Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Barnstorming Brothers: Herman & Henry Wetzig

         Kansas has always been a leader in aviation. But long before Kansas aviators such as Clyde Cessna, Amelia Earhart, and Walter Beech became household names Junction City was the home of two barnstorming brothers.
Henry Wetzig
Back in 1910 Herman and Henry Wetzig were making history when they flew their Curtiss machine. They had become fascinated with flying when they saw two Wright planes at Fort Riley. Also, it didn’t hurt when they learned that a pioneer barnstormer by the name of Bud Mars had received $10,000 for flight demonstrations at the state fair in Topeka.
They traveled to the Curtiss factory which was located in Hammondsport, New York to see the crafts for themselves. The Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Corporation would later merge with the Wright Aeronautical Corporation (Wilbur and Orville Wright) and become known as the Curtiss-Wright Corporation. The company was a leader in aviation development. 
The brothers located a Curtiss flying machine for sale at a factory in St. Louis. They were impressed with the machine and bought the craft for $4,000. With this purchase they became the first private owners of an airplane in Kansas. This flying “contraption” featured an open fuselage, a pair of wings and a four-cylinder “pusher” motor. The pilot sat on a small open seat out in the open in front of the wings. While thrilling, the operators were literally, “flying by the seat of their pants.”      
The Wetzig Brothers plane parked outside of the Junction City Courthouse.
Luck was on their side and the company that manufactured the plane also taught a flying course. As the Curtiss machine only had one seat there was no way for a flight instructor to go up with the pilot. The instructor explained the mechanics of the plane to the student. The student then taxied the plane across the field a couple times. Once that had been mastered the student was then “to take off and land in about a 100 yards.” This was done until the student was accustomed to the plane. The brothers graduated from the program in about a month.
The school also set them up with their first contract which paid $1500. It was to perform two five-minute flights at the fair in Concordia, Kansas.
The brothers performed in towns throughout western Kansas. When the weather turned cold they would travel south and perform throughout Texas and New Mexico. Despite the high fees that they were commanding for their performances they didn’t consider the business a success. Most of the income was eaten up by repairs. The planes were not able to make flights of any great distance and the Wetzigs had to ship the plane by rail road to the next demonstration, another expense.
Herman Wetzig
Herman Wetzig stated in his later years that he got awfully tired of bolting together and unbolting the plane at every stop.  
Over the years the brothers had several close calls. In an article published in 1957 Herman recounted that one time while flying the vibration of the motor caused the gas valve to close. With the motor dead he was looking for a place to set the plane down. He barely made it to an open stretch between two corn fields.
 Another time in San Angelio, Texas he was not so fortunate. The wind had been blowing all day. But in the business everyone knows the show must go on. Herman managed to get the plane off the ground safely but was only able to climb to 200 feet by the time he was over the town. As he turned the plane around to make another pass over the town the wind caught one wing of the plane and tilted it as it was passing over a street car line. One wing hit the top of the trolly pole. The plane plunged to the ground smashing to pieces. Herman was fortunate to walk away relatively unharmed.      
After the incident the brothers turned to other interests. They were always interested in anything mechanical. They operated an auto dealership and service station in Junction City.
Henry Wetzig passed away in May of 1951 at the age of 74. Herman lived until 1974 and passed away at the age of 93. They are both buried at Highland Cemetery.        

A Note of Thanks: In 1986 the Geary County Historical Society nominated Herman Wetzig posthumously for the Kansas Department of Transportation’s “Aviation Honors Award”. Josephine Munson prepared the nomination and interviewed his daughter, Mrs. Otis Walker. If it was not for Josephine’s initiative we would not have nearly as much information about the Wetzig brothers.