Billy Parker, Aviator Extraordinare
I was a lucky fellow growing up in the mountains of Wyoming. My father, Pic, was an post WWI aviator having learned to fly in 1924. His first airplane was a Long-winged Hisso powered Alexander Eaglerock. My father would meet many of aviations greats who developed into life-long friends.
Several of my Dad’s pals became memorable mentors to me. One, totally unforgettable fellow, was Billy Parker. I first recalled seeing Billy in the 1940‘s. Billy used to kid me and tell me he knew me when I was still liquid! He was the head of the aviation department at Phillips Oil Co and visited my father’s flight operation(s) often.
I realize writers should know better than to use a subject’s first name, always use the surname, right? As a youngster I was taught to say “Mr.” or “Sir.” However, Billy Parker insisted that I call him “Billy.” So, Billy it always was and always will be!
Billy was born in Oklahoma City in 1899. He had three sons; Will D. Jr.; Torrence and Milton. His son, Torrance, is a friend of long standing and flew his Travelaire 4000 for many years. Billy’s wife, Eleanor “CynDy,” was a beauty who shared his love of aviation. Milton and I were fishin’ pals for many years when we both lived near one another in Denver.
I was the beneficiary of Milton’s having leased a lake an hour’s drive from home. It was full of nice fat rainbows and a few brown trout. One memorable trip to Milton’s lake was with Billy Parker, my Dad, Harry Combs, and, of course, Milton. It turned out to be my Dad’s last fishin’ trip as well as Billy’s.
Billy Parker was simply a marvelous human being who happened to be part of the birth of aviation. Early on, the Parkers moved to Colorado. Billy grew up in Ft. Collins where he became the first person to fly in the State of Colorado.
Will D. “Billy” Parker
There were but two flying schools in 1912. The nearest one was 1500 miles away. Undaunted, Billy picked up what meager information was available and set to work with wire, cloth and spruce lumber. He was not yet a teenager when he built his first airplane AND engine! The engine block was honed out of ash wood. And it ran! Not well, but it ran! This was in 1911 – 1912. Thanks to his mother’s concerns, Billy would soon have a more reliable engine for his steed. The new engine would be in the form of a 50 horsepower Gnome rotary engine built in France..
In 1912 few people were flying anywhere in America. Albeit self-taught, Billy would eventually receive pilot’s license 44. However, pilot certification didn’t begin until 1926 with the Air Commerce Act out of which The Civil Aeronautics Authority was born, the predecessor to the modern FAA. Before August 20, 1926, pilots were licensed by the National Aeronautic Association. Orville Wright would sign the licenses prior to that time.
Note the difference! The NAA licensed pilots. The CAA, a government agency, certificated pilots. It made it easier to take away that which had been given… My father’s first license was signed by Orville Wright.
By 1914, Billy was getting the kinks out of his pusher bi-plane when he learned Barney Oldfield would be racing Lincoln Beachey at the fairgrounds outside of Denver. Billy was excited at the prospects of witnessing this. Finally convincing his mother that he could safely fly his flimsy crate the 50 miles to Denver and back, he promised to be home before dark.
On the day of this well-publicized race, between America’s premier automobile racer, Oldfield, and equally famous aviator, Beachey; Billy climbed aboard his rickety kite and flew over the farms and the prairie to see this amazing event.
Arriving amidst the gathering throngs of Denverites, there to see these two renowned personages race airplane VS automobile, they waited. They all waited and waited some more, but Beachey could not get his engine to perform in the rarified air of the mile-high city.
By mid-afternoon Billy realized he would have to get back to Ft. Collins before it grew dark. He fired up his crate and took off never realizing the significance of his having flown when the world’s most famous aviator couldn’t….
Billy would go on to an exciting career in aviation. He started as a youngster, a pilot with an aeroplane, who already had conquered the Colorado high country AND the world’s greatest living aviator.
During the summer months Billy tested and improved his design then off he went barnstorming throughout the Northwest demonstrating the marvels of his aircraft at state and county fairs.
During the winter, Billy improved his pusher-type airplanes at his small factory. He built 10 airplanes which he sold to other pilots or used himself.
According to Billy’s son, Torrance, by 1916 Billy had joined the Oklahoma National Guard. The Guard was reorganized and called the “Federal Service.” Billy offered the services of himself and his pusher. He was later turned down because he was not trained by the military. The head of the aviation section did not want anyone who was not under their direct command. However, at some point Billy was using “airpower” to help chase down Poncho Villa. At this time the United States Army owned fewer than 16 aircraft.
