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Logan A. “Jack” Vilas, Pioneer Aviator of the Northwoods

Jack Vilas sitting in the Curtiss hydroplane, which he used to spot forest fires for the Wisconsin Conservation Department.
Wisconsin Historical Society
Jack Vilas sitting in the Curtiss hydroplane, which he used to spot forest fires for the Wisconsin Conservation Department.

Vilas County is named after William Freeman Vilas, who represented Wisconsin in the United States Senate. But there was another man from the Vilas family who had an impact on the Northwoods. Logan Vilas was an adventurer who set several Northwoods firsts.

Logan Archibald Vilas was born on May 25, 1891, in New York City. He was related to Wisconsin Senator William F. Vilas and frequently visited the state as a youth. Vilas was born at the dawn of motorized vehicle travel, and he lived an adventurous life that captured the daredevil spirit of the age.

Vilas, who went by the nickname of Jack, was sent to boarding school as a boy and educated at the Asheville School for Boys in North Carolina. He loved anything with an engine in it, and in 1908 at the age of 17 he won a five-mile automobile race in Illinois. In 1912 he won a trophy for a motorboat race. That same year he earned a diploma from the Glenn Curtiss School of Aviation in Hammondsport, New York. In 1913 he earned his hydroplane pilot’s license. His license bore the number 6, which meant he was only the sixth person to qualify in a hydroplane.

Vilas relocated to Chicago, and in July 1913 he made aviation history as the first pilot to fly a hydroplane across Lake Michigan. He made regular flights into Wisconsin after that, and in 1914 had a close brush with death. He had been in Wisconsin giving people their first opportunity to go up in a hydroplane. At week’s end he took off for Chicago carrying Frank Miller of Minocqua as a passenger. As they came abreast of the Camp Douglas artillery range the soldiers began target practice. Unaware that a small plane was in the vicinity, they fired a shell in the direction of the aircraft. The plane was not hit, but as the shell plowed into the water the explosion sent a plume nearly 100 feet into the air. The shock wave hit the low-flying plane hard, but Vilas managed to pull it up to a safe altitude without further incident.

Vilas was an avid hunter and fisherman, and it was during a flight over the Northwoods that he got the idea of using aircraft to detect forest fires. He pitched the idea to the State Board of Forestry, and they approved immediately. Vilas, who was a wealthy man, took the job without pay and made Trout Lake his base. He made his first patrol flight with his Curtiss Flying Boat in June 1915. The summer trial was successful as Vilas was able to spot and report several potential fires.

In September 1915, Vilas set one more Northwoods record. Senator Willard Stevens and his wife Katherine were vacationing on Trout Lake, and Vilas offered to take Katherine up in the Flying Boat. She agreed, and consequently became the first woman to fly over the Northwoods.

Vilas returned to his Chicago home after that summer and became an army pilot during World War I. He made several other firsts, including the first air-sea rescue mission. Vilas maintained a cabin in Wisconsin, and through the years made frequent return visits to the Northwoods.

Upon Vilas’ death in Florida in 1976, President Gerald Ford wrote a personal letter of recognition to the Vilas family honoring his life in service.

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In addition to being a historian and educator, Gary R. Entz serves on WXPR's Board of Directors and writes WXPR's A Northwoods Moment in History which is heard Wednesdays on WXPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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