Long before Nike’s “Just do it,” Silas Christofferson spouted, “Do it first.” He loved anything with a motor. In 1910, he won the Rose Festival auto race. The next year, he won it again, as well as the Pacific Coast motorboat race.
Inspired by Lincoln Beachey, who twice flew a dirigible from Portland to the Vancouver Barracks in 1905, the Iowa-born Christofferson (1890-1916) pushed the limits of his airplanes, regularly endangering his life. Just flying these fragile home-built contraptions required courage, but the genuinely heroic performed stunts to press their skill and reap public attention.
To hold public attention, stunts grew more daring. Christofferson broke balloons floating his wing tip 18 inches above the ground to exhibit his skill. Any minor miscalculation — or wind gust — and his wing could bite the dirt, flipping him to ground. Early pilots broke bones as often as bronco riders.
Christofferson flew Clark County’s first women through the Vancouver skies. One of them, Mrs. Edna Becker, would divorce her husband and marry the young pilot. At her new husband’s shop in California, she helped build airplanes. After his death, she earned her pilot’s license.
In June 1912, Christofferson delivered on a promise to fly off the newly opened Multnomah Hotel (now Embassy Suites) during Portland’s Rose Festival and did it with a pusher airplane hardly sturdier than a kite. The biplane weighed 850 pounds. A Glenn Curtiss engine spun its behind wing propellers. Workers fitted the roof with a 175-foot plank runway 30-feet wide.
About 50,000 onlookers gathered on Portland streets and rooftops to watch, including his wife, Edna, who observed his liftoff from the hotel roof. The 23-year-old flew his plane across the Willamette and Columbia rivers and landed at the Vancouver Barracks polo field 12 minutes later. The next day, the Morning Oregonian praised him, saying, “it remained for the unlicensed ex-automobile racer to be the pioneer in trusting his heavier-than-air machine in a start from the midst of the business section of a great city.”
In 1916, Christofferson died test-flying a prototype airplane in California. He fell 100 feet from the sky as his wife watched in terror. Edna buried him next to Lincoln Beachey, who died by crashing into San Francisco Bay a year earlier.
Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.