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Before Lindbergh and Earhart, Michigan pilot launched commercial air freight industry

Philip Parmelee photo
SDASM Archives
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Philip Parmelee was an early aviation pioneer. He grew up in St. Johns and learned to fly from Orville Wright. He made the first documented air cargo flight on November 7, 1910.

In the history of aviation, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart get most of the glory as pioneering pilots. But this year, as you’re getting ready to ship your Christmas gifts to loved ones far away, take a moment to think about a hometown hero.  Current State’s Kevin Lavery brings you the story of Philip Parmelee, who made the very first air cargo flight.

We’re into November now and the holiday shipping season is kicking into high gear. In the weeks to come, billions of tons of cargo will be flown around the world. A small slice of that will come through the Capital Region International Airport, which continues to build its so-named Port Lansing cargo and customs facility.

The entire global air freight industry can be traced back to one man, a daring pilot who once lived just 20 miles from Lansing’s airport. Philip Parmelee grew up in St. Johns. He learned to fly from Orville Wright himself. And, on November 7, 1910, Parmelee carried a bundle of silk cloth in an hour-long flight whose details have been largely forgotten.

Current State’s Kevin Lavery spoke with Pete and Alice Murphy. They’re a retired couple from St. Johns who share a passion for aviation.

What do you know about Philip Parmelee?
He was very mechanically inclined.  He was discovered by a representative from
Buick. He drove their cars throughout the south and the east on long tours showing that the Buick was very sturdy. 
While he was on one of these tours he visited the Wrights’ flying school in Montgomery, Alabama in the winter of 1909 and he was bitten by the flying bug. And so he took the flying course in Dayton from the Wright brothers. Orville taught the students. As soon as he finished his instructions, he was hired by them as a demonstration pilot and started demonstration flying in September of 1910.  And that’s why he was chosen to take a commercial package from Dayton to Columbus, which he became very famous for.
Why did Parmelee make his historic “cargo” voyage from Dayton to Columbus, Ohio?
Pete: Max Morehouse who was this owner, operator of this major department store in Columbus asked if they could fly him a cargo shipment of French silk, which at the time was not easy to get in short order. 
The morning of the actual flight, everyone gathered around the Wright Flyer B Model in Dayton and it was a cold day and Parmelee suited up in motorcycle gear. He flew up to around 2,000 feet where it was freezing cold. So 66 minutes later he arrived in Columbus having followed railroad lines, roads, and so on.  His only navigation system being a road map. He had no compass. 
What other accomplishments did Parmelee have?

Alice:  Parmelee worked with both civilians and the military. He flew along the border with Mexico and proved that airplanes could be used as great spotters for people like Pancho Villa to keep them out of our country. 

He dropped bombs and showed that that was feasible. He also took pictures from airplanes that show you could do recognizance that way. 

I think he was the first to transmit telegraph messages from an airplane to the ground. He did many of
these things to prove that it was feasible and that these were all ways to sell an airplane.

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