Barnstorming pilot’s career ended at 1939 Clifford fair

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015. Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.


During the 1930s, when commercial aviation was still something of a novelty and very few people had flown in a airplane of any sort, amateur pilots sometimes went on tours of the countryside, offering brief rides to the public.

One such pilot was John G. Fry of Ayr. He had roots in the area, but had been born in Alberta. An uncle served as mayor of Edmonton in the late 1930s. The family moved to Galt when he was young, and John attended school there. In 1934, at the age of 22, he earned a pilot’s licence, and became a member of the Kitchener Flying Club.

Fry settled down and got married. In 1937, he attempted a career as a merchant, and opened a store in Ayr, but it failed about a year later.

Unable to resist his urge to fly, John Fry bought a new plane in July 1939. It appears that it was a Taylor Cub J-2, a model introduced in 1937. (Aviation pioneer W.T. Piper later gained control of the Taylor firm.) In any case, the model was a two-seat monoplane, with a single wing and a four-cylinder engine. Its coat of flaming red paint soon made it a conspicuous object in the skies over Waterloo and Wellington Counties.

To help pay for the plane, and to earn a little extra cash, Fry began offering rides to residents of the towns and villages in the area. He would make arrangements with a farmer near a town to use a pasture for a landing strip, and then offer to take people up for a five or ten minute ride around and over the town. He charged a dollar for the novelty, or 50 cents for children. He would cram two youngsters into the passenger seat, so he lost nothing with the discount.

Frequently he would take along a crony from the flying club – often George Stewart, who had a commercial pilot’s licence. The two would take turns piloting the paying passengers.

On Aug. 17 and 18, 1939, Fry set up shop near Drayton, on a field owned by Mel Brunkard. During the two days, about 50 people paid for rides, and a much larger number stood by to watch the novelty of the plane landing and taking off.

Some were too afraid to become airborne; others did not feel sufficiently affluent to lay down a dollar. Sometimes they would fly high, sometimes very low over town, depending on the desires of the passenger.

On Aug. 19, a Sunday, Fry moved on to Palmerston, operating from a field on the west end of town. Altogether, it was a profitable weekend for Fry. He continued his barnstorming tour for the next several weeks. When there were no paying passengers, he or Stewart would arouse interest by performing stunts over the towns.

On Saturday Sept. 23, John Fry and George Stewart returned to Wellington County, offering rides to people attending the Clifford Fall Fair. It was an excellent day for business, as the two pilots took turns offering thrills to white-knuckled passengers, operating from a field on William Penman’s farm, near the fair grounds. During the day, John Fry was happy to run into a friend, Eldon Seip. He had grown up on a farm near Clifford, but lived in Harriston, where he drove an oil truck. But he was thoroughly fascinated with flying. During the day, he twice went up with Fry.

Late in the evening, near dusk, Seip wanted to go up again. He wanted Fry to perform some stunts and loops this time. Initially, Fry refused, stating that he never performed stunts with a passenger aboard. Seip, though, was persistent, and Fry eventually relented.

A few minutes after 6pm, Fry and Seip shot down the runway for the third time that day. For 10 minutes, Fry performed his antics, flying low, then climbing high, as the crowd, including George Stewart, watched from the ground.

John Fry flew two “loop the loop” stunts in succession, but then ran into trouble. Watching from the ground, Stewart later claimed that Fry was attempting a stalled turn. Whatever happened, the small craft dove toward Earth from about 1,500 feet and crashed, nose first, in a field on the Penman farm, not far from the field used as an airstrip that day. A knoll blocked the view from the fair grounds, but no one doubted that it had crashed. The noise was heard by some witnesses two miles away.

By coincidence, Eldon Seip’s father farmed nearby. He had been watching the plane circling and performing its stunts from his farm, unaware that his son was a passenger. On hearing the crash, Adam Seip scrambled across the fields and was the first to the crash site. The plane’s engine was buried deep in the ground, and the wing and fuselage were a tangled mass of wreckage.

Others arrived as Adam Seip was pulling away pieces of the plane to get at a body. “My God!” he shouted. “That’s my boy!”

Several people tried to lead the grief-stricken father away from the crash, while others removed Eldon’s broken body, and then John Fry. Someone called the coroner, Dr. J.C. Winans of Harriston.

The Provincial Police, in town to handle traffic at the fair, immediately cordoned off the crash site and shooed away curious onlookers.

The tragedy claimed two men in the prime of life. John Fry left a widow and a young daughter, Betty. Eldon Seip, aged 26, also was married with a daughter, Yvonne. Through his work driving an oil truck, he was well known across the northern part of Wellington County.

The coroner called an inquest for the following week, on Sept. 28, to allow a few days for aviation authorities to perform their investigation.

The inquest heard testimony from aviation experts and from several eye witnesses. After deliberating only 35 minutes, they returned with a verdict that the plane had crashed when Fry attempted to perform a “loop the loop” at a low altitude and at insufficient speed.

Interestingly, the verdict was somewhat at odds with the testimony of George Stewart, the best qualified of the eye witnesses.

The jury had some general recommendations for dealing with barnstorming pilots who offered rides to the general public. They wanted to see stringent regulations placed by aviation authorities on these pilots, and they further suggested that no such flights “be permitted without the consent of the municipality concerned.”

John Fry was not the only barnstorming aviator to introduce Wellington County residents to the thrills of flying. Offering a short ride to the locals in a small private airplane permitted many pilots in the 1930s and 1940s to be able to afford the purchase of their plane. Stricter regulations and rising financial dangers of liability eventually put an end to the phenomenon.

As far as I am aware, John Fry is the only one of these pilots to crash. In Fry’s case, the crash resulted from an attempt to perform aeronautic stunts. It is probable that he was unfamiliar with the weight and balance of the plane with a passenger aboard while performing aerobatics.

Some accounts of the crash identify Fry’s plane as a Stinson, rather than a Taylor Cub. After some investigation, I consider the Cub to be the likely aircraft. The small Stinson that matches the descriptions published at the time of the crash did not go into production until July 1939, the same month when Fry purchased his plane. Production of the Stinson was only about 10 per month, and it was priced at about double the amount of the Cub. John Fry would be much more likely to buy the popular and mass production Cub, rather than a new, expensive and somewhat exotic craft.

As well, the Stinson could carry three people. It is unlikely that Fry would consistently fly the plane with an empty seat.

I have seen no photographs of the crash, but some are certain to exist. These would offer a more certain identification of the plane. It is also certain that at least one or two readers of the Wellington Advertiser were present at the Clifford Fair late in the afternoon of Sept. 23, 1939. I would be delighted to hear from any of them.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on May 9, 2003.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015