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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County History: Pilot Walt Bohrer

By Martin Middlewood, Columbian freelance contributor
Published: September 9, 2023, 5:45am

When Portland lacked an airport, Walt Bohrer often found himself in tow with his plane-crazy sister Ann Bohrer to Pearson Field in Vancouver. At 15, Walt Bohrer lied to their parents about his attendance at Benson Polytechnic High School. He did “go,” but his daily attendance was brief. Walt Bohrer arrived at Benson, walked in one door, out another and then headed to Pearson Field or Mock’s Bottom to hang out with the pilots. The occasional airplane ride was just too tempting. The aviation enticement was especially strong given that Mock’s Bottom lay just down the hill from the Bohrers’ Portland home.

When Walt Bohrer’s parents found out about his poor high-school attendance, they didn’t fight it, but accepted that he might get an alternative education at the muddy airfield. That decision enabled Walt Bohrer to earn his pilot license and meet ace pilot Tex Rankin, who became his friend and employer. Walt Bohrer worked as Rankin’s publicity director starting in 1925 until the famous pilot died in a 1947 plane crash near Klamath Falls, Ore.

Walt Bohrer and his sister barnstormed along the Washington and Oregon coasts with renowned flyer Wiley Post between his two record-breaking round-the-world trips in his Lockheed monoplane, “Winnie Mae.” Walt Bohrer complained that only the pilot who yelled the loudest sold the tickets. Post complained often of having “frogs and turtles” in his throat, leaving Walt Bohrer to hock tickets. A group of pilots would land near a small town running some festival or fair and offer rides at $10 for 10 minutes (nearly $170 in today’s dollars). Mostly, they made enough money to eat and buy fuel to go on to the next one.

When Walt Bohrer was flying in New York as a passenger with Tex Rankin in October 1935, the two spotted a rainbow under Niagara Falls and decided to pass through it. On the ground, an official U.S. Department of Commerce car sped up to the two drenched flyers, chastising them about coming so close to the cable stretching across the falls. This unsafe flight wasn’t the one that placed Walt Bohrer into the National Pioneer Hall of Fame in 1986. But such pilot antics eventually led to the sort of stricter — and safer — aviation regulations that the Golden Age of aviation lacked.

In the late 1930s, Rankin spent time in Hollywood, doing stunt flying for movies with an extra 300 pounds — camera and cameraman — in the back seat. While in Tinseltown with his boss, Walt Bohrer rubbed elbows with movie stars Jackie Coogan, Jean Parker and ventriloquist Edgar Bergen.

When World War II broke out, Rankin received a U.S. War Department contract to train pilots. He moved his training school to Tulare County, Calif., renaming it the Rankin Aeronautical Academy Inc. He hired Walt Bohrer to be his publicist. Although the school closed at the war’s end, Rankin’s academy graduated 10,000 U.S. Army Air Corps cadets.

The Bohrer siblings were also friends with Rear Adm. Richard Byrd, the Arctic explorer, and helped acquire supplies for his first Antarctic expedition to Little America. One hundred pounds of Tillamook cheese was one of the goods procured for Byrd.

Columbian freelance contributor