The first North Dakotan to fly an airplane did so in an aircraft that he designed and built himself.

Thomas McGoey was an electrician who, on July 12, 1911, at the State Fairgrounds in Grand Forks, flew about 100 yards. This and subsequent longer flights in Grand Forks sparked a great interest in McGoey’s accomplishments, and soon he was invited to put on flying exhibitions all over eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota.

On Sept. 14 and 15, McGoey became the first pilot to fly an airplane at Little Falls, Minn., when he soared for 11 minutes at the Morrison County Fair. Many of the town’s 6,000 residents showed up to see the flight, and the headline in the Little Falls Transcript was, “Everyone Concerned Was Well Pleased With Performance.” It is possible that one of the most excited residents to view the flight could have been 9-year-old Charles Lindbergh.

Thomas Joseph McGoey was born June 1, 1877, in Toronto, Canada, to James and Agnes McGoey. On March 17, 1887, McGoey’s family immigrated to the U.S. and settled in Grand Forks, where James became a carpenter. When Thomas completed his education, he found work helping at a bowling alley, building smokestacks, assisting with the stringing of telephone lines and learning to be an electrician.

Thomas formed a close friendship with Fred Kenworthy, who was an adventurer and, perhaps, somewhat of a glory-seeker. Kenworthy was a Grand Forks tailor who, in 1896, announced to the national press that “he would take a small wagon, pulled by dogs, all the way around the world.” He made it as far as Minneapolis when he ran out of money and was forced to return home.

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The successful flight of the Wright brothers on Dec. 17, 1903, near Kitty Hawk, N.C., gave Kenworthy a new idea — to be the first to fly an airplane in North Dakota. Since you could not buy an airplane, Kenworthy convinced his friend Thomas McGoey, a person with knowledge about electricity, to build their own plane. McGoey liked the idea, and since his father was a carpenter, he also had the basic vision of the needed lightweight structure he would need to construct.

The two men believed that if they could build the first airplane in the area and successfully fly it, they could become wealthy by selling their airplanes. However, the one thing they could not build was an engine. In late June 1910, McGoey and Kenworthy went to Chicago in search of a suitable engine. They spent three weeks looking for the best engine for their airplane, but returned on July 16 without one.

The two men stated that there were only “three machines that can, and will fly, and they are the Wright, Curtiss, and Farman.” Wright and Curtiss were only building engines for their own airplanes, and Farman was a British company. Kenworthy said, “you can’t buy any of their machines for love or money.”

One company that was making engines that was potentially suitable was Nome, but because of back orders, it would take at least a year to receive one. Knowing that they would have to wait a year to complete their work was disappointing to McGoey and Kenworthy, and to add to their frustration, Archibald Hoxsey, an associate of the Wright brothers, arrived in Grand Forks on July 19 and flew his plane, becoming the first pilot to successfully fly an airplane in North Dakota.

McGoey and Kenworthy’s major objective was to have their plane ready for the State Fair in Grand Forks on July 25-26, 1911. With the engine installed and everything else completed on July 12, McGoey decided to make his first test runs. The plane was brought out to the fairgrounds, and at about 7 p.m., McGoey taxied down the field just to get the feel of it. On his second approach, “the airplane gracefully rose to a height of about 40 feet and floated for about 100 yards.”

McGoey made seven practice flights before turning in for the evening, and both men were very pleased with the way the airplane operated. Kenworthy then contacted “ several points where contracts had been pending and sent word that the feature (airplane flights) would be contracted for at those cities.” Unless it rained or the wind blew in excess of 20 mph, McGoey practiced flying daily for the next 11 days. As his confidence grew, he was able to work in different maneuvers and fly greater distances and at higher altitudes.

Kenworthy got McGoey booked to fly both days of the fair. Earlier, the fair managers had an agreement with Hoxsey to return and fly both days, but he had been killed when his plane crashed in California in December. Hoxsey’s replacement was Philip Parmelee, known as “king of the Wright squad.” Later, Parmelee was killed when his plane crashed in the state of Washington in 1912.

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Officials anticipated a large turnout for the State Fair due to having the two pilots, McGoey and Parmelee, as the main attractions, so the mayor ordered all of the stores to close for the days of the fair. About 15,000 people attended on the first day, and McGoey’s flights were nearly flawless. The press, as well as newly acquired fans, began to refer to McGoey as the “Bird Man.”

McGoey’s first exhibition booking outside of Grand Forks was at Thief River Falls, Minn., for Aug. 3-5. Because of rain on Aug. 3, he did not fly, but on the other two days everything went well.

The wreck of Thomas McGoey's plane in Langdon, N.D. Special to The Forum
The wreck of Thomas McGoey's plane in Langdon, N.D. Special to The Forum

McGoey was then booked to fly at Langdon, N.D., one week later and experienced his first crash when his engine stalled and he ended up crashing into a barn. His second crash came at Sauk Centre, Minn., on Sept. 1, when a downdraft forced his plane to crash into a fence. On Sept. 7, while practicing his flying at Grand Forks, McGoey’s engine began misfiring while in flight and he experienced a bad landing, causing considerable damage to his plane. On Sept. 29, while flying at a fair in Rochester, Minn., McGoey was soaring to 3,000 feet when suddenly his engine stopped “for lack of gasoline,” but he was able to safely coast to the ground.

On Oct. 23, McGoey was flying in a show at Calumet, Mich., when suddenly, “his engine went cold, necessitating a landing.” However, the area where the plane came down was covered with stumps and the plane crashed. McGoey was uninjured, but the plane was a wreck.

The pilot was optimistic, pledging to continue with further flights, but his girlfriend and future wife, Mary Agnes Corrigan, convinced him to hang it up. He said, “I could see a future in the electrical business and I could not see any immediate future for practical aviation.” McGoey established an electrical contracting business in Grand Forks.

He “pioneered in other things besides aviation, notably in telephone work. He built and installed the first telephone exchanges in Inkster, Langdon, and Walhalla (N.D.).”

Thomas McGoey died on Nov. 17, 1938.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.