The fields, both salt marshes and sand dunes along the Plum Island Turnpike have been used for aviation since 1910. At that time, some six years after Kitty Hawk, very few aviators had succeeded in getting a heavier-than-air craft off the ground, even for a short distance in a straight line, and only a minuscule number of people in the entire world had ever seen an aircraft in flight.
Because the Wrights zealously protected their inventions, it was not until 1908 that the general public was able to witness their flight tests. Like all Americans experimenting with airplanes, Marblehead yacht designer W. Starling Burgess was operating under the handicap of the Wrights’ patents and was left to find alternative methods to achieve powered controlled flight. Despite this handicap, Burgess’ ingenuity and persistence and that of his partner, Augustus M. Herring, produced nothing less than the birth of New England aviation. His 1910 flights on the Plum Island marshes were truly on the leading edge of an explosion of innovation in American aviation.
On Feb. 28, 1910, the first airplane flight in New England took place when Herring – who had first tested gliders in 1902 with the ‘Father of Aviation,’ Octave Chanute, on the Lake Michigan dunes – took off from the frozen surface of Chebacco Lake, on the Essex-Hamilton line, in a pusher biplane he and Burgess built. After the single flight, Burgess sold the plane and moved the operation to the marshes of Plum Island. He built a building and a wooden ìrunwayî near where the dunes meet the marshes, about a mile south of the entrance to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. The test range included approximately the area bounded by the dunes, the Plum Island Turnpike, High Road, and the Parker River.
The airplane, called the”Herring-Burgess Flying Fish Aeroplane”, first made three short flights on April 17, 1910. In May, Burgess brought additional airplanes from Marblehead and built an additional building. Tests continued through the spring and summer of 1910 with longer and higher flights. As word began spreading about the test flights, local citizens began coming from Newburyport and other towns, first by twos and threes, then by dozens. Front-page newspaper accounts and postcards document the growing excitement of the ìflying machinesî being flown out of Plum Island.
After the owner of the original site became disgruntled with damage to his crops, on or about June 29, 1910, the company secured a lease for an aircraft factory on a 10-acre lot of land in Newbury owned by W. Burke Little, whose family had been farming the land since colonial times. The aircraft factory was never built, but test flights continued through August, when the airplanes and pilots moved down to Squantum on Dorchester Bay to prepare for the landmark Harvard-Boston Aero Meet of September 1910.
Listen to Ted Russell of the Massachusetts Aviation Society describe the Flying Fish.