Frank Burnside: All Around Aviator

Sometimes when seeking out information, I find it best not to work myself into a frenzy trying to pin down every last detail. Part of history is working with the information available, and even with the incredible amounts of information available on the internet (which is how I do most research these days), it is difficult to know everything. Some people have holes in their history.

The basic facts regarding Burnside’s life are fairly easy to find. He died on August 26, 1935 at the age of 47 after a career in aviation that included working with Charles Lindbergh and Will Rodgers. (Rochester Journal Aug 27, 1935). The Nevada Aviation Hall of Fame has a more extensive biography. Burnside was born in Oneonta, New York, on August 7, 1888. He went to college to study music, then became interested in flying in 1911 after seeing a plane at a county fair. He and a friend signed up for classes at the new Thomas Brothers Flying School in Bath, New York, where Burnside eventually became an instructor. The company (and Burnside) moved to Ithica, New York, eventually becoming the Morse Thomas company. During World War I, Burnside served as their chief test pilot. In the 1920 Census, Burnside was living in Ithica. HE often flew in the movies of the Wharton, Incorporated and Grossman Picture Corporation. This was a small movie company based out of Ithica. According to Wikipedia (not the best source, but movie history is not the rabbit hole I am jumping down), the company left Ithica in 1920.

Less information is available about what Burnside was doing between 1920 and 1927, when he flew one of the first legs of the air mail between New York and Chicago after National Air Transport took over that leg of the mail route. The Nevada Aviation Hall of fame doesn’t say anything about this time period. The Post Office says that he began flying in 1923, and flew until 1927 when private corporations took over the service. He was at various times stationed in Maywood and Cleveland. There is no mention of why Burnside chose to fly the mail, and the only mention I have found of him is from a 1924 Omaha World Herald Article that says he was a troubleshooter for the newly instituted night air mail route.

The 1930 Census has Burnside living as a boarder in Rocky River, Ohio. This is located on the west side of Cleveland, a logical place for an aviator to be. Despite the relocation, Burnside kept his New York ties. He died in 1935 in Bath, New York. Burnside’s career with the Post Office was quiet, and, as I said, little is mentioned about him in that context. But he was widely respected as an aviator, and a reminder that it took many people to propel the air mail service forward into the future.

Air Mail and the Movies

I am, among other things, a classic movie buff. Last December when Maurine O’Hara died I could only shake my head and sputter “The Quiet Man,” or “Miracle on 34th Street when coworkers or friends couldn’t place her. If they only knew what they were missing. Her last husband, incidentally, ran an air line in the Caribbean.

Movie making also grew from infancy to a recognizable art form in the 1920s. And, in some ways, aviation helped them do it. In fact the first film to win best picture, Wings, was a story about aviation in World War I, and many aviators participated in the project.

But, back to my area of expertise.  On YouTube, there is an actual documentary filmed around 1925 showing planes flying from coast to coast, including fitting planes with skis for the winter, and supplying mountain bound pilots with snowshoes. The hour long film also shows planes being repaired near Chicago. Ken Burn’s its not…mostly you see a plane flying through the air then landing in Chicago, in Omaha, in Salt Lake City, etc. Still, I find it fascinating.

Air Mail, and the daring feats that it implied, inevitably made its way to the silver screen. In a 1925 movie creatively titled The Air Mail, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. starred as an air mail pilot and at one point had to fight off an attempted robbery. The plot line, unsurprisingly for Hollywood, was a little far fetched. The few attempted robberies in the 1920s occurred on the ground, targeting the trucks which transported mail between the Post Office and the airport. Unfortunately the movie has been lost to time, only four out of eight reels survive in the Library of Congress.

One film, directed by John Ford entitled Air Mail came out in 1932, and according to the synopsis, is a fictionalized tale of daring air mail pilots. The only thing is, its hard to over-exaggerate the dangers and death rate of the early 1920s.

Made for Each Other from 1939 staring Jimmy Steward (a well respected airman in his own right) and Carole Lombard features a scene where a vile of life saving medicine had to be flown across the country, and those who know the air service route recognize the towns as the pilot flies over them. The radio towers lose track of the pilot for an unbelievable distance, given the range that planes could fly before refueling, but no matter, its Hollywood. What is believable is the part where the pilot crashes short of his destination and is rescued by a local farmer.

Flying captured the imagination. And that era still does. And although Hollywood did what it tends to do…exaggerate the situation (which is pretty impressive given the nature of air mail), it reflected society’s newly discovered fascination with the air.

For this post I had to rely on the internet, specifically IMDB and Wikipedia more than I normally do. Many of these movies are hard to come by, although I have seen Made for Each Other, as well as the Post Office’s 1925 feature. But if any of you discover the missing reels of Douglas Fairbanks Jr.’s film, let me know, I’d love to see it.

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