Page One

It’s a Bird—It’s a Plane—It’s a —HELICOPTER! In Memorial Stadium

By Steven Finacom
Monday August 23, 2010 - 08:22:00 PM
To demonstrate the stability of his aircraft Stanley Hiller, Jr. sticks his
            hands out of the helicopter during one of his Memorial Stadium test flights in 1944.
(Courtesy, Hiller Aviation Museum)
To demonstrate the stability of his aircraft Stanley Hiller, Jr. sticks his hands out of the helicopter during one of his Memorial Stadium test flights in 1944.
The “Hiller-copter” rises within the Stadium in another 1944 view. The
            stadium rim, temporary bleachers, and Charter Hill are just visible at lower left.
(Courtesy, Hiller Aviation Museum)
The “Hiller-copter” rises within the Stadium in another 1944 view. The stadium rim, temporary bleachers, and Charter Hill are just visible at lower left.
Memorial Stadium, today, where at least four feats of aviation have taken
            place within the seating bowl. The 1926 Andy Smith flight went left to right across
            this setting; the 1979 hang glider came right to left.
Memorial Stadium, today, where at least four feats of aviation have taken place within the seating bowl. The 1926 Andy Smith flight went left to right across this setting; the 1979 hang glider came right to left.
The Berkeley Daily Gazette headlined the Stadium funeral arrangements
            for Coach Andy Smith in January, 1926.
The Berkeley Daily Gazette headlined the Stadium funeral arrangements for Coach Andy Smith in January, 1926.

This Thursday afternoon, August 26, 2010, there will be something out of the ordinary occurring at Memorial Stadium on the eastern edge of the UC Berkeley central campus. 

An announcement distributed to campus faculty and staff last week by the Office of Public Affairs reads, “At approximately 2:30 pm, a helicopter with a BBC film crew will be landing and taking off from Memorial Stadium. The helicopter may hover a short period of time over the stadium before departing.” 

It will be an unusual event. But not unique.  

It’s possible to identify at least four previous occasions when aircraft have entered Memorial Stadium. There may well be more, but these are the ones I know about.  

Fixed wing aircraft, helicopters, and even hang-gliders have all had their moment aloft inside the enormous bowl of the Stadium.  

These events are separate from the more numerous but much higher altitude flyovers of the Stadium by military or advertising aircraft putting on a show at football games. 

Andy Smith’s Ashes 

The first occasion was just over three years after the Stadium was completed in 1923. In that era, California football teams had scored unprecedented triumphs, including playing five years without a loss. Andrew Latham Smith was the coach of those “Wonder Teams”, and the Stadium was sometimes referred to as “the House that Andy built”.  

When the 42 year-old Smith died January 8, 1926, of pneumonia—apparently contracted at a chilly football game he attended in Philadelphia, after the California season was over—he was widely mourned and the campus planned a memorial service fit for a deceased statesman. 

Smith’s body had been cremated in the East and the ashes brought west by his brother, his only known surviving relative. He had told those at his deathbed that he wanted his ashes scattered at Memorial Stadium and the campus acceded.  

This was the only occasion I know of when the University permitted an official funeral and internment—so to speak—on the campus (as opposed to memorial services, of which there have been many). 

The scattering of the ashes would be done by airplane, over the playing field. 

A private, apparently all male, memorial gathering was held at Berkeley’s Elks Club, next to Berkeley’s main Post Office. Smith had lived just up the street in the Hotel Whitecotton (now the Shattuck). 

The public funeral took place on Friday, January 15, 1926. Fog “settled suddenly” on the campus during the 11 am procession to the Stadium, led by UC President William Campbell and accompanied by muffled drumbeats.  

“In the presence of a sorrowing throng assembled before the Memorial Arch and on the hillsides above the Stadium, the University of California today paid final tribute to Andy Smith”, the Berkeley Daily Gazette reported. 

The service took place not in, but just north of, the Stadium with the structure as backdrop. Then, “while the thousands stood silent with bared heads an army place, piloted by Lieutenant J.R. Glascock, a personal friend of the deceased, flew low over the arch and the ashes of Andrew Latham Smith were strewn over the field where he had directed so many battles, where he won so many victories and where by example and precept he made men.” 

“During the period of meditation while the army plane circled over the university grounds, the students, alumni members and faculty who had gathered for this final tribune to their friend, stood with bared heads. The sun had dispersed the heavy fog. Swiftly the plane circled once again and then, sweeping from the north over the great memorial arch, it dipped toward the earth and the ashes of Andrew Smith were wafted to their final resting place.”  

