Dakota Datebook

Tom McGoey

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Tom McGoey was a man of firsts. He was the first North Dakota aviator, built the first North Dakota airplane, and would later be the first aviator in several cities, including Duluth. Today in 1938, the state was celebrating the life of the accomplished aviator at his funeral held in Grand Forks. Tom McGoey had died at the age of 61 on November 17, 1938, but his legacy continued in the minds of North Dakotans who had witnessed his aerial feats.

McGoey’s aviation career began on July 12, 1911, when, for the first time, the aviator flew the first ever airplane built in North Dakota. The plane was built by McGoey and his partner F.G. Kenworthy, and the plane was ready to go for the first time. One hundred spectators gathered to watch the event once word spread through town that McGoey was going to fly his machine at the fairgrounds. Before taking to the air, McGoey drove the length of the field to get a feel for the machine. On his second run, McGoey rose 40 feet into the air, making him the first North Dakota pilot. He flew to the end of the field to get a feel for the plane before landing. McGoey then turned his plane around on the ground, and made another flight—then flew for a third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh time.

The Grand Forks Herald reported on this North Dakota first. “The Kenworthy-McGoey machine now seems an assured success—at least last night’s flights demonstrated beyond a doubt that the experimental stage was no more. It is only a question of a week or ten days of practice until Aviator McGoey will be able to successfully turn around in mid-air-dip and make practically all the turnings and writhing necessary to cover a swallow-like flight….” McGoey’s flight was not only a success in Grand Forks, however. Kenworthy had already contacted several other cities about the prospect of a performance by McGoey. With the success of these first flights, McGoey was soon to be a well-known pilot.

Following those first flights, McGoey went on to perform at the North Dakota State Fair, Thief River Falls, Sauk Center, Hillsboro, Langdon, Hibbing, Rochester, Superior, Duluth, and several other cities. In Duluth, McGoey added another first to his career as the first aviator to fly in that city. If weather permitted, he also promised to take a passenger up in his small plane—and by doing so, most likely chalking another “first” to his career and for the city of Duluth.

Although a majority of his flights had been successful, McGoey’s career as an aviator only lasted about four months. He crashed twice in his career, once at the fair grounds in Grand Forks, and once in Calumet, Michigan in the fall of 1911. This last crash must have proven too much, because McGoey ended his career then, and returned to Grand Forks where he lived until his death.

By Tessa Sandstrom

“Tom M’Goey Rites to be held Monday,” Grand Forks Herald. Nov. 18, 1938: 5.
“McGoey may take up passenger,” Grand Forks Herald. Oct. 12, 1911: 10.
“Grand Forks aviators are successful,” Grand Forks Herald. July 13, 1911: 8.

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Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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