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:
“Washington has been offered one of the 19 National Guard Observation Squadrons authorized by the National Guard Bureau. I’ve offered it to Seattle and Tacoma, but Spokane has an equal opportunity to get it. Whichever city can raise $10,000 first for the erection of hangars is going to get the squadron.”
Thompson boarded the train and resumed his journey east. He had barely reached the city limits before a group of businessmen wired, “The $10,000 has been raised we want the squadron.”
Thompson had an aviation unit, he had a home for it and the money needed to get it started. Now he needed someone to lead it and make it successful. He knew who he wanted for the job. Newspaper accounts record that Thompson personally prevailed upon Fancher to accept the command, and the major’s commission that came with it. By spring 1925, the officers and men of the 116th Observation Squadron were busy erecting the hangars at their new airfield which was formally the abandoned Parkwater Municipal golf course. Old photos show Fancher hard at work as the hangars take shape.
By March, the first airplanes were in Spokane. Fancher was informed that a shipment had arrived via the Northern Pacific Railroad – three crates contained three disassembled planes. Unfortunately, there were no funds, labor or machines provided to transport the crates to the airfield. Three enlisted members of the squadron sprang into action and borrowed two heavy planks from a lumber yard and a crowbar from the Northern Pacific. Using the planks as skids, they loaded the crates and hauled them via truck to the airfield one by one. Realizing that they were on their own to assemble the aircraft, they promptly set their mind to the task and soon three Curtiss 3N6-A2 “Jennys” were sitting on the new flight line.
Although farming and the National Guard kept him busy, Fancher’s civic engagement was relentless. He was active in the Chamber of Commerce and petitioned the state Legislature for more resources for his unit. He was the driving force behind Spokane’s Air Rodeo in1925 and 1926. He ran for Congress in 1926 and came up short against incumbent Congressman Sam B. Hill. Fancher set his sights on winning the National Air Races for Spokane in 1927.
Tragedy struck the 116th on May 29, 1927. Lieutenant Buell Felts was a member of the 116th, and in many ways was like Fancher himself. Felts served in WWI, was ambitious and well known in the community. He was also the owner and publisher of the Spokane Valley Herald. On May 29, Felts flew a training flight with a reporter as his guest passenger. As he approached the Parkwater Airfield at an altitude of 150 feet, he apparently attempted a turn without sufficient speed to sustain it. His plane dropped out of the sky killing Felts and his passenger on impact. The men of 116th were deeply shaken, and so was Fancher; Buell Felts was the unit’s first casualty. Fancher was a pall-bearer at Felt’s funeral and led the effort to have the Parkwater Municipal Airfield was renamed Felts Field. The name change was effective in September 1927 and endures today.
During the summer of 1927, Fancher flew to New York. His goal was to have the 1927 National Air Races hosted by Spokane and had arranged to meet with the National Air Derby Association. His negotiations were successful and enroute back to Spokane he made a stop in South Dakota at the home of President Calvin Coolidge.
A silk streamer bearing “Greetings to the President” and an invitation to the Air Derby was tossed from his plane as he flew over the summer White House. After an appropriate show of aerobatics, he landed and met with the President. Pictures of the two appeared in a number of newspapers. Fancher’s fame as an aviation pioneer blossomed. That autumn, Spokane sponsored the National Air Races. They consisted of two cross country races; the San Francisco – Spokane Derby and the New York – Spokane Derby. There were local races as well and contests of aerobatics and formation flying. The National Air Races were a resounding success. The economic impact and boost in reputation to Spokane were significant; Fancher was a mild celebrity and known by everyone from the president to Charles Lindbergh. 1928 looked just as promising year as 1927 had been.
On April 28, 1928, the town of Wenatchee was dedicating its new airfield during the annual Apple Blossom Festival. Fancher and his men were invited to perform. Fancher was eager to display the prowess of his unit, put on a good show and to support the cause of aviation. A week before the Wenatchee festival, Fancher flew from Spokane to Seattle to attend the funeral of his father-in-law. As he traveled over the Cascade Mountains which divide Washington State into east and west, he was confronted with a violent storm. In search of an opening in the clouds he climbed to 14,000 feet, but storm conditions worsened. With full motor running and the nose of his Douglas plane skyward, he plunged 5,000 feet almost instantly. He was on the brink of bailing out of the plane with his parachute more than once, but he persevered on. After two hours of being lost in fierce wind and rain, he spotted a hole in the clouds and made his way through.
Spring was in the air on Saturday, April 28 when the 116th commander and his men flew from Spokane to Wenatchee. They were excited to be flying together again, and excited for the show that night. Death was the farthest thing from anyone’s mind that morning, and no one could have guessed that Major John Fancher had less than 24 hours to live.
Fancher’s display would be a night-time demonstration of an aerial raid using celebration explosives as supporting pyrotechnics. He had done the same thing to good effect for Armistice Day celebrations and other community events. The weather that day was less than ideal for airplanes, and the commercial planes attending the event declined to fly as previously planned due to the weather conditions. Fancher would not be deterred.
Fancher took to the sky in the late evening. His plane was illuminated and visible to the crowd below. His wife Eveyln watched from a home in the area as her husband gave the crowd a rousing performance. Fancher finished and executed a perfect landing at approximately 10:30 p.m. He walked across the field to an area with four tents set-up for himself and his men. Fancher changed out of his flight gear and into his uniform. He emerged from his tent and began talking to his men about the performance, and mentioned to Lt. Allenburg his dismay that only three of the six explosives he used in the demonstration actually detonated. He asked for the remaining explosives, which were promptly produced. Three were in the bag.
“There is something wrong with these bombs,” Fancher said.
He reached into the bag and took one out. He directed one of the men standing nearby to fire a flare into the air, which gave the dark space some illumination. “Is anyone there?” he called out across a fence into a field. Satisfied that the area was clear he removed the cap on the explosive, “scratched” the piece which set into motion the detonation and threw it into the field. No explosion. “See, that one didn’t go off. I took six up tonight and three of them were just like that one.” “Scratch it twice,” suggested one of the men in the crowd. Fancher replied that doing so was unnecessary and dangerous. He scratched the second bomb and threw it into the field – it detonated several seconds later. “That one was alright,” said Fancher.
Fancher gripped the last bomb in his right hand, removed the top and scratched it with his left thumb. There was a blinding flash and deafening noise. Fancher staggered and fell to the ground. For a few seconds, all were shocked and blinded by the explosion. “My God fellows, I’m hurt,” exclaimed Fancher as he momentarily lost consciousness. Fancher’s right hand had been completely severed, the right side of his face was a mess; he was missing his right eye. His midsection was severely injured and burned. Shreds of his clothing lay scattered on the ground. Fancher’s men descended on their fallen leader. They covered him up and applied a tourniquet to his right arm. One of his men raced for his car; another ran to a phone.
Fancher regained consciousness and said, “Men, I’m blind. I want to sleep for a while … I wish I could have stayed that way.”
Allenburg replied, “No Major, don’t talk that way. Your eye is alright. I can see it just as plain. Lay as quiet as possible, the doctor is on his way.”
“God, fellows do something to ease the pain – my stomach is ripped open,” said Fancher.
Allenburg once again offered comforting words.
“I can see on my left eye. Thank God. I have one eye left.” Fancher, still in shock and unaware of how badly he was hurt, used his left hand to feel for his right eye and his right arm. His men stopped him from searching out his wounds, and pleaded with him to be still.
Those at the scene decided to get Fancher to the hospital rather than to wait for a doctor. His men placed him in Lt. Harley Bryant’s car, laying the front seat down. Allenburg held and tried to comfort Fancher as the car sped toward Saint Anthony’s Hospital in Wenatchee. “Well, boys, I’ve made my last flight and I’m glad it was a night flight, but I’ll still be able to handle a team on the farm, I guess,” Fancher said.
Upon arrival at the hospital, Fancher was conscious but in extreme pain. As they prepared to move him into the operating room, he called out to his men, “It’s alright boys.”
“Do the best you can Doc,” he said to the surgeon in the operating room. “But I know it’s curtains. Goodbye!” He died at 1:30 a.m. on Sunday, April 30 with his wife at his side and his men agonizing in the waiting room.
The shock and outpouring of grief in Spokane and Wenatchee was moving. Wenatchee immediately named their airfield after Fancher. In Spokane, several thousand attended his funeral service, which had to be held at the Masonic Temple in order to accommodate the huge crowd. $12,000 was quickly raised to build the Fancher Memorial Airway Beacon at the air field, which stood for more than 80 years before being removed in July 2012. Officers in his unit wore a mourning badge on their uniforms for the next 30 days.
The adjutant general was equally stricken. More than a decade after his death, Thompson kept a framed picture of Fancher on the wall of his office at Camp Murray.
Fancher had been working on a business deal with famed aviation ace Eddie Rickenbacker to establish an aircraft manufacturing plant in Spokane. He was scheduled to travel to England two weeks after his death to solidify the deal; without Fancher to lead the effort forward it quickly fizzled.
Fancher’s life was an interesting contrast between a small-town farmer, who found tranquility and fulfillment on the family wheat farm versus the larger-than-life aviator who transformed his unit and his community. Fancher always seemed to be at the cutting-edge of an exciting new enterprise, but death incessantly loomed near like a shadow. It was as though the ghosts of Cromwell Dixon, Buell Felts and lost friends from the Great War were always looking over his shoulder. Fancher too, met a tragic end but not in the same way. Even as he fought for his life at St. Anthony’s hospital, he directed his men to make clear to the public that his injuries were not a result of flying. His passion for flying, and faith in the future of aviation stayed with him to the end.
The 116th endured and continued to be among the famed flying units of its time. It would have a new generation of heroes in a new World War – many of its aviators did not return home from the Pacific Theater. Jet engines, the Cold War and constant transformation manifested into the Washington Air National Guard’s 141st Air Refueling Wing. The famed Ace of Spades patch, introduced into the old 116th in 1931 is still worn and celebrated by our citizen-airmen today. Although Fancher died just three years before the introduction of the iconic emblem, he will always be the Ace of the Ace of Spades.
Story by Keith Kosik, Washington National Guard.