An important artifact of Sonoma County history hangs in a Washington, D.C. museum, yet there’s always been gaps in what we knew about its past. This is the story of what happened to Fred J. Wiseman’s airplane – with a Believe-it-or-Not! twist at the end.

Surely everyone who lived in this area in 2011 remembers the centennial celebration of Wiseman’s historic first airmail flight from Petaluma to Santa Rosa and saw a picture of his odd little plane. It appeared delicate and clunky at the same time, hardly looking like an aircraft at all; if anything, it resembled a monstrous IKEA product someone tried to assemble without reading the instructions and abandoned halfway.

But aside from his famous flight, readers of this journal know Fred Wiseman crashed that poor plane like clockwork. Was he just a lousy pilot or was it due to crappy design of his homemade machine?

Certainly, flying was a risky business in the early 1910s, and Wiseman’s history of plummeting wasn’t nearly as bad as daredevil Charles Hamilton, who amazingly survived around sixty crashes. But at the same time, Wiseman wasn’t trying to set records or perform death-defying stunts; he was simply trying to stay aloft for a few minutes sailing over a pasture or fairgrounds. When he made the Petaluma to Santa Rosa airmail flight in January, 1911, it took him two days to travel the 24 miles because he crashed. Twice.

Wiseman made a few more exhibition flights around the west coast that year. He crash landed at least twice more – the worst being a 500-foot fall in Salinas – leading to his retirement as a birdman. He reportedly told relatives he saw “no future in it” because so many of his colleagues were being routinely killed.

It’s just as likely, though, Wiseman and his pals were out of money. Expenses mounted with each crash; a new propeller cost the equivalent of about $20,000 in today’s dollars and engine rebuilds were frequently required. While fortunes were being made by celebrity aviators who drew big audiences to airshows where they often set records, Wiseman’s appearances at backwater county fairs probably earned barely more than expenses – and that’s assuming he didn’t crack up the plane and add to the red ink.

Wiseman’s primary financial backer – and likely the only one – was Ben Noonan, his boyhood buddy who shared his interests in competitive sports. Noonan’s family had somewhat of a monopoly on the meat business in central Sonoma county, owning the slaughterhouse at the corner of College and (today’s) Cleveland Avenues as well as operating the butcher shop on Fourth street in downtown Santa Rosa. When Wiseman retired the plane was stored at their stockyards. Thus ends the first chapter of our little plane’s story with it sitting in a cow lot, its wings probably being used to scratch the backs of cattle and horses with an unreachable itch.

Just a few months later chapter two began with the appearance in Santa Rosa of a 28 year-old Oakland man named Weldon B. Cooke, who was in town to make some money on exhibition flights over the New Year’s holiday.

Cooke couldn’t know at the time, but he was at the zenith of his aviation career during his Santa Rosa visit. Just a few days earlier he was the first to fly over the summit of Mount Tamalpais, a feat once considered so insanely risky that prize money for the accomplishment had been withdrawn. A few weeks after flying in Santa Rosa he competed in the Los Angeles Air Meet where he set a record for altitude (5,800 feet) and the longest time in the air, winning over $7,000 as a result. And in between these accomplishments he was awarded pilot’s license #95 from the Aero Club of America, making him only the second flyer in California with official recognition.

There’s no evidence Wiseman and Cooke ever met, but they were cut from the same cloth. Both had brief careers as race car drivers before getting hooked on aviation. Both taught themselves to fly using airplanes built by men who knew nothing about aerodynamics and learned aircraft design from reading magazines; Wiseman’s team was auto mechanic Jean Peters, himself and sometimes Don Prentiss, while Cooke’s machine was put together by a Sacramento River boat builder and a dredge boat captain. Their finished planes were also nearly identical – both fundamentally rip-offs of the Curtiss design with a propellor at the back and the pilot sitting in front of the engine. (A photo of Cooke’s plane, called the “Black Diamond” and now on display at the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos, can be seen here.)

Before his New Years’ visit to Santa Rosa, a reporter from the Press Democrat asked Cooke whether he would try out Wiseman’s plane while he was here. Cooke replied he might consider making it part of the upcoming exhibition at the fairgrounds (he didn’t). But Cooke agreed to something far more important to the PD; the weekend after his paid-admission show, Cooke would fly over Santa Rosa.

The Chamber of Commerce had been long yearning for a Santa Rosa flyover, so great was the mystique of early aviation. It was strongly hinted Wiseman might do it during an exhibition flight at the 1910 Rose Carnival (he didn’t fly at all because of winds) and both town papers swore he would buzz the town during his 1911 flight from Petaluma (he crashed outside city limits). Now that it happened, the PD babbled incoherently, “Santa Rosa was aviation crazy on Saturday afternoon and the flight made by the daring young aviator aroused the greatest interest and admiration of everybody.”

But Weldon Cooke wasn’t done in Santa Rosa. About a month later he slipped into town and met with Ben Noonan to look over the Wiseman plane. He made a few short test flights, including a 15-minute loop around the Laguna plain. “Well, I certainly guess she will fly all right,” he was quoted as saying. A deal was struck for Cooke to lease the plane and it was shipped down to the East Bay, with the Press Democrat waving goodbye with a good-luck-he’ll-need-it sendoff: “[T]here is little doubt but that Cooke will make a very satisfactory showing with the machine, which has appeared to hold a hoodoo for Santa Rosans.”

Hoodoo or no, Cooke was probably desparate to strike a deal because he no longer had a plane. For reasons unknown, the Black Diamond was packed up after the Los Angeles Air Meet a few weeks prior and sent back to the owner’s shipyard, never to fly again. (It’s possible they were threatened with a patent infringement lawsuit by Glenn Curtiss – which would have been ironic, as Curtiss was himself being sued by the Wright brothers over his own patent piracy.)

Cooke had extra urgency to secure a plane quickly because in a few days he was expected to appear at a six-day, two weekend aviation meet in Emeryville where it was being advertised he would race Lincoln Beachey, one of the most famous flyers at the time. Cooke showed up with the Wiseman plane, but it was a rout; even with a 90-second head start as a handicap Cooke not only lost, but Beachey literally flew circles around him, executing several “spiral dips” around Cooke so close they nearly collided. On another day at Emeryville his engine stalled and he glided down, narrowly missing a fence.

Cue foreboding music.

That spring of 1912 Cooke became a bonafide barnstormer, crating up his plane and shipping it to the next local fair or exhibition. Part of his schtick was air mail delivery, where he would carry a pouch of mail with aviation souvenir postmarks and chuck it overboard at the local post office. He also dropped local newspapers at a news stand or the rural homes of some subscribers, both stunts Wiseman pioneered in his trip from Petaluma.

In April he flew over Humboldt Bay and Eureka, then had a hard landing that crumpled the plane. It was apparently his first crash in the Wiseman aircraft and his second serious accident, having earlier ditched the Black Diamond in Lake Merritt.

After repairs were made Cooke spent the summer working his way east, where he became “the boy aviator,” reported in the papers as being 23 or 21 and only having a few months experience. He was also being credited with creating the airplane; the Salt Lake Tribune reported he “went home to Oakland and built a machine of his own” after being part of Curtiss’ crew. In Salt Lake City, by the way, he amazed crowds when he flew above the clouds for several minutes, leaving some to declare he must have been “lifted upwards by unseen hands.”

But Cooke was tinkering with the Wiseman airplane, upgrading the engine and tweaking the airframe. The reconstructed airship currently on display in Washington is clearly more powerful and sleeker than the funky kite-like thing that left Santa Rosa in early 1912. It seems most likely Cooke was using parts of the Wiseman airplane – which had to be completely disassembled and crated after every appearance anyway – as the framework for an experimental design that would fully emerge at the end of the year. He hinted as much at the Emeryville air show after he only had the Wiseman plane for a few days; the Oakland Tribune mentioned he hoped to show off “a new principle in plane and wing construction,” which he could not have possibly built from scratch.

He set some minor records that summer in his hybrid Wiseman-Cooke, being the first to fly in Idaho and then winning some prize money in Illinois. He was also beginning to appear in the news because of increasingly frequent crashes. In September he wrecked the plane near Chicago. Thrown clear but knocked out, he regained consciousness to find “a large crowd around his machine breaking pieces from it to carry away as souvenirs.” Cooke grabbed a “stout club” and held them off until police arrived.

(RIGHT: Weldon B. Cooke flying over Sandusky Ohio, c. 1913, in the Wiseman aircraft showing only minor modifications from the original design. Photo courtesy Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center)

In November he landed at his destination: Sandusky, Ohio, home to the Roberts Motor Company. (The Black Diamond had used a Roberts motor and early on Cooke had replaced Wiseman’s 60 HP engine with a 75 HP Roberts.) The company knew him well and was already touting his name in its catalog. Roberts allowed him to use a portion of their facilities to work on his experimental planes while the town of Sandusky was equally welcoming, dedicating an airfield.

He incorporated the Cooke Aeroplane Company and spent the winter building a smaller racing plane he promised could easily clock 75 MPH. Show any aviation history buffs this photo, explain that the aircraft shown was designed 1912-1913, and kindly scrape their jaws off the floor. He was years ahead of his time.

Cooke also unveiled the “Flying Dutchman,” his new aircraft for exhibition flying. This was an elegant rethinking of the Wiseman/Black Diamond designs, with a simpler tail assembly and no canard at the front. With possibly the widest wingspan of any biplane it would have been graceful to watch, but not fast. Presumably the Wiseman plane was mothballed at this point.

Another advantage of the new plane is it could be equipped with floats and used as a seaplane (Cooke called it a “hydroplane”). Many of his 1913 exhibition appearances were with the Flying Dutchman configured for use on water.

Few newspaper articles about Cooke crashing can be found for 1913, but we don’t know if he was flying less or because the new plane was substantially safer. He did have a bad time of it that summer while doing shows  at a county fair in Canton, Ohio. On one landing his airplane overturned, breaking struts between the wings; on another day his motor died and the plane crashed, catapulting him out. Shaken but undaunted, he said his show would resume in a couple of days after he telegraphed back to Sandusky to ship him “another biplane of much heavier type,” according to the local paper. Presumably that was the old Wiseman plane.

Cooke built yet another type of aircraft that year: A “flying boat” that could hold three passengers and probably scooted along only a few feet above the waves. Of all his various projects, he apparently saw this as offering the best chance of commercial success. He helped a colleague start a St. Petersburg-Tampa passenger service using his plane, and talked about operating a fleet based in Sandusky fanning out to other towns and cities across Lake Erie. He applied for a franchise from the upcoming Panama-Pacific Exposition to run an airboat shuttle between Oakland and San Francisco. Alas, his dreams were bigger than his bank account; the Cooke Aeroplane Company went bankrupt in 1914.

He returned to California and piloted flying boats of someone else’s design for a short-lived air ferry service across San Francisco Bay. Despite a promise he had supposedly made to his mother to quit barnstorming, he took the Flying Dutchman back out on the exhibition circuit. On September 16 in Pueblo, Colorado, he was performing a fine show when the thousands in the audience heard a faint explosion when he was at an estimated 2,000 feet. “The biplane careened and like a shot dropped sheer from the clouds,” the wire service reported. “It was almost one minute before the aeroplane hit the ground with a sickening crash.”

Cooke was dead and the Flying Dutchman was a “tangled mass of junk,” according to accounts, but the Wiseman plane was presumably still crated up back in Sandusky. The boxes were sent to Cooke’s brother in Oakland, who kept them in storage at home until 1933 when the Oakland Airport asked to borrow it. As an example of an old biplane, it was put on display for years near Cooke’s earlier Black Diamond. The tale would have ended there if not for the Smithsonian Institution’s declaration in 1947 that Wiseman had made the first official airmail delivery, an incredible story of an accidental discovery told in an earlier article appearing here. The Wiseman-Cooke airplane was finally restored between 1983-1985 and now hangs above visitors at the National Postal Museum with a mannequin Fred J. Wiseman at the controls.

But here’s the Believe-it-or-Not! angle: The airplane on display is quite possibly not the one that made the famous flight.

There were two Wiseman biplanes. The first machine, designed and constructed 1909-1910 by Wiseman and Peters was built under a tent in a Windsor pasture. The other was made at a Petaluma planing mill in the late summer of 1910 as they continued flying practice in the original. The new plane was intended to be easier to take apart for shipping and was also some 200 pounds lighter than the prototype, which weighed 670 pounds (lengthy description here). It’s doubtful Wiseman ever flew the old plane again, as long as the newer one was in working condition. He certainly would have used Model B on his airmail flight.

Given the choice between the older, often-crashed beater and the new, improved model, Cooke would have picked the latter – if he had the option. But Noonan had already sold one of the aircraft a few weeks earlier.

“NOONAN SELLS HIS BIPLANE”, was the hed of a Santa Rosa Republican article appearing the same day Cooke was making his New Years’ exhibition flights at the fairground. There it was reported the purchaser was “Lieutenant Jack Handy of the U. S. A.” Lt. Handy attempted to make a test flight, but – predictably – crashed, causing him to make immediate repairs.

The buyer was actually Army Lieutenant Courtland Waite Handy. For Fiscal Year 1912, Congress authorized the U.S. Army Signal Corps to purchase a few aircraft and it was reported they bought five, although only three manufacturers were named. But which airplane did Noonan sell the government? With no other buyers on the horizon, presumably he sold the one worth the most money, and that would have been the newer plane with the improvements. Regardless, Weldon Cooke had no choice when he showed up six weeks later on his shopping trip, desperate to buy/lease an aircraft for the Emeryville competition just days away.

Evidence that Cooke was using the earlier plane points both ways. One of the changes with the Model B was it being a “knock down” machine for easier shipping, and Cooke certainly often packed and unpacked whichever version he used during his 1912 barnstorming. But Model A could be disassembled as well; it was carted by wagon from Windsor to Santa Rosa (and to at least four different locations around town) and then to Petaluma. When Cooke cracked up the Flying Dutchman at that 1913 county fair and switched to “another biplane of much heavier type,” it suggests he had the Wiseman Model A, which weighed considerably more even before Cooke added a larger and heavier Roberts engine.

So is the historic airmail plane on display at the museum the real deal? Alas, further research here is above my pay grade; an answer may be found by prowling through the National Archives. Certainly the Army Signal Corps would have required Lt. Handy to describe precisely what he purchased – although what I’d really like to read is the report to his C.O., explaining how he bought an expensive biplane and immediately managed to trash it.

Army Aviator Buys Machine Built for Wiseman

Ben Noonan has sold his biplane to Lieutenant Jack Handy of the U. S. A., and the latter attempted to make a flight in the machine Sunday afternoon. Owing to the sweater the aviator was wearing catching in one of the levers of the biplane, an accident occurred which did considerable damage to the aeroplane. The biplane had just risen from the ground on its way for a flight when the accident happened, and the front part of the aeroplane dived into the ground. The engine continued to go and the propeller revolved at a fast rate, the aviator being unable to stop the engine. Lieutenant Handy has charge of the army aviators.

It is stated on good authority that Ben Noonan got a good price for his aeroplane. However, the price he got for his air craft does not anywhere near clear him of the expense he has been to by being mixed up in the aviation game, It was planned Sunday that Aviator Handy was to fly out to the race track and make a double attraction for the afternoon. The accident to the machine prevented the second biplane giving the exhibition. Luckily Aviator Handy was not hurt in the accident.

Mr. Handy was in San Francisco on New Year’s day getting a new propeller and other parts to replace those injured Sunday. He will return today.

– Santa Rosa Republican, January 1, 1912


Word was received from Aviator Weldon B. Cooke late yesterday afternoon that the aeroplane would arrive in Santa Rosa early this morning and that he himself, instead of waiting until tomorrow morning as he had at first thought would be the best he could do, would be on hand on the 11 o’clock train, as to be sure that everything would be ready for Sunday’s flight. One of his mechanicians has accompanied the car from the time it left Elmhurst, to see that nothing went wrong.

Carries Lady Passenger

One thing has been definitely decided upon, namely, that a popular and daring young lady of this city will be taken up as passenger, probably the first day. Although she does not want her name mentioned as yet, she expressed her delight at the prospect of really “going up in the air,” and said she hoped Mr. Cooke would go high enough so that she could see all the surrounding country from an aeroplane. Cook has already carried many passengers, including his wife and sisters, so that he has no fear about being abole to take up the young lady here.

May Try Wiseman’s Machine

It has been rumored that on one of the two days Cooke, after making all of the flights as he had planned there on his own machine, which he knows he can fly, might also take a chance with a local machine formerly used by Aviator Wiseman. Cooke said over the long distance telephone that if he did try to make such a flight he would assume no responsibility for its success, and would not consider it except in the light of a possible incidental feature of his regular program with his own machine. However, there are undoubtedly many local people who would be interested in such an exhibition.

Spectacular Flights

In speaking of the prospects of flying Sunday and Monday, his manager, who has been in the city the past few days promoting the meet, said that if weather conditions were at all favorable, there would certainly be flying to please the most critical. Mere cloudy weather will not prevent the bird man from going, and if it should rain after any tickets had been bought so that he could not fly, rain checks would be issued to purchasers entitling them to admission on the first favorable day following. This is a new feature in conducting aviation meets which will be much appreciated.

The program as outlined at present will include exhibitions of bomb throwing at which Aviator Cooke has demonstrated that he is an expert; passenger carrying on both days; mail carrying, and including the taking up of mail bags at full speed as well as dropping mail, an entirely new “stunt” in aerial navigation; attempts at speed and altitude records; and an exhibition of all the flights required to secure pilot’s license, such as quick starting, cutting figure eight’s, etc., the first opportunity anybody in Northern California will have had to see these flights. Cooke does not plan to make only one flight each day, but to make three or four, each illustrating some special feature in flying in heavier than air machines. Moreover, the flights on the second day will be entirely different from those made on Sunday.

– Press Democrat, December 30, 1911

Weldon B. Cooke, who made very successful flights here Sunday and Monday in his aeroplane, has been secured by the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce for a free exhibition over the business section of town next Saturday afternoon.

This is a feature which will no doubt bring a large crowd to town for the day. General Passenger Agent J. J. Geary of the Northwestern Pacific railroad has agreed to give a round trip rate of one and a third fares to Santa Rosa from all points north on regular trains for that day.

Mr. Cooke has proved that he can and will fly when he says he will if the weather permits, and now that he has shown the public his ability to fullfil this promise there is no doubt but that he will be watched by the largest throng which has ever gathered on the streets of Santa Rosa. There will be no charges of any kind and any one who is on the streets will be able to see all there is to see without money and without price.

– Press Democrat, January 3, 1912
Birdman Reaches an Altitude of 2,500 Feet Easily

With thousands of people gathered in the down town district in Santa Rosa on Saturday afternoon to witness his daring, Aviator Weldon Cooke made one of the most anticipated and successful flights ever attempted in aerial navigation in the State. He crossed and recrossed overhead and rose to a height that at times made him and his big aeroplane look like a speck on the horizon.

Santa Rosa was aviation crazy on Saturday afternoon and the flight made by the daring young aviator aroused the greatest interest and admiration of everybody. To the majority of the people in the vast assemblage, the aviation was a novelty, and they were fortunate in seeing the true art of aerial navigation as their introduction to the sport. Cooke is a wonder and he richly deserved the compliments that were showered on his daring.

Cooke reached an altitude of over 2,000 feet while flying over the city. He estimated the distance at between 2,000 and 2,500 feet. Principal Searcy of the High School made a calculation which fixed the altitude at something slightly over 2,000 feet. Press Smith, who had a surveying transit at work in the country, turned his glass on the aviator while he was flying and made a calculation of about 2,2500 feet.

Many will be interested in knowing that the aviator can’t hear anything after he gets a few hundred feet from the earth, owing to the noise of his motor. The noise is so great that Cooke fills his ears with cotton to deafen the sound. He said last night, while discussing the flight, that he looked down while directly over the Court House and waved his hand to the crowd below, but his height was so great it could not be seen from the ground.

While the wind was light from the southwest on the ground at the altitude he was flying, it was blowing about 15 miles per hour from the north, he says, and that explained why he appeared to fly so much faster when going south, and why he always climbed higher as he went north. It is easier to ascend in the face of the wind, he says. A feature of the flight was that he circled both to the right and left with equal ease. The motor is set slightly to the right, and the aeroplane turns to the right much more easily than to the left.

Several times during Saturday’s flight the aeroplane had to buck rough air currents. Those familiar with weather conditions saw this at the time and remarked it. The starting and alighting are the most interesting features of aeroplaning. This the crowd missed Saturday, but the finish was as spectacular as any part of the flight. Cooke landed as easily as he flew through the air. Those interested can see this feature today by visiting the race track during the afternoon, when more flights will be made.

