April 5, 1913: First airplane landing in Madera


Courtesy of The Madera County Historical Society

Daredevil D.E. Francis thrills the crowd with the first take off and landing of an airplane in Madera in 1913.

It has been more than 100 years since hundreds of Maderans gathered at the city’s baseball park, where the National Guard Armory now stands. But they weren’t there to watch the Coyotes play ball. In the first place it was too early. No baseball team got up at 6:30 in the morning to play a game. What piqued the interest of this crowd was Madera’s first ever airplane landing and takeoff. D.E. Francis was coming to town.


Francis, a professional barnstormer, was thrilling crowds all over the state with his new-fangled flying machine. At that time, he was the only pilot who had ever taken a passenger across San Francisco Bay by air. His agent was his brother, Roy Francis, who served as an advance man, whipping up enthusiasm for the flying exhibitions among communities up and down the state. Now it was Madera’s turn.


It just so happened that Madera was not without its own showman. Ben Preciado, was the manager of the Coyotes and had an eye for the unusual. He contacted Francis and arranged to combine the aerial exhibition in Madera with the upcoming baseball game with Merced. Francis agreed, and the date was set.


Roy Francis came to Madera to meet with Preciado and city officials on behalf of his brother. It was agreed that the pilot would perform on both Saturday and Sunday, March 29 and 30. It was further understood that the gate receipts would be split between the Coyotes and the Francis brothers. The admission fee was set at 50 cents per person.


The Madera City Council was then hit with a proposal by Francis. For a charge, the pilot would take moving pictures of Madera from the plane. The Council, in its wisdom, turned thumbs down on the idea, citing the cost of the venture, which was not made public.


Not to be discouraged, Roy Francis turned to the newspapers to insure a large purse at the gate, and he added something new, a parachutist. It just so happened that there was a third Francis brother, Irving, who had learned the fine art of skydiving. Maderans, for half a dollar, could see an exciting baseball game between their hometown team and its arch rival, Merced; they could view right before their eyes, an airplane take off and landing, and they could watch “Dare Devil Irving” drop from the plane. Indeed, this would be a first for Madera.


At 6:50 a.m. on Friday morning the crowd saw a speck in the sky coming from the south. Closer and closer the object came to Madera, and soon it was determined that the celebrated flying machine was on its way. Francis later explained that because of cold weather, he had to throttle down a bit, which delayed his arrival slightly. It made no difference to Maderans. They were thrilled. They were witnessing the first airplane landing in Madera. Soon they would see the first take off.


The next day, Saturday, March 29, at 2 p.m., the great Madera fly-in took place. The biplane was positioned in the field, directly in front of the ball park grandstands. Then, after warming his engines for some time, Francis strapped himself in his craft and took off. At about 1,000 feet, he circled the field, thrilling the crowd for a few minutes and then climbed to a higher altitude. “He circled, dipped, and did all kinds of stunts with the ease and grace of a giant bird,” exclaimed the Madera Tribune reporter. Then the real thrill came.


The plane landed in the ball field, and out walked “Dare Devil Irving.” The crowd watched intently as he fastened himself “like a fly to the bottom of his brother’s plane.” Off the plane went again, amid the cheers of the crowds.


At 3,000 feet, Irving cut himself loose and began his rapid descent to the ground. Soon the parachute opened, and the show began. The Tribune did not record what type of parachute Francis was using, but he must have had considerable freedom of movement, for as he came down, he was hanging first by one hand and then by his feet. Francis’ antics came to a rather unpleasant ending, however, upon landing. When he reached the ground, he was dragged over a picket fence, injuring one knee and badly bruising his side.


Those witnesses to Madera’s first aerial experience had one more treat in store for them, and this one was unplanned. After dropping Irving, D.E. Francis spotted some Maderans who were viewing the event from afar. Assuming they had not paid the admission charge, the pilot, in the words of a reporter, “threw a scare into the crowd of deadheads who had congregated outside the fence. He flew right at them, and it looked as if he had lost control of his machine.” As Francis pulled his plane skyward, the “deadheads” were all on the ground, “not knowing whether they were dead or alive.”


Notwithstanding, this daredevil left Madera having accomplished his mission.


Francis woke Maderans up to the possibilities of aviation by showing them first-hand the results of a decade of human flight in the United States, and it all happened more than 100 years ago.

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