Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Emerson Field and the Carolina Aircraft Corporation

by Paul Armstrong

Click on photos to enlarge.
276th Aero Squadron Patch
Author's Collection
While doing research on early aviation activity in Columbia, I came across information about Emerson Field, which may be the area’s first purpose-built airfield and first purpose-built airfield used for commercial aviation.  Below is a summary of my research on Emerson Field and the company that used it for commercial aviation activities after World War I.


EMERSON FIELD

Shortly after the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, Camp Jackson was established near Columbia as a training center.  A little over a year later, the Army Air Service decided to establish an airfield near the cantonment on which to train pilots and spotters for observation service in connection with the artillery brigade firing center at Camp Jackson.  The airfield was built on over eighty acres of land along Garners Ferry Road where the University of South Carolina School of Medicine is now located.  The land was leased by the war department from two owners.  Part of the property was owned by Frank Hampton and the rest was owned by Annie M. True.  The property had once been the site of a pre-Civil War racetrack maintained by Wade Hampton II to train and race his thoroughbred horses. Since the Civil War, it had primarily been used for growing cotton and other crops.

The new airfield was named Emerson Field after 2nd Lieutenant William K. B. Emerson, Jr., the first US artillery observer killed in action during World War I.  The runway was over 800 yards long and 275 yards wide and was turfed with well-maintained Bermuda grass.  It eventually had hangars, barracks, officers’ quarters, maintenance shops, and other aircraft service facilities.  The field was opened in the summer of 1918 under the command of Major Norman W. Peek. The 276th Aero Squadron was moved to Emerson Field after having been organized in February at Camp Sevier in Greenville County. The squadron was commanded by First Lieutenant Harley H. Pope and eventually consisted of around 130 men with 17 airplanes. An observation balloon company with three balloons was also assigned to Emerson Field.  All total, 300 men were attached to the airfield including the aero squadron, balloon company, and miscellaneous support personnel. 

Norman W. Peek
An Illustrated History of Scott Air Force Base, 1917-1987
In addition to training with the artillery brigade at Camp Jackson, the aviators stationed at Emerson Field were also assigned missions around the area for forest fire spotting, mapping, etc. On January 1, 1919, Lieutenant Harley Pope and Sergeant Walter W. Fleming left Emerson Field to map airmail routes in the Carolinas and southern Virginia. During a leg of that mission on January 7, they were both killed when their Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” crashed into the Cape Fear River near Fayetteville, NC.  In April 1919, the newly built airfield adjacent to Camp Bragg near Fayetteville was named Pope Field in honor of the deceased commander of the 276th Aero Squadron.

Harley H. Pope
Fort Bragg: 100
In March 1919, the War Department decided to abandon Emerson Field and allow the lease on the property to expire in June. The balloon company at Emerson Field was transferred to Langley Field in Virginia and the 276th Aero Squadron was moved to Pope Field. The property on which Emerson Field had been constructed was turned back over to its owners who were now in possession of a good aviation facility. The well-maintained runway and maintenance shops were left intact.


CAROLINA AIRCRAFT CORPORATION

In early November of 1919, the Carolina Aircraft Corporation was formed by eight Columbia businessmen who owned or worked for local automobile companies. The new company, headed by Overland dealer R. D. “Bob” Lambert, was formed to provide flying services and to sell aircraft. They arranged to use the racetrack infield at the fairgrounds as a temporary field for flight operations and established a sales office at 1233 Hampton Street. They immediately ordered a Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” airplane, secured a Curtiss dealership, and hired their first pilot, Edmund P. Gaines. The initial airplane sale was to L. D. Jennings of Sumter.
 
Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" similar to the one owned by the Carolina Aircraft Corporation
George Johnson, Aviation Section, US Army Signal Corps - family photo

The first airplane for the company’s own operations arrived in Columbia on November 22, and Carolina Aircraft Corporation held its first flying event the following day, a Sunday. Sightseeing flights were offered continuously from 11 AM to 6 PM with a break at 3 PM during which Edmund Gaines put on a flying exhibition. The Jenny could only accommodate one passenger at a time and its back seat was booked all day long. During the exhibition, pilot Gaines went up by himself and performed a series of stunts to delight the crowd. These included the tailspin, loop-the-loop, spiral stunts, a somersault, and more. After the enthusiastic first day reception, the Carolina Aircraft Corporation offered daily sightseeing flights from 2 to 6 P. M. and their newspaper ads invited readers to “See Columbia From the Clouds”.
 
Carolina Aircraft Corporation Ad
From The State, November 23, 1919
Although Columbia had been visited by barnstorming pilots and air shows since 1910, the city now had its own commercial aviation firm that could provide regular air service and aerial entertainment. The company offered a variety of flying services including sightseeing jaunts over the capital city, advertising flights dropping promotional leaflets, exhibition shows, aerial photography flights, and chartered excursions to other locations including for business trips and golf outings.

In February 1920, Carolina Aircraft Corporation leased Emerson Field as the primary base for airplanes and aviation operations.  The firm still used the fairgrounds field when providing sightseeing and promotional services for events that catered to downtown crowds at events such as parades, trade shows, and auto races, but Emerson Field was now its home base for flight operations.  A hangar and flight support facilities were built for the storage and maintenance of their flying inventory which soon went from one plane to two.
 
Carolina Aircraft Corporation Ad
From The Columbia Record, June 13, 1920
On April 4, 1920, the staff of the Carolina Aircraft Corporation took delivery of a new Curtiss Oriole airplane.  The Oriole was a three-seater and allowed the company to offer two-passenger flights for sightseeing, business, or other purposes.  The new plane’s fuselage was orange and the wings were cream colored.  This paint scheme led Columbian’s to quickly nickname the plane, the “Easter Egg”.
 
Restored 1919 Curtiss Oriole similar to the one owned by the Carolina Aircraft Corporation
Glenn H. Curtiss Museum
Eventually the firm would have three pilots and three planes and, in addition to Columbia, offered commercial aviation services all around South Carolina and beyond.  Over the next two years Carolina Aircraft Corporation’s pilots performed flying shows, gave sightseeing flights, and delivered advertising services in Lexington, Greenwood, Abbeville, Gaffney, Union, Spartanburg, Greenville, and Anderson.  The company’s pilots also went into Georgia for advertising services and sightseeing rides in Augusta and Hartwell.  Chartered flights were given to Clinton, Charlotte, Greensboro, NC, and other locations. Among the firm’s well-known passengers were Evangelist Gipsy Smith Jr., Columbia photographer John Sargeant, and Lexington beauty queen Pauline Hook.

Edmund P. Gaines
Carolina Aircraft Corporation’s first and primary pilot was Edmund Gaines. A native of Greenwood County, Gaines had entered the University of South Carolina in 1916, only to have his college education interrupted by World War I after his freshman year.  He served in the Army Air Service during the war, first as a flight instructor stateside, and then as senior flight commander for the 186th Aero Squadron in France and Germany.
 
Edmund P. Gaines
Garnet and Black 1921
After his discharge from the Air Service, Gaines returned to the university to complete his degree. To help fund his education, he accepted a position as pilot for the Carolina Aircraft Corporation at its startup in November 1919. He attended classes in the morning and flew for the company in the afternoons and on weekends. As the company’s only pilot for nearly a year, Gaines flew for sightseeing, advertising, charter travel, and exhibitions. He became well known in Columbia as the only local student earning his way through college as an airplane pilot.

During his time at Carolina Aircraft Corporation, Gaines also served as a captain in the Army Reserve and rejoined the Regular Army Air Service in November 1920.  He was allowed to remain in Columbia to complete his degree in engineering.  Then, in August 1921, he was transferred to Fort Benning, thus ending his time as a commercial flyer in Columbia.   Colonel Edmund P. Gaines completed a long military career when he retired in 1953 after 35 years in the United States Air Service/Air Corps/Air Force.
  
Roscoe Turner
Twice during 1920, flamboyant aviator, Roscoe Turner, and his partner, Harry Runsor, brought their “Roscoe Turner Flying Circus” to Columbia while on tour throughout the country.  They wowed the crowds at the fairgrounds with wing walking, parachuting, and other stunts in their British made Avro 504 plane. During these visits, Turner met Bob Lambert and the other members of the Carolina Aircraft Corporation.  In January 1921, he moved to Columbia and took positions with the aviation company, as sales manager and pilot, and with the Southern Motor Company as assistant sales manager. Over the next year, Turner split his time between selling cars and airplanes, delivering lectures on aviation at Emerson Field and other places, flying for Carolina Aircraft Corporation’s events, and barnstorming around the Southeast with Runsor.

Photo of Carolina Aircraft Corporation's Curtiss Oriole beside a car with inset photo of Roscoe Turner
From The Columbia Record, January 9, 1921
In September of 1921, Roscoe Turner and Harry Runsor allegedly purchased a Marine Corps airplane near Savannah that had been stolen from Parris Island. On January 24, 1922, Turner was arrested in Columbia and was sent to Savannah to stand trial. He pled guilty on February 25 to charges of conspiracy and possession of stolen government property and was sentenced to one year and one day in a federal prison in Atlanta. He was released on parole in July 1922 and received an unconditional pardon in 1924 from President Calvin Coolidge.

Harry Runser and Roscoe Turner
Ancestry.com
After his release from prison, Turner returned to his hometown of Corinth, MS, relaunched his aviation career, and went on to become one of the most well-known flyers in the world.  From barnstormer he transitioned to aviation instructor, airplane racer, Hollywood stuntman and actor, and airline pilot. He set the transcontinental speed record four times, won the Thompson Trophy Race three times, and pioneered cross-country passenger service.  Roscoe Turner died in 1970 and was posthumously inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1975.

Other Pilots
There were at least three other pilots who flew for the Carolina Aircraft Corporation during its existence. Benjamin R. Stroup was a Citadel graduate and World War I veteran who flew for the company during the summer of 1920.  C. Harmon Siebenhausen was a Texas native and Army Air Service veteran who worked for the Carolina Aircraft Corporation from the fall of 1920 until the summer of 1921. After Siebenhausen left to open an auto repair business in York, SC, he was replaced by Thomas C. Blencowe, a Virginia native who had flown for Royal Flying Corps Canada during World War I.  Blencowe flew for the Carolina Aircraft Corporation into 1922 and then went to work for the Southern Bell Telephone Company in Columbia.


AFTERWARD

The Carolina Aircraft Corporation went bankrupt in 1922 and its airplanes and other property were put up for auction in August at Emerson Field.  The land on which the airfield had been operated was returned to agricultural use, primarily for cotton production.  In 1931, the land was part of the site chosen for a new veteran’s hospital. The facility, consisting of 13 buildings, received its first patients on December 1, 1932, and served veterans for over 46 years. The adjacent Dorn Veterans Hospital opened in 1979 and the University of South Carolina School of Medicine has occupied the renovated old facility since 1983.


SOURCES
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  • “Will Fly Very Soon.” The State, April 3, 1920, page 3.
  • “Within the Town.” Yorkville Enquirer, September 19, 1922, page 4. 

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