Billy’s commission as a captain in the British Royal Flying Corps, occurred after a stint flying with the Christofferson Redwood City Flying School in California. By November 1917 Billy had returned to the US from the RFC and was named chief pilot for a new flying school near Dewey, Oklahoma. Billy became a test pilot again as well as an instructor and was in charge of building airplanes for the Dewey Airplane Company. In the fledgling aviation industry, Billy did it all. He was one of those people whom others recognized as a knowledgable doer.
There was an article Billy wrote for the 1921 “Aerial Age Weekly” where he explained the principles on one of his inventions, the first practical controllable pitch propeller, one of his many patents.
In the “Aerial Age Weekly” article he predicted that, with supercharging and the use of his propeller, speeds of over 400 mph and altitudes of 40,000 feet would be possible. Illustrations in this article show an uncanny resemblance to the constant speed props of the modern era. He was prophetically spot-on!
By 1927 Billy had left barnstorming when Frank Phillips hired him as manager of the Phillips Aviation Division. While at Phillips, Billy maintained two old pusher aeroplanes that he flew around the country giving demonstrations in airshows and special events. This came about serendipitously from Phillip’s maintaining display booths at some of the larger airshows.
When Billy accepted an invitation to fly one of his pushers, he became an instant hit and was in constant demand from then on. One pusher was a 1912 model powered by an 80 horsepower Gnome-Rhone rotary up from an earlier 50 horse power version.
His 1914 pusher was powered by a Curtiss OX5 engine of 90 horsepower. These old pushers were capable of flying at the speed of smell! …roughly 60 miles per hour. Not fast, they sure could climb. 1000 feet per minute rate-of-climb after a very short takeoff run.
No question that logistic issues surrounded the flying of these historical aircraft. Billy and his crew would arrive a day ahead to assemble and test fly the airplane.
He was called on by many to solve problems confronting early aviators such as Wiley Post. Billy was instrumental in developing Post’s “space suit,” the first of it’s kind.
Billy developed the drop-away landing gear for Post’s “Winnie Mae” for the altitude records Post achieved. The special landing gear is on display at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
Additionally, Billy was a master machinist. You would not believe the little engines he built late in life. Down to the tiny brass screws! By life’s end he would hold numerous patents for improvements to airplanes and equipment that made aviation safer.
Billy Parker was instrumental in the development of aviation fuels. Under Secretary of War, Patterson, requested Billy head an extensive fuel flight test program initiated by the Army Air Corps. His efforts went a long way to improve the range of WWII transports, fighters and bombers.
Many early-day airfields show Parker’s name on their register. The well-kept Davis-Monthan Airfield Registry, wonderfully restored by Gary Hyatt, has him listed no fewer than nine times between 1927 and 1931.
Billy was an Early Bird, of course, having flown prior to December 17, 1916. He would later be destined for the Colorado and Oklahoma Aviation Hall of Fame. Billy was honored for his decades of being a true ambassador to aviation flying his two Curtiss Pushers at air shows and special events around our great country.
Will D. “Billy” Parker
Billy and I often fished together when I grew up in the mountains of Wyoming. He and my Dad had been good friends since the 30’s. I remember some great times fly-fishing with Billy Parker, but my best memories are of his taking me along in the Phillips L-18 Lodestar or the Lockheed 12. Early-on, my feet couldn’t reach the rudder pedals, but I would handle the yoke just fine between Saratoga and Denver or Cheyenne where he would go for the fuel unavailable at our little dirt strip sitting 7000′ above sea level. That little dirt strip is now a busy jet-port.
Saratoga, Wyoming’s Shively Field
I marveled at his ability to machine the many tiny engines that ran smoothly. I marveled at his re-engineering his Sun City home’s wiring. At the flick of a switch his phones were off-line and he was not bothered by calls period! His magnificent pearl-white Rolls Royce, that he re-engineered so that the air-conditioning compressor would automagically shut off when the car stopped for a traffic light, was absolutely beautiful.
I remember being with Billy and Harry Combs. I had long admired Harry for his accomplishments. I met Harry as a youngster. He and my father were colleagues from WWII. Harry ran a CPT program out of Boulder, Colorado while my Dad ran his CPT schools at Cheyenne, Laramie, and Ft. Morgan.
