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Rhinelander’s First Flight

Photo of Floyd Barlow and his Plane, in Rhinelander, 1912.
Courtesy of the Langlade County Historical Society
Photo of Floyd Barlow and his Plane, in Rhinelander, 1912.

The Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport has been fielding planes at its current location just west of Rhinelander since the early 40s. But Rhinelander’s aeronautical history goes all the way back to a flight that occurred in 1912.

In 1903, the Wright Brothers made their famous flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. On their heels was aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss, whom founded the Curtiss Flying School in San Diego, California. Less then 10 years later, a Curtiss bi-plane would be soaring over downtown Rhinelander.

In 1912, Curtiss Flying School sent some of it’s pilots on promotional trips around the country, demonstrating it’s flying machines. Pilot Floyd Barlow made the journey to Rhinelander, Wisconsin by train in September of 1912 to show off his aerial skills for the 17th Oneida County Fair.

After setting up his Curtiss Pusher Bi Plane at the Fair grounds, then on Coon Street in Rhinelander, Barlow took off and flew his aircraft over the city. Reaching reported heights of 4000 feet, and traveling 15 miles before landing back at the grounds without mishap.

Spectators of Rhinelander’s first visiting aircraft said the “bird man” and his plane appeared as a “monster hawk” in the sky. Floyds copilot, his dog named Jack, was also popular among fairgoers.

Aviator Barlow would make a total of 3 flights during the weekend to an awestruck crowd of Rhinelander residents and visitors. Consider just a decade earlier, the Northwood’s hadn’t even seen an automobile on its streets yet, let alone a flying machine in the sky. This first flight was a big to do which drew thousands of folks to the fair to witness the event.

Prompted by Barlows successful flight, 10 years later the Oneida County Fairgrounds would be used as the areas first official airport. The strip was little more than a couple grass runs which crisscrossed the horse racing track, but it served the pioneering aviators of the era for about 20 years. The fairgrounds airfield was managed by early Rhinelander aviator Steve Shalbreck, whom also oversaw the transition to the new airport in the early 1940s, and continued as its director for years after.

The Rhinelander Oneida County Airport has seen many changes since the early days of aviation, and the powerful passenger jets that land there today, have come a long way since Floyd Barlow, and the first biplane that soared over Rhinelander, 111 years ago.

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Kerry Bloedorn joined WXPR in 2022 as the host of A Northwoods Moment in History. A local historian, Director of Pioneer Park Historical Complex for the City of Rhinelander and writer for The New North Magazine, he loves digging into the past and sharing his passion for history with the Northwoods community.
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