Pearson Field

Pearson Field

Pearson Field is the oldest operating airfield in the United States dating to a dirigible landing in 1905. Lincoln Beachey piloted the dirigible, Gelatine, on this flight which was also the first aerial crossing of the Columbia River.

The first airplane flight was in 1911 at what was then known as the ‘polo grounds’ of Vancouver Barracks. Through ensuing years the site continued to be a favorite of experimental aviators in the Northwest.

The army built and operated a cut-up mill on the field to produce airplane lumber for Allied plane-building efforts during World War I. Flying by the Army Air Service began in 1921 when a forest patrol base was established here. Reserve fliers from the region trained with the 321st Observation Squadron from 1923 until 1941 when the unit was put on active duty.

Lt. Oakley Kelly who, along with Lt. John Macready, made the first non-stop transcontinental flight (1923) commanded the 321st from 1924-28. Kelly was instrumental in the establishment of an adjacent commercial field (1925). The military and commercial fields were later joined to form Pearson Airpark. The commercial portion of Pearson Field was a stop on the original west coast airmail route. Pacific Air Transport and Varney Airlines both used the field. The companies later joined with two other companies to form United Airlines.

Lt. Alexander Pearson attended high school in Vancouver. Among his accomplishments were winning the speed contest in the first cross-country flying race. Pearson bested 73 other pilots in the 1919 event, which stretched from New York to San Francisco and back, in 48 hours, 14 minutes and 8 seconds of flying time. In recognition of his flying skills, the Department of the Interior commissioned him to make the first aerial survey of the Grand Canyon.

He was one of three army pilots selected for the 1924 Pulitzer Races. Pearson was killed when the wings of his plane collapsed during a practice run. The army recommended that the field be named for Pearson – ‘One of the best known and finest pilots in the Air Service.’ The army honored him in 1925 by naming the field for him.

Pearson Field was used and visited by a number of leading aviators. Tex Rankin had a flying operation on the field at various times. Charles Lindbergh, Jimmy Doolittle, Eddie Rickenbacker, T. Claude Ryan and others visited the field. Pearson was the last stopover of the army’s epochal Round-the-World flight of 1924.

Five years later, the ‘Land of the Soviets’ touched down. June 20, 1937 the entire world focused on Pearson Field when the first non-stop transpolar flight landed here. The huge ANT-25 monoplane had flown from Moscow, USSR in 63 hours, 16 minutes.

Pearson Field continues to serve southwest Washington and northwest Oregon as an important general aviation center. The Pearson Air Museum is dedicated to preserving the field and its rich aviation heritage.

Pearson Air Museum attractions include:
• Thrustmaster cockpit simulator
• Vintage aircraft on display
• Pictorial history wallSoviet trans-polar flight
• 4th of July special show
• November USO hangar dance
• Historical reenactments
• Gift shop with pins, books, models, gifts and souvenirs

Located in the heart of Vancouver’s Historic Central Park, 1105 E. 5th, Vancouver, WA 98661 (360) 694-7026

Pearson offers peek at Pre-WWII Airfield
Published: 06/20/1996

The United States has one last chance to bring back an authentic pre-World War II airfield, according to the Smithsonian Institution. That chance is in Vancouver.

Of the small handful of original Army fields, some have been submerged by urban growth, others have expanded and become giant airports. But Pearson Airpark remains just where it was, and physically so much like it was that the prospect of restoring the “Golden Age of Flying” there is bright.

A key part of the restoration will be the M.J. Murdock Aviation Center, to be named in memory of philanthropist “Jack” Murdock, who lived in Vancouver and ran his aviation businesses from offices on the edge of Pearson.

The M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust has donated $2.6 million toward construction of the Center in the Pearson Historical Area, part of the proposed National Historical Reserve. Construction of the center is well under way. The hope is to complete it in time for Vancouver’s annual “Celebrate Freedom” festivities on Veterans Day, 1996.

Interactive exhibits
High above the Washington fields, a barnstorming 1924 Curtiss “Jenny” biplane hops and bounces in the choppy air as a young wing-walker clutches the struts. A stiff wind roars in his ears; the wings creak and shudder.

That will be the effect, at any rate, of one of many planned interactive exhibits at the Aviation Center. The wind and sound will be human-created; the fields, 3-D photographic or computer-generated images; the wing, mechanically manipulated. The walker will be real, though, a young visitor to the center.

The wing-walking experience is only one of many designed to embody the feeling of flight in an open-cockpit plane.