“As they settle gently to earth Dr. McCall (pastor of First Congregational Church) pronounced the commitment: ‘Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God to take unto Himself the soul of our brother and friend, where therefore commit his ashes to the air that they may settle and rest upon the ground of his own choice, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The dust returns unto the earth as it was; and the spirit has returned unto God who gave it.” 

Did the plane that scattered the ashes actually get below the rim of the Stadium as opposed to just flying low above? Who knows? “Jack” Glascock would have had to have flown fairly low so the ashes would descend within the oval, rather than scattering away onto the campus or adjacent hills.  

A big press box didn’t exist in those days, but it would still have been some feat of flying to come over from the north over the Stadium near its highest point—the memorial arch—dip down within the several hundred feet between ends of the bowl, drop the ashes, then bank up and away before hitting a flagpole on the Stadium rim or crashing dead on into precipitous Panoramic Hill. 

Still, the deed was accomplished and the ashes apparently dropped in the right place (one suspects some may have landed on the seats, but the respectful press didn’t mention that). The Stadium remained locked following the service, leaving the great bowl silent and vacant in tribune to Smith. 

“Loyal Californians of the future who throng to the Stadium will almost be compelled to pause for a moment and recall the spell of the man who placed California football in the position that necessitated that immense structure of stone (sic) and wood to play it in,” a Daily Californian staffer wrote on the day of the service. 

That’s not necessarily true today. If you ask people attending Cal football games if they know who Andy Smith was, it’s quite possible you’ll get a blank stare in response. They may know of Pappy Waldorf, Bruce Snyder, or Mike White, but the Smith era is now far, far, removed. 

However, for some decades generations of Cal fans were comforted—or perhaps simply intrigued—by the fact that particles of Smith could still be, theoretically, nourishing the Stadium turf. 

In 1981 when the grass field was replaced by artificial turf for the first time it’s quite possible that everything physical of Smith’s presence was dug out of the Stadium bowl.  

I’m told that Cal Band members removed a piece of living turf and replanted it in front of Tellefson Hall, their private residence hall on Le Roy Avenue. It eventually expired there, but perhaps there are still atoms of Smith ash in the Northside soil, if not drifting around Memorial. 

The Teenage Test Pilot 

The second occasion I know of when an aircraft flew at Memorial Stadium was a quite different experience. There were no crowds of mourners and no ceremonies. It was an experimental, not a spiritual, occasion. 

The man who flew in the Stadium was Stanley Hiller, Jr. The vehicle he piloted was not a by then familiar airplane but a most unusual craft. 

Hiller has the distinction of making the first helicopter flight on the West Coast on July 4, 1944 when he brought his own invention, the “Hiller-copter” to Memorial Stadium. 

Hiller grew up at the top of Tunnel Road in Berkeley on an estate where the Bentley School campus now stands. From an early age he experimented with mechanical devices including, in an off-repeated account, rebuilding a washing machine his mother was discarding into a vehicle he raced around Berkeley streets. 

He also recruited school friends and developed a profitable home business building and selling model racecars with working engines. It morphed into manufacturing aluminum aircraft parts during World War II. 

Hiller went to Berkeley’s A to Zed School and enrolled at Cal for one year but ended up more of an independent inventor and innovator that a conventional college student. 

As a child he had flown with his father, who himself was an aviation pioneer, having been a pilot in the early days of manned flight. As a teenager the younger Hiller became fascinated with helicopters, which he had seen in newsreels, and came up with a design that he felt would work for a stable, co-axial, craft, one with two rotors turning in opposite directions.  

The contrasting rotors would keep the body of the helicopter from itself spinning in the opposite direction, without the need for elaborate tail assembles to counteract the torque. 

Co-axial design had been a subject of much experimentation, but no helicopter of the type had been both designed and flown successfully. Hiller sent out to try, beginning an invention and manufacturing odyssey that included presentations to skeptical Army officials, tests of models dropped from a San Francisco high rise, and a trip to Washington DC to get permission from the War Production Board to buy a motor for the full scale craft. 

In May 1944, Hiller launched his helicopter—which he called the XH-44—from the driveway of the family home, now the Bentley School campus. It wasn’t a free flight; Hiller had tied the aircraft to the bumper of his car. The limited testing proved successful. He got ready for a free flight. He was just nineteen. 

“Secretly he trundled his machine into the University of California’s football stadium,” reported Popular Mechanics in the November 1944, issue. “There he climbed aboard, started the engine, and manipulated the controls.” 

The flight was on July 4, 1944. One wonders if the date was picked because the campus would be deserted for the holiday and it was a day when mysterious noises might escape notice? No matter. The test worked and the Stadium survived. 

