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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County history: Tom Murphy is likely the only Curtiss Pusher pilot in the Pacific Northwest

By Martin Middlewood, Columbian freelance contributor
Published: May 4, 2024, 6:09am
9 Photos
Aviator Tom Murphy pilots his Curtis Pusher biplane replica through downtown Portland on Sept. 16, 1995, after flying  off a ramp on top of the eight-story tall historic Multnomah Hotel in a re-enactment of a 1912 flight to Vancouver.
Aviator Tom Murphy pilots his Curtis Pusher biplane replica through downtown Portland on Sept. 16, 1995, after flying off a ramp on top of the eight-story tall historic Multnomah Hotel in a re-enactment of a 1912 flight to Vancouver. (Associated Press files) Photo Gallery

Tom Murphy is likely the only Curtiss Pusher pilot in the Pacific Northwest, possibly the country. In 1995, the antique airplane pilot and mechanic flew the plane, also known as the Curtiss Model D, down the Columbia River Gorge from the Western Antique Airplane and Automobile Museum in Hood River, Ore., to celebrate the anniversary of two early 1900 flights by re-enacting them. The aircraft, owned by Terry Brandt of Hood River, Ore., was called “rickety but reliable.”

Murphy’s Columbia Gorge flight to Portland may have been rough, but not as rough as replicating Silas Christofferson’s 1912 flight off Portland’s Multnomah Hotel (now Embassy Suites) on Southwest Pine Street to Vancouver’s Pearson Field. The second flight off the hotel raised money and awareness for the nascent Pearson Air Museum.

Even getting permission was rough. Christofferson only had to get the agreement of the hotel management to attempt the original feat. In 1995, the hotel management agreed to the re-creation, but Murphy and his Pearson Field promoters faced ribbons of red tape involving the city, the police and the Federal Aviation Administration, which didn’t exist in 1912.

At first, the FAA was dubious about replicating the flight off the hotel, but it eventually provided all the necessary permits. So did the city of Portland and the police. A few days before the flight, Terry Kapan of Hillsboro Helicopters lifted the Curtiss Pusher to the top of the hotel and settled it on a temporary runway of wooden planks.

A low cloud ceiling and misty weather nearly canceled the attempt. While onlookers anticipated Murphy’s landing, there existed what Pearson Air Museum Director John Donnelly called a “mini-carnival” at Pearson. The lingering crowd gobbled a pancake breakfast, chewed 5-cent hot dogs, played horseshoes and heard a barbershop quartet as they waited.

The weather cleared. Murphy had been practicing taking off in the 200 feet allowed by the rooftop. A video, “Flight of Fancy,” shows the then-49-year-old Murphy lift off, then dip after the plane leaves the timber runway, missing touching the tail by only a few feet before cruising over Portland toward Pearson Field, as helicopters flanked his antiquated aircraft. Murphy landed at Pearson Air Park 12 minutes later before an excited crowd.

The flights to Portland and off the hotel weren’t the antique airplane pilot’s first pusher flights. He did one three years earlier, recounting the August 1912 flight of Walter Edwards — the first interstate airmail flight in the Pacific Northwest and possibly the nation. Eighty years to the day, Murphy made the eight-minute trip in a 670-pound 1910 Curtiss Pusher, carrying a letter from Portland’s Mayor Bud Clark along with souvenir envelopes.

Specially designed envelopes noted the event and were postmarked in Vancouver. They were sold to raise money for the museum. The museum bought 500 Glenn Curtiss 35-cent stamps from a New York stamp collector for the envelopes imprinted with a commemorative design. The U.S. Postal Service placed a trailer near the landing site to hand-cancel the letters.

And what was the flight like? Murphy admitted the trip was a bit scary when the plane suddenly dropped 10 to 15 feet when he hit an air pocket several times. “Imagine sitting on a lawn chair on top of a telephone pole going down a freeway at 50 mph,” he said. Add to that, he wasn’t wearing a parachute.

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Columbian freelance contributor