Other ideas also being brain stormed by Pearson Air Museum include a kiosk offering a viewer-controlled video “walk-through” of a wide number of airplanes. (Low-tech but a sure hit, of course, will be real flights in old-time airplanes.)

The United States is blessed with fine air museums, says John Wulle, chairman of Pearson Airpark Historical Society. But they tend to fall short in two respects. One, their educational exhibits are the same from one museum to the next. Two, their planes don’t fly.

Planes that fly
The time has come, the technology has arrived and now the opportunity has presented itself that will enable moving to a new level of exhibit development. The museum has contacted a company specializing in interactive displays and is busy coming up with ideas that take advantage of the latest electronic and other presentation techniques. The museum’s planners promise what former Vancouver mayor Bruce Hagensen calls “Smithsonian quality.”

A main feature of the center will be a hangar housing its “gallery of airplanes” and aviation displays. Other aircraft will be displayed outdoors. And every single one of them will fly.

The full significance of their airworthiness may not be obvious, but it will enable the center to change its displays easily and quickly, providing an ever-fresh experience for the public. Most air museums display non-flying aircraft. That means their exhibits must stay in place a long time, which discourages repeat visits.

Pearson’s exhibit planners are lucky to have as a neighbor Evergreen Airport, long a mecca for Northwest antique-aircraft aficionados. Numerous vintage planes are housed at Evergreen, a probable reservoir for exhibits at the new center.

The new Naval Air Museum at Tillamook, Ore., also has flyable planes that can be borrowed.

Pearson Air Museum, a volunteer effort, began in 1988 largely as a repository for cast-off airplanes, but has gradually expanded the number and sophistication of its exhibits. By now it boasts its own small ‘squadron’ of donated planes and helicopters.

The Murdock Center will merge existing historic buildings with reconstruction. The airfield’s existing ‘white hangar,’ dating to 1921, is being refurbished but not otherwise changed or moved, and a slightly larger one of comparable historical accuracy reconstructed near it, on the site of a 1920s-vintage hangar that burned two decades ago. A connecting room will house most of the interactive exhibits.

The white hangar will contain aircraft-restoration projects. Visitors may observe antique-aircraft devotees as they tinker and fuss. There are two other remaining historical buildings at Pearson. One was the administrative office of the World War I spruce mill, later used as squadron headquarters; the other, a 1904 Vancouver Barracks weapons-storage building. Both eventually will be returned to their original configuration and put to good use — as will the nearby characterless hangar that is now the museum’s home.

Field of the 1920s
To replicate the field in the ’20s, expanses of asphalt taxiways near the Center will be removed and replaced with mowable field grass.

The existing Valeri Chkalov monument, honoring the Russian fliers who made the first transpolar crossing, was moved from the south side of Pearson to near the center.

Jack Murdock was intensely interested in education and in young people. Appropriately, the new center will be heavily oriented toward teaching and toward youngsters — a category that, luckily, has no upper age limit.

“I’d like to have every person know what it’s like to see the world from an open-cockpit airplane,” says Wulle, the owner of an aerobatic biplane. And then he grins. “But my cockpit is too small.”

Army Revved Up for 1925 Dedication of Pearson
Published: 08/22/1996
© Columbian Publishing Company – with permission from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust

Army airfields all over the West responded when Lt. Oakley Kelley invited them to the 1925 dedication of Pearson Field (formerly Vancouver Barracks Airdrome). Only Salt Lake City could not come; it didn’t have any motors.

All manner of local promotional activities were held in Vancouver. Some of them were pretty inventive; violators of minor traffic ordinances were made to buy tickets in lieu of fines. Schools were closed for the big event, and many local companies shut or worked half-shift.

Forty-five Army planes and eight commercial planes were on hand. Three of the Army’s four ‘Round-the-World Flyers were among the 20,000 people present.

The program was partly what you might expect — mass-formation flying, 100-gun salute and speeches. Then things became active: races, stunts, aerial dog-fights, wing-walking and parachute drops. In a more military event than is typical today, there was also a bomb-dropping contest.

The military portion of the field was designated as an intermediate landing field and reserve training center. The civilian portion at the east end was known for a time as the Chamber of Commerce field.

Jack Murdock at Vancouver
The largest business at the airpark in the mid-’60s may have been Jack Murdock’s Pacific Northwest Aviation.

It managed his several flying-related activities, chief among them the distributorship for Piper Aircraft in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, western Montana, Alaska and British Columbia.

A second company housed in the same offices, Melridge Inc., represented many of Jack’s non-aviation ventures — commercial real estate, wholesale bulb farming, electronic organ manufacture and furniture retailing.

