Munter, Herbert A. (1895-1970)

  • By Fred Poyner IV
  • Posted 6/19/2019
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20795

Herbert A. Munter began his flying career as a teenager, with a homemade aircraft flown in 1912. He went on to become a record-setting aviator, and worked to promote both commercial and pleasure flying in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. As a test pilot for William Boeing, he helped the fledgling aviation company founded by Boeing develop its first aircraft. Munter's passion for aviation followed him throughout his life, highlighted by the creation of two new airline services in the Pacific Northwest during his career.

Aviator From an Early Age

One of six children, Herbert A. Munter was born in 1895. He came to Seattle in 1907 from Nome, Alaska, after his family had homesteaded there for five years. He was captivated with flying, in its inception as new mode of transportation following the first flight at Kitty Hawk by the Wright brothers on December 17, 1903. Munter was among those Seattleites gathered to see a visiting exhibition aviator, Charles K. Hamilton (1881-1913), take to the air before crowds at The Meadows Racetrack in Georgetown on March 11, 1910. Hamilton flew a Reims Racer biplane near the site of present-day Boeing Field, in an event considered "pure carney" by many of those who came to view the spectacle (Spitzer, 72).

The visit by Hamilton and his pusher-type engine aircraft (so named for its positioning behind a seated pilot) offered the 15-year-old Munter a chance to examine the materials and design of the airplane. His purpose was to build his own "flying machine" -- based on observations of the Hamilton plane, and from a plan for a Curtiss biplane obtained from an article in Aerial Magazine.

Working from his parent's home, Munter used earnings from his job as an apprentice machinist at the Bremerton Navy Yard to fund the project. His youngest brother, Milton, recalled the effort it took to build this first aircraft as a box-kite type:

"At first my mother and father regarded the project merely as something to keep Herb occupied. They became somewhat frightened as the frame neared completion, but at no time did they stand in the way of his dream. When the time came to cover the wings, Mother helped by cutting the cloth on the bias and stitching the strips together on her sewing machine" (Widrig).

His salary of $4.90 per week made acquiring the necessary materials a time-consuming process. Munter spent the next two years assembling the plane, testing each piece as he went. The completed aircraft had four bamboo poles to support the tail, wing assembly and rear wheels, with Spruce wood struts and sewn fabric over the wings. A Hall-Scott water-cooled engine capable of 60 horsepower drove the propeller, mounted behind the engine. A single bucket seat was mounted in front of the engine, to the landing frame. One of the first passengers Munter flew, Albert Johnson, recalled details such as how the aviator built even his own propellers, and used fish-scale weights tied to the aircraft's tail skid in order to test flight ability.

In 1912, Munter put his homemade aircraft to the test. After carting the disassembled aircraft out to a runway made of boards laid out across the tidal flats at Duwamish Island (Harbor Island), he reassembled his aircraft and took off on a short flight with a small crowd of onlookers viewing the spectacle:

"The putting, bumping craft rolled along the ground and suddenly hopped unsteadily into the air. Shouts went out from the persons running beside the machine, and a few minutes later it settled to the ground. Spectators rushed forward to shake Munter's hand. This was a great day for Herb and the reward for two years of hard work" (Miskell, 5).

While the 1912 flight by Munter was an accomplishment in its own right, another aviator, Tom Hamilton, preceded him by two years in building the first airplane in Seattle. Also a young man, 16 at the time, Tom Hamilton built his aircraft in 1910 modeled after the Curtiss biplane design, with a claim to his first solo flight successfully made on May 28, 1910. But Hamilton's pioneering flight came and went without much notice because, as former Boeing historian Paul Spitzer explained, the public perceived flight as simple entertainment or not newsworthy:

"Despite how extraordinary that flight was and the technical triumph it represented, nothing appeared in the local press. By the next year, reporters accepted it as true, even though there were no further details of his [Hamilton] early flights" (Spitzer, 75).

Munter appeared to be more concerned with building ever-better aircraft and showing off his skills as a new aviator than competing with other pilots. From 1912 to 1915, he built three more aircraft, including a modified seaplane, flown from Lake Washington after he joined the Aero Club Northwest as a founding member. During this time, he was an exhibition flier across Washington state. On September 29, 1914, he set a Northwest altitude record in his Curtiss-design, Seattle-built biplane, at 6,800 feet while flying above Enterprise, Oregon. He set another altitude record of 5,200 feet on November 5, 1915, over Seattle while flying the Aero Club's seaplane.

His first decade of flying marked Munter as a showman, eager to please crowds on the ground with his daring and willingness to fly all kinds of aircraft, and in just about any conditions. On May 15, 1915, he took his mother on an 8-minute flight over Harbor Island and Elliott Bay, while attending an unofficial gathering of "amateur aeroplane" enthusiasts ("Mother Soars ... "). He averted disaster on at least two occasions. In May 1913, when riding as a passenger with aviator Harvey Crawford over the Tacoma business district, the engine died at an altitude of 2,000 feet and Crawford had to volplane down to the tidelands for a safe landing. In February 1916, Munter crash landed a seaplane belonging to the Aero Club of the Northwest into Lake Union, but both he and passenger William Nimerick were unharmed.

