Whether you fly or drive, Goodland, Kansas is a good place to stop for the night, grab a bite or just get out and stretch your legs. Located just east of the Kansas-Colorado border, the airport is equipped with two hard surfaced runways. Runway 12-30 is just shy of 5500’ long by 100’ wide and runway 5-23 is just over 3500’ long by 75’ wide. With an ILS on Runway 30 and RNAV (GPS) approaches to Runways 12, 23 and 30, it’s well equipped for IFR weather. For those flying taildraggers, there’s even a 1754’ x 40’ north-south sod runway. Built in 1934, the runways were constructed using a mixture of salt, clay and sand to a thickness of approximately 12 inches, which was a significant improvement over the “Buffalo Grass” landing field of the first airport constructed in 1929. During World War II, the airport served as a Waco glider training base for about a year. In those days, its location about half-way between Kansas City and Denver, was an ideal place to stop for fuel, food and sometimes rest.
Today, Goodland, Kansas still provides those same amenities. Reasonably priced fuel, a good on-airport restaurant called the “King Air Café,” and overnight facilities are about 2 miles away. There’s even a courtesy car available for that short trip into town.
If you have the time, the town offers a place called the “High Plains Museum” that not only will provide you an idea of early life on the prairie, but something so unique for aviation aficionados, that it grabs your attention.
There’s a sign on the outside of the museum that says, “America’s First Patented Helicopter.” At that point, most of us are probably wondering why Igor Sikorsky chose Goodland as the location for developing the helicopter as we know it today. There should probably be some “fine print” involved because the first “patented” helicopter was not successfully flown, nor was the patent filed by Igor. Although it lifted off the ground, it still remained uncontrollable. However, the concept of rotary flight was patented on June 4, 1912 (#1,028,781) by Messrs. William (Bill) J. Purvis and Charles A. (Art) Wilson. Actually, it was 38-year-old Purvis who had the vision and later convinced his friend, 20-year-old Wilson to join him in his project. You might think that both were highly educated, but the truth was that Purvis had only completed the third grade before leaving school in the fourth grade. However, the fact was that both were machinists working for the Rock Island Railroad in the Goodland railyard.
Apparently, Bill was enthralled over the idea that the Wright brothers had successfully flown about 6 years earlier, and the thought of flying was constantly in his thoughts. Today, psychiatrists would probably attribute it to an escape mechanism to cope with the many hours in the hot sun, wind, dust, and isolation of western Kansas. However, one day when he passed the local candy store, he noticed a kid playing with a stick that had candy on one end and a propeller on the other, known at that time as a “Whirligig.” I seem to recall something similar from my childhood that was just a stick with a propeller on one end that could be launched by pulling a string. Candy or not, it became Purvis’ “ah ha” moment. The only thing that he had to do was to make it large enough to carry a person. He rushed back to the railroad shop to show his friend “Art” Wilson that he had found the key to successful flight and asked him to join him in his endeavor. At first Wilson was reluctant, but after seeing the propeller fly, he decided to help.
I guess some credit should be given to the Rock Island Railroad because it was in their shop, and their scrap materials, that were used to build the aircraft, which was assembled at the Purvis farm. Both men even switched to the night shift so they could have the daylight hours to work on the “flying machine.”
Purvis and Wilson successfully overcame the problem of “torque” of the spinning bamboo and canvas propeller by constructing a second propeller that was counter-rotating. They didn’t know what was causing the torque problem but were ingenious enough to successfully figure out how to overcome it by constructing one drive shaft inside of the other with a separate propeller attached to each. Something that today we’d probably recall from our elementary physics course as Newton’s Third Law of Motion. If you recall, Sikorsky overcame torque by installing a tail rotor to counter the “reactionary” force. Some of today’s drones also use the concept of counter-rotating propellers to control torque in the same manner that Purvis designed.
With the machine taking shape and growing larger, they needed a place to complete the construction, so they constructed a shop and square hangar near today’s intersection of Cattle Trail and Highway 24 which was near the water tower. With “lift” somewhat established, they still didn’t know how to provide directional control. Rather than wing warping, they decided that tilting the entire machine would work, and they decided that “weight shifting” forward and back and from side to side would work. They also added a small rudder but decided that it wouldn’t be functionable. Power was provided by a 7 hp Curtiss aircraft engine, and eventually, the 400 lb. machine was ready for its first flight.
