The Funeral of J. Thad Johnson

3 July 1927

The fiftieth anniversary of Canada’s Confederation in 1917 came and went with only a token official acknowledgement. The horror of World War I was at its height and Canadians had more important things on their mind. But by the time of the Diamond Jubilee ten years later, Canada was feeling its oats. The country was at peace, the economy was booming, and, with the 1926 Balfour Declaration just a few months earlier, Canada had been recognized as being the equal of and in no way subordinate to the United Kingdom. It was time for a party. Three consecutive days of celebrations, festivities and parades were organized across the country, starting on Dominion Day, Friday, 1 July.

With Ottawa festooned with flags and bunting, Day I featured the Governor General, the Viscount Willingdon (later the Marquess of Willingdon), laying the cornerstone of the Confederation Building on Wellington Street, followed by the inauguration of the 53-bell carillon in the newly completed Peace Tower, and official speeches on Parliament Hill. Later that day, a huge parade of floats wended its way through downtown Ottawa. The floats featured exhibits depicting Canadian history, industry, and economic progress. A guest of honour at the festivities was Hortence Cartier, the only surviving daughter of Sir Georges-Étienne Cartier, one of Canada’s leading “fathers” of Confederation.

The highlight of Day II of the Jubilee celebrations was a visit by the hero of the hour American Colonel Charles Lindbergh, “the Lone Eagle.” Just weeks early, Lindbergh had crossed the Atlantic travelling from New York City to Paris in his single-engine, monoplane The Spirit of St. Louis, specially built by Ryan Airlines and custom designed by the aeronautical engineer Donald Hall. Although this was not the first transatlantic flight, it was almost double the length of that initial 1919 flight from Newfoundland to Ireland by British aviation pioneers John Alcott and Arthur Brown. By successfully making the first New York to Paris flight, Lindbergh won the $25,000 Orteig Prize. It took the 25-year old Lindbergh 33 ½ hours to make the solo flight. To lighten the airplane to allow it to carry more fuel, Lindbergh had stripped it of “unessential” equipment such as a sextant, radio, and a parachute. Lindbergh arrived in Paris to a hero’s welcome. Returning home by a U.S. naval ship, Lindbergh received a rapturous reception from American fans, and was feted to a tickertape parade through New York City. He followed this by a three-month, celebratory tour of 92 American cities.

Lindbergh landing 1927
Charles Lindbergh arriving in Ottawa flying The Spirit of St. Louis, 2 July 1927, Library and Archives Canada, PA-027647.

Lindbergh was also invited to Canada to help celebrate the Dominion’s Diamond Jubilee. Accompanying the intrepid aviator on his journey north were twelve airmen of the 1st Pursuit Group of the United States Army Air Service. Based at Selfridge airfield, north of Detroit, Michigan, the Group flew Curtis P-1 Hawk biplanes. Leaving early in the morning of 2 July, the airmen flew directly from their aerodrome, travelling across Lake St. Clair and southern Ontario before heading to Ottawa. They arrived over a temporary airfield located about a quarter mile from the Ottawa Hunt and Golf Club on the Bowesville Road, roughly the location of the Ottawa Airport today, at 1pm, one hour late from their scheduled arrival time. Nobody had informed the flyers that Ottawa was on daylight savings time. (Prior to World War II, the decision to adopt daylight savings time was left up to cities not the province.) A huge crowd, kept back from the landing strip by police and 500 militia members, had assembled to greet the flyers.

