This week’s Asian American history adventure was to the Oakland Aviation Museum, a small gem of a museum near the Oakland Airport. In an age when flight is often undignified with body scans, cramped seats, and peanut snacks, the museum recalls the wonder and exhilaration of early flight. You sense the giddiness of first realizing the ancient dream of flying.
Housed in the original Boeing School of Aeronautics, which opened in 1929, the Museum preserves and interprets vintage airplanes and aviation artifacts. Its aircraft range from a replica Wright Brothers plane to a model Dirigible to military fighter jets to a Royal Air Force flying boat. Like vintage cars, lovingly crafted, the aircraft are beautiful and feel relatable in their human scale.
For Asian/Pacific Heritage Month, I went to see the bronze bust of Feng Ru, which sits amidst planes, fantastical engines, and scale models. Feng Ru was a Chinese aviator not well known in the U.S. despite being the first to successfully fly a plane west of the Rocky Mountains in Piedmont, California, in 1909.
He designed and built the plane in his mid-twenties despite having just four years of formal education in rural China in his boyhood. He would become a pioneering aero industrialist, opening an airplane manufacturing company in Oakland. Upon returning to China, he would become the “Father of Chinese Aviation.” How did this fifth son of a subsistence farmer accomplish this?
Feng Ru was born in 1884 in the Guangdong Province of China. In his boyhood, he became obsessed with a story from the classic 16th-century Chinese novel Fengshenyanyi (Investiture of the Gods), wherein two men flew through the sky. He memorized the story and could recite it. One of his favorite pastimes became making and flying kites. His hometown deemed him a prodigy when he designed and flew a kite that lifted two small barrels on elliptical wingtips.
Following the first Sino-Japanese War, when his family became destitute, he went with an older relative to the United States when he was twelve. He found employment doing odd jobs for the United Church of Christ in San Francisco and began studying English at night. He was amazed by the economic gap between China and the U.S., writing in his diary, “ Knowledge associated with machinery is key to change the primitive situation in China.”
At sixteen, he made his way to New York, where he took work at a shipyard. Due to discrimination, he was never kept in any employment for long and hopped from job to job, sometimes working in factories and sometimes in construction. The silver lining was that through experience working in different fields and studying books about technology on his own at night, he learned the basics of mechanical engineering.
In 1906, he returned to San Francisco to open a small manufacturing business. Still, he soon focused on airplane design, manufacture, and flight testing, prophetically telling his assistant that airplanes would soon be indispensable to the military. Compared with warships, airplanes were considerably cheaper.
After the 1906 earthquake, he relocated to Oakland. He was still obsessed with flight, devouring aviation literature and conducting practical experiments. For instance, he captured a pigeon and repeatedly threw it into the air in an enclosed room to observe how its wings expanded, flapped, bent, and tilted during flight and how the wings and tail coordinated.
On the evening of September 21, 1909, Feng Ru conducted his first verified flight in a biplane of his design and construction around a hill in Piedmont, California, maintaining an altitude of 10-15 feet above the ground along an elliptical path of about half a mile. The Associated Press described the flight as the “first successful flight on the Pacific Coast of a heavier-than-air motor-driven aeroplane.”
News of his successful flight attracted investors, with 67 mostly local Chinese immigrant stockholders raising $5,875. However, his next six aircraft, much larger than the first, all failed, with the sixth aircraft crashing from a height of 70 feet when its propellor stopped suddenly. Amazingly, Feng Ru escaped without significant injury.
Undeterred, he continued work, and in January 1911, Feng Ru debuted his seventh aircraft in Elmhurst Park, Oakland. He started his engine, rolled 100 feet before taking flight, and maintained an altitude of 40 feet for nearly one mile before landing roughly 100 feet from his starting point about four minutes later.
He made numerous additional successful flights and continued fine-tuning his design until he had a new prototype in which he achieved a speed of 65 mph at 350 feet above the ground for a flight of 21 miles. At this point, he began to discuss scaling up production.
As newspapers in both California and China reported on his success, Feng Ru’s fame grew and came to the attention of the Qing government in China. An imperial lord requested a famous Chinese scholar visiting the United States to approach Feng Ru to offer him a position with the government.
At the same time, Sun Yat-sen, the exiled leader whose nationalist views fueled opposition to the Qing Dynasty, was in the U.S. to raise funds for his efforts. Hearing of Feng Ru’s activities, he arranged a visit and, after witnessing Feng Ru in flight, invited him to support a transition to the Republic of China rather than working for the Qing government.
Following the fall of the Qing government, Feng Ru became the new Captain of the Guangdong Revolutionary Air Force, with his most experienced assistant becoming Vice-Captain and two other assistants becoming the first pilots in the airforce.
Sadly, he would die only about a year later, in 1912, when his plane stalled while trying to gain altitude, crashing into a bamboo forest. Still, his efforts were not in vain. He had inspired the Chinese to become air-minded through flying demonstrations. Before dying, he conveyed the reason for the accident to his assistant, encouraging him to continue aviation progress.
Today he is memorialized not only at the Oakland Aviation Museum but at Laney College, the Oakland History Center, and Beihang University in China. Annual contests for the “Feng Ru Cup” remind future aviators about this pioneer. The Newberry award-winning children’s novel Dragonwings is based on his life.
Feng Ru’s history is only one of many fascinating stories to explore at the museum. Through its website and displays, visitors can learn about women in aviation, Black Americans in aviation, the mighty 8th Air Force of World War II, and much more. Besides aircraft, scale models and aircraft engines are on display.
On Father’s Day, June 19, 2022, there will be a special Planes, Trains, and Automobiles Event featuring its usual aircraft plus model trains running on a European themed layout, a Mercedes Benz Club of America show, food, music, simulators, tours of the flying boat, and more.
How to Go
The Oakland Aviation Museum is open Wednesday through Sunday, 10 am to 4 pm, at 8252 Earhart Road in Oakland. Tickets are $15 for adults, $12 for seniors, $10 for military and students, and $8 for children 5-12. Children under 5 are free. Indoor and outdoor exhibits are open at 100% capacity.
(This article first appeared on NewsBreak here.)
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