Harry told me the person he most admired, after the Wright Brothers, was Billy Parker. Harry hired Billy on many occasions to help with aviation issues. Harry wrote an impressive well researched history of the Wright Brother’s. I treasure my autographed copy.
Billy lined up on Runway 27 for his Flight West in 1981. His son’s Milton and Torrance gave me the high honor of serving as one of his pall-bearers. They gave me his hand tooled belt with “Billy” scrolled on the leather work. They gave me his large QB wings that are prominent on my office wall.
At his service in Sedona, I looked at Billy for the last time, I noticed his pilot wings were absent from his lapel. I removed mine. With trembling hands, I placed my pilot wings on Billy Parker’s lapel. All things go around, come around…
Billy’s remains are in the family plot at Sedona, Arizona now and his 1912 and 1914 Parker Pushers are displayed at the Tulsa and Oklahoma City terminals. Gone but never forgotten…
Below: Parker Pusher – LeRhone Rotary Powered
December 17, 1953 – Kill Devil Hill
Commemoration of 50th Anniversary of the Wright Brother’s First Flight. Unusual photograph of a B-47 sliding by Billy Parker’s right wing.
Wiley Post & Billy Parker with innovative Space Suit. Man on right unknown.
Billy & Eleanor “CynDy” – Dewey, Oklahoma
Billy with fellow “Early Birds” Moffett Field 1961
Everyone shown in the above photo had learned to fly prior to 1914. “Early Birds” were pre-WWI aviators
/\ Torrance Parker’s 1928 Travel Air.
Billy & Eleanore “CynDy” Parker had three boys, Will Jr., Milton, and Torrance. Of the three Torrance inherited Billy’s abiding love of flying. Milton was an oil/gas man and quite successful at this endeavor. Will Jr. died young. Torrance lived the longest having Gone West in 2016. I didn’t know Will Jr. I was closest to Milton as we were fishin’ buddies. I got to know Torrance when I was pall-bearer at Billy’s services in Sedona, AZ. We stayed in touch until his death.
Below – Billy Parker setting the record straight in 1962: Billy wrote a letter to the Antique Aircraft Association back in 1962. He felt history had been distorted. In the interest of readability, I re-typed the two-page letter shown below…
Phillips Petroleum (letterhead) Bartlesville, Oklahoma
December 11, 1962
Mr. Bob Taylor Antique Airplane Association Fremont, Iowa
Dear Mr. Taylor.
Someone handed me a copy of the Winter, 1962 edition, of Antique Airplanes and I was amazed at the way history becomes so quickly distorted. I seldom write to magazines or publishers but in the interest of keeping the record straight I think a few comments are in order.
On Pages 23 and 24 of the publication mentioned above there is a picture of my early aircraft. On Page 27 the following statement is made …For many years Billy Parker has flown a replica Curtiss Pusher (Page 25) at air shows for Phillips Petroleum Company. Wings from this airplane were once part of a Jenny.
I have never built a replica of anything and it seems that some of the young historians who write about such things call any sort of flying machine that has interplane ailerons a Curtiss replica.
During the years 1912 through 1916 I built exhibition airplanes in my little factory at Fort Collins, Colorado and several of these were sold to some of America’s foremost exhibition flyers. My airplanes had interplane ailerons, aside most aircraft of that era. The reason they were used was that they were much more efficient on slow aircraft than trailing edge ailerons and they got away from the Wright patents. In those days the Wrights were very difficult to deal with and on many occasions caused considerable trouble for anyone whom they thought infringed upon their design.
While Mr. Curtiss, who was a good friend of mine, built some of the finest engines in the world, about the last thing anybody wanted to do, who was interested in looping the loop or doing fancy flying (as it was called) was to copy the Curtiss machine as it was considered too weak for stunt flying due to its bamboo outriggers and other frail parts. Additionally, it was very cumbersome to ship as it had a center section about 10′ wide and all my machines were built with a 3′ center section and a narrow landing gear which could be shipped in one unit with the engine installed.
For your information there were several people who built strong airplanes which were capable of looping. Chief among these, with whom I was acquainted, were Warren Eaton who built the airplanes of Mr. Lincoln Beachey, Art Smith who built his own aircraft, Charley Day who built some of the finest exhibition machines in the early day, Waldo Waterman on the West Coast, and Silas Christofferson of the San Francisco area, as well as myself. Mattie Laird also built some fine airplanes in Chicago which were capable of standing high stresses.