After making a tour over Ottawa, Lindbergh safely landed his famous silver-grey airplane, and taxied to the side to make way for the accompanying squadron that was wowing the crowd by swooping low over the fields in its famous “V” formation. The twelve airplanes were divided into four sets of three. Only 25 to 50 feet separated one airplane from

Curtis P1 Hawk
The U. S. Air Force Curtis P-1 Hawk, Wikipedia.

another. To land, the biplanes went into a “Laffberg circle,” the formation typically used for landing on a small airfield, with each machine touching ground in turn. The first seven airplanes landed without incident. With five still in the air, the leader of the final fourth set, Lieutenant John Thad Johnson, aged 34, unexpectedly side-skipped to the left, the typical indication that for some reason he wished to land out of sequence. As customary in such situations, the next pilot in line, Lieutenant H. A. Woodring, moved ahead into the position vacated by Johnson. Suddenly, Woodring’s aircraft was struck as Johnson’s airplane reared up, its tail hitting Woodring’s propeller. With its “elevator” sheared off, Johnson’s airplane spun out of control from a height of only three hundred feet. Johnson initially tried to ride his aircraft down, but at an altitude of only 100 feet, he jumped. Although his parachute functioned properly, there was insufficient time for it to fully deploy. Johnson struck the ground with horrific force, leaving an eighteen-inch depression in the ground. Although doctors and an ambulance had been stationed at the field in the event of an accident, there was nothing that could be done. Death was instantaneous. Johnson’s crippled biplane crashed nose-down 100 yards away. The aviator’s broken wristwatch indicated precisely the time of death: 12.21, or 1.21 Ottawa time.

Johnson Thad
Lieut. J. Thad Johnson, 1893-1927, Born: Johnson City, Texas, Died: Ottawa, Canada. Collection of Troy Benear, Grandnephew of J. Thad Johnson.

The tragedy occurred in front of thousands of stunned onlookers, as well as Col. Lindbergh and the other members of the pursuit squadron. Immediately, soldiers surrounded Lieutenant Johnson’s crushed body and his downed airplane, holding back the crowds and stopping souvenir hunters. Lindbergh, ashen-faced, was driven to the site of Lieut. Johnson’s body where he paid his respects before being driven away in an open limousine for the official greeting ceremonies on Parliament Hill.

On the Hill, the packed crowds had been waiting for hours in the hot July sun for a glimpse of the famous aviator. Finally, delayed more than two hours, the shaken Lindbergh arrived on Parliament Hill in the limousine. Few in the cheering multitude were aware of the tragedy that had just occurred. Despite the strain he was under, Lindbergh, dressed in a double-breasted, blue, serge suit was greeted by Prime Minister Mackenzie King and William Phillips, the American Minister to Canada (equivalent to ambassador). Phillips called Lindbergh the United States’ “unofficial ambassador,” and noted that the aviator, who was born in Detroit, had Canadian blood in his veins; Lindbergh’s grandfather on his mother’s side had been born in Canada.

Lindbergh speaking 1927
Charles Lindbergh speaking on Parliament Hill, 2 July 1927, Library and Archives Canada, C-006257.

The Prime Minister greeted Lindbergh in the name of the government and the people of Canada. He called the aviator “the embodiment of the spirit of the Happy Warrior,” a gentleman unafraid.” The visibly stricken Lindbergh spoke for less than ten minutes, pausing between words. After saying, how much he had appreciated the welcome he had received from Canadians, he added that in flying from Detroit he was struck by the need for air transportation in Canada and the United States.  Airlines would eliminate distance and would bring Americans and Canadians even closer that they already were. Nobody mentioned the death of Thad Johnson.

After his short speech, Lindbergh was whisked away to perform his other official duties: meeting the Governor General, going to Lansdowne Park for a series of sporting events, and then back to Mackenzie King’s home, Laurier House, before attending the government dinner on Parliament Hill in honour of William Phillips, the American representative in Canada. While these events were going on, a coroner’s inquest was hastily held into the death of Thad Johnson. Evidence given by the U.S. airmen suggested that the most likely reason for Johnson’s airplane to go out of control was “propeller wash,” a frequent hazard when planes are flying close to each other. No blame was ascribed to Lieutenant Woodring whose airplane was in collision with Johnson’s. The Crown Attorney conclude that the “most lamentable accident was due to mischance.”

Johnson funeral
Funeral of Lieut. J. Thad Johnson in from of the old Ottawa Post Office, Wellington Street, Ottawa, 3 July 1927, Library and Archives Canada, PA-0279950.

