BLOOMINGTON -- For Bloomington, the age of aviation arrived on Sept. 14, 1910, exactly 99 years ago on Monday.
On that date, a one-man airship sailed over the city, drawing astonished crowds wherever it passed. The Pantagraph hailed the flight as the first made by a "controllable aircraft" in Bloomington.
Although its appearance created a local sensation, airships actually date back to the 1780s when Jean-Pierre Blanchard fitted a balloon with a hand-powered propeller. The first lighter-than-air craft powered with an internal combustion engine appeared in 1872. These strange airborne vessels even made forays across Central Illinois. For instance, "airship fever" swept the area in April 1897 when an "aerial voyager" of mysterious origin crisscrossed the countryside for several days. Apparently, some onlookers believed the airship was headed to Mars.
Thirteen years later, in 1910, Bloomington residents saw an airship up close and personal. The Business Men's Association invited Capt. George E. Yager to the city so he could launch his airship "The Comet" twice a day for a week. Yager, an aviation showman from Omaha, also brought along Horace B. Wild, who would pilot the craft while Yager extolled its virtues from the ground.
The "dirigible balloon" (as it was called by The Pantagraph) was tethered at an open lot in the White's Place development on the city's northeast side. Technically, the airship was a blimp, since it did not have an internal aluminum alloy skeleton like the behemoths Graf Zeppelin and USS Akron that were built in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
The much-smaller Comet lifted into the air by means of a cigar-shaped "bag" holding 10,080 cubic feet of hydrogen gas. It measured 75 feet in length and 16 feet in diameter, and was made from 1,020 yards of Japanese silk.
Underneath the inflated gas envelope was a girder-like framework supporting a six-horsepower gasoline engine, as well as the propeller, rudder and pilot. The propeller was in the bow (or front) of the craft, and thus pulled, rather than pushed, the ship through the air.
Piloting The Comet was risky business when winds exceeded eight mph, and White, a veteran "aeronaut," pulled off just three recorded flybys during the Bloomington stopover. To the disappointment of many, the inaugural launches for Sept. 13 were cancelled due to high winds.
Although the winds had not subsided by the next day, the Business Men's Association (worried, according to the local press, that "another postponement would subject them to much criticism if not ridicule") pressured Yager to green light a launch.
The promoter capitulated, and a crowd of around 2,000 curiosity seekers watched The Comet's first takeoff. "They came by street car, carriage, automobile and on foot," reported The Pantagraph. With the engine "whirring and buzzing like a motorcycle racket" the airship lifted off the ground as a "cheer broke from the assembled crowd."
The Comet sailed over the city before Wild, no longer willing to risk the craft amid the strong northwesterly winds, cut short the jaunt and made an unscheduled landing at Robinson and Clay (today Oakland Ave.) streets. "We were unable to return to the starting point because of the wind," said Yager. "The ascent was made against my better judgment."
The following day brought more favorable flying conditions as The Comet journeyed to downtown Bloomington, a trip highlighted by a landing on Klemm's department store. With streets and office windows crowded with onlookers, the airship rested on the store roof for a half hour before circling the courthouse dome and heading back to White's Place.
Despite the efforts of Yager, Wild and many others, airships never lived up to their promise. Most famously, the brief, colorful history of trans-Atlantic passenger service came to an end in 1937 with the fiery explosion of the Hindenburg near Lakehurst, N.J.
In January 1950, The Pantagraph revisited the exploits of The Comet 40 years after it had patrolled the skies over Bloomington. Reporter Wilma Tolley even tracked down Yager, then 72. It turns out the old herald of the aviation age had given up the thrills of promoting powered flight in favor of a more sedentary life in the wicker furniture business.