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Aviation had rough start locally

of The Gazette
Despite disasters like the recent EgyptAir crash off Nantucket Island, aviation is safe today. Flying to New York, Los Angeles or Paris is no more risky per-passenger mile than driving to the supermarket.

That wasn't always true. Years ago, traveling by air was something daredevils did, and many of them paid the ultimate price. Three Stevens Point people were among the victims in the pioneering days of flight. One was an Army officer, another a Navy officer and the third an airline stewardess, as flight attendants were called in those days.

The first to die was Fenton H. McGlachlin, injured fatally in a crash on Oct. 14, 1917. McGlachlin was an Army lieutenant and a member of a Stevens Point family prominent in the military and in journalism.

His grandfather, Edward McGlachlin, was a Civil War veteran and the founder of the Stevens Point Journal. He was president of the city park board, and McGlachlin Park on the east side is named for him.

Fenton's father, Edward F., was a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point who rose to the rank of major general. He was chief of artillery in the American First Army in France during World War I and later commanded the Army War College.

Fenton McGlachlin was born in Stevens Point in 1893 and spent part of his childhood here. The rest was spent wherever his father was stationed, including the Philippines. Like his father, he went to West Point, graduating in the spring of 1917, just after the United States entered World War I. He was commissioned a second lieutenant, was promoted quickly to first lieutenant and was stationed near San Antonio, Tex., as an artillery officer.

He was acquainted with another young officer, John Frost, who lived near San Antonio and served with the Signal Corps' Aviation Section, forerunner of today's Air Force. Frost was a member of a prominent Texas banking family.

Frost had his own airplane, a biplane, and had been in an earlier accident in which a passenger was killed. History repeated when McGlachlin flew with him. The plane apparently experienced mechanical problems and crashed not far from Frost's home. Frost survived with minor injuries but McGlachlin died two days later. He was buried at West Point.

McGlachlin was single. Among his survivors were two sisters. One of them, Lucy, married a Madison industrialist, Carl Johnson. They lived in a big house on Lake Mendota that is now called the executive residence, better known as the Wisconsin governor's mansion.

Vilas Knope, the second to die, was lost at sea in 1927 in an air race from San Francisco to Honolulu. He was born in Stevens Point, the son of Mr. and Mrs. N.J. Knope, grew up here and attended the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, graduating in 1919. He began flying four years later.

The 1920s was a period of experimentation and risk-taking in aviation. In May 1927 Charles Lindbergh made his daring flight from New York to Paris, and it seemed that almost every pilot was out to set a record of one kind or another. Some died trying .

In August 1927 an air race was scheduled between San Francisco and Honolulu, with James D. Dole offering a $35,000 prize. Knope, by this time a Navy lieutenant, teamed up as navigator on a plane called "Miss Doran." Auggy Pedlar was the pilot and Mildred Doran, described as a "pretty young school teacher from Michigan," volunteered as a passenger. Barring a mishap, she would be the first woman to fly from the West Coast to Hawaii.

Nicknamed "the flying school ma'am," Mildred Doran was quoted as saying, "I am so excited and thrilled and happy I don't have words to express my feelings, and I'm looking forward so much to our arrival in Honolulu."

When Knope's father in Stevens Point was told that Vilas was in the air race, he said it was news to him but "it would be just like him to do it."

On Saturday, Aug. 13, the Stevens Point Journal said Pedlar and Knope had taken a test flight "that convinced officials of the race of the plane's air-worthiness." But when they took off on the day of the race, they soon experienced mechanical problems and had to turn back. The problem was quickly repaired and they took off again, about an hour and a half behind the other three planes entered in the race. And that was the last that was seen of the Miss Doran.

Communication equipment was primitive then, compared with today, so no distress signals were heard. But the Navy began a massive search by air and sea when the plane failed to arrive in Hawaii. Also missing was another plane entered in the race.

The search was described as the largest ocean hunt ever launched, but it came up empty. In fact, one of the planes participating in the search crashed at sea, too. That meant seven lives were lost - the three on the Miss Doran and two each on the other two aircraft. The search continued for two weeks before it was abandoned.

Knope was married to the former Gwendolyn Davies of Jersey City, N.J., and they had a 5-year-old daughter, Gwendolyn.

The stewardess who died was Alice Scribner. This one was not an accident. The plane on which she was flying was apparently blown apart by a bomb placed in the baggage area. It happened on Oct. 10, 1933, over Chesterton, Ind., on a United Airlines flight from Cleveland to Chicago. Waiting for her at the Chicago airport was her fiance, Evan C. Terp of Green Bay.

Alice, 26, was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. William Scribner of Stevens Point. She was a trained nurse, a requirement for stewardesses in those days, and was in her first month on the job. Airlines were new, and she may have been the first stewardess ever to die in a crash.

According to a news account, the aircraft on which she was flying was "a giant, twin-motored transport plane." Aboard were three crew members and four passengers, all of whom were killed.

Alice's funeral was at St. Paul's Methodist Church here, and she was buried in Liberty Corners Cemetery in the town of Buena Vista, near where she was born and spent her childhood.