The Canadian government quickly organized a state funeral for Lieutenant Johnson to be held the following day, 3 July, Day III of the Jubilee celebration. His body was placed in a bronze casket, and conveyed to the East Block of the Parliament Buildings. There, he laid in state through the morning and early afternoon. Members of the RCAF stood with bowed heads at each corner of the casket which was draped with the American Stars and Stripes. Thousands passed by the flower-bedecked bier. After a curtailed Jubilee Thanksgiving Service held at the Auditorium presided over by the Governor General, Canadian officials and other dignitaries hurried over to Parliament Hill to pay their respects to the fallen airman and to attend his funeral. Reverend (Major) H. I. Horsey of the 38th Royal Ottawa Highlanders read the service. More than 25,000 people watched the proceedings and the imposing military funeral cortege. Camille Lefebvre, assistant carillonneur of the cathedral at Malines, Belgium, played Chopin’s Death March followed by Handel’s Death March from Saul, on the newly-inaugurated carillon in the Peace Tower. The Union Jack above Parliament was lowered out of respect for the fallen aviator.

After the funeral, the flag-draped casket was carefully placed on a horse-drawn gun carriage, and, to muffled drums, was drawn slowly to the train station, escorted by RCMP officers in their scarlet dress uniforms. On either side were three RCAF flying officers acting as honorary pallbearers. Leading the cortege was the band of the Governor General’s Foot Guards, followed by a firing party and buglers. Official mourners included the Prime Minister, the U.S. Minister to Canada, and Vincent Massey, the Canadian Envoy to the United States who had hurried up to Ottawa from Washington, as well as the Chairman of the Jubilee Committee, Cabinet members, senior militia officers, civil servants, and the Boy Scouts. More than 100 officers and 1,000 other ranks, from almost every military unit in the region, were represented. When the funeral cortege halted in front of the Chateau Laurier Hotel, seven members of the U.S. Pursuit team swooped down low before climbing high again to salute Lieutenant Johnson.

At Union Station, its cheery Jubilee bunting removed in favour of funereal black and purple, the casket was transferred into the care of a U.S. army official, and conveyed to a special funeral train organized by Canadian National Railway for Lieutenant Johnson’s last trip back to Selfridge Field, Michigan. After the train left the station, Colonel Lindbergh, flying The Spirit of St. Louis, threw peonies over the carriage as a final tribute to the fallen airman. Railwaymen collected the blossoms so that they could be delivered to Johnson’s young widow; the couple had been married only a year.

Lieutenant Johnson’s remains were buried the following day in Fenton, Michigan.  Today, a small road called Thad Johnson Private, located near the Ottawa airport not far from where the pilot fell to his death, honours the memory of the American Pursuit pilot.

Sources:

Ottawa Journal (The), 1927. “Ottawa Jubilee Celebrations Will Surpass In Its Scope Anything Hitherto Planned,” 1 July.

—————————, 1927. “Col. Lindbergh With ‘Spirt of St. Louis’ Leads Squadron of U.S. Planes.” 2 July.

—————————, 1927. “Plane Flowers on the Casket of Dead Pilot,” 4 July.

————————–, 1927. “Capital Bows Head In Sorrow As Body OF U.S. Flyer Is Borne Slowly To Funeral Train,” 4 July.

—————————, 1927. “Greets ‘Lindy’ As Gentleman Without Fear,” 4 July.

—————————, 1927. “Lieut. J.T. Johnson Is Killed As He Leaps From Airplane Disabled In Air Collision,” 4 July.

—————————, 1927. “Flier’s Parachute Opens But Distance Too Short To Break Rapid Fall Towards The Field,” 4 July.

—————————, 1927. “Impressive National Thanksgiving Service Held in the Auditorium,” 4 July.

—————————, 1927. “Assured Safety Visiting Airmen and Spectators,” 4 July.

—————————, 1927. “Greatly Enjoyed His Stay While In The Capital City Says Lindbergh On Landing, 5 July.

