By Rachel Hawkins
Roland Garros, a member of the Moisant International Aviators, a flying circus traveling around the state, flew a Bleriot XI into the bright sky on Jan. 12, 1911 making history with the first powered flight in Fort Worth. Seventeen thousand peopled filled the Fort Worth Driving Park, a race track, to watch the monoplane lift to 1,200 feet. Little did the spectators know, Garros’ flight helped Fort Worth take the first step into the aviation and aerospace industries.
The flight originally occurred at the Fort Worth Driving Park, a race track, which is currently a parking lot behind Montgomery Plaza. In 2014, the Fort Worth City Council dedicated land near where the Fort Worth Driving Park once stood, in the Linwood Addition, as a public park to honor the city’s first flight.
The public was invited to join the Fort Worth Aviation Museum to celebrate the 107th anniversary of the first flight on Sat. Jan 13. The event featured historic exhibits, a helium balloon launch, and a presentation by Bruce Bleakley, the museum director of Frontiers of Flight.
“This event marks the beginning of what changed Fort Worth,” Jim Hodgson, executive director of the Fort Worth Aviation Museum, said. “Aviation has affected millions of lives here. Millions of lives have changed the culture and economy in the area. This is where it all started, on this exact spot.
“This event is to let people know aviation started right here. People gained inspiration here, and over the years Fort Worth has been transformed into one of the world leaders in aviation and aerospace technology.”
Seven men from the flying circus were paid by local businesses men to put on the 1911 flight demonstration. The power of flight was an innovative technology, and schools cancelled classes so students could witness the future.
The day was windy and dangerous for flying. Garros knew if the pilots were unable to fly, they would not get paid. He decided to take the chance. In the afternoon, Garros was able to take off and flew around the area for 10 minutes before landing safely.
“When Roland Garros took that first powered flight, the event sparked impacts we can still see to this day,” William Morris, a member of the Fort Worth Aviation Museum said. “When you look at what Fort Worth has become today, 1 in 5 jobs in this town is related to aviation. This is the symbol that started it all.”
Aviation enthusiasts and history buffs admired a newly dedicated full-sized Bleriot replica. Almost 9 feet long with a wingspan measuring over 25 feet, the replica stands in the middle of First Flight Park. More than 800 Bleriot XIs were sold. With a wooden frame covered with fabric, the plan was capable of flying loops.
“It was quite an adventure,” Lanny Parcell, the owner of Cowtown Aerocrafters, and creator of the replica said. “It was an interesting project to take on. What’s unique about the airplane is that the original one weighed 350 pounds, with 50 horsepower on it, and was able to fly in light winds. The challenge here was to design something that looks like it weights exactly the same as the original, and is not able to fly. That was a tricky engineering problem to solve.
“This originally started when I was doing the Travelers 5000 inside the Amon Carter Museum. I met Phillip Poole and some of the other guys, and this was their dream. They launched the project and asked me what I would do if I was going to take on this project. I then started gathering information and drawings, because all I had was a couple of photos and a preview drawing of the model plane, and that’s all I used to scale it out.
“We actually started this project in April 2017. I built the replica in eight months. One challenge I had was trying to create it in a way that the elements wouldn’t affect it. It had to look light and fluffy, but it also had to stand up under the Texas weather. That was our biggest design criteria, designing something that would stay there when a big Texas thunderstorm comes through and is blowing 60 miles per hour, and you basically have a kite on a pole in the middle of a park.
“It was very challenging,” Parcell said. “The plane is also created in a way that when the wind starts blowing, the plane will actually pivot toward the wind and start facing toward that direction.
“The real meaning to me is not necessarily those individual people, but the people lives who were affected by the impact aviation had in the city,” Hodgson said. “Since the 1940s, we’ve built over 70,000 airplanes in North Texas. The economic impact of just those airplanes on the community is $1 trillion. That’s $22 million every day for 107 years, and that continues today, but it’s more than that. It’s the lives of all those who were and are involved.
“We have many people who are directly involved who worked for the Bomber Plant. All of the people who transformed White Settlement into Liberator Village, and all of the people who came with Bell from New York. Overall of the aircraft that were built here, over half of them are helicopters were built during the Vietnam War. It’s from this little airplane, which impacted millions of lives and changed the economy and culture here in Texas.”
Roland Garros would later become a WWI hero, dying in battle Oct. 5 1918, a month before the end of the war.