Kentucky Aviation Historical Society

Our History

BOWMAN FIELD'S 90th ANNIVERSARY

Saturday, May 8, 2010, marked a historical date in Louisville aviation history - the 90th anniversary of Bowman Field. On this date in 1920 two Louisvillians came together to form a partnership and incorporate the Bowman-Gast Aero Company. The two principals were Abram Hite Bowman and Robert Henry Gast. Bowman was already established in the transportation business owning a trucking firm and Gast was a recently returned home World War I aviator. They brought together their skills of management and piloting at a time when the public was in need of airports and the services that they provided.

The airplane had already gone through a period of invention and tinkering starting with the Wright Brothers in 1903 to become a mature fighting machine in World War I. The years 1914-1918 saw vast improvements in airframe and engine technology, all of which would spur civilian aviation in the years to come. Of equal importance was the massive wartime effort to train pilots knowing well that many of them would continue flying once their military service ended. In addition, numerous surplus military aircraft became available to the civilian market soon after the war. Factor in the ingredients of trained pilots and quantities of airplanes and the stage was set for local airports.

Two Louisvillians - one with a vision that could see the airplane as an important mode of transportation in the future and the other a pilot that loved to fly - came together during that special day in May of 1920. Mr. Bowman purchased a surplus Canadian built Curtiss JN Jenny two seat biplane and subleased 50 acres of land off Taylorsville Road. Bob Gast could fly the airplane. The rest is history.

GLENN CURTISS COMES TO CHURCHILL DOWNS
LOUISVILLE'S FIRST AIRPLANE FLIGHT

Just weeks after Donau thundered across Churchill Down's finish line to win the 1910 Kentucky Derby, Glenn Curtiss from Hammondsport, New York roared across the same finish line to win the admiration of Louisvillians and establish aviation history. Curtiss and fellow exhibition pilot Bud Mars flew their airplanes, which were biplanes with a pusher engine, on both Saturday and Sunday, June 18 and 19. Thirty-two year old Glenn Hammond Curtiss was the first of the two to take to the air at Churchill Downs making him the first person to fly an airplane in Louisville. The Courier-Journal reported that there were at least 10,000 spectators in the clubhouse and grandstand and "every neighbors rooftop within a mile was filled with people." Furthermore the newspaper noted, "As Curtiss soared along birdlike at a height of 175 feet ... the great mass of people had its first opportunity of seeing an airplane in graceful full action. Their voiced approbation could be heard for a mile ... onlookers arose, cheering and shouting encouragement."

At a time when there were no airports, Glenn Curtiss was no stranger to headlines. A month earlier in New York, he became the first aviator to fly between Albany and New York City to capture for the challenge a $10,000 prize offered by the New York World newspaper. In recognition of this fete, he won the 1910 Scientific American Trophy, for the third year in a row. In 1907 he was declared the fastest man in the world when he pounded the sands of Ormond Beach, Florida at a 136 miles per hour on a motorcycle of his own design. One June 8, 1911, the Aero Club of America awarded Glenn Hammond Curtiss aviator license number-one for his accomplishments in aviation, his willingness to help and share his findings, and public demonstrations of all of his flights. Louisville was indeed fortunate to host America's premiere aviator when he came to Churchill Downs.

The Louisville Times which sponsored the aviation meet at Churchill Downs had been promoting it for nearly a month. Railroads and Interurban lines added to their schedule and provided special rates to encourage attendance from outside of the city. The June meet also offered a model airplane contest with Glenn Curtiss judging, music, and motorcycle races.

In 1910 with aviation in its infancy, every flight was special and the Churchill Downs event was no exception. Upon completion of the two days of flying in Louisville, Curtiss commented that his flights with Bud Mars were his most successful to date. He was proud of a new record of getting his airplane into the air in just four seconds. And, it was here that Curtiss and Mars entertained spectators with possibly the first race between airplanes as they chased each other around the track. Curtiss was so pleased with this that he promised to make racing a regular feature at future engagements. What better place than Churchill Downs to cross a finish line that was already world famous - a place where records were meant to be broken and innovation encouraged.

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