Midway across a field in the northwest corner of Ann Arbor Municipal Airport, where the hangars of the University of Michigan Flyers butt up against the gated communities off Ellsworth Road, Kathryn Robine opened the window of her 1977 Cessna 152 and dropped three brown paper lunch bags packed with flour. The bags fell 200 feet to the ground, settling more than 100 feet from their target — an aluminum trash can in the center of the field.
“She’s on the right line,” said Will Lawler, a fellow flight instructor for the Flyers, as Robine’s aircraft darted overhead. “But she’s letting go too early.”
From the ground, where Lawler was standing 10 yards from the bin (“The closer you get, the safer you are,” he joked), the observation was plain enough — a straightforward calculation, as he explained it, of the plane’s speed, altitude and the wind. Yet on that placid Saturday afternoon Robine had been battling more than the winds. Her task, flour-bombing, was an all but retired practice, rarely in the four decades since the Flyers competed for national titles in the sport in the early 1970s.
The genesis of the University’s aerospace engineering programming — and, according to the Flyers’ current officers, the club as well — was a letter from the Polish émigré Felix Pawlowski to 18 of the United States’s most prominent colleges.
An electrical and mechanical engineer by training, Pawlowski left Poland for Paris shortly after the Russian-Japanese war and just as Orville and Wilbur Wright were beginning to experiment with flight. Enthralled by the fledgling pastime, he enrolled in flight training at the University of Paris. Under the tutelage of Prof. Louis Marchis, he earned his Certificate d’Etude in 1910 and set out to build an airplane by the mold of the Wright brothers’.
Eager as Pawlowski was to inscribe his legacy in aviation, his lack of funds, the shortcomings of aviation technology and of his own knowledge slowed his progress. After emigrating to the U.S. later in 1910, he settled into a job as an automotive designer when the Wright brothers declined to hire him.
But the fame and fortune he sought in coming to America began two years later, when he penned letters to the deans of 18 prestigious engineering colleges imploring them to offer courses in aeronautical engineering. Most replied to ask if the letter was a joke, with one stating, “Aviation will very likely never amount to anything!” But Mortimer Cooley, the dean of the College of Engineering at the time, offered Pawlowski a position as a teaching assistant in mechanical engineering with the promise of courses in aeronautical engineering in 1914.
Pawlowski accepted, and in the fall of that year he began teaching courses that Cooley “hid” in the Department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering because, as he wrote in his autobiography, “aeronautical engineering was not considered important enough to make it conspicuous.”
By 1915, Pawlowski had orchestrated a curriculum of 14 aeronautical engineering courses from the introductory Theory of Aviation to the more arcane Design of Aerodromes and Hangars. By 1916, this curriculum formed the basis of a four-year program for the new bachelor’s in aeronautical engineering — the first of its kind in the nation.
Without Prof. Pawlowski, who took a leave of absence in 1917 to accept the position of aeronautical engineer for the United States Army, the University may not have managed to start a successful program so early in the history of aviation. Pawlowski’s courses and the lectures of Marchis, who he persuaded to come to Ann Arbor in 1913, proved to be indispensable in the eventual birth of the Department of Aeronautical Engineering in 1930.
As a third conduit for University students to express interest in flying, Cooley looked into forming a program: University of Michigan Aero Club. After Prof. Herbert Sadler founded the club in 1911 for students to fly aircrafts — though they were as much kites as planes — Pawlowski assumed supervision of the club upon his arrival in 1913 and nursed it to maturity.
Under Pawlowski, the club met weekly to discuss aviation and the principles of aerodynamics and to study such principles in the wind tunnel Sadler constructed in the West Engineering hall. It also built two planes and received one by means of a donation by two wealthy Detroit residents, which the club crashed into Barton Pond during one of its first flights.
“There is no more colorful, adventurous chapter in the history of aeronautical engineering at the University of Michigan, than the one recounting student efforts to fly,” wrote Thomas C. Adamson, Jr., professor emeritus of aerospace engineering at the University, in his 2002 history of the department.
Had Adamson, Jr. not expelled aviation outside of the Department of Aeronautical Engineering from his survey, the early years of the University of Michigan Flyers might have challenged the 1910s as the most illustrious flying chapter by University students in Ann Arbor.
