Text and photos submitted by Terry L. Ommen
Visalia’s fascination with flight probably dates back to the late 1800s when balloon ascensions came to town. The shows were well-received and packed with danger, which might, at least in part, explain the popularity.
The first flight of record in Visalia was during fair week in 1889 when showman Joe Lawrence took his hot air balloon aloft. About 20 years later, Visalia recorded its first aerial injury when Professor Young misjudged the wind, took his balloon skyward and was blown off course. He landed in a tree and was thrown onto the roof of a house. He survived, but injured his hip and suffered cuts and bruises.
During the next few years, fixed-wing aircraft appeared throughout the valley, including Tulare County, with Frank Bryant probably being the most well-known of the many pilots. In 1911, he taught himself to fly and, the following year, he was flying in air shows like the aviation “meet” held in February 1912, hosted by the city of Tulare. Bryant is credited with piloting the first airplane in Tulare County. Visalia’s first recorded airplane flyover was in April 1914 when a flyer in the San Francisco-to-Bakersfield race buzzed the town.
During World War I, the value of aircraft was recognized, and thousands were used in the war effort. So after the conflict, pilots were plentiful and so was the interest in flying. In 1927, the United States Forest Service set up an aerial fire patrol operation on Visalia property belonging to the Hyde family. Canvas hangers were built on the site and Hyde Field was born, eventually renamed Green Acres Airport.
About that time, Solomon “Sol” Sweet, a native Visalian, became a pilot, and he and veteran aviator Eddie Deeds purchased an Alexander-Eaglerock airplane. The two created the Sweet-Deeds Aircrafters Co. In April 1927, the two picked up their plane in Porterville and, as they were flying to Hyde Field, they made a pass over the city of Tulare. While making the wide swing over the town, the engine malfunctioned and they were forced to make an emergency landing in a cow pasture owned by J.F. and Elizabeth Putnam. The pasture land is now part of the Visalia Airport.
The makeshift landing drew attention to the site. Promoted by Sweet, the land was leased by the Visalia Chamber of Commerce, and it became Putnam Field. In June 1928, the small primitive airfield got a boost when Visalia voters, by an overwhelming majority, approved a bond to purchase the land and make improvements. On Jan. 7, 1929, City Ordinance No. 485 made it official, naming the field Visalia Municipal Airport.
The late 1920s witnessed a flurry of aviation activities in and around Visalia. The high school had an aeronautics department that not only offered classes on aviation, but gave students a chance to build and repair aircraft. So much was happening locally that the Visalia Times-Delta created a column called “Bits of News from Visalia Airport” in which it regularly reported on visitors landing, locals taking flight trips and new pilots earning their wings.
But there was one story that received more coverage than most — the construction and flight of “Baby Visalia.”
In 1928, two mechanics, Jess Clark and Delmer Wood, employed at the Visalia Studebaker dealership, pulled together a group of individuals and companies to help them build a tiny monoplane. The dealership bought a rebuilt Lawrence engine, Standard Welding Works did the welding, Visalia Radiator Works made the cowling and gas tank, Seney & Leeper built the magneto, and Bert Wells did the upholstery. With the pieces assembled, the two men christened the craft Baby Visalia. The tiny single-winged craft was now ready for a test flight. It weighed just 400 pounds and had a wing span of slightly more than 23 feet. At the time, it was believed to be the smallest plane ever built in California.
Baby Visalia was believed to be the smallest airplane built in California. It was built by Jess Clark and Delmer Wood. Clark is identified on the far right, and possibly J.H. Kelsey is the man in the flight suit with googles. Circa 1928.
Clark and Wood asked experienced local pilot H.J. Kelsey to put it to the test. At 7 a.m. Sunday, April 15, 1928, Kelsey took to the air and for 10 minutes, he flew the miniature plane at 75 mph over the airport, with 200 Visalians watching from the ground. Upon landing, Kelsey called it “admirably built,” but added, “If it had another 15 horsepower in it, it would be a regular air galloper.”
Other test flights of Baby Visalia proved successful as well, so Clark and Wood asked Kelsey to take it to Los Angeles to be part of an air show. Kelsey took off from Visalia on Sunday, Sept. 9, 1928. He was cruising along nicely, but when he climbed to 8,000 feet over the mountains near Tejon Pass, suddenly the engine stopped and the plane began to fall, then spin. Kelsey had no parachute, so in an effort to stabilize the airplane, he swung himself out of the cockpit and grasped the wing to try and steady it. It worked and, for about 17 miles, he glided over rugged terrain. He spotted a small flat area and there Baby Visalia made a “pancake” landing. The craft was badly damaged and Kelsey, although stunned and suffering two fractured ribs, was able to walk to a ranch house near Castaic Station.
Kelsey returned to Visalia as a hero for his aerial skills and his amazing survival. Two days after the crash, the gritty pilot was flying another plane to the Los Angeles air show.
Baby Visalia was removed from the crash site and returned to Visalia and, in January 1929, it was a project for the high school students’ aeronautical class. They were turning it into a biplane. After that, its history goes dark.
Visalia’s early years of flight were exciting and fraught with danger, but yet so many took to the air. They did it for the adrenalin rush, I’m sure, but their efforts also advanced aviation. Visalia and Tulare County can be proud of these men and women “of spine” who were willing to sacrifice their personal safety.
Our honor roll is a long one and includes early men and women aviators like Sol Sweet, Eddie Deeds, J.H. Kelsey, Pansy Bowen, Helen Sellars and so many more.
Above: Solomon “Sol” Sweet (1905-1988) is shown on the left on “Sol Sweet Day” at Visalia Airport on Oct. 10, 1987. On the right is Mayor Bonnel Pryor. Right: Helen Sellars, instructor at Visalia High School and Jr. College, was the first “aviatrix” in the valley when she soloed Dec. 29, 1928. This photo appeared in the Visalia Times-Delta on Jan. 2, 1929.
This Visalia Airport map was printed on the invitations for an aerial tournament in Visalia to be held June 25, 1927.