“The Hiller-copter, unfettered, was a perfect lady”, the article continued. “It climbed, turned, and gently came to rest on its tricycle landing gear at the will of the man in the cockpit.” 

Stanley Hiller, Jr. had made history in Memorial Stadium. It was the first successful test flight of a co-axial helicopter design, and the first helicopter flight on the West Coast. 

There were additional Berkeley flights. “Since that day it has put in a good many hours soaring over the stadium and the low hills near by,” the article added. 

Hiller went on to fame as an aircraft inventor, manufacturer, and reorganizer of troubled businesses.  

Although in the 1940s he did helicopter testing in both Oakland and Berkeley’s old Armory building on Addison Street, he ultimately based himself on the San Francisco Peninsula, where he lived as an adult.  

The Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos recalls and showcases his innovations and work, including a replica of the XH-44, as part of its mission of public education about science and aviation. The original is in the Smithsonian Institution. 

Hiller’s own name is not prominently remembered today in connection to the Stadium or to the East Bay where he grew up. However, Oakland’s Hiller Highlands subdivision, above the old family property, recalls the family name; Stanley Hiller, Sr. developed it.  

Parting the Rain Sea 

The third instance of flight inside Memorial Stadium that I can identify also had a Hiller connection.  

In November 1950, Northern California experienced nine consecutive days of rain. Heavy rain and snowfall in September and October had already loaded the Sierras with snow.  

Rain runoff and premature snowmelt poured down out of the mountains on both east and west. Usually bone-dry Nevada towns were filled with rushing water and nearly 700,000 acres of California’s Central Valley were flooded, 25,000 people evacuated, and riverside communities like Marysville inundated. 

In Berkeley, the turf at Memorial Stadium was saturated by rain, and the Big Game was due. Wednesday, November 22, at the suggestion of a Cal alumnus, William Eddy, “a commercial helicopter pilot…joined forces against Mother Nature in an attempt to make the Memorial stadium at Berkeley a fit place in which to play football next Saturday…” reported the San Mateo Times

“Flying his helicopter…just six feet above the green turf at the stadium, the terrific down draft evaporated the water in short order. After making his first test, crossing on the 10-yard line, Eddy…reported that he was convinced the plane would do the job. A check by stadium custodians of the test strip found the grass almost completely dry and sod considerably drier than the rest of the field.” 

“Eddy will spend the rest of the day swinging back and forth across the field. If he does not complete the job today, it is likely that he will return tomorrow morning, a University of California spokesman said.” 

The article noted the concept of using the downdraft from a low flying helicopter in this way wasn’t new; the technique had been used to dry out orchards and blow snow and standing water off highways. The helicopter used at Memorial was a Hiller model. 

The rain also stopped November 22 and the Big Game was played at Memorial Stadium that Saturday. Perhaps discombobulated by the drier than anticipated turf, Cal and Stanford played to a rare tie, 7-7. 

Gliding In 

The fourth and final instance of an aircraft in Memorial Stadium that I can document is also the only one that occurred before a crowd in the Stadium. All the other three flights had been when the Stadium seating bowl itself was largely vacant. 

This last instance was in 1979 and it had a “front row” audience of thousands. 

It was October 27, and Memorial Stadium was packed for the biennial home match-up against the Trojans. The teams were tied near half time and USC had just punted. Cal was setting up for a first down play. 

Then an orange and yellow hang glider soared into the Stadium from the south, swooped low over the field, and came to a landing in the northeast corner.  

An Internet search turns up the information that the hang glider was one Tom Kardos.  

Two short videos of the landing can be found on YouTube (search for hang glider, Cal, USC) and following one of the videos a “tomkardos” has posted this note. “I took off from Strawberry Canyon, at the top of the ridge a mile away, about 1,000 feet elevation about the Stadium, flew directly above the game several hundred feet high then turned south for an approach, made a 180 and flew between two flagpoles at the South rim and descended over the stands to burn off height then flowed down just above ground effect along the diagonal—longest dimension—of the field…sorry but had to touch down before the end zone to safely stop.” 

I was at that game and remember the flight. From the east side of the Stadium fans had a good view of Kardos high above, turning in for his landing. If I recall correctly, he barely missed the flagpoles on the rim. The stunt was spectacular—and, today would probably draw a horde of security, criminal charges, and Homeland Security hoopla—but it didn’t help the home team. Cal’s fortunes waned after half time and USC won the game. 

That incident ended, as far as I can recall, the record of aircraft visits within Memorial Stadium. But I may be wrong. Other events and stories may be out there.  

The best that can be said at this point is that aircraft have flown low over, or in, the Stadium at least four times and that another such instance should occur this coming Thursday.