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Ann Kathleen Otto

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Early Aviator Frank J. Terrill

September 26, 2016

An unexpected benefit of writing a historical novel is meeting others who are interested in history and sharing family stories. Librarian Brian Burch of the Akron Public Library's Ellet Branch is one of those folks. After reading about Yours in a Hurry he mentioned that his great-great grandfather, John Frank Terrill was also an early aviator who died tragically in the same period as Addison in Yours in a Hurry. Brian shared the well- documented story of his ancestor.

Pennsylvania Beginnings

John Frank Terrill was born in 1873 in Pennsylvania, and went by Frank J. Terrill.  He "got the fever" for aviation at the Harvard-Boston aviation meet in August, 1911, a meet highlighted in Yours in a Hurry. He made his first passenger flight in Long Island, and two weeks later joined the Curtiss training school in Hammondsport, New York. He bought his first aeroplane that same year.

By 1913, he was headlining flying acts in fairs in his home state of Massachusetts in a new plane, the 1912 "Curtiss 80 power" (pictured), which he purchased for $3500. He'd race a Stutz-Bearcat auto just 75 feet above the ground.  Brian found many announcements about Terrill's appearances, which show what else drew crowds at the time: vaudeville shows, "photo plays" (as many as sixteen reels at a time!), game bird displays, "unsurpassed" poultry shows, motorcycle races, and "auto shows with all the 1913 models."

Aviation Trailblazer

Over the last two years of his life, Terrill was a full time aviator and a partner in an automobile school in Worcester, Massachusetts. He traveled the country—San Diego, Kentucky, Palm Beach—with other famous aviators of the time.  After his first marriage ended in divorce in January 1914, likely due to his continual absences, he soon married his business partner's sister, Gladys Mable Woodhead.

He worked at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio for a time, and met Katherine Stinson, a stunt pilot, and the fourth American woman to earn a pilot's license.

"Abrupt End"

Like Addison Hartle, death came unexpectedly.  The following is taken directly from Brian's documents.

"On the afternoon of November 13, 1914, in Chesterfield County, South Carolina, Frank took his Curtis biplane up for a flight. There were many amazed onlookers in the audience, including his young wife Gladys of just under a year, who had been traveling with him. Man! Flying! What was not well known by all at the time was safety, for both the people flying in the aircraft and the people down below. As Frank was about to bring his plane down for a landing, there were many excited fans down below who literally could not wait to greet him. Knowing where he would be coming in, they waited on the runway; not realizing that the runway needed to be clear in order for the plane to make a smooth landing and them not to be crushed. Common sense tells us that we shouldn’t stand in the path of an oncoming train. However, common sense did not exist in the days when people were still trying to grasp the fact that man was actually able to fly! Realizing that landing on the runway would not only risk injury to himself, but also the lives of many others, Frank took the plane back up in the air to circle back around again in hopes that people would come to their senses. It is not entirely clear whether the plane ran out of gas as Frank made that second turn toward the runway, or if something in the plane failed mechanically from being up in the air too long – but when the plane was at a height of about 500 feet from the ground, it flipped, stalled, and went crashing to the ground, instantly bringing the promising life of Frank John Terrill to a sad and abrupt end. "

Brian's following comments about the accident echo the sentiments of characters from Yours in a Hurry, and tie his story briefly to Ohio:

"Although a sad ending to such an exciting and promising life, Frank did not die oblivious to the risks he faced. He knew what was at stake every time he went up in the air, and he also loved the freedom and thrills that came along with knowing that he was a pioneer in his chosen field. Just a couple of weeks previous, he had sustained damage to his plane which took over a week to fix and minor injuries including a bruised rib in East Palestine, Ohio, which was reported in both the Worcester, Massachusetts newspaper in his extensive obituary, and the Massillon Independent on November 17."

Thank you, Brian, for sharing this interesting history!

If you have a family story from the period between the Spanish American War (1898) and WWI (1914), please forward it to ann@ann-otto.com. I'd love to share it!

Sources:

All newspaper clippings courtesy of Newsbank Database accessed through Akron-Summit County Public Library

Photo courtesy of Brian's grandmother, Marjorie Saunders-Burch,  personal collection. 

 

 

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