John "The Man Bird" Cooper and His "Flying Machine"

In September 1911, many Lincoln County Fair attendees witnessed the dawning of a new era.

On September 15, 1911, at Kinloch Field (St. Louis, MO), Albert B. Lambert (namesake of Lambert International Airport), “qualified for a pilot’s license to manipulate an aeroplane.” That same week, newspapers in and around Lincoln County began promoting John “The Man Bird” Cooper’s upcoming performance at the Lincoln County Fair with his “Flying Machine.”

According to The Troy Free Press, the crowd that gathered to witness the exhibition was so large that it “taxed the capacity of the town and ground.” Attendees were not likely to be disappointed. Although the Free Press article suggested that the John D. Cooper had been flying less than a year, he had amassed more than 350 flights. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, however, painted a much better picture of Cooper's skills as a pilot. According to the Post-Dispatch, Cooper had performed “greater feats than…required of him” in his effort to earn his pilot license. He flew almost 600 feet into the air, which was about four times higher than required. Although he was only required to land within 162 feet of the landing marker, he stopped his flying machine less than 10 feet from the marker. Along with other aviation pioneers, Cooper flew in several exhibitions around the country, taught lessons, and he traveled abroad to demonstrate the Curtiss Flying Boat to Russia and Turkey.

As could be expected, Cooper's exhibition flights on Tuesday did not disappoint the large crowd attending the Lincon County Fair. On Wednesday, however, Cooper’s flight “had a disastrous termination.” After flying southward about a mile and turning back toward the Lincoln County Fair crowd, his plane hit a “hole in the air.” The plane dropped with a jolt, and as it approached the ground, a tire caught the ground, causing the plane to flip end over end. The plane was destroyed, but Cooper made it out of the wreckage with only a sprained ankle. About a year later, the Green Bay Press-Gazette reported that John D. Cooper was flying at the Fond DuLac Fair in Wisconsin when his wing clipped a fence, his tire stuck in the rain-soaked ground, and the plane flipped. Again, he walked away without serious injury, but not all pilots were as lucky as Cooper. Two days after Cooper’s crash at the Lincoln County Fair, two pilots were killed in separate incidences. In Pennsylvania, a plane “careened, turned turtle and fell” crushing the pilot. In Ohio, Frank MIller was burned to death when his gas tank burst into flames mid-flight.

Despite the dangers of early flight, Cooper was optimistic. During an interview at the Lincoln County Fair, Cooper touted the promise of flight. “[I]f the same rate of progress is made in the coming five years as in the past,” Cooper promised, “flying machines will be going over the country in flocks.” Those changes appeared to be happening faster than Cooper realized. Less than three weeks after his interview, The St. Louis Star and Times reported that England had ordered “Four Flying Machines...for Military Purposes.” The Sun Times was not as optimistic. An article in the October 23rd issue speculated that someday planes may fly high enough to be used to bomb the enemy, but, for now, they are no match for guns that can easily bring them to the ground.

Today’s readers may find this early dismissal of airplane potential quite humorous, but it should be remembered that it wasn’t terribly long ago that people were dumbfounded by the potential of computers and the internet. Technology was changing rapidly at the turn of the 20th century. Lincoln County Fair goers and Pioneers like John D Cooper were witnessing the dawning of a new industry that would eventually carry people around the globe and completely change the nature of modern warfare.