In the way that one idea leads to another which leads to another, this post is a flight of fancy. We start with an old family story about the ride my Uncle Pleas took 85 years ago on a plane called Scoop, then to some other stories I found from a bygone era when newspapers could afford their own pilots and planes, then to some flying stories from my career.
My mother, Harriet Buttry, was a tireless archivist of family writings before Alzheimer’s took over her mind. A shelf in her home displayed books by authors in the family, and notebooks collected magazine articles and other writings, including too many of my newspaper stories, columns and blog posts.
After helping Mom with a recent move, my brother Dan thinned the collection a bit and sent me some boxes of family writings. Most were my old newspaper stories. I was surprised how faithful I had been sending clippings to Mom, but not at all surprised how faithful she was at filing them away. But Dan sent me more than just my own work. The collection included The Great Depression: True Stories of Trials and Triumphs, compiled by the McLean County Home and Community Education Association in Illinois in 2006.
That book had three family connections: My cousin Mary Lou Lawson was one of the editors, and a story toward the back of the book was written by my uncle, Pleasant J. Buttry (we called him Uncle Pleas and he also went by Pat). His sister (Mary Lou’s mother and my aunt) Minda was a key character. Here’s Uncle Pleas’s story:
I have experienced a funny story that is partially involving my family names. In the year 1930 I was the paper carrier of the Peoria Journal and my sister Minda was two years older than I and the paper carrier for the Bloomington Pantagraph in the small town of Armington. I was 11 years old and Minda was 13 years old. My name is Pleasant. The Pantagraph had a biplane that was named “The Scoop” and was piloted by Art Carnahan.
The Pantagraph mailed Minda a letter advising the date and time the plane was to come to Armington and the pilot would give her a free ride. Minda was glad and planned on enjoying to get the ride but our mother told Minda she could not go up in any airplane and that was emphatic. I heard this warning as an on-looker.
When the appointed day arrived everybody arrived to see the airplane up close and gathered in a crowd around the airplane. The pilot asked for the carrier to come and go up for the first ride. I came forward and he was buckling me in the front seat when Minda came up telling the pilot she was Minda (the carrier) not me. The pilot then asked her if I was not Minda then what was my name and she answered truthfully “Pleasant.” Then the pilot asked me if I was the carrier and I told him I was the carrier but did not add that I carried papers for a different company!! The pilot then took me up in a ride over the town.
When I got home I expected trouble from my mother and took my cap off my head and put it in the seat of my bib overalls and sure enough my mother gave me a good licking for stealing Minda’s identity to a free airplane ride!!
The result made me a better person and Minda forgave me but I have always remembered that day.
I know my father had a paper route, but that would have been later. He turned 9 in 1930. Grandpa Roy Buttry, who owned some property and at least one business in Armington, went broke in the Depression and the family moved to Chenoa, about 50 miles away, probably not long after Pleas flew in Scoop. Dad remembered Chenoa as his hometown, and I’m pretty sure his paper route would have been there.
The story prompted a little research, both on family history and on newspapers and airplanes.
I emailed Mary Lou and some other children of Minda and Pleas, asking their memories of either parent telling the story. Linda Roberts, one of Pleas’s daughters, told me in an email:
Dad laughed telling the story. I asked the preacher at his funeral to tell the story but he goofed it up. It is funny that although Dad told the lie that he was Minda, he tried to avoid lies by saying he was a carrier albeit the wrong carrier. I had not heard that Minda spoke up.
Mary Lou also remembered the story and asked Pleas to include it in the book:
I had heard Mom & Uncle Pleas & your Dad laughing as they told this story over & over again!!! I loved hearing it so I asked Uncle Pleas if he could write it down for me to enter into our book & he graciously did!
Mary Lou emailed the Pantagraph after hearing from me and got the copy of the ad that I posted above, announcing Minda as the new carrier for Armington. She also sent along the family photos I’ve included here, though none at the age when Pleas flew on Scoop. Linda said she has no childhood photos of her father. The family was poor during the Depression and apparently didn’t have a camera or money to pay for photo processing. I also don’t have any photos of Dad or his siblings from that age.
But here are a couple of Minda after her paper route years:
Art Carnahan and Scoop
I was fascinated with Uncle Pleas’ story of riding in a newspaper’s airplane. I wanted to know more. And his story gave me three details that let me do some research: the name of the newspaper (the Bloomington Pantagraph), the name of the pilot, Art Carnahan, and the name of the plane, Scoop.
