Minnesota Flyer - Serving Midwest Aviation Since 1960

Minnesota's ten most important aviation persons - part 5

Walter R. Bullock 1899 - 1986

 

Joel Hankinson collection

Walter Bullock March 1916 at the Curtiss School Newport News, Virginia.

In the past, readers have met four of the most important Minnesota aviation persons, Clarence Hinck, Shorty De Ponti, Speed Holman and Ray Miller. Walter Bullock is another of those most important - virtually the Father of Aviation in Minnesota. To put him in perspective – he was the youngest person in the country to obtain a pilot's license (17 years old in 1916, at the Glen Curtiss School in Newport News, Virginia); gave Speed Holman his first flight, became one of the first Northwest Airways pilots, and built and rebuilt pioneer aircraft until the ripe old age of 83.

Bullock was born in New York and came to Minnesota in 1911 at the age of twelve. His first view of aviation came when he watched an abortive attempt by Hugh Robinson to fly air mail from Lake Calhoun in 1911. Bullock knew he had to fly. Pioneer Alex Heine, the first person to fly over downtown Minneapolis in 1913 gave Bullock his first airplane ride, reportedly with Bullock standing on the landing skids of the Curtiss Pusher airplane. Bullock began building model airplanes, then amazed his parents as a teenager when he began constructing an airplane in his backyard to the specifications of the Curtiss. In 1916, Bullock's parents were convinced enough that he was going to fly and they sent him to the Curtiss School in Virginia. After successfully receiving his pilot's license, he bought a Curtiss and began touring the country, demonstrating flight to thrilled crowds. He had a crackup, but bruised yet undaunted, rebuilt the plane and continued his tour.

When he returned to the Minneapolis area, he rented space at the Earle Brown Farm and put up a shelter, a hangar with canvas doors. Using Sheriff Brown's field for flying made this the very first airfield in Minnesota. By 1920, Bullock moved his flying to the Robbinsdale area, where the city fathers would later construct Robbinsdale Airport, very close to where Crystal Airport is today. In 1922, Bullock flew as a corporate pilot. In those days, that meant he was paid to transport the famous Captain Billy Fawcett (Fawcett Publications, "Captain Billy's Whiz-Bang") From Breezy Point on Pelican Lake to wherever the publishing guru cared to go. In 1924, Bullock used the Fawcett seaplane to tow Ralph Samuelson on the world's first water skis across Lake Pepin. (water skis are a Minnesota invention of Samuelson's).

Being pals with Speed Holman, who was by now the first full-time pilot for Northwest Airways, meant that when Holman decided to take time off from the airline to go fly in a cross-country air race, he hired Bullock to fill in for him. Bullock joined the airline in 1927, first flying mail, then passengers a year later. When Holman was killed in 1931, and his replacement, Chad Smith also died suddenly, Bullock became Operations manager for Northwest. Though he'd not graduated from High School, Bullock never flew as a co-pilot. He flew and managed until 1932, when he was let go for flying liquor across the Canadian border. During this off period, he flew for Hanford Airlines out of Minneapolis. When Hanford was bought out by Northwest in 1937, Croil Hunter saw that Bullock was re-instated.

During WW II, Bullock under Northwest's contract to Air Transport Command, was flying military supplies and troops to the Canada and Alaska area. He was also assigned to the ice research project out of Wold Chamberlain Field, intentionally flying trips into very bad weather in a B-24 nicknamed "Squirtin' Gertie" to determine the effect of ice on aircraft surfaces. Northwest pioneered several anti-icing methods and devices that were later used in the airline and military fields. After the war, Bullock obtained a surplus P-38 aircraft and flew in the National Bendix Air Race, finishing 9th in the Unlimited Class in 1946.

In his spare time, in a well-stocked workshop in Lakeville, Bullock began turning out homebuilt aircraft. He built a Wittman Tailwind, a very popular homebuilt designed by Oshkosh's Steve Wittman. In 1965, Bullock built a Bleriot II replica which he demonstrated at local airshows. In 1968, Bullock built a replica of the Lincoln Beachey Curtiss "Little Looper". Bullock then flew this at local airshows. In the 1980's, he sold it to the aerobatic pilot, Vern Dallman, who demonstrated it across the country, including Oshkosh, in the late 1980s. Bullock's next adventure was to build a Curry Watt biplane. In 1973, that was followed by his rebuilding of a 1920 Standard J-1 biplane and a JN-4 "Jenny" aircraft, which, in 1973, would be purchased by Johan Larsen for a museum at Flying Cloud Airport. All of these airplanes were flown regularly out of Bullock's home grass airstrip in Lakeville.

Sherm Booen Photo

Walt and Sherm Booen share a story in front of the VW powered Curry Watt homebuilt biplane, circa 1970s.

I became a friend of Bullock's in the 1970 time period when I was beginning my research for the book on Speed Holman. In those days he was recognized as the Father of Minnesota Aviation because he had been there and done that! Bullock inspired or helped most of the early Minnesota pilots. Many he influenced to go for an aviation career, many he befriended and inspired by his skills in the workshop. Bullock transcended the 1920s and the 1930s as a pioneering pilot with the fledgling airlines. His WWII flights, including a mass flight of C-46s to China, via the "Hump" were enough to get him inducted in the first class of pioneers into the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame in 1988. He was also inducted into the OX-5 Aviation Pioneers Hall of Fame, and has been for many years a candidate for the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

Though Bullock's name is unfamiliar to most of today's aviation community, he was, indeed, one of Minnesota's most important aviation persons.

 

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