The Need for Speed: Fact and Fiction
Minnesota aviation pioneer sets world record over the Mississippi River
Standing atop Dayton’s Bluff in St. Paul on a sunny summer’s day, one can quickly see the full expression of transportation alternatives in the Mississippi River corridor. Barges ply the muddy water, trucks and automobiles zip along the highways, trains rumble loudly over steel tracks and small airplanes buzz like bees as they approach or depart Holman Field, the city’s municipal airport, which hugs nearly two miles of riverfront.
The airport is named after a tall, lanky young man from Minneapolis who gave his parents fits by performing dangerous feats in the air, and who set a world record in 1928 by flying 1,433 consecutive loops in an aircraft. He achieved further notoriety by becoming the first commercial pilot for Northwest Airways but his career came to a tragic end.
Charles W. Holman was born on Dec. 27, 1898, to W. Judson and Jane Elizabeth, who lived near Lake Street and Garfield Avenue in Minneapolis. He entered the world at a time when enterprising men were on the cusp of conquering the long sought-after quest of flight, and he came of age when early air pioneers were pushing the limits of the new contraptions in the sky. When the Wright Brothers made their historic flight at Kitty Hawk, N. C., on Dec. 17, 1903, Americans and the rest of the world quickly became obsessed with seeing how far they could go. Flight mania reached fever pitch on May 21, 1927, when Charles Lindbergh, another Minnesotan, completed his nonstop transatlantic flight, earning him instant celebrity and demonstrating that air travel was the wave of the future.
The craze attracted young men and women with daredevil tendencies and Holman was among the fearless few who dared to walk on the wings of soaring aircraft and parachute to thrill crowds of amazed onlookers.
His fearlessness and flair for adventure exhibited itself early in life. He dropped out of high school as a sophomore and took a job climbing telephone poles to string wire for a local phone company. Shortly after, he found employment with a Harley Davidson dealer in Minneapolis and was introduced to the sport of motorcycle racing. It was on the dusty tracks that he earned his nickname “Jack Speed,” a title he later used while performing aerial stunts, hoping his alias would hide his exploits from his parents. They eventually discovered what he was doing and his worried father offered to buy him an airplane if he agreed to stay in the cockpit and off the wings. He complied and allegedly bartered his labor for flying lessons, receiving his first pilot license on Oct. 2, 1925.
At 6-foot-five, 215 pounds, Holman was not hard to miss on the tarmac as he sauntered to his small Laird biplane, which he flew repeatedly in air shows and long distance competitions. According to “Speed: the biography of Charles W. Holman” by Noel Allard, it is clear that Holman wanted to make his mark in the world of aviation. It is most evident through the chain of events that occurred in the weeks surrounding his world record.
Chasing a world record
Local aviator Gene Shank was the first to claim the consecutive loop title. He flew into the record books in January 1928 by making 515 consecutive loops. Holman knew he could best that mark and did so nearly a month later. On Feb. 13 he unseated Shank by flying 1,093 loops over Wold-Chamberlain airfield (today’s MSP International Airport). The ink on his name was barely dry, however, when French aviator Alfred Fronval toppled the tile with 1,111 loops, causing Holman to bristle with bravado. On Mar. 17 he set out to put the matter to rest.
According to Allard, Holman spent much of the fore-night with friends to pump himself up for the task. The next morning – still rumpled and unshaven – he squeezed himself into the cockpit of his plane at Wold-Chamberlain field, took flight with 100 gallons of fuel and made a few jaunts between there and St. Paul’s municipal airport. Shortly after noon he was ready for action. He climbed to 3,000 feet, put the plane in a shallow dive and made the first of what must have felt like a million dizzying loops. Hearing the noise overhead, people began to spill out of homes and businesses to witness the record-breaking attempt.
The first few loops were rather slow – four per minute – but increased to six per minute as his fuel burned and the payload lightened. Other pilots took to the sky and swarmed the airspace around him, creating what could have been a major distraction. It must have been a remarkable sight to see one plane making loop after loop while several others circled around it.
George O. Miles, chief clerk of Northwest Airways, was the official counter. He stood on a hangar and posted a large white panel for every hundred loops completed. When Holman hit 1,112 the crowd cheered with excitement, but the show wasn’t over. With dogged determination to claim the record once and for all, Holman made 321 additional loops to shatter the record. It took about five hours to complete.
The scene Allard captures in his biographical work is legendary and gives a nod to Holman’s showmanship. At 5:16 p.m., he steered his plane toward the ground and the throng of onlookers gasped, thinking something was amiss. A twinkle surely gleamed in Holman’s eye as he pulled up, made another loop, an inverted roll and dove toward the hangar, pulling up just 400 feet from it. Next, he performed a finale of barrel-rolls, loops and sideslips before landing virtually on fumes, with only a few gallons of fuel left. He was a bit wobbly as he climbed out of the plane and leaned against the aircraft to steady himself. He flashed a big smile to the crowd, quickly located his wife, Dee, and staggered over to give her a big kiss. She brimmed with pride.
