plane, ultimately completing the task, but not before his age prevented him from flying it himself.
The news article indicated the plane had been owned by an East Hampton family, but following a crash, was sold to the junkyard, where it was reclaimed by Schwenk in 1930.
While it took nearly 80 years for the plane to change ownership for the third time in its life, local boosters are hoping the fourth transaction occurs much more rapidly.
At a January 14 meeting of interested parties, a steering committee was formed with Clapp, Fred Cordray, Jason Glass and Stan Myers charged with organizing a governing board and seeking 501c3 IRS status as a tax exempt entity.
A fund raising committee was also established with members Ronnie Brown, H Middleton, Peggy Brown and Laura Schenk. A checking account has been established for the group and donations are already pouring in.
Another key task for the group will be transportation and storage if the plane's purchase can be secured. Glass and Larry Wiggins were assigned the duty of identifying suitable temporary storage as well as determining requirements for a permanent display location.
The group will meet again on January 27 at the Scotland County Rotary Building at 6 p.m. New members and prospective donors are encouraged to attend.
Airplane Builder Plays Big, Albeit Brief, Part in Memphis History
A local pilot's teaching abilities at the outset of our nation's aeronautical era likely were at the root of one of the area's historical highlights.
In the 1920s, prospective flyers from across the nation were traveling to Memphis to study under the tutelage of pilot Lee R. Briggs, who opened a flight school in 1925. The pages of the Memphis Democrat and the Memphis Reveille, the region's two newspapers at that time, are filled with stories of reports of Briggs's exploits as a flyer and a teacher of the skill with students coming from as far away as Canada.
Once trained in the art of flying, the new pilots offered a captive market for airplane sales. Early on, the news stories indicate Briggs filled the needs by buying and selling the vehicles, but ultimately the idea was born to build a better plane right here in Memphis.
News broke in the June 6, 1927 edition of the Memphis Democrat of plans to form the Pheasant Airplane Corporation to build a new biplane designed by Orville Hickman of Lomax, IL.
The new business was housed in the garage of the Briggs & Son Ford dealership on the northeast corner of the Memphis square (the current Payne Funeral Chapel property).
The first model H-10 biplane "rolled off the assembly line" in August and pilot Harold Phillips was the first to take a Memphis-made plane airborne, as reported in the August 18, 1927 Memphis Reveille. Shortly after, well-known local pilot Leslie Smith, put the plane to a full test of stunts, "pronouncing the Pheasant as superior to any plane in its class."
A full-page ad in Aviation magazine resulted in hundreds of inquiries about the plane, and within months a number of contracts were arranged for salesmen to handle dealership rights in states across the Midwest.
By October 1927, the newspaper reported seven planes had been contracted for construction, and by November of that year the workforce at the plant had more than doubled to 25 employees, with projected output of a plane per week.
Tragedy struck the company in December, when founder Lee Briggs and a student, Otis Oliver, of Versailles, OH, were killed when they fell an estimated 1000 feet from a plane, that later crash landed.
A December 8, 1927 article in the Memphis Democrat indicated that Oliver was piloting the plane, and reportedly banked the plane too sharply, causing it to overturn and ejecting the two pilots.
Inspections by the U.S. Army and the Commerce Department ruled the accident was no fault of the plane, and manufacturing continued despite the resignation of Hickman. W. H. Raines was elected the new board president.
The company became bogged down awaiting official approval from the federal government's aviation department to certify and approve the planes design, which finally was received in April of 1928.
While waiting, in March of 1928, the company relocated to the O.O. North Building (the current Tri-State Used Furniture building) west of the southwest corner of the square.
Craftsmen work on wing assembly for a Pheasant H-10 bi-plane being constructed in Memphis. This photo was taken in the new workshop, located on the second floor of what is now the Tri-State Used Furniture Store.
Well known Wisconsin pilot, S. J. Wittman, arrived in Memphis in April and quickly became a champion of the Memphis-built planes. He became one of the company's leading salesman, as more than half a dozen Pheasants were flown home to Wisconsin buyers. Other planes were sold, including one that ultimately landed in Prince Alberta-Saskatoon, Canada.
Despite the solid sale numbers, the company fell into a capital crunch, and investors decided to offer the corporation for sale as opposed to extending further local investments. In July of 1928, a call was made for added stock sales to raise the capital investments from $10,000 to $40,000.
Meanwhile Wittman was gaining national notoriety for the Pheasant. He entered his plane in a trans-continental race from Long Island to Los Angeles, and finished ninth, despite featuring one of the race's smaller horse-powered motor.
Despite some limited initial success in reorganizing the company under local stockholders, the Pheasant Airplane Company was ultimately sold to T.W. Meiklejohn of Fondulac, Wisconsin, an associate of Wittman. The plant was relocated to Fondulac in May of 1929, but reportedly no planes were ever built there following the stock market crash later that year that took its toll on commerce across the nation and the Great Depression began.
Leo Brown of Memphis reported in documentation on file with the Scotland County Library, that a total of 37 Pheasant bi-planes were built in Memphis.
Similar history provided by former plant worker Herb Prather, seems to affirm those numbers, as his documented estimates were 30-36 planes built in Memphis. Correspondence from Wittman to Prather in April of 1980, did dispute the fact that no planes were built in Wisconsin, as the former test pilot, informed Prather that he believed three new ships were built in Wisconsin. Further investigation may have revealed that these were the new monoplane version, whose prototype was developed in Memphis.
Of the estimated three dozen H-10's built in Memphis, only three are believed to remain. One is on display at the EAA's Pioneer Airport in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, near the site of the transplanted factory. The second is on display at the Western Development Museum in Saskatoon, Canada. The third, currently in New York, hopefully will be on display in Memphis in the not-too-distant future.
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