Column: The colorful life — and tragic death — of Speed Holman
Editor’s note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns until further notice as a tribute to Crippen. The following column first appeared May 17, 2008.
WORTHINGTON — Maybe Worthington loved Charles Holman. Speed Holman. Or, maybe only some people at Worthington came to love Holman. Surely he was a romantic figure.
Now and again, one of these columns hits on a topic or a personality which stirs a swirl of comments. People read lately about Holman and the dedication of the original Worthington airport on an August weekend in 1930. Holman comment has continued.
Holman flew to Worthington in his Laird monoplane from an air race at Chicago in two hours and 45 minutes. When he was above Worthington's 10th Street, Holman put his plane into a steep dive that the Times said sent the pigeons fluttering from the courthouse tower. Next day, Holman did an aerial stunt routine which caused some people to stand open-mouthed.
"Bring him back. Bring him back," people urged.
Snoopy would have loved Holman. He flew with a leather helmet, chin straps, goggles. Now and again he would don a leather coat that extended below his knees. The coat had a fur collar.
Speed Holman, for whom St. Paul's Holman Field is named, was a Minnesota product. His family lived at Bloomington when Bloomington still was rural Minnesota. It is not clear that Holman was graduated from high school. Many, many rural Minnesota boys did not go beyond Grade 8 in that era. Holman's mind was on machines.
He was a notably tall and gangly youth. People said "fun loving." Holman first expressed his love for racing by pushing a Harley Davidson along dusty country roads. In 1906, when he was 18, he won the motorcycle racing event at the Minnesota State Fair. That was when Charles Holman became Speed Holman.
The Bloomington boy began racing motorcycles under the name of Jack Speed. Someone introduced him to a flying circus of that era, still before World War I. Jack Speed became a wing walker and a parachutist, not yet a pilot. Holman's father was watching the aerial troupe perform when first he realized his son was one of the performers. The astonished man bought the boy an airplane on condition that he not do stunts. That became a promise broken.
After this, airplanes were the focus of Holman's life. He became a barnstorming pilot, aerial daredevil, air circus favorite.
The earlier Holman column suggested Holman's fame and popularity rivaled Charles Lindbergh's fame. Lindbergh, from Little Falls, was four years younger than Holman. Holman was born in 1898, Lindbergh in 1902.
Lindbergh made his solo trans-Atlantic flight in May 1927. In September 1927, Holman won America's first trans-continental air race, from New York City to Spokane, Washington. By that date Holman, like Lindbergh, was an air mail pilot. Both were featured regularly in news accounts. By 1929, Holman was a pilot and operations manager for the emerging Northwest Airways.
Holman never tired of performing. Through five hours in 1928 — this is incredible — he put his airplane through 1,433 loops to set a world "looping record" for a small crowd at St. Paul. Holman won the first Thompson Trophy in the air race at Chicago "on his way" to Worthington.
Speed Holman talked with and charmed Worthington people. A short while later he became the featured attraction of the 1930 Minnesota State Fair. "Get him back," Worthington people pestered. Contact was made. Holman said he could return May 17, 1931 — 77 years ago today. Omaha was dedicating its first airport (10 months after Worthington). Holman agreed to make his second Worthington appearance on his return flight from Omaha.
Holman's Omaha performance was one of his most sensational. The Nebraska Historical Society has preserved eye witness accounts. One Omaha man recalled:
"Like every other spectator on that warm afternoon, my eyes were locked on Holman's biplane as he dove repeatedly to within 100 feet of the ground and roared past the grandstands at about 250 miles per hour ...
"(He) started his last dive north of the field, flying downwind to give the spectators the illusion of even greater speed, rolling the Laird upside down when perhaps three hundred feet in the air ..."
Something went amiss. Charles Holman was last seen hanging head down, knees bent, struggling for the plane's controls. An instant later he died. He never got back to Worthington.