Altogether, his reputation as a flier and aircraft fabricator was well-established by 1915, in good part because of his exhibition flying and passenger aerial tours done both locally and around the state. Some of his passenger flights lasted up to 20 minutes at a time, and soared up to heights of 2,000 feet over Seattle. On one flight using a biplane on August 15, 1915, Munter won a 5-mile race with an automobile on the ground, in a time of just 5 minutes, 11 seconds.

An October 2015 article in The Seattle Times noted that Munter and fellow aviator Terah Maroney "demonstrated ability as manufacturers of stable and thoroughly trustworthy aeroplanes ... each is a competent builder, equipped with accurate aeronautical knowledge as to the theory of construction [of aircraft]" ("Americans Win ... ").

Employee No. 1 for William Boeing

Munter shared his passion for flying with another entrepreneur and businessman, William Boeing (1881-1956). Together the two men founded the Aero Club of the Northwest on August 31, 1915, with Boeing as president. Four aircraft were owned and operated by the club, with the three goals of promoting an aerial auxiliary for military defense; promoting and developing aerial commerce; and affording aerial recreation for its members. The first three of these new club aircraft were all Wright military tractor biplanes assembled at Heath Company plant at 320 West Front Street in Seattle.

With World War I underway in Europe, aviation soon became more than a novelty undertaking. The war effort was one of the major motivators behind the founding of the Aero Club of the Northwest, whose members now looked to establish an aviation school equipped with U.S. government-approved war planes in December 1915. As president of the Aero Club, Boeing announced that "arrangements now are being made to start on a fourth seaplane and a new land machine to provide sufficient equipment not only for the club's activities, but also for the pupils" ("Seattle to Have ... "). The completion of Boeing's aerodrome on Lake Union near the foot of Roanoke Street coincided with the public announcement, with Munter listed along with Boeing himself as the two aviators who would fly the new machines. Tests would be conducted on Lake Union.

Munter's connections to Boeing continued into the next year, with his application for a national license to fly in February 1916. As president of the Aero Club and named as the "Northwest Observer," Boeing was able to grant a license for Munter "as a pilot of both land and water machines" ("Munter Ready to Fly ... "). The timing for the examination coincided with Munter officially joining Boeing's new company, the Pacific Aero Products Co., as its first test pilot, lured in part by "the offer of a large, steady paycheck" (Spitzer, 78). Besides being the first test pilot, Munter was Boeing's first employee.

On June 15, 1916, Munter flew the first test flights of the new Boeing Model-1 B&W seaplane, named Bluebill, from a design by Lt. George Conrad Westervelt, USN (the "W" in the plane's designation; William Boeing as the "B"). His Lake Union flight was followed by "a straight-line hop by William Boeing himself" (Spitzer, 78). Only two B&Ws were built, with both offered to the U.S. Navy, but rejected because they were unsuitable for training pilots. Both aircraft were later sold to New Zealand, where they were used for mail delivery.

In November 1916, Munter tested the second B&W seaplane, called Mallard, as well as the new Model-C seaplane trainer. The Model-C was the first all-Boeing designed aircraft and its first financial success, with 56 total seaplanes built and 51 of these sold to the U.S. Navy, with delivery of the last one made in November 1918.

On December 9, 1916, Munter set a new nonstop flying record while attempting a flight in a Boeing B&W seaplane from Seattle to Portland. After encountering fog over Tacoma, Munter turned back to Lake Union, where he landed after spending an hour and two minutes in the air.

On November 21, 1917, Munter married Emma Belle Cissna in Seattle. The couple had a son, Herb Jr., three years later, and a daughter, Lorraine, born in 1922.

New Aerial Adventures and Flights Over the Northwest

Munter left the Boeing Airplane Company following the end of World War I, and in 1919 continued his own aerial tour operations out of a new landing field he constructed in Kent, Washington. The hangar and runways were built with the help of Gene Romano, an early automotive engineer. For his new aerial tours business, Munter had a new aircraft made to special order from the Boeing Airplane Company: the BB-L6 (Model 8) biplane. Made with a design that included a 200-horsepower Hall-Scott L-6 engine and a three-seat open cockpit, with space for two passengers to ride side-by-side, the biplane was the first commercial aircraft produced by Boeing.

Flying his new aircraft, Munter achieved two noteworthy firsts during the summer of 1920: On June 19, he completed a passenger flight with two others, including his brother and photographer, Archie Munter, from Eastern Washington and across the Cascades to Portland, Oregon, and back to Seattle. A little more than a month later, on July 25, he flew the BB-L6 around and over the summit of Mount Rainier, the first pilot on record to overfly the summit. 