My airplane, which is depicted in ‘Antique Airplanes’ has as you can readily see, a thin wing section and the front spar is the entering edge. The Jenny, if you will take a look at some pictures, had a spar about 3 1/2″ deep and was some 6′ behind the entering edge. Although the two aircraft which I own and still fly have been rebuilt
Mr. Bob Taylor -2- December 11, 1962
many times, they were originally built in 1912 and 1914. The one shown in the magazine is the 1914 model. We built up a complete new set of wings for this aircraft several years ago due to the fact that the wood in the original wings had deteriorated and rotted to such an extent that they were considered unsafe . However, the rest of the aircraft is original except for the cloth, bots and tires.
Another popular misconception is that the OX5 engine was a World War I development. As a matter of fact the OX5 was practically identical with the OX2 which came out in 1914, except for the fact that a Zenith carburetor was substituted for the Schebler and an Berling magneto took the place of the original German Bosch.
All of the above may not be of any interest to you but in case you should decide to use any pictures of my machines in the future I would appreciate it if the record could be kept straight. I dislike very much to see these airplanes referred to as replicas of a copy or copies of a replica or in any manner that is not factual. Thinking that it may be of some interest to you I am sending you herewith one of the factory plates from one of the machines I built in Fort Collins in 1914.
WILL D. PARKER
cc: Sharon Publishing Corporation Division Street Derby, Connecticut
Mr. Paul Garber National Air Museum Smithsonian Institution Washington 25, D. C.
Mr. Warren Eaton
Mr. Waldo Waterman
As an aviation enthusiast, you are no doubt aware of the legend of Orville and Wilbur Wright. You may even be familiar with the exploits of their arch nemesis, Glenn Curtiss. May I say with the best of intentions, however, you probably don’t know the whole story behind these amazingly talented men and the struggles they underwent. What most of us know is the legend, not the fact. It reminds me of the old adage I think originally from Tombstone’s C.S. Fly, “If the legend becomes fact print the legend.” This quote was used by Jimmy Stewart in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”
The myths that surround real men are intriguing. But believe me, there is so much more to the story than most of us ever suspected. A lot more as evidenced by the aforementioned Billy Parker letter.
I recommend you read Lawrence Goldstone’s intensely researched enormous narrative, Birdmen. The story Goldstone has to tell is enormous as well. It is an amazing read.
Most of us are aware the Wright’s were incredibly gifted engineers. These two men, without a high school diploma between them, bested the sharpest scientists of the day as they methodically experimented with the ever increasing complexity of machines they intended to fly. It’s hard to unsee what you’ve seen, or unlearn what you know—but imagine a time when nobody, absolutely nobody really knew how to get an aircraft into the air. Once airborne, there wasn’t a single person on the planet who had any idea how to control the thing.
Well, that’s not entirely true. There were lots of ideas—but most of them were wrong. It took two ingenious men, well matched and completely driven to achieve their goal, to figure out the basics.
And that’s where the trouble started. Once the Wright’s flew, others wanted to fly. If they can do it, I can do it; or so the thinking went. Although it was a relatively small group of participants, interest was very high. And like today an amazing invention tends to spawn similar inventions. But how similar? When is the line of patent infringement crossed, and what might the cost be to prevent legal action through the payment of licensing fees? It’s one of the great tragedies of our industry that Wilbur Wright, the man who could reasonably be singled out as the driving force behind heavier-than-air-flight, became so embroiled in legal actions that he drove himself into a self-imposed prison of paperwork and unrelenting stress. Orville the craftsman could build the airplane, and tweak the motor, and fly as well as anyone in his day. But it was Wilbur who drove the team forward, and it was Wilbur who became so fixated on the legal processes necessary to gain ownership of the skies that he gave up aircraft design and a seat at the controls of his own aircraft in favor of endless meetings with businessmen, and lawyers, and judges.
Curtiss got airborne after the Wrights, and certainly learned a great deal from what the pioneering brothers had done. But when he got into the game he came on like gangbusters. He innovated, he pushed the limits of the machinery. He became a sensation and so did his aircraft. The former motorcycle racer placed ailerons between the wings of his biplane (called interplane ailerons by Billy Parker), doing away with wing warping. He created new control systems, increased horsepower, and built the first functional seaplanes. He even invented tricycle gear.
If you have a penchant for aviation, you really should consider reading Birdmen. Our industry is nearly 111 years old, yet already we’ve lost so much of its history. Lawrence Goldstone rediscovers a significant portion of it for us, packages it up into a beautifully written story, and shares it with the world.
