COTTAGE GROVE — Cottage Grove this weekend will take to the skies and celebrate renowned local aviator, the late Jim Wright.
On Saturday Aug. 5, the Oregon Aviation Historical Society (OAHS) will host the 45th annual Jim Wright Memorial Stearman Fly-in to honor Cottage Grove aviator legend Jim Wright and Cottage Grove native, who died in an aircraft accident 20 years ago on Aug. 4, 2003.
Wright was on his way to Cottage Grove in his H-1 Racer replica from the 2003 AirVenture Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) event in Oshkosh, Wis. He crashed north of Yellowstone National Park around the Old Faithful Geyser after stopping in Gillette, Wyo., to refuel where he had a problem with the propeller remaining in takeoff position while in the air. The replica plane was destroyed in the crash.
The event serves as an “open house” for the public to learn about their local airport, according to Rachael Hauser, the executive director of the OAHS. The event offers the chance to see the OAHS museum, experience a ride in an open-cockpit airplane, and hear stories about Jim Wright, as he was an important member of the Cottage Grove and Oregon aviation community.
But it’s also much more than that.
“For this particular event, it really is dedicated to the memory of Jim Wright,” she said, who is most known for building a replica of the H-1 Racer in 2002, which was initially built by Howard Hughes in 1935 and was the fastest plane at the time.
“Jim Wright went ahead and built a replica of it — even though there were no blueprints, and there were no plans,” Hauser said. “The Smithsonian let Jim and his other friends from Cottage Grove and Creswell go out and take measurements and photographs. Based on those measurements and some photos, they created this incredible legendary replica that people are still in awe of all these years later.”
After Wright’s death, the Cottage Grove airport was changed to the Jim Wright Field to honor him in 2003. The sign in front of the museum says, “Jim Wright Field: A kind and gentle man of extraordinary vision.”
Wright’s H-1 Racer was licensed as an “experimental amateur-built,” which is a Federal Aviation Administration licensing category created in 1952 with credit to George Bogardus, an Oregonian.
The EAA consists of 250,000 members with 650,000 people attending their aviation conference in Oshkosh, Wis. The origin of an international association was in Oregon because of “ordinary people achieving extraordinary things” through homebuilt airplanes with little experience and no university degrees.
Wright was more than a pilot and meant a lot to the community.
“As a person, he was just a real down-to-earth gentleman,” said Annette Whittington, OAHS treasurer. “Then he started building this airplane (H-1 Racer), and it created a lot of interest in Cottage Grove. When he got it done, the airplane was absolutely beautiful. It’s a fantastic piece of engineering. And he was just a great guy. When we lost him, it was devastating to the whole community; not just to pilots — he had been a businessman there for a long time.”
Wright also owned a machine shop on Palmer Avenue, which was right next to the airport.
“He employed a lot of people, but like the sign on the airport says, he was a kind and generous person,” Hauser said. “Everyone says how warm-hearted he was and how he always had this big smile … how unpretentious he was. You could tell that he really cared about people and took an interest in them.”
The memorial event brings aviators from all over the region.
“I think it has a great potential for the town, especially if it’s bringing in out-of-town visitors — like Washington pilots who like to stay for the whole weekend,” Hauser said.
The event will also include a barnstormer from California, a pilot who displays stunts in the air, where he will give rides over Cottage Grove in his 1929 open-cockpit biplane; however, the weather could be a factor for the barnstormer fly-in because of the fire season.
The OAHS has seven planes and other aviation parts on display at the museum. It is fundraising for a new hangar in order to display all its planes. The museum includes smaller exhibits of the important and influential planes and pilots of the society. There is also a Hall of Fame exhibit, where you can see the members and their achievements.
The fly-in is free and will be held on Saturday from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. at the OAHS, 2475 Jim Wright Way, Cottage Grove.
Correction: The date of this event was incorrectly noted at Sunday, Aug. 5 in the print edition. The event will be held on Saturday, Aug. 5. The Chronicle regrets this error and strives for accuracy.