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Flying upside down with the ‘Devil’s Tango’

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It wasn’t the first time Fred DeKor had crashed his airplane and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.

What really hurt was that even before he managed to get out of his open-air cockpit and hit the ground, the crowd was already intent on collecting souvenirs, clipping guy wires, and, piece by piece, trying to pull the plane apart.

Fred did his best imitation of a foul-mouthed sailor, screaming words and unprintable opinions at the thieves as they ran away with his stolen parts.

This was his second flight, a Sunday afternoon performance in June 1915, at the Medford fairgrounds. At the time, the grounds were located just past the end of North Central Avenue (today’s Northgate Marketplace).

Born in Iowa as Fred Korstad in 1886, he assumed his professional name, Fred DeKor, when he bought his first airplane in 1911. To his parents, he was still a successful lawyer in Seattle, and he wanted to be sure his Norwegian immigrant father and mother wouldn’t worry about, or even know about, his flying.

The family of at least six sisters and seven brothers were frequently on the move, and by 1900, Fred and three of his brothers were studying at the North Idaho State Teachers College.

In 1904, before Fred received his law degree from the University of Wisconsin, he was earning money as a brakeman for the Great Northern Railway. While riding in the cab with the engineer, the train collided head-on with another locomotive that wasn’t moving. Before impact, the engineer told Fred to jump for his life.

Both men were found under a boxcar. The engineer was dead and Fred remained unconscious for more than a day and a half. He had a broken arm, had three breaks in his left leg, and severely broken fingers. The arm never healed properly and his leg was now two inches shorter than the other.

By 1911, Fred was caught up in the country’s new fascination with aviation. In August, he left Seattle for San Diego, where a festival celebrating the groundbreaking of the Panama-California Exposition featured an air show.

Fred watched Glenn Martin (future airplane manufacturer) soar over the city in his Curtiss biplane. Fred offered Martin $3,500 for the machine if Martin would teach him to fly it. Martin agreed, and after a mere three weeks at Martin’s aviation school near Los Angeles, Fred was making daily flights in Southern California of over 30 miles. Two months after he began training he qualified for his pilot license — the 72nd ever issued in the U.S.

His legal career was over.

“Looking down on the clouds,” he told a reporter, “is a novel and beautiful sight.” He was now an aviation barnstormer.

Before he reached Southern Oregon, he had flown exhibitions as far east as Texas and throughout the Midwest. In 1914, he was the second man to ever complete a loop the loop in an airplane.

Fred’s advertising enticed the public with promises of extreme aviation maneuvers — “Upside Down Flying, the “Devil’s Tango,” “Daredevil Dip” and the “Spiral Glide.”

After having trouble the day before, Fred’s Sunday performance in Medford was spectacular, with all the expected twists, turns and dips. It was when he attempted to land that his luck ran out.

While making a long, sweeping turn at about 100 feet, his motor stopped and he was silently hurtling down, striking the ground in a cloud of dust.

Fred repaired the airplane and continued flying until at least the mid 1920s, but he never returned to Medford. He became a flight instructor and also offered airplane rides. For 40 years, he was hardly more than a memory.

Then, in 1958, Fred reappeared in a Salem newspaper, talking about his flight over the capitol building that he had made right after his Medford troubles. He said he had worked at the Nash Automobile plant and now owned a gas station in Seattle. And then he was gone.

He hadn’t flown an airplane in decades. He died in February 1964.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “Eugene Ely, Daredevil Aviator.” Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.