National Guard September 2012 : Page 74

G UARD R OOTS : W ASHINGTON Shooting Star By Capt. Keith Kosik L i k e many aviation pioneers , M a j . J ohn Fancher lived large , died young and left a mar k still apparent decades later TOWER THAT ONCE held a powerful bea-con to guide early aviators and was named for a pioneering National Guardsman was taken down this summer on the appropriately named Beacon Hill in Spokane, Wash. Few people probably know that the tower’s namesake was a man whose infl uence is felt to this day in the state’s Guard. In fact, Maj. John Fancher’s passion for aviation, exper-tise as a pilot and leadership in the Guard and his commu-nity still echo across Washington state. The heritage of the unit he established and commanded in 1925 lives on with the 141st Air Refueling Wing based at Spokane’s Fairchild Air Force Base. A Sadly, he would die young like many aviators of the time, but not before leaving a lasting legacy. Fancher, known as “Jack” to his family and many friends, was born in May 1891 and grew up on a farm outside of Spokane in eastern Washington. He attended the University of Washington in Seattle, where he played basketball and studied business until 1915. As the U.S. mobilized for World War I, Fancher enlisted in a Spokane Guard unit in 1917. A month later he was off ered the chance to attend fl ight school, where he earned his wings and a commission as a second lieutenant. He arrived in France in 1918 and was put in command of a fl ying unit. Air combat during World War I was particularly hazard-ous. Enemy fi re, bad weather and frequent mechanical diffi culties produced signifi cant casualties. And no one was immune. Quentin Roosevelt, the son of President Teddy Roosevelt, was a U.S. pilot killed during a mission in 1918. The Germans photographed his lifeless body lying next to his crumpled aircraft. According to a newspaper account, Fancher “was 74 | Na tional Guard

