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Ninety years ago in April, Charles Lindbergh took his first airplane ride, piling into a Lincoln Standard Tourabout biplane at the South 20th Street field and circling the city with pilot Otto Timm.

The 20-year-old Lindbergh had come to Lincoln on a motorcycle, a college dropout here to enroll in the Lincoln Standard Aircraft Co. flight school. A few days after the April 9 flight, in a plane he'd helped assemble, Lindbergh had his first flying lesson.

Five years later, Lindbergh flew nonstop from New York to Paris in the "Spirit of St. Louis," a monoplane that now hangs in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Lindbergh didn't fly solo in Lincoln. He couldn't afford the $500 bond required by Lincoln Aircraft's owner to cover replacement costs for the trainer in case he crashed. But he learned to fly here, and that alone puts Nebraska on the aviation history radar.

There's a panel devoted to Lindbergh and his flight-school/barnstorming buddy, Harlan "Bud" Gurney, in "Pioneering Aviators from Flyover Country," a Nebraska History Museum exhibition of photographs and some artifacts that detail the early days of flight in Nebraska. It's on display now through Oct. 26.

Among those artifacts is a control stick from a Sopwith Camel, the British World War I fighter. Carved into one of the wooden handles on the metal stick are seven notches, one for each German plane shot down by Orville Ralston, Nebraska's only World War I flying "ace," a pilot with five or more confirmed victories in aerial combat.

The sight Ralston used for his machine guns is on view, as are his leather flight helmet and thick fur-and-leather gloves, a necessity to keep warm in the open cockpit plane.

Ralston, who was born near Weeping Water, graduated from Peru State Teachers College in 1915 and was attending the University of Nebraska Dental College when the U.S. entered the Great War.

Enlisting, he received flight training in Canada, Texas and England before being assigned to the English Royal Air Force's 85th Squadron in France, then got into his Sopwith with the 148th Squadron of the U.S. Army (there was no Air Force in World War I).

During his time in the Army, Ralston kept a journal. Here's part of his description of one of the missions:

"Soon after, our lower formation ... is attacked by six Huns (Fokker biplanes). We are in the top formation. ...We take the Hun by complete surprise because they are driving on our lower formation and everybody commences firing at close range on the machines. I fire at close range at a Fokker that spins out of my line of aim, so I let him go and attack another from behind and to the side.

"After firing nearly a whole drum of Lewis (rounds of ammunition) into him, as my Vickers had jammed, he turns slightly and goes into a vertical dive. I follow at a terrible rate of speed and fire my remaining shots from the Lewis drum. He still dives on. The speed is so terrific that I flatten out at 5,000 feet and see the Hun go vertically into the ground."

That firsthand account of Ralston's dogfight can be found in "Wings Over Nebraska: Historic Aviation Photographs," a book by Vince Goeres published in 2010 by the Nebraska State Historical Society that serves as a companion piece to the exhibition, containing many of the photographs as it recounts the history of aviation in the state.

After the "war to end all wars," Ralston returned to dental school, then practiced in Ainsworth and Valentine until 1942, when he re-enlisted in the Army Air Forces at age 48. He was killed in a plane crash in Montana in December 1942.

Sadly, dying in a crash was a common fate for early aviators everywhere, including Nebraska.

Among those who perished in a crash was Evelyn Sharp of Ord, who soloed at 16, and in 1938, at age 18, earned her commercial pilot's license, the youngest woman in the United States to have received one at the time.

Sharp went on to instruct men in the Civilian Pilot Training program and became the 17th woman accepted into the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron. She died in the crash of a P-38 in 1944.

Frank Kaiser Miller of Hebron, Nebraska's second pilot, learned to fly in April 1911. He died in a crash in September. Such was the danger in early aviation.

While the exhibition follows its title, "Pioneering Aviators from Flyover Country," by looking at the key figures in early Nebraska aviation, there are a couple of revelations in the show that have to do with place rather than people.

At 24th and O streets, a two-story building still stands that housed the Lincoln Standard Aircraft Co. and the Lincoln Auto and Airplane School, a training school that operated separately from the company that built planes here through the early 1930s.

In the early 1920s, the company did most of its flying out of the South 20th Street Field, where Lindbergh took his first plane ride. That field was on the west side of 20th Street between Van Dorn and Calvert streets.

When the Lincoln Country Club took over that area, the field moved to South 14th Street, just north of where Lincoln Memorial Park Cemetery now stands.

Lincoln Standard Aircraft was one of three early airplane manufacturers that operated in Lincoln; Harding, Zook, and Bahl came first, opening in 1919. The Arrow Aircraft Corp., which built planes here from 1926 to the early 1940s, had a field on North 48th Street near the old city dump. Its Havelock production plant was purchased by Goodyear. The plant, now owned by Veyance, continues to operate.

An Arrow Sport biplane now hangs in the terminal at the Lincoln Municipal Airport, and some Arrow Sports continue to fly.

The first airplane flights in Nebraska, 150-foot jumps by the Baysdorfer brothers from Omaha in a plane they had built, and a pair of demonstration flights, including one by former Nebraskan Arch Hoxey, took place in 1910.

That was just seven years after the first successful flight -- a world-altering journey of a couple of hundred feet that had a link to Lincoln.

Charles Taylor, a Lincoln boy who worked at the Nebraska State Journal (the precursor to the Journal Star), in his teens, moved to Kearney, then married and moved to Dayton, Ohio in 1894. There he went to work at a bicycle shop and found himself helping to design and build a 12-horsepower engine.

That engine went onto a flimsy two-winged glider that had been built by the shop owners, Orville and Wilbur Wright. In December 1903, Orville Wright made the first controlled, powered, sustained heavier than air flight in that bi-plane.

The "Kitty Hawk," named for the North Carolina town where the flight took place, hangs alongside the Spirit of St. Louis in the atrium of the Air and Space Museum -- two planes with a Lincoln connection in the most-visited museum in the world.

Reach L. Kent Wolgamott at 402-473-7244 or kwolgamott@journalstar.com, or follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/LJSWolgamott.

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