Oshkosh Aviator Lost at Sea

Clyde Allen Lee was struck by aviation fever at a young age. Growing up in Larsen, Wisconsin, he would watch in awe as his cousins, the infamous Larson Brothers – Roy, Leonard, Clarence and Newell – cleared an 80 rod strip for a runway on their father’s farm. The result was the Larson Brothers Airport, the oldest airfield in the state. Clyde Lee, age 15, learned to fly at the instruction of Roy Larson, and the rest is history. 

When Orville and Wilbur Wright took flight for the first time on December 17, 1903, from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, it marked a beginning of an era. Aviation grew rapidly with many men and women taking to the skies, but it was World War I that truly changed the route of the industry. A large number of War Birds were built to aid in the war efforts, and the Army Air Service offered the training to both fly and maintain the aircraft. 

After the war, interest in air travel increased across the nation. Many pilots, however, were left with a burning desire to keep flying but limited by resources and opportunity. For years, Lee and Larson earned an extra income by barnstorming, and before long the Larson’s “flying circus” became one of the region’s hottest tickets in town. Lee was well-known for his daring exploits in the air, including wingwalking, parachute jumping, and death-defying aerobatics. 

The late 1920s are marked with a great deal of adventurous achievements that sparked the advances in modern aviation. Charles Lindbergh successfully made the first nonstop transatlantic solo flight in 1927 from New York to Paris, and later that year he flew from Washington D.C. to Mexico City. That summer Lindbergh set out on a tour around the country in the “Spirit of St. Louis,” dropping “greetings proclamation” pouches, one of which landed in downtown Oshkosh near the library. 

It was that same year that Richard Lutz, a pioneer aviator, along with Arthur Leupold, Albert Marsh and Francis Lamb formed the Oshkosh Airport Inc. after purchasing 100 acres south of town on West 20th Street. This airport still exists today bearing the name of another legendary Oshkosh aviator, Steve Wittman, and each summer it is transformed to host the largest air show in the world, EAA AirVenture. 

Major advancements were being made with transatlantic flight by 1930, but no pilot had completed the span across the Atlantic Ocean between the United States and Norway. A Norwegian newspaper posted a $10,000 cash prize to be awarded to the first airplane to complete the cross-ocean flight non-stop. Clyde Lee was up to the challenge. 

Lee set his sights on becoming the first pilot to make the dangerous flight across the North Atlantic. With the aid of Earl T. Iverson, a local mechanic, Lee got to work on readying his 1928 model red Stinson airplane. Lutz supplied the gas, oil and money they needed, and a hangar at the Oshkosh Airport to complete the work. The community helped as well by developing a flight fund, and the monoplane was appropriately named “Oshkosh B’Gosh.” 

The original flight plan was to start out from Oshkosh, but the crew fell short of getting adequate funding. Lee managed to obtain financial backing from the residents of Barre and Montpelier in Vermont, and plans changed for the flight to originate in Barre. John Bochkon of Brooklyn, New York, also offered to help with expenses, if he could be co-pilot. Another stipulation was that the name of the plane be changed to “The Green Mountain Boy” in honor of Vermont backing the flight. 

On August 23, 1932, Lee and Bochkon were bound for Norway. The first leg of the flight was to Harbor Grace, Newfoundland. Bad weather forced the pair to spend the night on a beach in Newfoundland and they arrived in Harbor Grace the next morning. After waiting for the weather to clear, the two pilots finally headed out to sea on August 25 for their nonstop flight to Oslo, Norway. 

The planned flight was to cover the 3,150 miles across the North Atlantic in 30 hours, estimating their arrival in Oslo at 6 p.m. on August 26. Lee was a very experienced pilot, having logged more certified hours of flying than Lindbergh had when he made his transatlantic flight five years earlier. Lee studied weather peculiarities and air currents over the Atlantic for about a year before the big test, and he was confident of their success. 

The men were never seen again, nor the airplane. It is conjectured that a severe storm passed their flight route forcing them off course, and like Amelia Earhart on her attempt to circle the world a mere five years later, their fate remains one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in aviation history.

Karla Szekeres