Spirit of St. Louis 2 Project, 2014. Charles Lindbergh, An American Aviator, The Story of the Land Family, http://www.charleslindbergh.com/.

The Early Birds of Aviation, Inc. 2000. John Thad Johnson, http://earlyaviators.com/ejthadjo.htm.

The Aeronauts Come To Ottawa

11 September 1911

Like today, the dawn of the twentieth century was a time of fast-paced, technological change that was dramatically transforming people’s lives. Within a lifetime, people went from oil lamps to electricity, from the pony express to the telephone, and from the horse and buggy to the automobile. In December 1903, on a beach a few miles south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, mankind took the next transformative, technological leap. Two brothers, Orville and Wilbur Wright, made the first, heavier-than-air, powered flight. That first flight, with Orville at the controls, lasted but a few seconds, and it only covered some 120 feet at an altitude of roughly 10 feet over the wind-swept, sand dunes. But it was a stunning achievement. Two years later, the brothers developed their first practical flying machine called the Flyer III that could stay aloft half an hour and travel a distance of more than 20 miles.

Within a few years of the Wrights’ initial flight, aviation literally took off, notwithstanding countless crashes that claimed the lives of many early flight pioneers.  In 1906, the Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont made the first powered flight in Europe, wowing Parisians in his Oiseau de proie (bird of prey). John McCurdy made the first Canadian powered, heavier-than-air flight in February 1909 near Baddeck, Nova Scotia. His airplane, the Silver Dart, was developed by the Aerial Experiment Association organized by Alexander Graham Bell and financed by his wife Mabel who was an aviation enthusiast. In July 1909, Louis Blériot of France, flying his Type XI monoplane, became an instant celebrity when he made the first successful flight across the English Channel. The following month, Charles Willard flew his Curtis biplane, the Golden Flyer, over the Scarborough beaches to the delight of Toronto residents. Unfortunately, Willard was forced to ditch into Lake Ontario. Flying in the late afternoon, he blamed approaching darkness for the crash but he had only taken one flying lesson, and had been flying for just two weeks.

Air shows, where aviation enthusiasts could meet, share notes, and compete also became popular, attracting thousands of fans. The first was held in Paris in September 1909. The first North American show, held in Los Angeles in January 1910, drew more than a quarter million spectators.  Canada hosted its first aviation meet outside of Montreal in July that same year. Many of the great aviation pioneers attended including Count Jacques de Lesseps flying a Blériot monoplane, four members of the newly established Wright Brothers exhibition team in their Wright Model A airplanes, as well as John McCurdy flying a Baddeck machine.  To great excitement, De Lesseps flew over downtown Montreal on a 50-minute round trip from the Lakeside (now Pointe-Claire) field where the meet was held.

In Ottawa, interest was high in this new technological marvel. In September 1910, Professor McKergow of McGill University gave a lecture to the Royal Society at the Normal School (now part of Ottawa City Hall) at the corner of Elgin and Lisgar Streets. Despite the great advances that had been made in aviation, the good professor opined that “the aeroplane will never be used for anything but sport or war.” He did concede, however, that if we could come to understand air currents, the problem of transatlantic air travel might be solved. By taking advantage of the trade winds, he believed an airplane might be able to travel from France to someplace in the southern United States in 50-60 hours.

Ottawa residents had to wait until September 1911 for their first glimpse of the magnificent men in their flying machines. In the spring of that year, a spokesman for the Central Canada Exhibition said that they were looking to hire an aviator for $1,500 (roughly $32,000 in today’s money) to make ten flights, two per day, of not less than five miles in distance. The flights were to be the highlight of the 1911 Exhibition. The Ottawa Evening Journal reported that the Belgian aviator and dare-devil Charles Morok had signed a contract to give demonstrations in his Curtis biplane. Morok was famous for the aerial stunt called the “Dip of Death.” The newspaper also claimed that his airplane would race an automobile—a favourite event at aviation shows and fairgrounds at that time. It was not to be. Either the newspaper was misinformed, or the aviator got a better offer. That September, Morok performed at the Sandusky Fairgrounds in Fremont, Ohio.

In early September, virtually on the eve of the opening of the Exhibition, it still wasn’t clear which aviator would have the honour of being the first to fly over Ottawa. One press report claimed that Charles Willard, who had made the inaugural Toronto flight, had been engaged on the same terms as offered to Morok. However, Willard was out of the running as he had been injured a couple of weeks earlier at a fair in St Louis. John McCurdy’s name was also mentioned, but he too was a no-show. Speculation was that he had commitments elsewhere.  With everything “up in the air,” so to speak, advertisements for the Ex only promised an un-named “Famous Aviator” would perform two flights per day.

In the event, two competing companies of aviators showed up, each claiming to have a contract to perform at the Exhibition. Jean Wilmer, a French-American pilot, along with Georges Mestich of Belgium and Gressier of France arrived in Ottawa with their Morane monoplane. Virtually simultaneously, another troupe, led by Captain Thomas Baldwin, also arrived ready to perform in one of Baldwin’s “Red Devils,” a Curtiss “pusher-type” biplane. Apparently, both companies had been engaged by a booking office in New York City.

To settle matters, the organizers of the Exhibition suggested that both troupes provide demonstrations. Instead, the two competing companies agreed between themselves that Baldwin’s troupe would fly. Twenty-one year old Lee Hammond, “the noted and daring aeronaut,” who worked for Capt. Baldwin got the nod.

Hammond arrived in Ottawa with his airplane by train at noon on 11 September, 1911. He had just enough time to get to Lansdowne Park in time to make his first demonstration flight. Indicative of how dangerous flying was at that time, Hammond was still shaking off the effects of two airplane crashes, both into water. Three weeks earlier, he had broken an ankle after his aircraft stalled and fell into Lake Michigan. He was fished out by a U.S. Revenue Cutter. Just the day prior to his arrival in Ottawa, he had had a second watery crash while performing with Tom Sopwith, later of Sopwith Camel fame, at Coney Island, New York. Fortunately, he sustained only minor cuts and bruises.

To the delight of thousands in Exhibition attendees, Hammond’s first Ottawa flight went off without mishap sometime after 1pm. Although a makeshift runway, fifty feet wide and five hundred feet long, had been laid out in front of the grandstand at Lansdowne Park, he took off from Slattery’s Field located across the Rideau Canal from the Exhibition grounds. Slattery’s Field, which today encompasses the Riverdale Avenue and Main Street area, was at the time used for pasturing cows. Captain Baldwin explained that the Exhibition grounds were too congested for Hammond to safely take off and land. In a short, five-minute flight, Hammond circled the Exhibition grounds several times before returning to land back at Slattery’s Field. He performed his second show of the day at roughly 4pm.

Lee Hammond at Cass Fair, 19-9-11
Lee Hammond (left) with Captain Thomas Baldwin with Hammond’s “Red Devil” airplane at the Cassopolis Fair, Michigan, September 1911. Hammond performed at the “Cass Co.” Fair immediately after his Ottawa shows.

Problems seemed to dog Hammond. On the second day of the Exhibition, a storm collapsed the tent that sheltered his biplane, breaking the propeller. Later in the week, his engine conked out when he encountered dense fog at 1,000 feet. He landed heavily near the Rideau Canal, only missing another watery crash by a few feet. Undeterred by the experience, Hammond made his second flight of the day. That flight too ended badly, with Hammond crash-landing on Slattery’s Field, scattering the cows and damaging the tail of his biplane.

Despite his problems, Hammond’s aerial displays were the talk of the Exhibition. The Journal waxed lyrically about the flights saying that Hammond was “at times almost touching the blue and mottled sky, circling like a big bird in front of the grand stand, then darting off as if he was heading to fly over the entire city. Then soaring upwards, now swooping gracefully towards the earth.”

