Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2522
FARNUM FISH

by John H. Lienhard

Today, first aerial combat casualty. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Farnum Thayer Fish was born in 1896, son of a wealthy Los Angeles doctor. At age fifteen, he went to Dayton, Ohio to learn flying at the Wright Brothers' new Aviation School there. By January, 1912, Fish had his pilot's certificate. He immediately bought a Wright Model-B biplane, had it sent to California, and, within days, had flown his first air show.

The Wright Model B
Wright Model B, Smithsonian Institution

Next, Farnum Fish went to a Curtiss air show in San Diego and began selling rides. But Glenn Curtiss came up to him and told him to get out or he'd throw that Wright aeroplane into the bay. So Fish turned around and flew home to Los Angeles. Within hours his phone was ringing. It seems he'd unwittingly made the first nonstop flight from San Diego to LA and a reporter wanted the story. Several Curtiss pilots had tried to do that and none had succeeded.

Pancho Villa I won't try to tell all the daring-do that Fish got into after that. But, all the while, the Mexican Revolution was heating up. The revolutionary, Pancho Villa, was a hero in US eyes and so he remained -- at least until he crossed the border to attack a New Mexico arms dealer who'd supplied his enemies. That's when General Pershing brought the US army in against him.

But, two years earlier, before Pancho Villa fell from American grace, 18-year-old Fish had gone off to fly with a group doing experimental aerial reconnaissance for him. They flew a mix of primitive Wright and Curtiss biplanes -- bamboo, canvas, and wire. Fish favored the Wright Flyer B, which the Wright Brothers had sold to the Army in 1909, and were continuing to improve.

Then Farnum Thayer Fish became a significant historical statistic. He was scouting the troops of Villa's enemy, Genera Obregon, and found himself 500 feet above several thousand soldiers. He couldn't tell whether they were Villa's or Obregon's.

The troops settled the matter by opening fire. His comrades saw the plane returning in a straight slow glide toward them. It crashed and they ran out to it. It was riddled by enemy fire, and Fish was unconscious. A single bullet had passed through his calf, continued through his thigh, and come to rest in his shoulder.

He'd thus become the first airplane casualty in the history of aerial warfare. Of course WW-I was just about to begin and true aerial slaughter would begin with it. Fish went back to Los Angeles to recover, but he was soon flying again. In 1918, he enlisted as a flier in the US Army Signal Corp and served overseas as a test pilot. There's more: 1942 saw 46-year-old Fish briefly back in the Army Air force.

So Farnum Thayer Fish began his service as a flyer in three wars, as war's first airplane casualty. And yet he lived to the age of 82 -- after we'd flown all the way to the moon. Hero or adventure junkie, I don't know. But one thing is clear: this Fish was a rare bird indeed.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


I first learned of Farnum Fish from the M&S Rare Books (Providence RI) Catalog 86 which offered a set of ephemera dealing with Fish along with biographical information. My thanks to Pat Bozeman, UH Library for this source.

For more on Fish see the Early Aviators site and the Smithsonian site. See also this New York Times article about one of his early stunts, and the Wikepdia sites about the Wright Model B and Pancho Villa.

I am mindful of the danger of labeling anything as "first." There may well have been earlier observation balloon casualties. Heavier-than-air machines flew in combat as early as 1911, but I know of no casualties before Fish.

Images: Smithsonian Model B, courtesy of Smithsonian Institution. Pancho Villa courtesy of Wikipedia Commons. Vin Fiz Model B replica at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, photo by J. Lienhard. Also click here for working drawings of the Wright Model B from V. Lougheed, Vehicles of the Air, 1909/1910.

Wright Model B, Vin Fiz version
This Model B is a replica of the Vin Fiz, first airplane to fly the US, 1911.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2009 by John H. Lienhard.