Wednesday, October 29, 2014

"Cap" Cornish

by Carmen Doyle

From the age of three to age 97, Frank Cornish was a Hoosier devoted to Fort Wayne. His story is recorded in the book “Cap” Cornish, Indiana Pilot: Navigating the Century of Flight.  This book is wonderful for aviation fans.

Ruth Ann Ingraham, Cap Cornish's daughter

The book discusses not only Cap’s fascination with air travel, but also how flight and aeronautics changed from 1900-1995. What was intriguing was how planes changed. One early account quotes a pilot as saying, “The airman was more often than not separated from the mire a mile below by little more than a hope and a wish.” WWI airplanes were a far cry from what we think of airplanes today- they weren’t designed for passenger flight. (For some pictures and further information about WWI aviation, check out the Aviation exhibit on the second floor of the History Center.) The descriptions of how the attitude of the public changed over the course of time are fascinating. Early runways weren’t concrete- they were mostly dirt, which meant that after it rained it was impossible for planes to land. 

Cornish was originally interested in radio communications and the book is filled with details about the start of long distance radio. The author uses a lot of technical jargon to describe what is going on, which can make it difficult to follow, but the enthusiasm by everyone involved is clear.

One of the neatest things about this book is the sidebars filled with related materials. There is a section in the chapters on radio communications with quotes from an early enthusiast describing an airwave “ham”- and how they stopped further “pests”-- by inviting “interferers” to join the Fort Wayne Radio Association and teaching instead of “whipping”.  

The narrative really gets interesting when it starts to talk about flight developments. Describing the increased interest in aviation, the author talks about how dangerous the early planes were. There is mention of barnstormers, acrobatics and wing walkers, and how only a few brave people would be willing to be passengers, (the planes at the time were open two-seaters) but many people were willing to spend a few dollars to see a plane up close. To get an idea of how dangerous these planes were, there is a description of one pilot who was trying to break an altitude record. At a certain point, his eyelids froze shut and the plane controls froze. The pilot managed to make it back to earth safely, but the description is terrifying. And this pilot was only seven miles in the air!

Another thing that was interesting was how airports and runways have changed. Early runways were dirt, which made landing when raining difficult. Planes were not originally equipped with lights to land at night, not that many airports had lights at night anyway.  The description of landing at DC is mind-boggling, as originally not only was it a sod runway, the planes would have to dodge cars in order to land. When one airport manager installed a stoplight at his own expense, warning cars that a plane was landing, the city demanded he take it down as it was interfering with traffic control.

Author Ruth Ann Ingraham will be speaking at the History Center on November 2 for our George R. Mather lecture, and will also be signing copies of her book on Cap. Cap’s story is a fascinating look at how aviation changed over the course of a century.

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