Quick Google searches found a 2008 Pantagraph story about Scoop and a Davis-Monthan Aviation Field Register profile of Carnahan.
The Pantagraph story included the photo at the top of this post, which I’ve used with permission.
“From 1929 until 1941, ‘Scoop,’ as the plane was known, roamed the skies above The Pantagraph circulation area in search of, well, scoops,” archivist/librarian Bill Kemp of the McLean County History Museum wrote in the Pantagraph. “Although many of the plane’s photographs look bland compared to the wonders of today’s Google Earth, back during the golden age of aviation, an aerial perspective offered a fresh and exciting way to look at the world.”
Kemp recounted that four planes actually flew under the “Scoop” name. The plane “also delivered, in a crunch, newspapers to outlying communities; ferried reporters to news events; and, perhaps most importantly, helped popularize aviation during its wild and wooly years.”
Pantagraph Publisher Davis Merwin, an aviation buff, bought the first Scoop, a Waco 90 biplane powered by a World War I-era OX-5 motor in June 1929, Kemp wrote. J.J. Meagher of Bloomington won $25 for suggesting “Scoop” in a contest to name the plane.
“Late that month, Scoop toured the surrounding countryside, stopping in Saybrook, LeRoy and elsewhere to deliver papers and give rides (or ‘air voyages’) to local residents,” Kemp wrote. Uncle Pleas’ flight was the next year, but clearly promotional flights were part of Scoop’s mission from the first.
Scoop’s first pilot, Jack Bell, and passenger Clifford Holt were killed in an accident during dedication of the Mattoon, Ill., airport, though Bell was flying another plane at the time, Kemp wrote. “The fatal crash occurred as Bell and Holt were participating in a contest in which flyers released balloons and then swooped back to break them. Observers said Bell was unable to pull out of a steep dive and the plane plowed into the ground, instantly killing the two men.”
Carnahan, known locally as “Mr. Aviation,” became the Scoop’s new pilot, visiting Armington later that year. A Stinson Jr. mono-plane became the third Scoop in 1931. Farm Editor Frank Bill accompanied Carnahan aloft frequently to cover agriculture and weather in the region.
The Davis-Monthan profile makes clear that flying the Scoop was just one of many aviation activities for Carnahan. He flew the Tilbury-Fundy Flash in the National Air Races in the 1930s and was the manager and a flight instructor at the Bloomington Airport.
The profile quotes David Brazelton, a flying student of Carnahan’s: “Every moment you flew in a cockpit with Art, you were learning. He never let up and made you do new things all the time.”
A 1938 profile of Scoop in Popular Aviation by W. Eldred Richardson told several ways the Scoops helped the Pantagraph:
They have taken reporters and photographers over floods, over snowbound countrysides to train wrecks, fires, funerals of state, and on more peaceful rural photographic missions. …
J.B. Andrews of the University of Illinois agricultural college, discovered that the scope of Canada thistle invasion could be easily detected from the air, whereas it could be learned on the ground only by word of mouth.
‘Crop reporters,’ said Farm Adviser J.H. Checkley of Logan county, after a countryside aerial tour, ‘should have airplanes. Then they could report more accurately.’ …
In the winter of 1930, there was a serious train wreck at Forrest, nearly 50 miles from Bloomington by air and considerably farther by road — if the roads could even have been used. There had been a blizzard the night before and all highways were effectually blocked by drifts. Open fields in most cases had been swept clear by the gale. On this chance, the flight was made. Even though a landing were impossible, air shots could be taken of the piled-up cars and locomotive. But luck was with the airmen. They found a suitable field within 200 feet of the wreck and landed in only five inches of snow.
Bill not only got his aerial views, but intimate ground pictures as well. He was far too pleased over the happy combination to complain about floundering through drifts up to his armpits.
The Popular Aviation piece does tell of one in-flight emergency:
In all this news flying, Pantagraph ships have never had a mishap. Nearest thing was in one of the old Waco biplanes when Editor Bill’s food snagged a valve and dumped the gasoline supply. Pilot Carnahan glided to a perfect landing in a wheat field. Fuel was obtained from a farmer’s tractor supply and the ship returned to its home port.
While the Pantagraph story doesn’t mention promotional flights for carriers, a Pantagraph photo published with a Carnahan profile on the Parks Airfield site republished the photo below of Carnahan and some carriers he was flying in the Scoop.
The Pantagraph published aerial photos almost daily of central Illinois farms. If a farmer could correctly identify his property, he’d get a framed copy of the photo. The Kemp and Richardson stories both say about 1,200 farm photos were published, with more than 1,000 of them being identified.
