Dionysus Daniel “Danny” Grecco led a life in aviation that frequently put him in the right place at the right time. His luck exposed him to more varied experiences in aviation than any other individual.
His parents immigrated to the United States from Italy the year before his 1886 birth in San Jose, Calif. They moved to Portland in 1904. A year later, at age 9, Grecco watched Lincoln Beachey’s flights to the Vancouver Barracks during the Lewis and Clark Exhibition.
Enthused by Beachey’s flights, young Danny experimented with balloons, constructing them of tissue paper open at the bottom. A pan under the balloons burned kerosene-soaked trash. As the heat rose, the balloons expanded, floating uncontrollably away with the fiery pan. Peddling his bicycle, Grecco tracked them to where they fell — usually on rooftops or empty lots — sometimes igniting fires. His parents quickly ended his flighty adventures. Undiscouraged, he entered the 1912 Meier & Frank model airplane contest, and his diminutive Curtiss Pusher won.
Grecco walked on airplane wings hundreds of feet above the ground without safety equipment, flew in air circuses and parachuted out of planes around the Pacific Northwest. He was also a mechanical genius capable of fixing anything that flew. Eventually, he earned a master mechanic rating. In 1947, he proved his mechanical expertise by gaining a commercial helicopter mechanic certification — the first issued in the nation.
During his life, he helped rebuild Silas Christofferson’s plane on the roof of the Multnomah Hotel and stood watching as the Curtiss Pusher lifted off a rough-hewn 200-foot plank roof runway in 1912. The following year, Christofferson gave him his first plane ride in the same plane. When Charles Lindbergh landed at Swan Island in 1927 after his solo flight to Paris, Grecco serviced the Spirit of St. Louis. He flew Tex Rankin’s refueling plane during Rankin’s endurance flight and was the chief mechanic for nine years at the Rankin Flying School. He restored airplanes at Pearson Field during his retirement. Before his 1983 death, the aviation industry recognized him as the nation’s oldest fixed-wing mechanic.
Unfortunately, he caused the first civilian deaths at Pearson Field. In April 1927, he and two female passengers from Portland failed to reach the takeoff level needed to clear the railroad embankment paralleling the south side of the airfield. The two women were killed. An Oregonian headline predicted Grecco would die, noting “possible internal injuries.” He didn’t. The news report cast doubt on the “polyglot” nature of the airplane that Grecco built. However, Tex Rankin told the reporter that the plane was in good mechanical shape.
After Valery Chkalov and his Russian crew landed at Pearson Field in 1937, Grecco helped disassemble the ANT-25 and pack it up for its return to Russia. He also helped erect a monument to the Russian fliers at Pearson in 1975. The year before, when Russian cosmonauts Nikolai Rukavishnikov and Anatoli Filipchenko visited Pearson Field to honor the two Russian landings there, Grecco recalled that the 1937 flight had only 10 or 15 gallons of fuel remaining when it landed.
The Oregon Aviation Historical Society inducted Danny Grecco posthumously into its Aviation Hall of Fame in 2010.
Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.