November 7, 1910. Columbus, Ohio. To demonstrate the aeroplane’s commercial potential, Wright Exhibition Team aviator Phil Parmelee transports a shipment of silk, weighing a hundred pounds and valued at $1,000, from Dayton to the state capital. Flying at three thousand feet, Parmelee makes the 65-mile flight without incident in 66 minutes, setting a new cross-country speed record. With his successful landing at Columbus, Parmelee completes the world’s first air freight shipment.
Philip Orin Parmelee was born in Michigan on March 8, 1887, and showed mechanical aptitude from a young age. After constructing a series of small motors, he designed, built and drove a basic steam-powered automobile. Fascinated by silent movies, Parmelee landed a job operating a projection machine at a local theatre. While still a teenager, he was also hired to work in the machine shop of a local company that manufactured engines for motor launches.
Parmelee’s obvious mechanical talent moved his employer to give him a reference to the Buick company, which was in the process of becoming the leading automobile manufacturer in the U.S. Parmelee started at Buick in 1906, just as Norman DeVaux was participating in the record-breaking transcontinental Buick journey. There’s no indication that Parmelee was involved in that attempt, but at one point he did serve as a mechanic for a car competing in the Glidden Tour, an annual endurance competition designed to provide consumers with a way to measure the relative reliability of the various makes of automobiles.
There’s some suggestion that Parmelee met the Wright brothers by chance while they were training Walter Brookins and other pupils in Montgomery, Alabama. Although Parmelee had no experience as an aeronaut, his familiarity with engines won him a spot on the Wright Exhibition Team shortly after its first appearance at Indianapolis in June 1910. By early September he was making regular passenger flights at Wright exhibitions.
Following his record-setting commercial freight flight in November, Parmelee traveled with the rest of the team to the west coast. During the last week in December, he raced daily in Los Angeles against Eugene Ely (in a Curtiss biplane) and Englishman James Radley (in a Blériot monoplane), coming in last on each occasion—a function of the limited power of his engine, not his flying skills.
In January 1911, at the San Francisco meet where Ely made the historic first landing of an aeroplane on a ship, spectators were treated to the rare sight of four aviators in the air at once (Glenn Curtiss, Ely, Parmelee and Brookins). To test the aeroplane’s usefulness as a scout, Ely and Brookins each set out from the aviation field with a passenger, to search for groups of soldiers “defending” and “attacking” the city. In a separate test, Lt. Myron Crissey flew as a passenger with Parmelee (pictured above) and—a world’s first—dropped live bombs from a reported thousand feet high. As was standard practice at the time, Crissey hurled his bombs by hand; the devices were feathered with wooden strips, imparting a rotating motion that was supposed to assist in accuracy. Later in the same meet, Parmelee established a new American endurance record of 3:39:48. When he landed he was too stiff to crawl from the seat on his own.
Over the first few months of 1911, the United States came to take the growing Mexican insurrection seriously enough that, for the first time, it employed an aeroplane in connection with an armed conflict. The sole flying machine owned by the U.S. at the time was a Wright Flyer purchased in 1909. It was already obsolete, but Robert Collier, the wealthy magazine publisher, agreed to loan the War Department his more modern Wright Flyer.
The Collier aeroplane was shipped express by train to Laredo, Texas. There Lt. Benny Foulois and Parmelee—the latter sent by the Wrights as an instructor, part of a deal in which the government had agreed to purchase a new machine—patrolled the Rio Grande for over a hundred miles between Laredo and Eagle Pass, intermittently using radio communication to identify their position. (One sensational news report had the flyers nailing an American flag to the lower plane of their machine and carrying a gun “within reach.”) On the return trip to Laredo, made on a Sunday, Parmelee accidentally hit the engine cutout cord, and the pair crashed into the river, luckily without injury. The machine was hauled to San Antonio, where ten thousand troops Mexican were reportedly headed—but Parmelee’s greatest fear was that the Wrights would learn he had violated his contractual proscription against Sunday flying.
Once the Flyer was repaired, Parmelee and Foulois experimented with the type of practical aerial scouting first attempted at San Francisco a couple of months earlier. They also demonstrated their theoretical ability to carry messages safely between two friendly forces, notwithstanding the presence of “enemy troops” in between.
Parmelee was present at Salt Lake City in April when Curtiss made the first public demonstration of his hydroaeroplane. At Salt Lake City, Parmelee gave a ride to U.S. Navy Lt. Theodore Ellyson, soon to become the first naval aviator, and thereby proved the feasibility of passenger-carrying at altitude.
Following the formal disbandment of the Wright Exhibition Team, Clifford Turpin and Parmelee were the only aviators left flying for the brothers, but soon afterward a dispute, reportedly over prize money, led the pair to quit in January 1912. They continued exhibiting on their own for the next few months; unconfirmed reports said they had to pay royalties to the Wrights for each exhibition.
Fully fifteen years ahead of Charles Lindbergh, Parmelee was interested in attempting the first transatlantic aeroplane flight, but he was unable to persuade the Navy to provide a fast destroyer to accompany him as a safety measure. He appeared in February 1912 at an Oakland meet, where he was one of the few aviators who flew in the very dangerous weather conditions on Eugene Ely Day (Ely had died in October 1911, and the Oakland exhibition, organized by Bud Mars, was intended to raise funds for his widow).
In mid-April, Parmelee was back in Los Angeles, making exhibition flights and carrying passengers, one of whom completed the first successful parachute jump from an aeroplane; adding to the spectacle, Parmelee flew spirals around the descending parachutist. Blanche Stuart Scott, who happened to be in town exhibiting with Glenn Martin, witnessed the feat.
At Los Angeles, Parmelee suffered (and survived) the first recorded “bird strike”—literally crashing into one or more birds in midair, an event with potentially fatal results to the aviator, not to mention the birds. The handsome one-time motion picture projectionist was also hired to appear, with his flying machine, in an eight-minute comedic silent film, Dash Through the Clouds, as Hollywood belatedly discovered the cinematic potential of aeroplanes. The movie claimed to demonstrate the “Technical Perfection of the Modern Flying Machine – A Far Cry from the Original Invention of Wilbur and Orville Wright”; Parmelee, as Slim the Aviator, made several filmed ascents and landings.
In May, Parmelee and Turpin traveled to the Pacific Northwest for a series of exhibitions. On May 31, the day after Wilbur Wright’s death from typhoid fever, Turpin was attempting to take off in Seattle when an “amateur photographer” ran in front of his machine. In attempting to avoid the man, Turpin crashed into the grandstand, killing a spectator and injuring several others as well as himself. The next day Parmelee was flying at Yakima, Washington, when a gust of wind threw his machine to the ground, crushing him under the engine. He was 27.
Dash Through the Clouds, which starred a young Mabel Normand, had its theatrical release a few weeks after Parmelee’s death. The film was produced by the Biograph Company, for which Harriet Quimby had written several treatments. It can be viewed at https://archive.org/details/ADashThroughTheClouds1912.