In a 1936 visit to Bloomington, famed pilot Amelia Earhart visited Bloomington and took a ride in Scoop IV, an SR-5 Reliant, Kemp wrote.
With World War II looming, Scoop’s flights stopped in 1941 and the plane was sold.
Kemp boasted of the newspaper’s distinction in having its own airplane: “By the late 1930s, it was said that more aerial photos ran in The Pantagraph than any other newspaper in the world. After all, how many papers could boast of having their very own airplane?”
But I knew of another newspaper that did have its own plane.
Don Ultang and the Des Moines Register’s airplane
As a former editor and reporter at the Des Moines Register, I remembered that the Register also had its own airplane.
I had heard that Don Ultang, who shared a Pulitzer Prize for photography with John Robinson in 1952, was a pilot, flying the Register’s own plane. In digging through the Register’s library for old clips while I worked there, I would occasionally come across the logo at the left, identifying photos as coming from the Register’s plane.
Brian Smith, an engagement editor at the Register, dug up the logo and the photos you see here, and sent me a link to a video last year reviewing the Register’s history with technology, promoting the Register’s move from its longtime home at 715 Locust St.
In the video, columnist Kyle Munson spent a few seconds boasting of the Register’s aviation history. “The Register was the first newspaper in the country to own and operate an airplane full-time,” Munson said.
The Register’s plane was called the Good News, also named by readers, and it took its maiden flight in May 1928, a year before the Pantagraph’s first Scoop. Munson said seven planes flew for the Register, including a gyro plane that was an early helicopter.
Ultang was the Register’s most famous pilot. The headline for the New York Times obituary on Ultang, who died in 2008 at age 91, called him a “pioneer in aerial photography.”
He and Robinson won the Pulitzer for their 1951 series of photographs documenting an assault on the football field on Drake’s African American football player Johnny Bright. The attack by an Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) player broke the jaw of Bright, the first black player to take the field in Stillwater, Okla.
The Times obit says Ultang learned to fly in a government training program for civilians, then served in the Navy during World War II as a stateside flying instructor. After the war, he became a pilot-photographer for the Register:
As the only pilot on the staff, he took pictures while flying the plane. He let go of the controls briefly to shoot a flood, a train wreck or simply a segment of the vast Midwestern panorama with a heavy Speed Graphix camera, before circling around for another take, often just a few hundred feet above the ground.
“Low and slow is what kills pilots,” Mr. Ultang explained in the oral history project. “I had to be low to get the job done, and I simply kept about 20 miles per hour extra air speed.” …
“What I had to learn to do as I flew toward a subject was to time the moment when I started to bank,” he said, “so when I got into the full 45- or 50-degree bank, the subject was out in front of me. It gave me an unobstructed view of about five seconds.”
Ultang’s photography was compiled in the book Holding the Moment: Mid-America at Mid-Century.
My own experience with flying for news
Unlike Uncle Pleas, I never flew in a newspaper airplane, despite being a newspaper carrier for the Columbus Citizen-Journal in the 1960s and spending more than 40 years in the news business, starting in 1971. The Register’s Good News planes retired sometime before I joined the newspaper in 1977. But planes figured into my career now and then. So I conclude with a few personal tales.
I was never a full-time photographer, but when I started my career at the Evening Sentinel in Shenandoah, Iowa, a reporter or editor was also a photographer. John Tinley, the publisher, was on the local industrial board, and they needed some aerial photos of possible development properties. So he arranged for a plane to take me aloft to shoot some photos for the industrial board and for our files. When we would get to a spot I wanted to shoot (the high school, downtown, the business district out on Highway 59, the factories), the pilot would dip the wing so I would have an unobstructed view of the target.
I shot several rolls of film and developed and printed the photos, both for us and for the industrial board, a conflict I probably would have objected to in later years, especially since I’m pretty sure John didn’t charge them for the service.
I moved to the Register shortly after that flight, and I don’t know what use the Sentinel ever made of the photos, but my successors had a lot of aerials to use if they needed them.
When I became an assistant city editor at the Register, I was in charge of the city desk on Sundays and was intrigued by the phone number for chartering a plane, posted on the “hot seat” desk. What kind of news, I wondered, would justify chartering a plane? And would I ever have that authority?