Murdock purchased the Piper business in 1965 from aviation legend Art Whitaker, then hired him as PNA assistant manager.

Whitaker, when he died at 92, was the oldest aviator in the Northwest. In his 50 years, he logged more than 20,000 flying hours and was still rebuilding planes on his 90th birthday.

Before working with Murdock, Whitaker operated a business at Pearson manufacturing tandem landing gear that would enable bush pilots to land on gravel bars.

Murdock, a chronic rooter for “the little guy,” had similar interests. At the time of his death in 1971, he was financing the efforts of associate Vern Buroker to modify a Piper Supercub so third-world missionaries and other back country fliers could carry more weight over longer distances.

Murdock learned to fly in Hillsboro, Ore., in 1955. He was checked out for his multiengine rating the next year by aviation old-timer Norman “Swede” Ralston, who for 10 years was Murdock’s partner in Aero-Air Inc.

Flying was both work and play for Murdock. Although using his own aircraft for some business trips, he flew mostly for the fun of it. Of the several planes he owned, he had a special fondness for his Supercub.

Pearson Housed Italian Pows, Spruce Plant
Published: 06/06/1996
© Columbian Publishing Company – with permission from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust

Competing with Portland was to mean improvements and a manager at Person airfield.

The city of Vancouver leased the chamber’s commercial field for one year in 1928, but became embroiled in a series of complicated controversies over land ownership and acquisition, conflict of interest, and unprofitability.

The problems prompted the city to consider closing the field; the Columbian referred to it as ‘Vancouver’s erstwhile airport.

On the other hand, local boosters continued to trumpet its advantages over rival Portland. When Swan Island was fogged in and Pearson clear, the local paper noted that fact; when an Army Pursuit Squadron was weathered-out of Seattle and had to land at Vancouver instead, the local press pointed to the superiority of the Columbia Gorge flyway and to Vancouver as its natural terminus.

Major problems of land ownership remained unsolved. (The Columbian kept at them: ‘City Fathers Do Nothing.’) But the then-titled Vancouver Municipal Airport continued a bumpy expansion. The council voted to add 10 hangars.

(Companies supplying materials agreed to wait for their payment.) The first airplane motor shop in Southwest Washington was built on the field. Warning beacons were installed on cliffs along the Gorge. The Army continued upgrading its aircraft at Pearson with more-powerful planes. The field was increasingly the site of test flights of prototypes built by Boeing at its Seattle plant, and by Student Prince planes made right in Vancouver.

The Air Corps in 1934 abruptly found itself back in the air-mail business. President Roosevelt had canceled the private contracts, charging collusion between major carriers and the previous Republican administration. The city of Vancouver, believing Pearson would become an airmail center, went about improving the field with carbide lights. But the center stayed at Swan Island. Pearson retained Air Corps headquarters and provided maintenance and hangar space for the air-mail planes.

Mail routes safe
The two mail routes, Portland-Salt Lake City and Seattle-Portland-Boise, had no serious mishaps and no lost or damaged mail. The Air Corps record on other routes was not so good, sustaining many serious accidents, several of them fatal.

War and the construction of what became Portland International Airport across the Columbia resulted in radically changed use at Pearson. The field became a parking lot for military equipment, and one hangar, for a time, held Italian prisoners of war.

After the war, Army downsizing plans included abandoning Pearson Airpark (a new name designed to attract veterans, who were expected to build homes near airfields and have ‘a plane in ever garage’). But the War Assets Administration realized the airport’s importance to the area’s aviation. In 1949, Pearson Field was given to the city, and has continued to grow into its present-day combination of general and historical aviation.

World War I
In World War I, Vancouver Barracks played a major role in military aviation without sending a single flier into combat.

The U.S. air power, so to speak, then compromised 65 obsolete airplanes. Yet the Allied strategy was counting on air superiority. Most all aircraft structures of that day required spruce, a light, strong and tight-grained (12 grains to the inch) wood. It came mostly from Washington, which had some of the world’s largest stands.

However, mills in the state had their own war to deal with. An ill-tempered leftist union, the Industrial Workers of the World, led other woods unions in agitating for an eight-hour day, better pay and an improvement in the wretched condition of logging camps. The timber companies dug in, and the hostilities became increasingly violent. In July, 1917, the unions struck.

The companies used patriotism as a pressure tactic in newspaper advertisements, which pleaded that an eight-hour day would ruin the industry and encouraged strikers to return to work. The IWW (commonly called Wobblies) was accused of torching spruce forests and other sabotage — thus being responsible for the deaths of American soldiers.