It may be a stretch to say the Wrights and Curtiss hated each other, but they certainly weren’t exchanging Christmas cards or birthday greetings. Which makes it all that much more ironic that the companies founded by the Wrights and Curtiss would one day become the Curtiss-Wright Corporation.
Separated by a fiercely competitive spirit and the quest for wealth and fame, the Wrights and Curtiss have been united by history and commerce. The companies these giants founded, now bound together as a single entity, continue to thrive to this day. You owe it to yourself to know the story behind the story. You’ll find it in Birdmen.
Here is a real treat! A link to a video of Billy flying his OX-5 powered Parker Pusher:
Much of the historic data on pioneer aviation would have been lost had it not been for the Early Bird Society which had its origin at the Air Races in Chicago in 1928. A group of pioneer flyers headed by Jack Vilas and Ernest Jones got together and decided it was time to form an organization to keep track of pioneer flyers, to work out some safe place to store and exhibit their records, historic data, souveniers, and pictures and to preserve these for posterity before it should be too late. They also resolved to bring all possible pressure to bear for the return of the original Wright aiplane to the United States from England, where Orville Wright had allowed it to be shipped after a misunderstanding with the Smithsonian Institute about the wording on a plaque placed there in memory of Dr. Langley, another pioneer of aviation.
A Story of Early Aviation Days
The meeting was held in Chicago on that famous date in history — December 17, 1928 — the 25th anniversary of the first Wright flight at Kittyhawk.
*Capt. Horace Wild
L. A. Vilas
*Richard H. Depew, Jr.
Ivan J. Gates
*Col. Chas. de F. Chandler
|*P. G. B. Morris
Capt. J. F. deVillard
*Anthony H. B. Fokker
Dr. H. W. Walden
*P. G. Morris, President
Gen. B. Foulois, Vice President
*A. H. G. Fokker, Vice President
J. F. deVillard, Vice President
Lt. Col. H. C. Richardson, Treasurer
*E. L. Jones, Secretary
July, 1956, Number 54
So many requests have been made for information regarding the original formation and purposes of the Early Birds, that is seems appropriate to review a bit of the history of the organization in this issue of Chirp. An excellent treatise on this subject was found in the 1956 calendar of Thompson Products, Inc. — a calendar which paid tribute to the Early Birds, the aviation old-timers who flew solo before December 17, 1916.
The idea of forming an ogranization of aviation pioneers grew out of a conversation between two old-time pilots. The more they thought about it the more appropriate it seemed, and the idea was presented to others who might be eligible for membership in such a group. The enthusiasm with which it was received led to the formation of the Early Birds in 1928.
Prompted by the urge to fraternize with others who had been a part of aviation’s beginning, about thirty eligibles who attended the 1928 Los Angeles Air Races decided to form an organization. Pride in their accomplishments and a desire to foster aircraft development and to achieve the recognition due the pioneers in this great industry proved additional incentives in the formation of the group.
The organization committee of thirty sent out letters to all those who could be located and called for a meeting in December, 1928 during the Aeronautic Show in Chicago. At this meeting articles of incorporation were drawn up, a constitution was adopted, and officers were elected. The formal name of Early Birds, Inc. was authorized. The first president to be elected was the late P. G. B. “Bud” Morriss. Among other famous names on the first roster were such celebrities as Walter Brookins, Earle Ovington, Dr. H. W. Walden, A. H. G. Fokker, General Benjamin Foulois, Clyde Cessna, Major T. deWitt Milling, Billy Parker, Augustus Post and Charles Willard, just to name a few.
Basis for membership in E.B. was actual solo flight as a pilot prior to December 17, 1916, which meant prior to America’s entry into the First World War, or for European pilots prior to August 4, 1914. Although the ranks of these old timers is thinning somewhat, new eligible pioneers are being found today, with the result that new members are still being taken into the organization. Nearly every issue of the CHIRP introduces another bird who flew prior to World War I and whose exploits have been authenticated to make him eligible for membership. Today, 29 years after the founding, the Early Birds are very much a live organization interested in aviation progress as well as past history, and meeting as opportunities permit, both on a sectional and national basis. Their presence at national air races and shows has always been symbolized by the checkered caps they wear.
June, 1957, Number 57
Great info! I flew in Torrance’s 1928 Travelair in 1993 with him. I used to work with his son-in-law Jim Parker. I was scanning in some old photos of that plane today from 1993 and decided to look up his dad. thanks for all the work you did on this. Well appreciated.