Well, one weekend when I was running the show, a grain elevator blew up in northwest Iowa. Driving would have taken three hours or more. In those pre-cellphone days, I couldn’t reach the city editor or managing editor on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, so I just called the number posted on the desk and chartered a plane to fly our reporter and photographer to the scene. They provided great coverage, including aerial shots, but I sort of wondered whether I had exceeded my authority.
As I recounted in my post about Dave Witke as a role model, he was managing editor of the Register and he stopped me short when I went into his office the next day, apologizing for chartering a plane without being able to reach anyone first. My job was to cover the news, not worry about the budget, he said, and I should never apologize for sending a good reporter and a good photographer to cover a good story.
We couldn’t use a charter plane the way we wanted in one of the biggest stories during my first hitch at the Register, Pope John Paul II’s visit to Iowa in 1979. The Federal Aviation Administration declared a no-fly zone around Living History Farms, where the pope would say Mass for a crowd estimated at 350,000. We would have lots of Register and Tribune photographers on the ground, shooting the pontiff and his Iowa flock, but we wanted an aerial photo of the throng, of course.
Well, Iowa Gov. Robert Ray was an amateur photographer and a pretty good one. And he would be accompanying the pope to Living History Farms on a helicopter. The Register arranged to give Gov. Ray a Register camera loaded with film and he shot some aerials for us as the helicopter flew over the crowd.
We still used a charter plane, though. With 350,000 Iowans there, traffic was at a standstill all day. And we needed to get film back to the newsroom for processing. So the Register arranged for runners from a high school cross country team (I presume some staff member had a child on the team) to accompany our photographers at Living History Farms. The athletes would run rolls of film to a charter plane (perhaps a helicopter) outside the no-fly zone, and the pilot would ferry the film downtown for processing.
I almost got to ride a helicopter as a reporter for the Omaha World-Herald in 1993, surveying flood damage with Nebraska Gov. Ben Nelson. But the helicopter had limited seats, so I backed out, wanting to be sure we had a seat for the World-Herald photographer (Jeff Bundy, if I’m recalling right).
I did take a plane chartered by the Register in December 1999, just a few days before Christmas, to cover a fatal fire in Keokuk. The plane flew photojournalist Bob Nandell, reporter Staci Hupp and me to Keokuk. We flew over the still-smoldering house so Bob could shoot some aerials, then landed at the airport, rented a car or two and got to work on our reporting on the tragedy.
I did fly many other times in my reporting for the Register and World-Herald, but always on commercial flights, and they’re not the same. Throw in the flights I took for training journalists, and I’ve flown into more than 100 airports around the world.
When a historic flood hit Cedar Rapids in 2008, while I was editor of the Gazette, our photojournalists spread throughout the city and the region to cover the disaster with stellar photography (I nominated them for the Pulitzer and still think they should have won).
Gazette Communications CEO Chuck Peters was a pilot, and the Eastern Iowa Airport was outside the flood zone. He offered to take one of our photographers aloft for some aerials, so I sent Liz Martin up and she shot some stunning photos showing the extent of the flood and the devastation it caused.
While newspaper airplanes are a thing of the past (to my knowledge), major metro TV stations have their own helicopters and pilots. The helicopter coverage of the slow-speed chase of O.J. Simpson’s Bronco has probably shielded many a TV helicopter from budget cuts in the years since.
When I was at TBD, the helicopter of our sister TV station, WJLA, provided coverage of the 2010 Discovery Channel hostage situation and several weather stories. It was, without question, a luxury, but the aerial shots enhanced coverage of many a story.
Every story I’ve shared here is true, to the best of my knowledge. I was frankly a little skeptical of Uncle Pleas’ story, because I know how family legends can become exaggerated in the retelling. I once debunked a legend that many honest people told vividly that just grew in the retelling. So I was delighted that my research on Art Carnahan and Scoop backed up the family story.
But my last personal story involving journalism and flying is pure fiction: Mimi’s novel, Gathering String, includes an incident where a reporter and photographer charter a plane to cover a flood. I think (and others have said) that the scene where the plane crashes is one of the best scenes in the book. The scene was so realistic that someone asked if she had actually survived a plane crash. My reply: No, but she imagines that crash every time she flies (or when I fly without her, especially on a small plane chartered by a newspaper).
Spoiler alert: A photo of the crash pops up later in the story, too.
Were there other newspaper airplanes?
I don’t think newspaper airplanes were ever common, but I doubt that the Pantagraph and Register were the only newspapers with airplanes. Do you have stories to share about newsroom airplanes (Scoop, Good News or others), charter planes or newsroom helicopters?