Sprucing things up
The strike was hampering not only the state’s economy but also the war effort. To set things right, the Army organized the Spruce Production Division under the Signal Corps and sent Colonel Brice Disque to take charge. Using tact, manipulation and ‘coercion’ (the exact nature of which is not specified) he got the spruce out.

Disque was controversial — particularly in the eyes of the companies. He granted the eight-hour day, forced the industry to improve its working conditions and — in an usual conservation-minded move considering the emergency — used selective logging rather than clear-cutting.

He raised Army hackles by paying division soldiers the same wages the civilian workers got. And he organized a company union, with the contrivedly alliterative name Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen. The “Loyal” part reflected the members’ oath not to strike their employers.

To supplement civilian labor, what would be the world’s largest cut-up mill was built on Pearson field, by soldier labor, in only 45 days. The plant covered 50 acres; its main building 358-by-288-feet, enclosed 2.4 acres that contained six separate mills. It was run by the soldiers also, working around the clock in six-hour shifts.

The 4,000 Army millworkers were part of an estimated spruce work force of 30,000 throughout the Northwest. A large tent city at the barracks was set up to house both the soldiers who would run the mill and others who would be assigned to logging operations in the forests.

The mill began production February 7, 1918. Railroad tracks were laid out to serve it, and later a kiln was added that could dry up to 10 million board feet per month. During its lifetime, it produced 76.6 million board feet of spruce, fir and cedar lumber. It averaged 500,000 board feet per day — enough for 300 airplanes. On one record day, it output over 1.4 million board feet. Total division production was 143 million board feet, of which two-thirds went to our overseas allies: France, Great Britain and Italy.

When the war stopped, so did spruce production. The remaining lumber and about $10 million in mill and logging equipment were sold by sealed bid to the quasi-governmental U. S. Spruce Production Corp., formed to do logging and milling and to make, buy, sell and deal in airplane parts.

Much of the mill was razed in 1924 and the area returned to its original condition, to be used for airfield expansion. All that survives of the world’s biggest cut-up mill is the old administrative office — that and memories.

The M.J. Murdock Aviation Center at Pearson is being built on the site of a burned corporation building.

Pearson Air Museum Sees Rosy Future
Published: 11/25/1994

A $3 million grant announced earlier this week should transform a small local display of air history artifacts into a ‘Smithsonian-quality’ museum, said Vancouver’s mayor.

The M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust announced Wednesday a $3 million grant that will largely go toward construction of a new museum building at Pearson Airpark.

The facility now the Pearson Air Museum will be renamed the M.J. Murdock Aviation Center after M.J. ‘Jack’ Murdock, a Vancouver resident and co-founder of Tektronix Inc.

Murdock died in 1971 and left behind a personal fortune that has since been transformed into trust. Since 1975, the trust has given nearly $200 million to various projects.

The $3 million grant is the largest ever given by the charitable organization, said Vancouver Mayor Bruce Hagensen.

He said the money will both create a quality museum and ‘memorialize Jack Murdock,’ who was himself an aviation enthusiast.

‘We have two interests that merged,’ Hagensen said.

Most of the $3 million will finance construction of a museum building that mimics the appearance of a U.S. Army hangar of the early 1900s. Inside, however, it will be a modern facility with space for aviation displays and conferences.

The new building would be at Pearson Airpark near the current museum hangar. City officials hope construction is complete by late 1996.

The trust also designated $250,000 to go toward restoration of the O.O. Howard House, a building south of Evergreen Boulevard and just east of the Washington State Patrol headquarters.

The house would become a public information center for the newly created ‘national heritage area’ that includes Pearson, Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, the Vancouver Barracks and Officers Row.

The remaining $250,000 of the grant will go toward ‘education programming,’ Hagensen said.

The new museum building will be about 30 percent larger than the current facility, said John Wulle, chairman of the museum board of directors. ‘It’s the turning of the page,’ he said of the Murdock Grant. ‘We’re past the disagreements and the misunderstandings now and we’re on to the building phase. This is the fun part.’

Pearson is called one of the nation’s oldest continuously operating airports and was the 1937 landing site for three Soviet aviators who had just completed the world’s first transpolar flight.

For years, Pearson supporters and the National Park Service were at odds over Pearson’s future. Park officials said the airport was in conflict with the adjacent reconstructed Fort Vancouver.

But those issues were resolved officially earlier this month when the park service signed an agreement for a heritage area that acknowledges the continued presence of the airpark for at least another 27 years.

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