Cooke does not wear leather clothing, but simply adds more garments between his pantaloons and under his coat he places layers of newspapers which keep out the wind just as well as the heavier leather clothing.

– Press Democrat, January 7, 1912
Surprises People by Flying in Noonan Machine

Weldon B. Cooke, who established himself as an aviator of considerable ability a few weeks ago, when he flew over this city, surprised and added to his popularity with the people of Santa Rosa Sunday, when unannounced he came to this city on the morning train and drove to the Noonan field, where the former Wiseman biplane has been stored, and after a few trials around the field in the morning, he took the machine in the afternoon, arose in the air and flew for about ten minutes. After coming to the ground and adjusting his carburetor the better to enable the machine to gain more power, he again arose in the Wiseman machine and made a handsome flight for a period of fifteen minutes, and made a grateful landing.

On alighting from his flight Cooke said, “Well, I certainly guess she will fly all right,” and it certainly did.

In an interview after the flight he stated that he had found nothing wrong with the airship in any way whatever, claiming it was a better balanced ship than his own, and that he thought it very good. He said, “The machine has hardly power enough to make any great speed, but after I became better acquainted with the working of the engine, I expect to increase its power. Although the air seemed very quiet on the ground today, I found that it chopped when I had arised [sic] about three hundred feet. I will take the machine to Emeryville during the week, where I am to use it in the meet that is to be held there commencing next Saturday, and lasting for ten days. In my contest with Beechy [sic – Lincoln Beachey] I expect to use this airship, unless something goes wrong.”

Cooke is building another airship, but does not expect to complete it until after the Emeryville gathering is over. He has leased Noonan’s biplane and will use it in exhibitions that he will give around the country.

There was not a very large crowd at the field as Cooke, in his unostentatious manner had suggested that nothing be said of his coming by his mechanics, who are handling the machine for him here, Bob Schieffer and Al. B. Cooper. Those who were present to see the fine flight were attracted there by the humming of the engine, or had seen him testing it out in the morning. All were loud in their praise of the daring flight he made on his second attempt to leave the ground in this strange machine. On the second flight he traveled first to the north and skirted the foothills about Fountaingrove vineyard, and flying west about four miles. He was about three hundred feet in the air on this flight and remained up over fifteen minutes, making the turns in a very graceful manner and showing his faith in the engine by removing one of his hands from the wheel and waving to the cheering crowd below. Mr. And Mrs. Cooke returned to San Francisco on the afternoon train.

– Santa Rosa Republican, February 12, 1912
The Wiseman Airship Sent by Southern Pacific to Oakland Yesterday Afternoon

The Wiseman aeroplane which has been stored on the Noonan property at the foot of Carrillo street for several months was taken down, packed and yesterday shipped to Oakland over the Southern Pacific to be used by Weldon B. Cooke at the Emeryville race track during the aviation meet beginning Saturday.

Robert Schieffer and Al Cooper accompanied the machine and will look after it while Cooke is using it. After the successful flight here Sunday afternoon there is little doubt but that Cooke will make a very satisfactory showing with the machine, which has appeared to hold a hoodoo for Santa Rosans.

– Press Democrat, February 14, 1912
Wiseman and Peters Will Construct New Bi-Plane in Petaluma Within Thirty Days

The Wiseman-Peters airship people have secured the use of the building on Copeland street Petaluma, formerly occupied by the silk wire factory and there they will make their headquarters for the next thirty days, during the construction of their new airship. The huge machine will be constructed at the Camm & Hedges planing mill near by, but the wire works building will be used as the headquarters of the airship people and for storage, assembling and other details of the big task which is before them.

The new airship will be different from the present machine in many details and will be an improvement on the one now in use. It will be a “knock down” machine and will be built in sections so that it can be taken apart, crated and thus shipped in the baggage car of trains, on steamers, or in vehicles. From this plan it can readily be seen that the owners intend to do some travelling and will not go on the road with their exhibitions.

In the meantime aviator Peters will practice flying every day and the old machine will be kept at Kenilworth park for that purpose. He intends to increase his flights daily, both as to distance and elevation and some sweet day in the very near future he is going to surprise the natives of a distant city. –Petaluma Argus.

– Press Democrat, August 6, 1910

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