Franklin P. Lahm

Franklin P. Lahm shown here during his military days.

MANSFIELD -- Mansfield's Lahm Airport is named for an unlikely aviator with a rather surprising rise to fame.

Frank P. Lahm was born in Mansfield in 1877, but following the death of his mother in 1880 his father -- suffering from prolonged illness -- moved to Europe to recover, leaving Frank and his sister with relatives.

Frank eventually attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, and upon graduation was commissioned in the cavalry, where he campaigned in the Philippines before returning to West Point as an instructor.

Summer leaves at West Point allowed Frank to visit his father, who was living in France. Frank's father had taken up the growing sport of ballooning -- as in, piloting hot air balloons -- and taught the craft to his son. So, in 1905, Frank received his own Fédération Aéronautique Internationale certification as a balloon pilot.

By this point, the sport of ballooning had taken Europe by storm and was considered one of the most daring and adventurous sports, particularly for the wealthy and elite.

American millionaire Gordon Bennett, Jr. (owner of the New York Herald) decided to organize a race -- known as the Bennett Cup -- with one simple goal: "to fly the furthest distance from the launch site."

Frank's father immediately registered, intending to fly his balloon "Katherine" (named after Frank's sister), but the real Katherine, back in America, was engaged to be married during the race. Frank's father knew he couldn't miss the wedding, but convinced Frank to pilot the balloon in his place.

Frank agreed, renaming the balloon "United States" and recruiting Major Henry Blanchard Hersey of the United States Weather Bureau to be his crew member. The "United States" would be the only American balloon, competing against 15 other balloons from Brazil (the favorite), France, Germany, Great Britain, Spain, Belgium, and Italy.

The race quickly became an international spectacle, with over 200,000 spectators turning out at the launch point at Tuileries Palace in Paris to witness one of the greatest competitions in human history -- and more importantly, see which nation would gain control of the skies. Press from around the world ran the headlines, with an estimated one million readers following along.

The balloons launched in the late afternoon of Sept. 30, with Lahm starting 12th in a field of 16. Under a full moon they reached the English Channel before midnight and a lightship off the coast of England three hours later, where a thick fog obscured the surface.

The morning sun slowly burned off the fog and caused the balloon to ascend to 3,000 meters. Lahm and Hersey established their position over Berkshire around 7 a.m. and continued north, gradually descending to avoid drifting out over the North Sea.

They landed near Fylingdales in Yorkshire, after 22 hours and 15 minutes aloft. The race, however, was not yet over. Few competitors had lasted longer than seven hours, but Great Britain's Charles Rolls -- founder of Rolls-Royce -- was still in the air and the race would not end until he landed.

For 4 hours and 15 minutes Lahm, and the rest of the world, waited. Finally, after 26 hours and 28 minutes aloft Rolls grounded ... but had only covered 461 kilometers compared to Lahm's 647. Lahm, and the United States, were declared the victor.

Lahm became an overnight celebrity, but was still enlisted in the military and assigned to attend a French Cavalry School. A year later Frank's father, who as a representative of the French aeronautical community had become an acquaintance of the Wright Brothers, and introduced Wilbur and Orville Wright to Frank.

Lahm learned from the Wrights that the United States Army had repeatedly turned down offers from them to supply the nation with an airplane. Lahm wrote his commanding officers, urging them to accept the offer.

Frank began touring European aviation facilities, and returned to the United States to continue his tours where he also befriended Alexander Graham Bell. A few months after urging the Army to enter the aviation field, the Signal Corps agreed but did not have a budget to cover the new program.

Lahm was able to leverage his fame to meet with President Theodore Roosevelt and convince him to increase the budget. In April of 1908, he helped organize a National Guard Aeronautical Corps of hydrogen-filled balloons, and the following month was given command of the United States Army Aeronautical Division where he acquired the Army's first dirigible. Finally, with the Wright brothers on hand, he took his first ride -- all 6 minutes and 24 seconds -- in an airplane.

In 1909 he became the Army's first certified pilot, and four years later was the 14th-rated Military Aviator. He helped develop and promote aviation training which earned him the nickname "Father of the Air Force Flight Training." Lahm also helped develop airfield designs and standards which earned him the title "Father of Randolph Field."

At the age of 64, he retired with the rank of Brigadier General. For his service, particularly in World War I, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, the Mexican Service Medal, the World War 1 Victory Medal, and was honored by France as an Officer in the Legion of Honor and by Portugal as a Commander of the Military Order of Aviz.

Ultimately, Lahm is best remembered as America's "First Military Aviator."

Today, the airport in Mansfield is named for him.

More information on the Cleo Redd Fisher Museum can be found at this link.

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