Shooting Star

Capt. Keith Kosik

Like many aviation pioneers, Maj. John Fancher lived large, died young and left a mark still apparent decades later<br /> <br /> ATOWER THAT ONCE held a powerful beacon to guide early aviators and was named for a pioneering National Guardsman was taken down this summer on the appropriately named Beacon Hill in Spokane, Wash.<br /> <br /> Few people probably know that the tower’s namesake was a man whose infl uence is felt to this day in the state’s Guard.<br /> <br /> In fact, Maj. John Fancher’s passion for aviation, expertise as a pilot and leadership in the Guard and his community still echo across Washington state. The heritage of the unit he established and commanded in 1925 lives on with the 141st Air Refueling Wing based at Spokane’s Fairchild Air Force Base.<br /> <br /> Sadly, he would die young like many aviators of the time, but not before leaving a lasting legacy.<br /> <br /> Fancher, known as “Jack” to his family and many friends, was born in May 1891 and grew up on a farm outside of Spokane in eastern Washington. He attended the University of Washington in Seattle, where he played basketball and studied business until 1915.<br /> <br /> As the U.S. mobilized for World War I, Fancher enlisted in a Spokane Guard unit in 1917. A month later he was off ered the chance to attend flight school, where he earned his wings and a commission as a second lieutenant. He arrived in France in 1918 and was put in command of a flying unit.<br /> <br /> Air combat during World War I was particularly hazardous.Enemy fire, bad weather and frequent mechanical difficulties produced signifi cant casualties. And no one was immune. Quentin Roosevelt, the son of President Teddy Roosevelt, was a U.S. pilot killed during a mission in 1918.The Germans photographed his lifeless body lying next to his crumpled aircraft.<br /> <br /> According to a newspaper account, Fancher “was Engaged in strenuous combat operations. His mettle was shown in France when he refused a furlough proposed by his colonel in command. Fancher was in ill health from over work but preferred to remain at the front.”<br /> <br /> He served through the end of the war, was honorably discharged on April 7, 1919 and returned home to work the family farm. That might have been the end of his military career, but the War Department, the Washington Guard and the people back home had other ideas.<br /> <br /> In 1920, Spokane community leaders wanted to secure an aviation unit after learning the War Department might authorize a Guard flying unit if an airfield and hangars could be provided by the hosting city. Their hopes came to fruition in 1924 when Maj. Gen. Maurice Thompson, the Washington adjutant general, arrived by train in Spokane on his way to Washington, D.C. <br /> <br /> Thompson had a simple message for the city: “Washington has been offered one of the 19 National Guard Observation Squadrons authorized by the National Guard Bureau.I’ve offered it to Seattle and Tacoma, but Spokane has an equal opportunity to get it. Whichever city can raise $10,000 first for the erection of hangars is going to get the squadron.”<br /> <br /> The general boarded the train and resumed his journey east. He had barely left the city when a group of businessmen wired, “The $10,000 has been raised. We want the squadron.”<br /> <br /> Washington had an aviation unit, a home for it and the money needed to get it started. The only thing missing was someone to lead it. Thompson knew exactly who he wanted for the job and prevailed upon Fancher to accept the command.<br /> <br /> The unit took shape quickly. Three disassembled Curtiss 3N6-A2 “Jennys” arrived in Spokane in March 1925.Members of the 116th Observation Squadron put the planes together themselves and built the hangars at their new airfield, which was the abandoned Parkwater Municipal Golf Course. Photographs show Fancher, now a major, hard at work as the hangars went up.<br /> <br /> Although farming and the Guard kept him busy, Fancher also found time for his community. He was active in the Chamber of Commerce and petitioned the state legislature for more resources for his unit. He was also the driving force behind Spokane’s Air Rodeo in 1925 and 1926.<br /> <br /> After a run for Congress came up short in 1926, Fancher set his sights on bringing the national air races to Spokane.<br /> <br /> But before he could set out on his new pursuit, tragedy struck the 116th. First Lt. Buell Felts, a pilot in the 116th And the owner and publisher of the Spokane Valley Herald, died when his aircraft crashed on approach to Parkwater Airfield on May 29, 1927.<br /> <br /> The event deeply shook the men of the 116th. Felts was the unit’s first casualty. Fancher was a pallbearer and led the effort to have the Parkwater Municipal Airfield renamed Felts Field, which carries on to this day.<br /> <br /> Despite the loss, Fancher flew to New York in the summer of 1927. His goal was to win for Spokane the opportunity to host the 1927 National Air Races. His negotiations were successful and en route back home he flew over the South Dakota home of President Calvin Coolidge.<br /> <br /> He tossed a silk streamer bearing “Greetings to the President” and an invitation to the Air Derby from his plane as he flew over the summer White House. After a show of aerobatics, he landed and met with the president.<br /> <br /> DETERMINED TO FLY<br /> <br /> That autumn, Spokane sponsored the 1927 National Air Races, which featured two cross-country races—the San Francisco to Spokane Derby and the New York to Spokane Derby. There were also local races and contests of aerobatics and formation flying.<br /> <br /> The National Air Races were a resounding success. The economic impact and boost in reputation to Spokane were significant. Meanwhile, Fancher became a celebrity, known by everyone from the president to Charles Lindbergh.