Charles “Speed” Holman: A Fateful Day at Omaha’s Municipal Airport
On May 17, 1931, 20,000 people watched as Charles “Speed” Holman’s Laird plane going about 300 miles an hour crash into the ground at Omaha’s Municipal Airport during Omaha’s first annual air races. On impact, the plane hopped along the ground for about 200 feet, spraying fans with fire and metal. The impact threw the engine several feet away and tossed his body. For seconds, no one moved because the crowd was in shock.
At once, the silence broke. People rushed onto the field to tend to Holman’s body. An ambulance took the body away and workers removed the wreckage while the Central High school band played, “a lively tune.” The loud speaker announced the planes flying next. The air show went on. No one knew why the crash happened. Some believed the crash resulted from the wind; others thought that Holman misjudged length when he did the barrel roll. Regardless of the crash’s cause, it ended the life of one of American’s best pilots.
Born on December 27, 1898, Holman spent his childhood in Shakopee, Minnesota on a farm. He earned the name “speed” because he built a motorcycle and raced it in Minneapolis while still in high school. He tried to enlist in the Air Force to become a pilot during World War I, but the military rejected him because of an ear defect. Holman finally got his chance. In 1918, Holman watched Veteran Minneapolis Airman Walter Bullock land a plane on Lake Calhoun. Holman immediately wrote Bullock offering to serve as his mechanic for experience. Bullock hired him. Like Charles Lindbergh, Holman got his start as a wing walker. He learned to fly at the Security Airport Company at Speedway Field in 1920. His father bought him his first airplane after he agreed to retire from wing walking.
Newly formed Northwest Airways hired Holman to be one of its first pilots. Founded by Colonel Lewis Brittin, the organization began carrying mail for the United States Post Office between Chicago and Minneapolis. Pilots used open-cockpit biplanes like the Curtiss Oriole. In 1927, the airline began carrying passengers in enclosed cabin planes. While transporting mail during the night to Chicago, he found time for national flying stunt contests and speed records like the Thompson Trophy race in Chicago in 1930. When he died, he was Northwest’s operations manager.
On February 13, 1928, Holman completed 1,093 consecutive summersaults in his airplane over World-Chamberlain field in front of 4,000 people. Concurrently, Lyle Thro, a commercial pilot who flew a plane during World War I, completed 543 loops. Holman’s plane was a 200 horsepower Laird that carried 75 gallons of gas. Gene Shank, a Minnesota farmer’s son, started the competition by completing 515 somersaults over the municipal airport. Instead of going high altitudes to start looping, “Holman made his loops in regular fashion.” When he landed, the crowds cheered. Alfred Fronval beat his record with 1,111 loups within the same month.
Holman had narrow escapes before. He seldom wore a parachute because he performed stunts close to the ground. After winning the national air derby in 1927, he made his way by plane to Minneapolis for a celebration. The plane’s motor failed when he was flying 500 above a 9,000-foot mountain peak. He managed to land the plane safely. After landing, he made his way to safety. Always daring in his stunts, when asked about his safety he said, “Probably I’ll get it some time. But when death comes, ‘I’ll make a thoro job of it.’”
On that fateful day in Omaha, Holman volunteered to do stunts during a lull in the program. Two hours prior to the accident, Holman’s wife warned him by phone to be, “very, very careful.” For fifteen minutes, he did barely rolls, outside loops, and turns that delighted the audience. At one point, he was upside down, and about 20 feet above the crowd. That stunt along with others violated the Department of Commerce’s requirement that stunt flying be at least 500 feet in the air and at least 1,000 feet from the crowd. Officials were waiting for him to land to inform him that they were revoking his pilot’s license.
After the accident, Northwest Airways brought Holman’s body back to Minneapolis where the body lay in state for two days. The city held formal services on Thursday at 2:30 pm at the Scottish rite temple. Minnesota Mayor Floyd B. Olson headed an official state delegation to the funeral where over one hundred thousand people attended his funeral. His family buried his body atop of Pilots Knob in Arcadia Park, a place Holman himself picked for his burial.xi After burial, airplanes flew overhead dropping thousands of roses on his grave. On May 22, 1931, the Saint Paul city council changed to name of the municipal airport to Holman Municipal Airport. A memorial at the airport bears the inscription, “He belongs to the heights and the heights claimed him.
On May 17, 1931, Holman crashed into the pages of Omaha history. He was a pilot and a stuntman who did perilous stunts to spark the audience’s imagination throughout the United States. His career ended at Omaha’s Municipal Airport. Beginning his career as a wing walker, he became a respected pilot for Northwest Airways and stunt pilot. Tales of his spiraling plane continue to inspire generations of daredevils. He won many awards during his lifetime, but he died doing what he loved: entertaining crowds.