The first demonstration flight took place on Thanksgiving Day with the aircraft’s platform weighted down with huge boulders. Before a large crowd, Bill started the engine and the aircraft started to jump up and down until he shut it down. To the crowd, it appeared that Bill and Art had successfully demonstrated that it would get off the ground. He told the crowd that the boulders were there simply to keep it from flying away.
Running short of money, they decided to form the Goodland Aviation Company and sold $30,000 worth of shares at $10 per share. Considering that the average annual wage in 1909 was between $200-$400, that was a considerable sum. With their newfound wealth, both men quit their jobs with the railroad and spent full time trying to figure out how to control their aircraft. They even considered a version of our modern-day rotor head, but they just couldn’t figure out how to build one. They had purchased two lighter weight aluminum 7 hp engines to provide additional power, but even with the two new engines, it wouldn’t fly with a human onboard. Since they were running out of money and the possibility of attracting additional stockholders was slim, they decided that to really prove their project, they would need additional power. However, Purvis decided that the most powerful engine that could be easily obtained and was relatively inexpensive was a “steam engine” that powered the threshing machines of the day. Forging ahead, he talked a local farm implement dealer into loaning him the use of one, and a 100 ft. drive belt.
The second flight was attended by a smaller crowd of townspeople. When the steam engine was finally ready to go, Purvis gave the signal and the rotors began to turn, slowly at first, but then gaining speed. With the additional power, the machine lifted about 20 feet in the air and shook enough that Bill gave the signal to a person on the ground to pull the machine down using an attached rope. When pulled, the rope failed to reduce the machine’s altitude, but it shifted the on-board weights enough for the helicopter to launch backwards and then forwards striking the water tower. Bursting open, it poured its contents on Purvis and the crowd, along with many parts of the helicopter. No one was reported injured in the incident. In a 1999 interview with Purvis’ son, who was 77 years of age at the time, he stated that the story of crashing into the water tower was untrue, but it did end his quest to fly because he was unable to convince the townspeople and local farmers to invest more money in pursuing his dream of creating a flying machine.
In July 1910, Art Wilson left Goodland to work in the rail yards at Armourdale near Kansas City. He passed away in 1965 at the age of 76. In December 1910, Purvis and his family moved to Missouri and then to Wisconsin and passed away in 1944. His son said that his father seldom talked about his flying machine which he sometimes called a “gyrocopter” and he never did see or talk with Art after the two parted. In March of 2011, the Goodland Aviation Company filed for bankruptcy and all of the remaining assets were sold.
It wasn’t until 1938 when Igor Sikorsky was successful in solving the control problems that had plagued both Purvis and Wilson.
The aircraft in the High Plains Museum in Goodland is a replica constructed by Harold Norton of Brewster, Kansas. The only remaining piece of the original helicopter is the rotor shaft. The museum is located at the corner of 18th and Cherry Streets. If you are driving, it’s a short distance north of I-70 and U.S. 24. You can’t miss Cherry Street because it passes just west of the 80 ft. high “World’s Largest Easel” upon which sits a copy of a famous Picasso painting that prominently features a Sunflower.
Author’s Note: There are several accounts of Purvis and Wilson’s efforts to construct and test their flying machine. Like many historical documents, the accounts of the events sometimes differ, but generally agree on some of the major aspects.
Material for this article was obtained from a booklet entitled “The Short Happy Life of the Kansas Flying Machine” by Mary Collett Farris, which is sold by the High Plains Museum; a newspaper article written by Carl Manning in November 1999 that appeared in the Salina Journal; and an on-line tourism guide entitled “Goodland Explorations,” published by Rural Kansas Tourism.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Jim Bildilli is a retired official with the Illinois Division of Aeronautics, and currently operates an airport inspection and consulting business. In addition, Jim and his wife, Donna, and son, Chris, are involved with the Aviation Explorers Post at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh.