Grandpa and the Aviator

Week 3: #52 Ancestors – Favorite Photo

By Eilene Lyon

This hand-tinted family photograph has been hanging on my wall for years, but I had never researched it. The man on the left is my great-great-grandfather, Thomas A. Reams (1833–1922). My grandfather, Laurence M. Smith, said that his Grandpa Reams had the opportunity to fly the year before he died. The ride took place at Felts Field in Spokane, Washington.

Armed with that clue, I learned that the pilot in this photograph was no run-of-the-mill barnstormer. At the time of his death in 1938, he was the most famous aviator in the Northwest, and considered one of the top 15 pilots in the world. But neither he nor Grandpa Reams had any premonition of these things in 1921.

Nicholas Bernard Mamer was born in 1898 in Hastings, Minnesota. Lt. Mamer flew for the Army Air Service in World War I, stationed in the Panama Canal Zone, most likely in a Curtiss “Jenny.” After the war, he settled in Spokane and at the time of this photograph (at age 22) was flying a Lincoln-Standard J-1 for the United States Aircraft company. (Thank you to Brandi of Make the Journey Fun for help identifying the plane as a J-1.)

A Lincoln-Standard on the left and Curtiss Jenny on the right. (Wikimedia Commons)

On Easter Sunday 1921, Nick Mamer and fellow pilot Ernie Tattersfield, gave 19 lucky citizens a chance to touch the sky. Seventeen were brave enough to request stunt flights. (I suspect Grandpa Reams may have been one who demurred.) Photographers were on hand to document the occasion.

Mamer could confidently fly his J-1 completely inverted. On another occasion, he flew while Tattersfield did a wing-walk to entertain the assembled crowd. Most of the Easter passengers requested a fast tail-spin.

Mamer’s fame partly stems from his 1929 flight with co-pilot/mechanic Art Walker in a Buhl Airsedan biplane called the Spokane Sun God. During this non-stop trip across the continent, another aircraft refueled their plane through a one-inch hose. They also had to refuel the pilots, who dropped their meal requests at strategic locations.

The Spokane Sun God, a Buhl Airsedan. (Wikimedia Commons)

The flight started in Spokane, then went south to San Francisco. From there they headed east to New York City, then back to Spokane. All this was done in five days and supposedly without sleep. (I am skeptical.)

Sometime in the 1930s, Mamer and his wife, Faye (Carey), relocated to Seattle and he became a commercial pilot for Northwest Airlines, flying the Seattle-Minneapolis route. On January 10, 1938 Mamer was at the helm of Flight 2 from Minneapolis in a 14-passenger Lockheed Super Electra “Zephyr.”

Captain Nick Mamer of Northwest Airways. (Andrea Caruso on Ancestry.com)

As the aircraft approached the Bridger Mountains near Bozeman, Montana, the tail structure failed, sending the plane plummeting toward the peaks. All ten aboard were killed on impact, as the craft burst into flames. It was the first fatal accident for Northwest and the Super Electra. Mamer was survived by his wife and a daughter.

Nick Mamer had a varied career as a pilot. He flew news photographs around the western states. He flew fire patrol routes for the U.S. Forest Service. He had his own air service established at Felts Field (originally Parkwater airstrip). One of the more interesting flights I found in news reports involved a young woman named Esther Devlin.

Nick Mamer, Mamer Flying Service at Felts Field, Spokane, WA, in 1929. (Wikimedia Commons)

At the age of seven, Esther suffered from scarlet fever, which left her “stone deaf.” Thirteen years later, encouraged by physicians who thought a shock or an airplane “drop” might restore her hearing, she climbed into the J-1 passenger seat.

Mamer took the plane as high as 13,000 feet, the highest altitude any Spokane passenger had been up to that time. He instructed Esther to remove her helmet and then sent the craft on a mile-and-a-half plunge toward Earth. When he asked her if she was cold, she heard him clearly and said, “No.” What she took to be the sound of horns, Mamer told her was actually the wind moving through the aircraft wires.

Though her hearing was not completely restored, she could hear loud sounds and said she planned to take future flights in hopes of further improvement.

Well, I didn’t let this photograph tell a full thousand words, but it could have!

Feature image: Thomas Alexander Reams and pilot Nick Mamer. (Collection of the author)

Sources:

Laurence M. Smith memoir essay dated April 15, 1992.

https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/23327049/nicholas-bernard-mamer

“19 Take Easter Flights in Air” The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA) March 28, 1921, p. 6 – via Newspapers.com.

Montana, U.S., State Deaths, 1907-2018 for Nicholas Bernard Mamer> Montana Death Records> 1935 Mar-1944 Nov image 144 – https://www.ancestry.com/search/collections/5437/

“We Are Over the Peak—Nothing Worries Us Now” Spokane Daily Chronicle, January 11, 1938, p. 16 – via Newspapers.com.

“N.W. Airlines Plane Down In Flames; Nine Persons Aboard—Nick Mamer Pilot of Ship Reported Destroyed Near Bozeman” The Spokesman-Review, January 11, 1938, p. 1 – via Newspapers.com.

“New Air Stunts for Local Fans—Mamer to Give Exhibit at Parkwater Sunday” Spokane Daily Chronicle, May 15, 1920, p. 8 – via Newspapers.com.

“Mamer Has Luck on Photo Trip—Spokane Pilot Rushes Pictures to New York Times Plane” Spokane Daily Chronicle, September 18, 1923, p. 6 – via Newspapers.com.

“Forest Patrol Starts June 15—Mamer, Spokane Pilot, Prepared to Set Forth on Daily Flights” Spokane Daily Chronicle, May 17, 1923, p. 13 – via Newspapers.com.

“Airplane Pilots to Stage ‘Wing-Walking’ Tomorrow” Spokane Daily Chronicle, May 21, 1921, p. 3 – via Newspapers.com.

“Deaf Girl Flies; Now Can Hear—Esther Devlin, Stone Deaf for 13 Years, Gets Benefit From Plane Trip” Spokane Daily Chronicle, November 14, 1921, p. 3 – via Newspapers.com.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nick_Mamer

https://www.spokesman.com/stories/2018/mar/19/then-and-now-pilot-nick-mamer/

https://www.spokesman.com/stories/2019/aug/15/famed-pilot-nick-mamers-personal-collection-on-dis/

60 thoughts on “Grandpa and the Aviator

Add yours

  1. I can see why that hand-tinted photograph is hanging on your wall. It’s fascinating–and the story behind it even more so! I don’t know what to make of the partial restoration of young Esther’s hearing.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I mentioned in my earlier post about Thomas Reams the advances in transportation in his lifetime. I think it’s really cool he got an airplane ride. I was so thrilled to find that article about the event. Without it, I could not have pieced together “the rest of the story.”

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Eilene! What a story! I can’t believe you got all of that just because someone could identify the prop of a plane. My friend Dewey will love this.

    Something that seems so strange to me is that seventeen people wanted the stunt flight. Lol. Aviation was still young and many fearful of planes. Even today people back away from the opportunity to do the acrobatic flights with trained pilots. So cool!! Good for them.

    Fantastic research and story. You really did learn something new this week!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And I would think a fast tail spin would be especially scary! Please do share with your friends who helped identify the plane for me. Several of the news articles mentioned Mamer’s “big Standard” and one stated that it was a Lincoln-Standard, which I learned more about at that link I provided in the story.

      There’s quite a bit of information about Mamer online if you do a Google search, but not all of it is accurate. I found a Wikimedia image and another site that claimed he served in France, shot down three enemy planes and was awarded a medal by the French government. All of that is bunk. The photo is clearly some older French gentleman named Mamet. Mamer would have looked like in my image, but even younger!

      Like

      1. A fast tail spin would be absolutely terrifying. Honestly, any kind of acrobatic flying sounds terrifying in an open cockpit. Thanks but no thanks!

        I shared the story on Facebook and tagged Dewey in it so all his aviation friends may see it. He’s a modern day barnstormer and loves this sort of thing.

        And I can’t believe you would insinuate the internet isn’t always right. Haha!! It’s unbelievable how much misinformation and garbage is out there.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve read a lot about Lindbergh and can’t decide if those early pilots were heroes or just crazy (probably some of both). I bet Mamer knew his famous fellow Minnesotan. Either way, it’s an interesting story and a wonderful photo!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. That’s a fabulous photo! Mr. Mamer lived an interesting life. It’s sad that it ended on a commercial flight. It must have been a shock to his family who I’m sure would have thought commercial flying to be a much safer career than stunt flying. My knees grow week just thinking about stunts in the sky. I couldn’t ever imagine walking on the wings of the plane, no matter how steady the pilot might be!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Your grandpa Reams must have been quite a guy. How fortunate you are to have the picture of his flight. It must have been fun researching Nick Mamer. Nick Mamer was a pioneer. Too bad his life ended badly. And Esther Devlin, so brave. Thanks for the story.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow, what an interesting story! Did your grandfather say/write/comment anything about his trip? I once read a biography of the Wright Brothers and the early days of flight and found it just fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No, I don’t have anything like that. I seem to recall that Thomas Reams and his wife, Mary Paul, were not literate. I just have the details provided by my Grandpa Smith. He would have been 13 at the time, and I expect he might have been there to witness the event, but maybe not.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. What a story about hearing restored, more or less. I admire the early pilots who risked a lot, often their lives, while flying hither and yon. I’m skeptical about that ‘no sleep’ claim, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. How interesting for you to delve into the lives of your relatives and learn all the info, with few clues to go on. I really like the tinted picture in your header image with the plane in the background and that was interesting about Esther and the attempt to restore her hearing by taking “the plunge” – very interesting Eilene.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The first time I went up in a hot air balloon, I could not control my shaking legs. Awesome experience, but being so high above the ground and zero protection made a phenomenal impression on my psyche!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Eilene, what does inverted mean regarding a plane? If it’s upside down how did he know he wouldn’t fall out? Or does it mean something else? What an AMAZING photo and the history behind it is so cool. Aren’t you glad you did the research?!!!

    Liked by 1 person

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