Fort Smith's First Flight

Author's Note: This article first appeared in the Times Record newspaper in 2003. I've added a few facts that weren't in it and may add more in the future as I learn more about Bud Mars.

By Ben Boulden

They didn't have an airfield or a control tower. Until just a few days before, they didn't even have an assembled airplane.

Nevertheless, the citizens of Fort Smith in May 1910 were determined to see a plane fly and pilot James C. "Bud" Mars was planning to show them one.

On May 17, 1910, a Curtiss biplane arrived at the train depot in Fort Smith in three boxes and was transported to Electric Park (present-day Kay Rodgers Park) where crowds gathered to observe the mechanics as they put it all together. Once it was assembled, Mars spun the propellor to jumpstart the motor while four men held the plane down to keep it from breaking away.

According to the Southwest American newspaper, Mars tested the aircraft for the first time and "a few friends, invited guests and newspaper men" were privileged to witness the flight of an airplane in Fort Smith for the first time on May 18, 1910.

It wasn't too dramatic at first as Mars and his biplane "went skimming over the ground but high enough to see daylight between the wheels of the craft and the skyline," according to the American.

Both the American and the Fort Smith Times Record described it as not only a first for the city but a first for Arkansas as well.

The first flight occurred not at Electric Park where the flying machine was assembled but at the nearby Fort Smith Country Club.

Mars' public exhibition of the biplane, sponsored by the Fort Smith Light and Traction Co., was held May 21 at League Park, the baseball field next to Electric Park.

May 21 also was the birthdate of the biplane's creator, Glenn H. Curtiss, and the anniversary of Curtiss? first flight.

Lynn Bauter, formerly Curtiss' mechanic, was on hand to explain the unfamiliar machine to the public.

Mars made two successful flights at an altitude of 75 feet.

The American said, "The spectacle of witnessing a man flying in the air with the ease of a bird was indeed thrilling to the spectators.

"Two circular flights were made in a half-mile circuit which gives Mars a world record for making an accurate flight in a circuit of one-half mile, as all previous flights have been made in not less than one mile circuits."

Before he took off, Mars' wife broke a bottle of wine on the engine of the machine saying, "I christen the Skylark; may she fly long and high."

In the next day's exhibition flights, the Skylark improved on its performance, reaching an altitude of more than 200 feet and a speed of 40 mph. Mars' maneuvers took the plane over the park and surrounding fields as well as the trolley line in a flight lasting more than 10 minutes.

Although the following day's exhibition was canceled, the Times Record estimated that a majority of the city's residents had journeyed to the park to observe the first manned flights in Arkansas on May 21 and May 22. A scheduled exhibition flight on May 23 was canceled.

Only a few weeks later, on June 9, 1910, Mars crashed the Skylark in Topeka, Kan., at another exhibition. He survived the crash and after being reassembled and repaired so did the biplane.

Mars went on to participate in aviation meets and exhibitions throughout the United States and Asia. According to one report, he was the first man to fly an airplane in the Philippines, taking to the air in that island country during a Mardi Gras or Carnivale celebration in 1911. He went there after being forbidden to fly his plane in Hong Kong.

He was one of the first eight licensed pilots in the United States and was taught to fly by Curtiss.

Mars died on July 25, 1944, in Los Angeles of a heart ailment. He was 68.