Bolstered by the success of the Mount Rainier flight and the appearance of aerial photographs in local newspapers, Munter continued his aviation tours business until 1923, when a hanger fire at Munter Airfield destroyed his one-of-a-kind biplane. Undeterred by the loss, Munter found other means to pursue his aviation, business, and social interests, including joining the Young Men's Business Club of Seattle that same year.

Speedboats on the Sound, Air Transport Service to Alaska

Following the fire at his airfield, Munter began an automobile business, which he continued for the next 12 years. Munter continued to have a passion for vehicles both on the water and in the air. He raced 510- and 505-class hydroplane speedboats, including his prized champion boat Sar, in regattas on Seattle's Green Lake and Puget Sound with regularity from 1925 to 1932. One of his early victories in a two-out-of-three race series was celebrated in news reports the day after it was held on July 4, 1925, with Munter beating out Fred Volger, described as the "younger brother of the Portland speed boat king" ("Herb Munter Winner ... ").

Munter continued his aviation pursuits, flying for airmail pilot Eddie Hubbard between Seattle and Victoria, when the need for a replacement arose. Munter was also president of the local Aero Country Club in 1931, which boasted two club planes stationed at the Alaska-Washington Airways hangar on Lake Union. In 1934, Munter began his own company, Aircraft Charter Service, in Ketchikan, Alaska, to provide air transport of passengers and goods to the Alaska Territory. By 1940, the business catering to hunters and fishermen who desired air access to remote locations in the far north was such a success that Munter was joined by his son, Herb Munter Jr., by this time a pilot in his own right.

With the entry of the United States into World War II in December 1941, Munter sold his Alaska business with an eye toward creating a new airline in the Pacific Northwest. However, the war effort put plans for the airline on hold, following a denial of his business application by the federal government. Both Herb Munter Sr. and Herb Munter Jr. enlisted in the U.S. Navy as qualified airmen.

As a Lieutenant Commander, Munter Sr. was based in Alaska as an operations office at the U.S. Dutch Harbor Naval Operating Base, where he served for 22 months and logged 650 flight hours. It was during his time in Alaska that he learned of the death of his son, killed in action in the Pacific theater. Munter finished out his Navy career as a Commander, and the assistant chief staff officer of the Pacific Wing, based in Oakland, California.

Following the war, Munter once again looked to start a new airline, this time with business partner Nick Bez, a fisherman from Alaska. His permit for a new airline was finally granted by the Civil Aeronautics Board in May 1946. The company was West Coast Airlines, with Munter in the role of executive vice-president. The service was local air travel for passengers in 24 cities in Western Washington and Oregon -- flightpaths well-known and traveled by the seasoned flier. Up to 21 passengers could be carried in the company's fleet of Douglas aircraft. The service was modeled after "bus-line practices" including frequent schedules, low fares, and no reservations required ("Air Cut-Off ... ").

Munter remained at West Coast Airlines (later rebranded Air West) as an executive until his retirement in 1958. With his wife, Munter spent winters in Mesa, Arizona, and traveling the rest of the year. He died on May 24, 1970, in Walnut Creek, California.


Sources:

Paul G. Spitzer, "Seattle's First Aviators and Their Claims to a New Province of the Sky," Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol. 92, No. 2 (Spring 2001), 71-80; Charlotte D. Widrig, "Herbert Munter -- Early Birds of Aviation, Inc.," earlyaviators.com website accessed May 31, 2019 (http://earlyaviators.com/emunter.htm); "Mother Soars Over City With Local Aviator," The Seattle Times, May 16, 1915, p. 1; Lorinda Miskel, "Pioneer Pilot," Ibid., (Pacific Parade magazine section), October 13, 1946, p. 5; "Americans Win in Race for Big City Industries," Ibid., October 3, 1915, pp. 5, 11; "Seattle to Have Real Aviation School," Ibid., December 12, 1915, p. 30; "Munter Ready to Fly for National License," Ibid., February 13, 1916, p. 15; "Herb Munter Winner of Speed Boat Race, Beating Fred Volger," Ibid., July 5, 1925, p. 19; "Air Cut-Off to Pendleton O. K'd," Ibid., May 24, 1946, p. 9; "Seattle Aviation Fans form Club," Ibid., September 1, 1915, p. 2; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Boeing, William Edward (1881-1956)" (by John Schultz and David Wilma), http://www.historylink.org (accessed May 27, 2019); "Boeing History Chronology," Boeing.com website accessed May 27, 2019 (https://www.boeing.com/resources/boeingdotcom/history/pdf/Boeing_Chronology.pdf); "Boeing Numeric, and A to BX," aerofiles.com website accessed May 30, 2019 (http://aerofiles.com/_boe.html).


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