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Wednesday, February 28, 2024
Feb. 28, 2024

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Clark County History: Flying ace Alexander Pearson Jr.


Any local connection to the namesake of Pearson Field has always been more rumor than fact. The flying ace Alexander Pearson Jr. (1885-1924) reputedly attended Vancouver High School. But quite possibly, he never set foot in that school or trod the ground in Vancouver or the airfield.

These facts don’t dampen the pilot’s achievements or the naming of the airfield after him. In 1919, he won an Army air race from Roosevelt Field in Long Island to Crissy Field in San Francisco and back. He flew his De Haviland-4 cross-country twice in just over 40 hours. Later the Army assigned Pearson to a surveying crew near the Grand Canyon. While flying a surveying photographer around the deep canyon in 1921, Pearson was the first pilot to fly into it.

Pearson entered the newly established Army Air Corps in 1917. Instead of sending him to France for combat flying, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and sent to train others.

After World War I, he customized and tested Army planes while stationed at Douglas, Texas. While there, one of his assignments was surveillance along the Mexican border, watching for bandits and cattle rustlers. At Douglas, he also planned and prepared for a second cross-country flight, this time between Florida and Southern California.

Flying a specially designed airplane capable of long-duration flights, Pearson was headed to the starting place in Florida when his plane failed, forcing him down in Mexico, nearly setting off an international incident. For days, the Army ran an extensive search. Headlines burst from newspapers with the news of his disappearance and predicted his probable death. After eight days, Pearson walked out of the desert and immediately telegrammed his fiancée and then his family in Portland.

Preparing for his second Pulitzer Race in 1924, he was killed instantly when he crashed his Curtiss R-8 at Wilbur Wright Field. In 1925, the War Department approved Lt. Oakley Kelly’s request for permission to name the former polo grounds Pearson Field.

Vancouverites have long believed that Pearson attended Vancouver High School. In 2005, two Columbian reporters requested the school’s administration look for Pearson’s school records. None could be found. The Kansas-born Pearson attended Hutchinson Kansas High School and the University of Oregon.

His parents moved first to Eugene and then to Portland. Likely, he never ventured to Vancouver or the airfield when he last visited his parents after walking out of the desert in 1922. At that juncture, the flying was primarily forest recon, and the airfield remained largely inactive until Oakley Kelly arrived in 1924, when Pearson was at Wright airfield.

Why Pearson’s R-8 crashed was never fully explained. In his book “A Century Airborne,” Jon Walker offers a postscript to Pearson’s tragic death. John Wulle, chairman of Pearson Air Museum in the 1990s, submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act for information about the crash. In response, he received a “heavily redacted” report revealing little.

The reason given was to protect investigators and witnesses. Anyone skeptical of heavily blacked-out reports might ask why the Army needed protection seven decades after the mishap since any persons named in the report were probably deceased by the time of Wulle’s request.

Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.