America loves pioneers. We are drawn to their passion, ambition, and willingness to risk everything to attempt something new and dangerous. One century ago, a new breed of bold and slightly insane pioneers swept over the face of our country … they were aviators.

Pioneering aviators had plenty of problems, but dying from old age was not one of them. Every pilot danced with death during their career. They witnessed friends perish, or they perished; or at the very least had a few near-death experiences. The technology and mechanics existed to put them into the atmosphere, but not all of the kinks had been worked out. Weather, inexperience, and faulty equipment proved to be a fatal mix for many. Nevertheless, the triumph and tragedy of these aviators changed the world in ways that impact each one of us today.

Major John Thomas Fancher was one of these pioneers. His passion for aviation, expertise as a pilot, and leadership in the National Guard and his community still echo across Washington State today. The heritage of the unit he established and commanded, the 116th Observation Squadron, lives on in the citizen-airmen of the 141st Air Refueling Wing based at Spokane’s Fairchild Air Force Base. Sadly, he would die young and tragically like many of his fellow pioneers, but not before leaving a lasting legacy.

John Fancher was born in May 1891 and grew up on a farm outside of Spokane. His father’s name was John Fancher, as was his grandfather’s, and it seemed that his destiny would be very similar to the John Fanchers who proceeded him. He learned to farm and enjoyed the family business of agriculture. Two things would irrevocably change Fancher’s life: the airplane and World War I.

Spokane and presumably Fancher himself would get one of its first looks at manned flight at the Interstate Fair on October 2, 1911. Flying prodigy Cromwell Dixon was scheduled to perform at the fair. Dixon was famous. He was the youngest licensed aviator in the U.S. and about the same age as Fancher. He was also the first person to fly over the continental divide, and had flown to Spokane after performing at a fair in Helena, Montana. At approximately 3 p.m. on October 2, more than 12,000 spectators watched Dixon fall 100 feet to his death during his aerial demonstration. Whether Fancher witnessed the crash, or heard the first-hand accounts – one of his first and lasting exposures to aviation would be the death of Cromwell Dixon.

Fancher finished high school and moved to Seattle to attend the University of Washington. He played basketball for U.W. and studied business there until 1915. As the U.S. began to mobilize for World War I, Fancher enlisted as a private in a Spokane unit in August 1917, but one month later was offered the chance to attend flight school. He finished flight school and received a commission as a second lieutenant when he finished. He arrived in France in 1918, promoted to 1st lieutenant and was given command of an aviation unit.

Flying during WWI was a particularly hazardous business. Ground-to-air and air-to-air fire, coupled with weather and mechanical difficulties produced significant casualties. No one was immune. Quentin Roosevelt, son of President Teddy Roosevelt, was a U.S. pilot killed during a mission in 1918. The Germans photographed his lifeless body lying next to his crumpled aircraft. According to a newspaper account, Fancher and Roosevelt were in the same “aviation organization and [Fancher] was engaged in strenuous combat operations. His mettle was shown in France when he refused a furlough proposed by his colonel in command. Fancher was in ill health from over work but preferred to remain at the front” (Quad City Herald, May 4, 1928). Fancher served through the end of the war, returned to the U.S. and was honorably discharged on April 7, 1919. He returned to working the family farm – 2,000 acres worth in Espinola. That might have been the end of his military career, but the War Department, the Adjutant General and community leaders in Spokane had other ideas.

In 1920, Spokane community leaders began planning to secure an aviation unit after learning the War Department might authorize a National Guard flying unit if an airfield and hangars could be provided by the hosting community. Their hopes came to fruition in 1924 when Adjutant General Maurice Thompson arrived by train in Spokane on his way to Washington, DC. Thompson, perhaps the most iconic figure in Washington National Guard history, was visionary, influential and a force to be reckoned with. He had a simple message for Spokane: