The daredevil Midwestern flier lived fast and died fast.
Charles W. “Speed” Holman put his native Minnesota on the map with a series of aerial feats, breaking numerous speed and stunt flying records. But unlike Charles Lindbergh, another Midwesterner who made a name for himself during aviation’s Golden Age, Holman’s life was cut tragically short.
In 1917, 19-year-old Charley Holman was a gawky high school dropout with a perennial grin. He’d already gained a reputation as a daredevil, earning the nickname “Jack-Speed” in motorcycle racing. Then he became a wing-walker. When that wasn’t enough of a thrill, he incorporated a parachute jump into his finale. In exchange for a promise to stop leaping out of planes, his father bought Speed a war-surplus Curtiss JN-4D “Jenny.”
“The first time Holman ever took a ship up, he knew more about flying than some men will ever know if they study all their lives,” recalled W.A. Kidder, founder of the Curtiss Northwest flying field. “He loved flying. He loved motors, and he loved airplanes. He was a ‘natural.’”
On September 4, 1926, Northwest Airways was formed to handle the federal post office contract. Holman was its first pilot, and his 1918 Thomas-Morse S-4C Scout its first plane. A year later, when Northwest began passenger service, Holman became operations manager.
That didn’t mean Speed wanted to spend the rest of his days flying a desk. He continued his racing career, and was always ready to up the ante when it came to aerobatic high jinks. In February 1928, he made a world record 1,093 consecutive inside loops. When a Frenchman bettered that record by 18, Holman rose to the challenge, taking his Laird LC-RJ-200 up over St. Paul one morning. A Northwest clerk stood on top of a hangar that day, keeping score on a white board while Speed performed loops—for five long hours. He eventually reached 1,112, a new world record. But Holman continued doing loops and barrel rolls until his gas tank was nearly empty. His record for that day, 1,433 consecutive loops, would stand for 22 years.
In August 1930, 400,000 people turned out to watch the first Thompson Trophy Race, the highlight of Chicago’s National Air Races. Holman was piloting the Laird LC-DW-300 Solution. The 100-mile race consisted of 20 laps over a five-mile course that circled the grandstand. U.S. Marine Captain Arthur Page was in the lead in a Curtiss XF6C Hawk when he blacked out and crashed. Holman won, but he turned down the $5,000 purse, instead handing it over to Lee Schoenhair, who had allowed him race in his place. “I don’t care so much for the money,” Holman declared. “I just couldn’t stay out of that race!”
On May 17, 1931, 20,000 spectators were on hand in Omaha, Neb., to watch Holman fly his shiny black Laird. Wallace C. Peterson, then 10 years old, vividly remembered that day: “Like every other spectator on that warm May afternoon, my eyes were locked onto Holman’s biplane as he dove repeatedly to within a hundred feet of the ground, roared past the grandstands at around 250 mph, and then zoomed and rolled high into the sky….Holman 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 300 feet in the air….As the plane rolled over, everyone came to their feet, blocking my view so I did not see the final crash. But I heard it—it was like a great pop….Spectators reported that just before the crash, Holman’s body seemed to be hanging halfway out of the cockpit, which led to the belief that Holman’s safety belt broke, causing the crash. Some pilots told reporters they thought at the last second Holman managed to control the plane enough to avoid crashing into the stands.”
The New York World-Telegram reported: “Holman died as [Knute] Rockne died, at the peak of his career. He died as he lived, with a roar and a flash at three hundred miles per hour.” His funeral was the largest in Minnesota’s history, drawing 100,000 mourners along the route to his grave. Today he is enshrined in Minnesota’s Aviation Hall of Fame, and St. Paul’s municipal airport, Holman Field, is named in his honor.
Originally published in the January 2009 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.