The Flyers, founded in September 1969 by five students as a flying instruction club, remained unaffiliated with the University unlike previous flying groups. However, like the Aero Club before it, the club also matured during a turning point in the history of aviation atop the postwar boom in the field when the prevalence of local airports was exceptionally high and the costs of aircraft and fuel were relatively low.
For the young founders of the Flyers, the confluence of circumstances was both helpful and harmful. As two of the club’s founding fathers, David Fradin and Mark Wagner, recounted, gas prices as low as 43 cents per gallon kept operating costs low during a start-up period when the club flitted between McKinnon, Willow Run and the Ann Arbor airports to save money.
“In the 1970s you could (fly) on a newspaper boy’s salary,” Wagner said. “Nowadays, it’s like the cost of a college education.”
Fradin especially appreciated the affordability of flying. During his time at the University, he logged more than 600 hours with the club and worked at a sandwich shop to finance his hobby. For every nine hours he worked, he estimated, he earned enough to fly for one hour.
“Today, I think the ratios are a little bit worse than that,” he said.
“If I hadn’t found the Michigan Flyers, I probably would not have learned because of the cost,” added Ray Wallman, who served as the Flyers’ second president from 1974 to 1975. “Back then it was as cheap as going to a health club today.”
According to Wallman, from his freshman year in 1971 to when he graduated in 1975, the club’s membership grew from a few dozen to more than 350 active members. The figure was, by all accounts, the Flyers’ highest ever, yet they still maintained a personal atmosphere, said fellow founder Dick Hoesli.
“It was a social organization as much as technical or professional organization,” Hoesli said. “People would come out to the club just to talk about flying or whatever the topic of the day was.”
As ideal as the Flyers’ early years seemed, the club confronted its share of troubles in the beginning, and the hurdles were more than financial. A lack of affiliation with the University proved unsettling for Fradin, who discovered the University had forged a pact with The Ohio State University in which its aerospace engineering program would focus on space flight while OSU’s would focus on aeronautics, with an implicit understanding that the two would not compete for students in those areas.
“That’s part of the reason why the University gave lukewarm support to the flying club,” Fradin said. “I always wondered why we couldn’t get more help from them over the years.
“We trained 4,000 pilots and leaders of aviation worldwide not because of the support of the University of Michigan, but almost in spite of it.”
Apart from inter-university schemes and the lack of support from colleges, the most worrisome threats to aviation today, Fradin said, are affordability and the aging of the profession. The two are correlated. With fuel prices escalating to more than $6 a gallon, the cost of airplanes opening at the price of a luxury car and the starting salary for a co-pilot stuck at $18,000, it’s little wonder young people are less inclined to learn to fly now than they were in the 1970s, he said.
For all the problems besieging aviation, however, the University of Michigan Flyers seem to have no consciousness of them. Though the club’s membership statistics are down, currently it now has 200 to 300 members — of which 60 to 70 are active and 20 to 30 are University students — and its officials admit they are as much a relic of the club’s 1970s glory as flour-bombing itself.
Whether the narrative holds up or dwindling student turnout augurs a poorer ending, evidence for the former is not out of reach (or, at least, no further than the latter). At the Flyers’ Fall Festival on Oct. 22, where Robine and the other flight instructors flour-bombed for only the second time, Flyers Vice President Bruce Williams could recall since he joined in 1998 that the young generation mingled with the old guard over barbecue, “hangar flying,” as Hoesli joked about the club in the 1970s because socializing was cheaper than actually taking off.
For now, the Flyers seem content to hangar fly, teach and learn — their only tasks since 1980 or 1981, when the club stopped taking part in intercollegiate flying competitions. From as many as 25 planes during Fradin’s reign to only five now, the amount of flying the club does has diminished, too, as the club only gives about six lessons a day.
But at least in one respect — the social one — the club has remained unchanged since its founding.
“Everybody has a common interest, and we certainly all like to talk about it,” Williams said. “Learning to fly is quite an event in all of our lives. And when you’re out there and somebody else is kind of going through what you went through when you were a student, everybody just kind of thinks back and smiles and then wants to help that person out.”