Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Pioneer Aeroplane Exhibition Company

Locked away for more than 50-years was the story of the 1914 - 1916 flying adventures of partners, Jay Ingram & Charles Foster called, "The Pioneer Aeroplane Exhibition Company". This was until a friend of my dad's mentioned one day that he heard a rumor of an old airplane stored in the backyard of a former Decatur Texas doctor. That day was in 1964.

Photo: Jay Ingram family collection (digitally enhanced by T. Bowden)

Of course dad was not one to let a rumor like that go unchecked. So, within a week, he found himself knocking at the door of this old house in the middle of Decatur. He was promptly told to GO AWAY. So he did. But you might say that persistence is fundamental trait instilled in John Ryburn Bowden from a young age. This is the story of that fortuitous spirit in dad that led him to eventually uncover this wonderful treasure from the past. His 20-plus year quest is related here.

I don't think dad ever mentioned this to anyone after that day in 1964, not even in our immediate family, for more than 10 years. One evening, though, around 1979 dad came to supper with more excitement than I had seen in him ever before. Bursting out, he told us this story about how that day he had gone back by the old house in Decatur. This time, he was met by a sister of the now deceased doctor Ingram. This lady related to my dad some small tidbits of information about her dad, Jay Ingram. She explained that indeed her dad had built and flown an airplane prior to WW1 and the remains were still stored in the shed out in the back yard.

So she agreed to let dad look inside at the airplane. But she would not allow him to go inside at all. He would have to be content to just look through the door. Dad explained that this really was anti-climactic, because once they were able to drag the old door through the weeds enough to see inside, all he could see were these large boxes. But as he stood there assessing this site in his mind, it became clear that these boxes were clearly the right size. Each box was constructed with a wooden frame with blue sheet metal sides and top. There was one box about 3 feet tall by 4 feet long and 3 feet wide (just right size for an engine). Another 2 or three boxes were a narrow 3 feet wide by about 6 feet tall and more than 10 feet long . Among other unique treasures inside this shed was a sidewalk popcorn machine, a Victrola, various small engines. I can imagine Dad's adrenaline must have been at an all-time high. But the lady was adamant that he was not to disturb these items.

Noting the poor condition of the old wooden frame shed, dad did convince the lady to agree to allow him to bring some plastic tarps and cover over these "airplane" boxes. So 30-minutes later he returned from Wal-Mart. He carefully draped the boxes in plastic before the doors of the shed were then closed and locked again, not to be opened again for another 5 years.

In the mean time, Dad went to work researching the story behind these boxes. This task became difficult because the largest newspaper in the area during those days had lost its archival collection sometime after WWII. And so there just was not a lot of information about any flying activities around Decatur. Through various means, he did learn that Jay Ingram had recruited a young aeroplane man to help him start a flying business. Charles Foster had learned the trade as a mechanic under Glenn Curtiss himself in prior years. It it not known whether the first of the Foster-Ingram planes was built from Charles' memory or whether it was built from a kit, which was available at the time from the Curtiss company. Later, the Ingram family revealed that the men operated the "Pioneed Aeroplane Exhibition Company" for 2 or 3-years, taking their plane to county fairs by rail around the southwest for demonstration flights. Several planes were built and re-built, the last of which was flown only once before being crated and stored away in the backyard shed.

Repeated attempts by my dad to buy the airplane were met with opposition by more than one of the Ingram family. But finally, in 1984, dad got a call from the family saying that an agreement was made by the remaining family members to sell the plane. On his first trip to negotiate the sale in 1984, dad was finally allowed to look inside the boxes.

To his surprize, opening up the end of the first box, Dad first laid eyes on a round wooden control wheel still mounted on its steel yoke. Also inside this box was a rats-nest of wires, fittings, brackets, and sticks of bamboo. Inside another box he was amazed to find two wing panels. And they still had their fabric coverings intact. Inside the engine box, dad discovered an in-line 6 cylinder engine remarkably well preserved. Promising to the Ingram family that he intended to preserve the airplane and its historical significance, he made a deal to buy the airplane. Two days later, Dad arrived in Decatur with a pickup and trailer to retrieve the treasure boxes.

Dad and his friends managed to assemble the parts of this wonderful machine, which to this day still has its original fabric covering. There are even bug-stains on the leading edges of the wings, proof that the airplane once flew. And, believe it or not, after some tinkering with the engine for a few days, Dad and his buddies even managed to run the engine for several minutes for a group of friends in 1986. These tales are planned for another future posting here.

Dad kept the assembled plane in his hangar for almost two years, but eventually decided the relic should be placed in a better environment for long-term preservation and for historical education and enjoyment for the public. So, the Ingram-Foster airplane now is stored on permanent display at the Albuquerque Air Terminal. Be sure to check it out on your next trip there.

Here are a few photos of the airplane at Dad's hanger on Deer Pasture Airfield. And for more reading, I have included some related links below.

Holcombs Aerodrome
Albuquerque, NM City Website

Galen Lillethorup

Pat Tritle: Outdoor Flight

1914 Ingram/Foster Biplane from paul arbogast on Vimeo.

1 comment:

  1. What a story Terry! And how interesting that you posted it just as I posted the photo on facebook.


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