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May 19, 2022

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Off Beat: Pusher aviator felt pull of adventure

Pilot died when his ‘tractor flying machine’ crashed

The Columbian
, Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter

By today’s standards, Silas Christofferson’s flight 105 years ago from Portland to Vancouver could be described as brief but spectacular.

That, unfortunately, is a pretty good description of Christofferson’s life.

We recently caught up with a team of volunteers that is building a full-scale replica of the aircraft that Christofferson flew from the roof of the Multnomah Hotel on June 11, 1912.

That aircraft was a 1912 Curtiss Pusher. It took its name from designer Glenn Curtiss and the rear-facing engine, mounted behind the pilot.

Christofferson’s flight took 12 minutes. It ended when he landed on the polo grounds at Vancouver Barracks.

Christofferson made his final flight four years later, when he was in his mid-20s. He was killed on Oct. 31, 1916 when he lost control of a new plane he was flying and crashed.

The Columbian had a front-page story, datelined Redwood City, Calif.

Piloting a tractor

“Silas Christofferson, auto racer and aviator, was killed today at this place by a 100-foot fall of his big military tractor flying machine. Mr. Christofferson was well known here in Vancouver where he located one summer trying out various flying machines. He also married a former Vancouver girl. ”

Today’s reader might trip over some of that word: tractor flying machine.

“Tractor” referred to an advance in aviation technology, said Bob Cromwell, manager of Pearson Air Museum. It’s the opposite of “pusher.”

In a tractor aircraft, the engine is in the front and the propeller “pulls the aircraft like a tractor pulls a plow,” Cromwell said. “A pusher pushes.”

That transition reflected a lot of changing technologies in that era.

“It was all about experimentation,” Cromwell said. “There was a lot of debate whether it was safer to operate with or without seat belts.”

Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.

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