Hall County went “flying mad” in the early 1900s after the Wright Brothers’ successful flying machine launch in 1903.
People weren’t mad at flying, they were mad for it.
Eyes pointed skyward and necks craned whenever an “aeroplane,” as airplanes were called at that time, were spotted over Gainesville or began to set down in cow pastures or the fairgrounds off Shallowford Road.
As planes started to be manufactured and proliferate to some extent across the country, exhibitions were staged, mostly in the larger cities. Southern Railway offered train excursions to Atlanta when an aeroplane was scheduled to put on a show.
A plane might land in Gainesville occasionally, but the fever really took off in 1914 when the city promoted an “Aviation Day” to attract people to town to shop. Estimates of the crowds ran to 25,000, most of them never having seen an aeroplane.
A plane landed in a field off Athens Highway, injuring two people standing too close to the landing area. A.C. Beech, whose family became a leading aircraft manufacturer, circled downtown Gainesville in his plane.
Freddie Cann flew through a flock of buzzards and between two mountain peaks before landing at the fairgrounds near Alta Vista Cemetery, as part of the fair in 1919. He made 30 flights from the fairgrounds, carrying many from the area on their first trips into the clouds.
Inventor Will McKinney of Hall, who had developed a gasoline-powered plow, put together a miniature airplane. Herbert Ash of Gainesville supposedly had built a “heavier-than-air flying machine” with two motors and four propellers in 1910. Hall Countian W. Henry Smith had just completed pilot training as World War I was winding down, but continued flying as he was promoted to lieutenant.
So Hall’s interest in flying came early. As the aircraft industry progressed, local leaders realized the importance of having a landing field other than fairgrounds and pastures. Eventually, they developed a dirt landing strip where Lee Gilmer Municipal Airport stands today.
It came about because then-Congressman Tom Bell and others were promoting an air mail route between New York City and Atlanta in the 1920s. Gainesville would not be a stop on the route, but it could provide an emergency landing field. That opened up funds to acquire property between Gainesville Mill and Chicopee for such a purpose.
The airport opened in May 1929 with an air derby. That same year, Dean Parks, who had laid out the runways for the city, made the first solo flight from the airport in a Curtiss Jenny.
It took World War II, however, before Gainesville could get a modern facility that could accommodate most airplanes. The Navy had an air station at Lawson Field, now Dekalb-Peachtree Airport, and needed an auxiliary field for training.
Gainesville was chosen for the site, and the dirt landing strip was converted in 1942 to paved 4,000-foot runways, taxiways, barracks, a control tower and other buildings. The Navy spent another $522,800 for improvements two years later.
After the war in 1947, the Navy decommissioned the airport and turned it over to Gainesville. Local and federal governments since have spent millions of dollars on upgrades. In 1971, the city named the airport for Lee Gilmer, who operated it for 26 years.
The airport today sees more than 38,000 flights per year, according to manager Lisa Poole.
A homey plane
Earl Pittman was the first pilot to land and take off a jet aircraft from Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport. His son, John, also a pilot and fixture at the airport, said when he was born, he lived with his parents in a crashed DC3 cargo plane. The plane had been carrying baby chicks to J.D. Jewell Co., near the airport. The late Dr. H.H. Lancaster bought it and had it hauled to Oakwood where he used it as a weekend retreat before selling it to the Pittmans.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326; email, firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. His column publishes weekly.