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History of the Airport

History of Aviation - The Wright Brothers

Of a foggy October morning and the naming of an airport

by Jack Neely

Ladies described him as "charming," but he wasn't necessarily the sort of guy you'd think of as a tragic hero. You've probably met him yourself: the West Knoxville boy who goes to the Ivy League college and comes home to work for his dad's company. The handsome unmarried playboy who, even in his late 20s, still lives with his parents. The rich, idle kid who spends most of his free time hanging around Cherokee Country Club playing golf.

Until the war came along, that pretty much described the life of Charles McGhee Tyson. He must have known his career would never compare to Dad's: Lawrence Davis Tyson was the army colonel who'd chased Geronimo's Apaches across the West, led a regiment against the Spanish in '98 and become military governor of Puerto Rico, and later still, speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives. Then, in 1917, General Tyson was leading troops into the Great War.

The boy's mother, Bettie Tyson was also a formidable presence, wealthy heiress of Knoxville's biggest railroad tycoon of the industrial age, Charles McClung McGhee, for whom the young Tyson—everyone called him McGhee—was named.

His parents shipped McGhee off to boarding school in New Hampshire, then to Princeton. He graduated at 23 and returned to Knoxville, where his parents had built a huge mansion just west of the university.

Living down the hall from a military legend, working as an executive in his dad's textile mills, young McGhee's main extracurricular concern was golf. He helped design Cherokee's developing golf course, organized some early golf tournaments, won a few.

His manner charmed many—"dear, light-hearted, fascinating McGhee," a friend described him—and like a lot of rich kids, he did pretty much whatever he wanted. One story made the rounds, about the cold night that he and a date somehow had Cherokee Country Club all to themselves. When the fire died out, he couldn't find any cut firewood. Reluctant to take his date home just because the clubhouse was getting chilly, he smashed up some furniture and fed it into the fireplace so he and his girlfriend could get on with business.

He may have been feeling a little aimless, pushing 28, when America joined the big war in Europe, and his dad enlisted before he did.

He enlisted in the Naval Reserve Flying Corps in July, 1917—and spent more than a year waiting quietly in the States. He took a course in naval aviation in Boston, went into advanced air training down at Pensacola. War service didn't get in the way of this ensign's serving as a groomsman at his younger sister's wedding here in March 1918. As his dad, the 57-year-old brigadier general, was leading a brigade in Europe, Ensign Tyson was still in New York, probably suspecting he'd never see action. His superiors told him they had a nice desk job for him in Washington.

He broke Knoxville hearts when he married a New York girl in June. But that August, he heard he was finally going to get to see Europe himself. When Ensign Tyson came back to Knoxville one last time to spend a week with his mother at the family palace, the local papers reported the German retreat and speculated about the terms of peace. While he was here, the Strand Theater on Gay Street ran a silent war movie called To Hell With the Kaiser, which advertised the primacy of "American aeroplanes." On his 29th birthday, McGhee Tyson boarded a ship for England.

It might have seemed a safe assignment, serving with an aerial unit based in England that dropped mines in the North Sea to combat the U-boat threat. By the time Tyson arrived at the naval base near the mouth of the River Humber, the tide of war had already turned, and Allied troops—including his father's brigade—were marching toward Belgium and the Netherlands, where the U-boats were based.

For his few weeks there, Ensign Tyson purchased supplies for the unit, a job probably not much different from his job working for his dad's cotton mills in Knoxville. He did it so well, he was promoted to lieutenant.

He'd been on duty for less than two months when he applied for leave; his family later speculated that he wanted to take a little vacation in London. But then, when his commanding officer asked for volunteers for one more aerial mine-dropping mission, Lt. Tyson volunteered. Peace was nigh, and Tyson may have wanted to be more a part of this war before it was over.

What happened at dawn on that October Friday isn't precisely clear, the subject of disagreement for 80 years now. Some stories have Lt. Tyson as a pilot on an antisubmarine mission, shot down by the Germans over the North Sea. The contemporary newspaper accounts are less stirring.

The reports of 1918 have Tyson not as the pilot of the aircraft, but as "second pilot," one of a crew of four. His job was to handle the gun in front. He apparently never had a chance to. Not long after takeoff, they say, the large plane spiraled into the ocean in a thick English fog; some accounts have it colliding with another Allied aircraft. Rescuers recovered the bodies of two crewmen. The pilot survived.

Then, and for weeks afterward, Lt. McGhee Tyson was officially "missing, probably drowned." Rescuers cited the fierce currents where the Humber empties into the North Sea as the reason he went under.

Soon after Armistice Day, a month after the crash, they found McGhee Tyson. While the rest of western Europe celebrated, General Tyson was identifying the body of his son.

Mrs. Tyson shipped McGhee home and, two days before Thanksgiving, had him buried at the cemetery already known as Old Gray.

Years later, Bettie Tyson donated land for a park and an airstrip—under the condition that Knoxville's airport be named after her only son, the aviator.

(Reprinted with the permission of Metropulse)