Lt. Paul Baer and Art Smith were two of Indiana's leading aviation pioneers. Find out more about them and Indiana's aviation history by reading their biographies.
Lt. Paul Baer
Born in 1893, Paul Baer's dream was to become an aviator. As a youngster he grew up in Fort Wayne where he attended Clay, Jefferson, and Nebraska schools. Baer, eager to serve as a fighter pilot in World War I over France, Belgium and Germany, enlisted in the Franco American Flying Corps in January, 1917.
In letters home, Baer wrote, "My first flight in the clouds was exciting. Several times my heart was in my mouth." About his first landing he wrote, "I landed in a yard at a farmer's house."
He also wrote that he had a keen desire for flying and that he could hardly wait for his squadron to be sent to the front so he could inspect the German lines from the air.
Baer's first combat "kill" was officially credited to him on March 11, 1918. He flew during the first battle at Verdun. It was then that his engine stopped and he was forced to land on the battlefield, which he did without injury.
Another time he was not so lucky. Baer was shot down by German anti-aircraft fire on May 22, 1918. He wrote his mother, "My machine was riddled with bullets. I went through a tree and crashed into the ground, smashing my machine to bits. I have bruises all over, but am getting along all right. I am in a hospital. When through here, I will probably go to a British aviators' prison camp somewhere in Northern Germany." He was a prisoner for eight months.
During his service with the famous Lafayette Escadrille, Baer was decorated with the CROIX de GUERRE with Palms. Palms represent the highest citation degree given by the French. The War Department gave Baer credit for bringing down eight enemy planes.
Baer returned to Fort Wayne February 28, 1919, to a hero's welcome. He soon became an aviation pioneer as a test pilot doing research for aeronautical laboratories located in Detroit. Baer then served as an inspector in the Aeronautics branch of the Department of Commerce. However, this job proved too boring, so he went to South America to establish air mail service.
Baer had escaped death many times. It finally caught up with him December 9, 1930, while flying for Chinese Airway Federal, Inc. He was carrying a load of mail and passengers when his plane crashed.
During ceremonies in Fort Wayne, more than 20,000 people visited his flag-draped casket. Today, he rests in Lindenwood Cemetery in Fort Wayne.
Excerpts from "The Smash-Up Kid", Traces, a publication of the Indiana Historical Society, Fall, 1998. Article written by Rachel Sherwood Roberts.
"In 1910, only six and a half years since Orville and Wilbur Wright had first flown their machine, American aviation was still mostly a matter of experimentation by single individuals. No one knew about airports, control towers, or radar. But Art Smith was fascinated with flight and determined to figure out how to make a machine and fly in it.
At his home in Fort Wayne, he collected all the books and magazine articles on aeronautics that he could find. From the resources he could gather, Art learned about aircraft construction, designs, and patents. At night he’d pore over his books and study how to build a flying machine. He believed he could build a plane that would fly better than the Wright brothers’ airplane, and as he worked on his design, he was careful to avoid infringing on their patents.
He built models of airplanes using sticks and rubber bands. When asked, he said he figured he would need $1,756.60 for materials - if he did the work himself. With his parents’ financial backing, 20 year old Art quit his job and devoted himself to pursuing his dream.
It took Art and a friend 6 months to build the plane and the night they finished they moved the plane through the streets of Fort Wayne to a field in what is now Memorial Park. The next morning Art tested the flying machine. The plane reached almost fifty miles per hour before leaving the ground. Suddenly it rose alarmingly, dipped, rose again and crashed. Art was thrown onto the frozen ground and badly injured. The plane was ruined except for the engine."
Art Smith continued his dream and working on his plane. People thought he was just a fool kid with a crazy notion and they nicknamed him the Smash-Up Kid. But on October 22, 1911 he attempted to fly from Fort Wayne to New Haven. After that flight and exhibitions later that month his nickname changed to "Bird Boy."
Art’s fame spread dramatically after that and he became a world class showman who dazzled crowds with his daring flying. He became an immediate celebrity.
Today a replica of one of Art Smith’s early planes hangs inside the terminal at Fort Wayne International Airport. Request more information and a copy of the complete article on Art Smith using our Contact page or visit the Greater Fort Wayne Aviation Museum for a wealth of information about Fort Wayne’s own "Bird Boy".