1922 - Into the Grand Canyon and Out Again by Airplane

Old fashioned airplane flying above Grand Canyon.
A. Gaylord

A COMMANDER of the British Royal Flying Corps visited the Grand Canyon some twelve months ago and gave it as his opinion that landing in this great terrestrial crater would be extremely dangerous for an aviator because of the many treacherous air currents, and that the feat would probably not be attempted for some time to come.

Mountains, canyons, cliffs, rocks and trees, ravines and valleys disturb the air currents almost exactly the same as water is affected when flowing over and around huge boulders, cliffs and other obstacles, and the air has its eddies, whirlpools, up currents and down currents; its airfalls like the waterfalls.

Most aviators, I venture to say, would have been content to fly down into the canyon and make a safe landing. But not so Thomas. He was not satisfied with his performance until he had climbed back up again without landing and then dropped over the rim in a long tail-spin, which carried him nearly to the bottom, five thousand feet below, while throngs of tourists stood along the rim above and others astride donkeys paused on the steep trails below - gazing in open-mouthed astonishment. It was upon one of the plateau that Thomas landed in his Thomas Special airplane.

Leaving his plane at Williams, Ariz., some days before his flight, he went by train to the canyon to inspect the valley for a possible landing-place. Arrived at the canyon he joined a party of tourists going down-on donkeys - and went with them down the Bright Angel Trail. At Indian Gardens Thomas left the tourists and struck out across the valley and soon found a likely looking spot. It was covered with greasewood-a small western shrub, about eighteen inches high-and was fairly level and about 60x450 feet.

The following day he obtained permission from Colonel Crosby, Park Superintendent, to attempt the landing, and the latter sent a park ranger down with Thomas to mark the landing place and to estimate the time necessary to clear and put it in shape for a landing. This was accomplished by five men in one day.

This done, Thomas returned to Williams, sixty-three miles distant from the canyon, and on the following morning, Tuesday, hopped off. Climbing to an altitude of one thousand feet, he pointed his plane toward the canyon, following the railroad. When within about eighteen or twenty miles of the big chasm he rose to an altitude of two thousand feet, for below him was thick shrubbery and trees, making it impossible to land without a crash, and altitude was necessary to permit him to make a long glide over this bad stretch back to safety in case anything went wrong with his motor.

Continuing at an altitude of two thousand feet until he reached the rim, Thomas circled out over the canyon to test the air, returning in a few minutes and dropping to within a hundred feet of the rim to take some pictures of El Tovar hotel and its cluster of small buildings, including Bright Angel cottages. Then, circling back over the railroad station, he dropped to about twenty feet above the buildings and the crowd of tourists, and to show the perfect balance of his plane, held up both hands, smiling as he glided by overhead. Completing another circle and again flying low over the tourists standing along the rim, he headed straight for the edge of the big cut. To quote further from Mr. Gaylord's description:
Old fashioned airplane flying away from the camera.
The motor was ticking as steadily as a clock. Up to the rim, and then, with a throttled motor, he dropped slowly over and down - down into the very bowels of the earth!

The plane rocks a bit as it strikes an angry cross-current of air. Far, far below are rocks, rocks, rocks, and at the very bottom a silvery thread-the Colorado. Bright Angel trail creeps slowly up under the nose of the plane; then passes as slowly up and back behind, twisting and winding back and forth until lost from sight at the rim of this Devil's Bowl. Thomas looks over his shoulder and smiles - he is thinking of the many long hours he spent riding up and down, or rather down and up, that same awe-inspiring trail on the back of a donkey.


A group of pigmies on toy donkeys steals gradually into view under the nose of the plane. A wave of the hand and an instant later they are looking down upon the airplane-it is far below them.

Indian Gardens creeping up slowly under the plane; now the watering-place-and the plane passes out between Hopi point and Mojave point and into the great plateau section of the canyon. Below is the tiny landing-place-a small, flat, oblong, almost surrounded by rocks, pinnacles, towers and buttes. It is a simple matter now to make a safe landing. But does he do it? No. He is pointing the nose of the plane upward now and begins climbing in wide, graceful circles. He soon reaches an altitude of about four thousand feet from the bottom - still a thousand feet below the surface of the earth.

The motor slows down. Thomas waves his hand to the people gathered along the rim high above him. The nose of the plane shoots up. One wing drops. Then the nose topples over and the plane shoots down. The tail wiggles and twists. Down, down, down; five hundred feet, eight hundred feet, one thousand feet - the plane is plunging and whirling to the bottom at a terrifying speed.

Suddenly the motor begins to roar again. The plane has straightened out and now is flying on a level course. The most dangerous and yet the most useful stunt known to aviators has been executed for the first time in the very bowels of the earth!

The huge, graceful eagle turns slowly, circling gradually downward and, with diminishing speed, glides toward the small landing spot among the boulders and gently, very gently, settles down and stops, rolling all the way across the small landing-spot and stopping about fifty feet from the edge of an 1,800-foot gorge.


A group of burros standing next to a recently landed biplane.
THE FIRST AND ONLY AIRPLANE TO LAND WITHIN THE CANYON AT PLATEAU POINT. PILOT: R.V. THOMAS. FRED HARVEY MULES ON LEFT. 08 AUG 1922.

FRED HARVEY PHOTO. (GRCA IMAGE 05235)

Three people standing next to a biplane.
R.V. THOMAS, A BARNSTORMING WORLD WAR I FLYER, MADE THE FIRST AND ONLY LANDING WITHIN THE CANYON AT PLATEAU POINT. 08 AUG 1922.

FRED HARVEY PHOTO. (GRCA IMAGE 05255B)

Two pilots standing next to a biplane.
FIRST AIRPLANE LANDING MADE IN THE GRAND CANYON OF ARIZONA ON AUGUST 8, 1922. R. V. THOMAS - PILOT. E. L. KOLB PASSENGER.

(GRCA IMAGE 05255)

Now, getting down into this rock-studded valley safely with an airplane was one thing; taking the air again from such a small clearing for the return trip back to the rim was another and entirely different matter. To take off, an airplane must get a fairly long run to pick up speed.

The return was not made until the following day, Wednesday. After landing and making the plane fast as best he could, Thomas returned to the rim, via the donkey route. He had no more than reached the top when word came to him that a high wind had turned his plane half-way around, breaking off the tail skid. This he repaired with a piece of broken automobile spring and wire.

At 10:12 o'clock Wednesday morning Thomas hopped off from the small plateau at the bottom of the canyon. The wind changed 60 degrees while the airplane circled this small plot once, and only a very short run could be made for the take-off, so that by far the most difficult phase of his undertaking was before Thomas. Indeed, it was this return flight to the rim that worried Colonel Crosby, the park superintendent, more than anything else.

Getting a short but fairly good run for it, Thomas banked the plane steeply against the wind and began to climb in very small circles, keeping always within easy gliding distance of the landing spot. After circling the small field in this manner until the plane gathered speed he gradually widened the circles, reaching the rim at 10:17. Thus it required five minutes to climb the mile from bottom to top.

Last updated: August 9, 2018