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Thread: Grand Canyon early flights

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Apr 2007
    Columbus, OH

    Default Grand Canyon early flights

    In an episode of the old "Burns and Allen" TV show George Burns is to go to a local airport to have his picture taken with a "Shep Mullin" (Mullen?), the first man to fly over the Grand Canyon in 1919. Now given that this was a year after WW1 I would think there were many aircraft capable of that flight, even with the odd air currents over the canyon, so that seems rather anticlimactic; but since the canyon was made a national park in 1919 perhaps this was part of the ceremonies. But after quite a bit of online research I find no reference to a Shep Mullin/Mullen/Mullins/Mullens with any connection to aviation, nor any indication of ceremonies at the canyon that year. So, was this just a fictional reference for the TV show or is there some historical story here?

    However, in the course of searching I ran into this article - - about the "first and only" airplane to descend into the Grand Canyon, land, take off, and return. Accomplished in 1922 by a British pilot, "R.V. Thomas, a barnstorming WW1 flyer", in his aircraft the "Thomas Special". More searching, the only other reference to an R.V. Thomas and aircraft is a copy of one the photos in that article on a Smithsonian site, with no more info than he landed in the canyon in 1922. As for the "Thomas Special" ...nothing, zilch, nada; the Thomas Aircraft Company did make a "Thomas Special" but it was a 1913 pusher plane which set an altitude record of 13k ft, definitely not the aircraft in those photos.
    (Coincidentally, the Thomas-Morse S-4 "was designed by Englishman Benjamin Douglas Thomas (no relation to the company owners), formerly with the Sopwith Aviation Company, who also assisted with the design of the Curtiss JN-4 Jenny." ...the aircraft in the photos does resemble a Jenny, but i am not knowledgeable enough to say it is or isn't.) Can anyone shed light on this British pilot and/or his "Thomas Special"?

    While i can accept that he was the first to land in the canyon and return, I find it difficult to believe that in nearly a hundred years he is the only one to accomplish that. What I've read implies it is now illegal for private aircraft to enter the canyon (and given the safety records of the tourist planes and helicopters, you couldn't get me on one at gunpoint; I'm astounded some are still in operation), but certainly prior to the fifties others attempted this, though I can find no records of any such flights, successful or not.

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Mar 2005
    Westminster, CO


    Interesting subject you bring up here. Probably the Burns & Allen show used a fictitious name.

    Here is a preview of a book mentioning Lt. Ralph Searle flying a DH-4 over the Grand Canyon in Feb. 1919. Here is the story of Thomas' first landing in the Canyon, less detail but a different look at it than your link. Here is a list of significant events (NPS style) in the Grand Canyon, landing not mentioned.

    I find it difficult to believe that in nearly a hundred years he is the only one to accomplish that.
    He may or may not have been the only one, but such a hazardous undertaking*, would not have attracted many, and nothing says that someone landing there had to make the fact public -- remember that, especially in the early 20th century, it was an extremely remote area, and difficult to get to, which is why the railroads made a special effort to get tourist facilities there (and other western national parks), including a Fred Harvey restaurant.

    Here is an article listing many fatal aircraft accidents in or around the Canyon.

    What I've read implies it is now illegal for private aircraft to enter the canyon
    There's more than just an implication. Here is a PDF containing Part 91 SFAR (Special Federal Aviation Regulation) 50-2 and SFAR 60 restricting flight in and around the Grand Canyon and more.


    * Thomas used a 500 foot long section of ground that was just barely adequate for his aircraft at the time, and might not have been so under other conditions. Add thermals, weird winds and other air disturbances with strong turbulence at times, a descent of around a mile (5,000 ft or so) in a constantly narrowing (as you descend) set of rock walls and other hazards, and it's not really surprising to me.

    I do know that there have been lots of people over the years fly low in the Canyon, prior to it becoming illegal, including a number of both prop and jet fighters, sometimes in formation, but those aren't widely publicized.

    Larry N.

    As Skylab would say:
    Remember: Aviation is NOT an exact Science!

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Apr 2007
    Columbus, OH


    Thanks for the input. I suspected the TV reference was at least semi-fictional, but since it was only 30-40 years after the events it was quite possible anyone involved was still alive, so a TV appearance, even on a sitcom, was believable.

    As for accidents, this is what caught my interest -

    "...such a hazardous undertaking..."
    Like cliff diving, mountain climbing, and going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, that is exactly what attracts many people. And being illegal is just an added attraction.

    I see from that pdf that the canyon has only been restricted since '88-'89; articles I'd read had said only the tour aircraft were allowed into the canyon now, but didn't say whether this applied to the entire canyon or just the areas frequented by tours (hence the implied illegality).

    FWIW, a good bit of my FS enjoyment is researching and recreating old flights.

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