Described by the newspaper as handsome, blue-eyed and square-chinned, with an attractive personality, the daring, young aeronaut was also a big hit with the ladies. The Journal called him the “blue ribboned” boy” of the Exhibition. “Any man who would go up in an aeroplane the height he did yesterday when there was a thirty to forty mile and hour zephyr, shimmering around fifteen hundred feet up, can make himself a lion in the eyes of the ladies.”

On the last day of the Exhibition, before he left for Cassopolis, Michigan, the next stop on his exhibition tour, Hammond was thanked warmly by Earl Grey, the Governor General for his aerial displays.

A plaque commemorating Lee Hammond’s flights from Slattery’s Field, Ottawa’s first impromptu airfield, is mounted on the wall of the Hydro Ottawa substation located at 39 Riverdale Avenue. Lee Hammond died in 1932. Also commemorated on the substation wall is the landing of the first flight from Montreal to Ottawa made by William Robinson on 8 October 1913. Robinson was forced to use Slattery’s Field when, owing to his late arrival into Ottawa, the sports field at Lansdowne Park was being used by the Ottawa Rough Riders for football practice. Robinson delivered copies of the Montreal Daily Mail to senior federal and municipal leaders, including Prime Minister Borden and Ottawa Mayor Ellis as a publicity stunt to advertise the new newspaper.

Sources:

Citizen (The), 1911. “Ottawa May See First Aviator,” 11 September.

—————-, 1911. “Opening Day Of Exhibition Broke Records Of All Years,” 12 September.

—————-, 1911. “Ottawa Saw Real Aeroplanes,” 12 September.

Ellis, Frank H., 1954. Canada’s Flying Heritage, University of Toronto Press: Toronto.

Ficke, George, 2005, “Lee Hammond,” The Early Birds Of Aviation, http://airandspace.si.edu/collections/artifact.cfm?object=nasm_A19500094000.

Fortier, R. 2009, “Canada’s First Aviation Meet – 1910,” Wings, https://www.wingsmagazine.com/, 26 June.

Globe, (The), 1910. “Count de Lesseps’ Flight Feature At Montreal,” 27 June.

Orléans Star, 2011. “Slattery’s Field Street marks 100 years of aviation in Ottawa,” 9 November, http://www.orleansstar.ca/News/Local/2011-11-09/article-2800460/Slatterys-Field-Street-marks-100-years-of-aviation-in-Ottawa/1.

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1910. “Prof. McKergow On Aviation,” 29 September.

————————————-, 1911. “Have An Aeroplane,” 10 April.

————————————-, 1911. “Ten Flights Cost $1,500,” 12 April.

————————————-, 1911. “Big Ottawa Celebration Opens On Monday For Annual Ottawa Fair,” 9 September.

————————————-, 1911. “Central Canada Fair Opens In Ideal Weather,” 11 September.

————————————-, 1911. “Daring Aviator Arrives,” 11 September.

————————————-, 1911. “Airship Mishap May Prevent Flight Today,” 12 September.

————————————-, 1911, “Lee Hammond: Daring Aviator Ready For flight At Exhibition Grounds,” 13 September.

————————————–, 1911. “Wold Fly Over Ottawa And Hull In Monplane, 15 September.

————————————–, 1911. “Thirty-Six Thousand At Fair Yesterday, 15 September.

————————————–, 1911. “Exhibition Figures Now Show Decrease,” 16 September.

————————————–, 1913. “Delivers Papers With Aeroplane,” 9 October.

Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, 2016. “Baldwin Red Devil,” http://airandspace.si.edu/collections/artifact.cfm?object=nasm_A19500094000.

Von Baeyer, C. & Krywicki, K. 2013. “Slattery’s Field In Old Ottawa South–Ottawa’s First Accidental Airfield,” Old Ottawa South Community Association (OSCA), 2011, http://www.oldottawasouth.ca/oos/history-project/history-project/555-slatterys-field-in-old-ottawa-south-ottawas-first-accidental-airfield.

Image: Lee Hammond and Thomas Baldwin at the Cass. Co. Fair, September 1911, JAC-382, http://www.postcardgallery.com/page14%20avaition.htm.