Next he found Northwest Secretary Rosie Stein and casually told her that he had lost the spinner to his propeller somewhere over the city that afternoon. As he left for home, he supposedly said, “Anybody who wants to beat that record can have at it. No more of it for me.”
With the record secure – it would stand for 22 years – Holman turned his attention to an even more impressive endeavor. In 1929 he began making plans for a nonstop flight around the world. His calculations showed it would take 181 hours (7 days, 13 hours flying time) to complete 18,151 miles. He estimated traveling 2,400 miles per day, averaging 100 mph. For two years he worked on his dream flight. In the meantime, he continued with his aerial feats.
On May 17, 1931, Holman was performing at an air show in Omaha, Neb., when a mechanical malfunction occurred while he was flying inverted at 300 mph just 50 feet over the ground. An article in the New York Times the following day suggested a bolt broke loose from his safety belt, causing him to lose control, crash and tumble to his death in front of 15,000 spectators. He was just 32 years old. News of the accident shocked the world. His body was returned to the Twin Cities and interred at Acacia Park Cemetery in Mendota Heights. An estimated 50,000 people lined the roads to the cemetery, and an additional 50,000 attended the service, making it the largest funeral in Minnesota at that time. Holman was inducted into the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame in 1988, thus securing his place in local aviation history.
Speed Holman Shatters World Record
Charles Holman momentarily took his eyes off the spinning propeller in front of him and glanced at his watch, which sent his equilibrium awhirl. He was in a cloud – literally and metaphorically – and he blinked hard to chase away the fuzziness and focus on the watch face. Five hours, he marveled. The record is mine.
He was fatigued from his time in the air and was ready to be back on solid ground. His long legs ached from being wedged in the same position for so long, his shoulders were knotted from a thousand pulls on the plane’s yoke, and his ears buzzed from the engine's constant drone. Now he wished he hadn’t stayed out so late the night before. He quickly recalled conversations of that evening, when his friends razzed him about a French aviator stealing the record from him weeks earlier. They knew their jabs would inspire him to shatter the record, and they were right. The record is mine for good this time, he assured himself as he wiggled his toes to warm them from the frigid air rushing around him on this mid-March day.
Below, throngs of people in overcoats craned their necks heavenward and watched in awe as he made yet another loop: number 1,432. To him they looked like specs, ants, yet he was happy they were there. Their presence buoyed him each time he thought about quitting. He loved performing before large crowds and was always happy to undertake a daring act, whether wing-walking, parachuting or stunt flying. He looked down at them again.
They’ve come for a show. He smiled. And a show is what they’ll get.
With the spectators squinting into the sinking sun, Holman put his plane into a sharp nose-dive and screamed toward the ground. The crowd gasped in horror, their eyes wild with worry and fear. Suddenly, he pulled back on the yoke, made a final loop and darted toward the hangar in an inverted position, pulling up just 400 feet from it. Next he spun the plane in a reckless succession of barrel-rolls and slideslips before landing safely on the tarmac. The crowd erupted with cheers and waved their arms in delight.
The stunts made Holman’s strong stomach turn; and he paused briefly in the cockpit to regain his composure. He killed the engine and looked at the fuel gauge as the propeller spun to a stop. It was dangerously close to empty. He slowly removed his goggles, exposing wide red rings around his tired eyes, and took off his gloves and aviator’s hat, his hair firmly matted against his scalp. He pulled himself from the cockpit and climbed out of the plane, steadying himself against it while he found his land legs. The crowd pressed toward him and people were soon slapping him on the back and offering praise and congratulations. He smiled broadly at them but his eyes scanned about for his wife. At last he saw her struggling to get through the mob. Their eyes met and he staggered toward her, and they embraced and shared a passionate kiss. When she realized how many had witnessed the encounter she clasped her mouth to hide her shy, yet pride-filled smile.
Newspaper reporters quickly surrounded them and barked out a barrage of questions.
“Hey Speed, how does it feel to reclaim your title?”
“How are you feeling physically?”
His drooping eyes and slumped posture answered the question: “A bit tired.”
A brash young reporter shouted, “Your last record didn’t stand long. Do you think someone will try to break this one soon?”
“Anybody who wants to beat that record can have at it,” replied Holman. “No more of it for me.”
He put his arm around his wife and they turned and walked toward their car. On the way they approached the secretary of Northwest Airways, who was there to help coordinate the flight of another pilot who would fly Holman’s plane back to its hangar in Minneapolis. He excused himself, walked over to her and whispered, “Let Jack know she’s in good shape but the propeller spinner fell off sometime this afternoon. It won’t be a problem.”
The secretary shook her head at the thought of it.
Holman returned to his wife.
“What was that all about?” she asked.
“Oh, nothing. Just business.”
Charles W. "Speed" Holman
Minnesota Historical Society photo