<br /> <br /> On April 28, 1928, the town of Wenatchee, Wash., planned to dedicate its new airfield during the annual Apple Blossom Festival and invited Fancher and his men to perform. He was eager to display his unit’s prowess and to support the cause of aviation.<br /> <br /> A week before the Wenatchee festival, Fancher flew from Spokane to Seattle to attend his father-in-law’s funeral.As he traveled over the Cascade Mountains that divide Washington into east and west, he confronted a violent storm. In search of an opening in the clouds, he climbed to 14,000 feet, but the conditions only worsened.<br /> <br /> With his motor running full and the nose of his plane pointed skyward, he plunged 5,000 feet almost instantly.He was on the brink of bailing out more than once, but he persevered. After being lost for two hours in fierce wind and rain, he finally spotted a hole in the clouds and made his way through.<br /> <br /> Spring was in the air the day Fancher and other unit pilots flew from Spokane to Wenatchee in central Washington to help dedicate the new airfield.<br /> <br /> He planned to demonstrate a nighttime aerial raid using explosives as supporting pyrotechnics. He had flown the routine to good effect for Armistice Day celebrations and other community events. The weather that evening, however, was poor. Some commercial pilots declined to fly.<br /> <br /> But much like his flight west the week before, Fancher would not be deterred. He took to the sky in the late evening, his plane illuminated and visible to the crowd below.His wife, Eveyln, watched from a home in the area as he gave the crowd a rousing performance.<br /> <br /> He finished and executed a perfect landing at approximately 10:30 p.m. Fancher was unhappy, however, that Only three of the six explosives he used in the demonstration detonated. He asked to examine three remaining explosives, which were still in a bag.<br /> <br /> “There is something wrong with these bombs,” Fancher said, according to accounts of the evening.<br /> <br /> He reached into the bag and took out one of the explosives.He removed the cap, “scratched” the piece that set into motion the detonation and threw it into a nearby field.<br /> <br /> No explosion.<br /> <br /> “See, that one didn’t go off,” he said.<br /> <br /> He scratched the second bomb and threw it into the field, where it detonated several seconds later.<br /> <br /> “That one was alright,” Fancher said.<br /> <br /> He then gripped the last bomb in his right hand, removed the top and scratched it with his left thumb. There was a blinding flash and a deafening noise. Fancher staggered and fell to the ground.<br /> <br /> “My God, fellows, I’m hurt,” exclaimed Fancher as he momentarily lost consciousness.<br /> <br /> His right hand was completely severed. The right side of his face was a grisly mess; he was missing his right eye.<br /> <br /> Shreds of his clothing lay scattered on the ground, revealing severe wounds and burns to his midsection.<br /> <br /> Fancher’s men descended on their fallen leader. They Covered him up and applied a tourniquet to his right arm.He regained consciousness and said, “Men, I’m blind. I want to sleep for a while. … I wish I could have stayed that way.”<br /> <br /> A lieutenant replied, “No, Major, don’t talk that way.Your eye is alright. I can see it just as plain. Lay as quiet as possible, the doctor is on his way.”<br /> <br /> “God, fellows do something to ease the pain—my stomach is ripped open,” Fancher said.<br /> <br /> The lieutenant once again off ered comforting words.<br /> <br /> “I can see on my left eye. Thank God. I have one eye left,” Fancher replied.<br /> <br /> Still in shock and unaware of how badly he was hurt, he used his left hand to feel for his right eye and his right arm. His men stopped him, pleading with him to be still.<br /> <br /> Placed in a car to be taken to a hospital, Fancher said, “Well, boys, I’ve made my last fl ight and I’m glad it was a night flight, but I’ll still be able to handle a team on the farm, I guess.”<br /> <br /> STATE IN MOURNING<br /> <br /> Upon arrival at the hospital, Fancher was conscious but in extreme pain. As attendants prepared to move him into the operating room, he called out to his men, “It’s alright, boys.”<br /> <br /> “Do the best you can, Doc,” he said to the surgeon in the operating room. “But I know it’s curtains. Goodbye!”<br /> <br /> He died at 1:30 a.m. the next day with his wife at his side and his men agonizing in the waiting room.<br /> <br /> The shock and outpouring of grief in Spokane and Wenatchee was immense. Wenatchee immediately named its airfield after him. In Spokane, several thousand attended his funeral. The Fancher Memorial Airway Beacon was built with $12,000 that was quickly raised for that purpose.<br /> <br /> Officers in his unit wore a mourning badge on their uniforms for the next 30 days.<br /> <br /> The adjutant general was equally stricken. More than a decade after his death, Thompson kept a framed picture of Fancher on the wall of his office.<br /> <br /> Fancher had been working on a business deal with famed aviation ace Eddie Rickenbacker to establish an aircraft-manufacturing plant in Spokane. He was scheduled to travel to England to solidify the deal, but without him, it quickly fi zzled.<br /> <br /> Even as he fought for his life at St. Anthony’s Hospital, he directed his men to make clear to the public that his injuries were not a result of flying. His passion for flying and faith in the future of aviation stayed with him to the end.<br /> <br /> Capt. Keith Kosik is the state public aff airs officer for the Washington National Guard. He can be contacted via magazine@ngaus.org.

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