Aviation lifted off the ground in the early twentieth century, but few had the guts to explore the uncharted territory of human flight. Two courageous souls willing to glide into the challenge were Washington siblings Cloyd and Audrey Artman.
Humans fantasized for thousands of years about transcending the realm of the birds. We emulated the techniques of flying animals and insects, strapped ourselves to oversized kites, or jumped off great heights while donning makeshift wings, yet gravity won over centuries of trial-and-error.
German aviation pioneer Otto Lilienthal, though, soared with his successful heavier-than-air glider experiments in the late 1880s. He made over 2,000 glider flights and inspired the Wright Brothers.
Articles in National Geographic and Popular Aviation about glider clubs in Germany also spurred Cloyd Artman to construct his own aircraft as an Oroville, Washington, high school senior in 1932. With help from his manual arts teacher, Mr. Nelson, Cloyd pieced together a glider from muslin and butcher paper in 1934, featuring a 30-foot wingspan and a repurposed pick handle for rudder control.
Cloyd dubbed his 175-pound craft The Golden Dawn, and rigged it to Nelson’s car. Propelled by the car down the “runway” of a local baseball field, Cloyd and The Golden Dawn climbed more than 300 feet.
Building up confidence as a pilot, Cloyd’s name became recognizable beyond north-central Washington. The Golden Dawn’s first grand-scale expedition came to a peaceful ending more than two hours from the launch site on Ellemeham Mountain. Cloyd soon began fielding invitations to perform at aviation shows.
Cloyd’s flying exhibitions helped fund his mechanical engineering studies at Washington State College in 1934. Itching to share a love of gliding, he founded the WSC Aero Club the following year, aweing students with demonstrations of his “autotow” launch technique from campus ballfields and soaring above Steptoe Butte Park.
Already the “big man on campus,” Cloyd’s legend grew throughout college. When a car accident destroyed The Golden Dawn, with more than 300 successful flights under its wings, the townspeople of Oroville loaned him money for its successor. He entertained locals with treacherous night flights, descending on makeshift landing strips illuminated by car headlights. On more than one occasion, some 15,000 workers looked up from constructing the Grand Coulee Dam to see Cloyd gliding overhead.
More people took notice of the Artman siblings’ exploits when his younger sister Audrey came to WSC. With a sustained flight of 13.5 hours in The Golden Dawn, Cloyd was believed to have surpassed unofficial U.S. and world records for primary glider flight by 1934. Popular Mechanics showcased Cloyd’s launch using a greased board atop a Model A Ford.
Audrey had amassed plenty of gliding experience herself for years, breaking female amateur records for both altitude and endurance in glider flight. She was one of a handful of the country’s women glider pilots at the time, along with luminaries Anne Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart.
National newspapers glommed onto the Artmans’ story, enthralled by the self-taught teenage pilots who bungied their homespun flying machines to car bumpers and landed with the help of flashlights at night.
The Artman siblings continued their gliding until 1937, when the club completed a high-performance two-person glider called The Comet after more than 2,300 hours of construction under Cloyd’s direction. With club member Frank See as copilot, The Comet’s first two-man voyage would sadly become Cloyd’s last.
They sailed smoothly above the Snake River for seven minutes until the left wing folded in on itself, and the craft and its occupants plummeted to the bottom of the gorge. Horrified, Audrey pledged to never fly again. The mourning club members burned the wreckage, bringing the legend of the prodigious flying pioneer to a conclusion.
Despite the tragedy, the fearless spirit of Cloyd and Audrey Artman showed how a pair of adventurous teenagers from Oroville could break free from the ground’s restraints and soar.
A “Cloyd and Audrey Artman Washington State Tour” compiled by Linda Chism (an aviation engineer, pilot, and a member of the Seattle Glider Council) outlines historical sites around the state for the Artmans’ soaring adventures.
An Artman glider launch using a greased board atop a Model A Ford was featured in the September 1935 issue of Popular Mechanics (PDF) and was the inspiration of the issue’s cover.