A man of iron nerve
It was a cold January Saturday in 1926, but at least the fog had lifted. Aviator Arthur Starbuck was flying his airmail plane high above the mountains west of Ashland. He was fulfilling his best friend’s deathbed request, to scatter his ashes over the hills that both men had flown over for weeks.
In the fall of 1925, Pat Patterson and Arthur Starbuck had signed on with Pacific Air Transport, a recently formed airline that had just won the U.S. airmail contract for the Pacific Coast, from Los Angeles to Seattle. Both pilots were assigned to the Medford-Oakland run, known as “the longest hop, over the roughest country of any part of the 1,000-mile system.” Almost daily, while one flew north, the other flew south, passing each other somewhere near Mount Shasta.
On Sept. 15, 1926, when airmail first landed in the Rogue Valley, Arthur Starbuck arrived with California mail at Medford’s airport, 36 minutes early. Forty-seven minutes later, Pat Patterson left Medford on the return trip to Oakland. For the next three months, the pilots flew the mail over the Siskiyou Mountains. Then, on Dec. 16, Patterson was flying in fog. He lost control and crashed into those mountains near Ashland and died a few days later.
Arthur Starbuck was born July 11, 1898, in Palo Alto, California, to Edwin Diller Starbuck and his wife, Anna. Edwin was an assistant professor of education and philosophy at Stanford University, and his wife would soon be a professor of music.
When Arthur was 6, his father and mother accepted professorships at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, both teaching there for nearly a quarter century, and raising eight children.
Arthur first saw an airplane when he was 16, when an Army captain gave him a ride. He was just as fascinated as any boy or girl of the time; yet, he knew he was expected to follow his parents’ footsteps into academia. Two years later, he dutifully entered the university and began his studies.
By the end of 1917, with the United States involved in the First World War, Arthur felt he needed to do his part. He quit school and joined the Army. By January 1918, he was training as a pilot at Kelly Field in Texas. When he graduated, his orders took him to Virginia to teach flying to Army and Marine recruits.
He wanted to fly combat in France, but because of his talent, the Army needed him as an instructor. “It broke my heart,” he told friends, “to see my pupils go over there, while, by order of Uncle Sam, I was kept at home.”
With his discharge in April 1919, Arthur joined up with a number of traveling aviation shows. He excelled as a stunt flier, never wearing a parachute. He flew in numerous cities across the country, from Maryland to Nevada and on to the West Coast. When asked to include parachute jumps in his performance, he laughed and said, “No! Jumping just for the sake of jumping is nothing but a bit of foolishness.”
Early in the 1920s, he bought a prune farm in Healdsburg, California, and eased up on his flying. It was a mistake, and the farm almost bankrupted him. Just in time, Pacific Air Transport was looking for good pilots, and Arthur was one of the best.
For three years he flew mail between Medford and Oakland with only two relatively small crashes. Although one of those, near Mount Shasta, did sideline him for two months with a broken leg and scratches.
In 1930, he transferred to Southern California to live near his father, who was now a widower and teaching at the University of Southern California.
On May 5, 1931, Arthur was flying from San Diego to Los Angeles with Charles Parmalee, training him to be a Pacific Transport pilot. Lost in the fog, they overshot LA and tried to land at the Burbank airport, but the fog was still too thick. They flew north, hoping to find a clear place to land, but early the next morning their airplane was found, smashed against a mountain.
“Not only was Arthur Starbuck a man of iron nerve,” said a Klamath Herald newspaper editorial, “he was an unassuming, social and pleasant chap. … May he continue his flying with the angels of heaven.”
On Sunday, May 10, 1931, Arthur Starbuck’s ashes were flown over the mountains west of Ashland. “Scatter my ashes over these mountains I love so well,” he had told his father.
With his last wish, Arthur Starbuck would spend eternity alongside his friend, Pat Patterson.
Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.