This summer has been busy. Following the June 8 celebration and book signing at Felts Field’s “Neighbor Day” open house, I made presentations at local clubs and later had book signings at the Spokane Valley Heritage Museum and at Auntie’s Bookstore in Spokane.
We took part in the region’s celebration of “Nick Mamer Days,” Aug. 15-20, the 90th anniversary of the transcontinental flight of the Spokane Sun God. Proclamations declaring this honor were issued by both the mayor of Spokane and the mayor of Spokane Valley, WA.
It is noteworthy that Bruce Kitt, Executive Director of the Northwest Airlines History Museum in Minnesota, joined us in Spokane for a tour of the Spokane Valley Heritage Museum exhibit. He has researched the background of Nick Mamer for many years, and was happy to meet Museum Director Jayne Singleton for some museum “shop talk.”
Below is “An Observance Worth Keeping,” my review of the activities and tributes that accompanied “Nick Mamer Days.”
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Ninety years ago this August of 2019, huge crowds converged to Felts Field outside Spokane, Washington. They gathered to cheer the return of the Spokane Sun God, a bright red airplane piloted by Nick Mamer.
When the single-engine airplane landed, it had traversed the continent in both directions, from Spokane to San Francisco, from San Francisco to New York, and from New York back to Spokane—without ever touching down. By flying 6,200 miles in five full days, it demonstrated that with aerial refueling, great distances could be spanned without landing. In so doing, this 1929 flight broke all previous records for nonstop distance by more than 1500 miles. When Nick Mamer and copilot Art Walker emerged, red-eyed, greasy, bewhiskered and half-deaf from the roar of the motor, they were hailed as aviation pioneers.
Nick Mamer, master pilot and leader of the flight, was labeled a hero. He, of course, gave due credit to his Buhl and Texaco sponsors, and to the generous support given by the citizens and business people of Spokane.
Today, even those to whom Mamer’s name is unfamiliar acknowledge the skill, grit and daring of this unparalleled feat that took place only slightly more than two-dozen years after the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk. Thus celebratory vigor is warranted, and the people of the Spokane region responded to the 90th anniversary of the Sun God flight with events, exhibits, flights and remembrances.
My book, Low on Gas - High on Sky: Nick Mamer’s 1929 Venture, led the celebration with its publication in March. The book details the hour-by-hour aerial adventures encountered by Mamer and copilot Walker, with added sections on what is known of Mamer’s life story.
This was followed in April when the Mamer grandchildren donated their collection of memorabilia from 1914 through the 1930s to the Spokane Valley Heritage Museum. “It is basically Nick Mamer’s personal collection on his life as an aviator from the beginning to the end of his flight career,” Jayne Singleton, museum Director, said. The museum is providing full archival treatment for the collection. “Everything he ever did was photographed, which is great and surprising for that early,” she said. “It’s an amazing collection.” The gift was the subject of a two-page feature by Amy Edelen in The Spokesman-Review of April 11, 2019.
I thought setting aside honorary days during the August anniversary would recognize the importance of the flight and its leader. After preparing sample proclamations, I contacted the mayors of both Spokane and Spokane Valley with the plan. They responded forthrightly, agreeing to issue proclamations declaring honorary days to celebrate the anniversary.
During separate ceremonies before their respective City Council meetings, official Proclamations were read and approved, naming the same days and dates of the flight ninety years ago—August 15-20—as “Nick Mamer Days.” Lt. Col. Dawn Hildebrand, commander, received the Spokane Proclamation from City Councilman Mike Fagan, and gave a brief review of Mamer’s importance to aerial refueling as practiced by the 92nd Air Refueling Squadron of the U.S. Air Force based at Fairchild Air Force Base.
Earlier in the summer, “The Incredible Mystery Spin” was published in Volume 64, No. 1 of the AAHS Journal, the principle publication of the American Aviation Historical Society. In it, I detailed how “unhurt, three men survived Nick Mamer’s 1926 crash from 2,000 feet,” which was adapted from my book and Nick’s letter of recollection that is part of the Mamer archives.
In July, the Spokane Valley Heritage Museum initiated an exhibit on the flight. Titled ‘The Epic Flight of the Spokane Sun God,’ it showcased the documents and photos from the Mamer collection as well as materials previously in the Museum’s collections. The latter items treat Mamer’s Ford Tri-motors (often piloted by Art Walker, the copilot on the Sun God flight), Mamer’s third-place finish in the 1927 National Air Races in Spokane, and his role instructing Air National Guard pilots during the 1920s at Felts Field.
Featured in the museum exhibit is a (non-operational) J6 Wright Whirlwind motor, the same model as powered Mamer’s Buhl Airsedan during the record flight. This nine-cylinder, supercharged radial engine was constructed of discarded, corroded components which were assembled, refinished and mounted on a display stand by Addison Pemberton and Larry Howard.
Describing the exhibit, Museum Director Jayne Singleton said that while airborne, Mamer and copilot Walker communicated with the ground by notes in weighted packets dropped from the Airsedan to airfields below. Some of these handwritten notes are included in the exhibit. Because the Sun God pilots were in the air for five full days, their airplane carried little food and drink, and their requested meals of fried chicken and tomato juice were delivered midair, lowered from a refueling plane flying above them.
On August 15, the same Thursday the saga of the Sun God began ninety years ago, I signed copies of Low on Gas - High on Sky at the Valley Heritage Museum. And at 6 p.m. that evening, Anya Carlson poured champagne while Addison Pemberton proposed a toast to Mamer as the gathered crowd observed the time the Spokane Sun God left the turf of Felts Field bound for San Francisco. Thus began the Spokane region’s observance of “Nick Mamer Days.”
An article by Rebecca White in The Spokesman-Review of August 15 details some of the Exhibit’s displays and activities surrounding the celebration. The Epic Flight Exhibit continues at the museum (hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Wed.-Sat.)
Two days later, on Saturday, August 17, three vintage biplanes took to the air from Felts Field. Led in formation by Addison Pemberton, they flew to downtown Spokane in tribute to Nick Mamer and the flight of the Spokane Sun God. According to Will Campbell’s article “Celebrating Aviation History” in The Spokesman-Review of August 18, “...90 years after that flight, on that same runway, Pemberton took off in his own antique restored plane, a Waco EQC-6 Custom Cabin..”.
Pemberton, his son Ryan, and friend Ben Littlefield flew genuine restored aircraft of the era: the Waco—one of three in the world—a 1931 Stearman 4Dm-1 Senior Speedmail, and a 1942 Stearman 450. Pemberton and his sons restore and fly these vintage airplanes at Felts Field. They arrived over downtown and circled during my stint signing Low on Gas - High on Sky at Auntie’s Bookstore.
“It [the Sun God flight] was a big deal,” Pemberton said. “[Mamer] put this airplane on the map. It was a Lindbergh-caliber achievement.”
At about the same time, Nostalgia magazine, recently purchased from Garrin Hertel by Bozzi Media, published its August-September issue. Included on pages 16-21 is “A Daring Leap to Fame,” my heavily-illustrated review of the flight of the Spokane Sun God, the two pilots who flew it, and its importance to the evolution of aviation.
On August 21, 1929 the headline in The New York Times read, “Completing Refueling Round-Trip Flight To New York, Sun God Lands at Spokane.” The Sun God had established a record that remained unmatched for years. It was the inspiration for long range flight aided by aerial refueling that today enables United States Air Force tankers to dispense jet fuel to aircraft that extend the reach and capabilities of the United States’ armed forces throughout the world.
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