Owensboro's big air show starts Friday at the airport and continues through Sunday on the downtown riverfront.

Last year, 70,000 people from several states came to watch.

But as exciting as that was, it didn't compare to July 4, 1911, when Charles Foster Willard brought the first "aeroplane" to the Daviess County Fairgrounds.

People came from miles around to see the "marvel of the ages."

A parade of 25 automobiles, which were still new to the community themselves, pulled out from Griffith Avenue and Frederica Street and made their way to the fairgrounds on the southeast corner of 18th and Triplett streets.

The crowd at the fairgrounds stood shoulder-to-shoulder, waiting to catch a glimpse of "the birdman."

Coolly, Willard, a Harvard graduate and race car driver, made his way to his Curtis biplane, ground the Gnome motor to life and bounced into the air at the northern end of the field.

More than 10,000 people -- in a city of 16,000 -- caught their breath and sent up a cheer.

Willard waved to the crowd and continued his climb to 600 feet.

He circled back over the crowd and dove to 75 feet above their startled heads.

Ten minutes later, Owensboro's first air show was over.

But spectators surged forward to get a better look at this contraption they'd been hearing about.

The two-passenger craft, which rarely carried a second passenger, had a wingspan of 32 feet, was 30 feet long and weighed 850 pounds.

Many in the crowd had already seen it when it arrived by rail from Attica, Indiana, on June 29.

When Willard arrived in Owensboro on July 3, he was met by a delegation of Elks, who sponsored that first air show.

When he checked into the Rudd Hotel on St. Ann Street across from the Daviess County Courthouse, a crowd gathered, trying to catch a glimpse of the aeronaut.

After lunch the next day, Willard gave three more aerial demonstrations of dips and circles.

But it was something people had never seen before.

The following year, Lincoln Beachey came to town for a second Independence Day air show.

The 25-year-old San Franciscan stood 5-foot-5 and weighed 135 pounds.

But Orville Wright himself said that Beachey was the greatest pilot who ever lived.

There were only 5,000 people at the fairgrounds for that second air show, but Beachey gave them a show to remember.

He flew over speeding motorcycles as if they were standing still and did a series of figure-eights that seemed to get closer to the ground with each pass.

Spectators said they had "cold chills running up their spines" as Beachey soared to 6,500 feet and began his "dip of death."

The propeller stopped and the throbbing of the engine ceased.

And Beachey and his plane plummeted toward the earth before suddenly swooping in for a perfect landing.

He had cheated death one more time.

But less than three years later, on March 14, 1915, death won.

Beachey crashed into San Francisco Bay after the wings of his new stunt plane folded.

The plane dived straight down, perhaps 2,000 feet, they say.

A crowd of 50,000 watched in horror on the grounds of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition and thousands watched from the hills in the city as the plane crashed into the bay.

But Willard survived those early days of aviation and died in 1977 at age 94.

Keith Lawrence, 270-691-7301, klawrence@messenger-inquirer.com.

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