Herbert Munter becomes the first pilot to fly an airplane over Mount Rainier on July 25, 1920.

  • By Fred Poyner IV
  • Posted 6/19/2019
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20796

On July 25, 1920, Seattle aviator Herbert A. Munter (1895-1970) flies his Boeing BB-L6 (Model 8) biplane over the summit of Mount Rainier. The flight is the first one in history to overfly the peak and its 14,410-foot elevation above sea level. The success of the flight is a culmination of Munter's efforts as one of Seattle's early pilots and receives notable attention in the local press as a highlight of the young aviator's career.

A New Aircraft for New Horizons

Munter was a showman, even since his first short flight made from Duwamish Island (now Harbor Island), on Elliott Bay near his parent's home, where he had flown his first homemade "box-kite" aircraft (so called for its lightweight material construction of wood, basket wire, and sewn fabric) in 1912 (Widrig). Primarily an exhibition flier, he had survived at least two airplane crashes since then, including one in a seaplane owned by the Aero Club of the Northwest, into Lake Union on February 19, 1916.

His work as the first test pilot for William Boeing (1881-1956) and the Pacific Aero Products Co. (later renamed the Boeing Airplane Company) led to the development and initial trial flights of Boeing's first airplane at Lake Union, the B&W seaplane, on June 15, 1916.

Following the end of World War I, Munter left Boeing and continued his own business of exhibition and passenger flights, with his Aerial Tours Company. His aircraft operated out of a landing field made from a converted farm pasture in Kent, Washington, later called Munter Airfield, after its founder. Using his connections to Boeing and the Aero Club Northwest (of which he was a founding member in 1915) Munter had a new aircraft made to special order from the Boeing Airplane Company: the BB-L6 (Model 8) biplane. The new aircraft first flew on May 24, 1920, with a design that included a 200-horsepower Hall-Scott L-6 "pusher" engine and a three-seat open cockpit, with space for two passengers to ride side-by-side. The pilot rode in a single rear cockpit, behind the passengers.

The aircraft was based upon an earlier aircraft, the Boeing B-1 (Model 6) developed by the Boeing Airplane Company in 1919, as the first commercial aircraft entirely designed and produced by the company. Like its predecessor, the BB-L6 boasted an all-wood construction and same wing design, with a span of 44 feet, 9 inches, and a range of 450 miles. It was an ideal aircraft for Munter's plans to turn his one-man aerial show into a business geared more toward taking people aloft for the thrill of flying.

Munter not only loved to fly, he also looked to challenge himself, whether this meant trying to set a new altitude record (he established two records, on September 29, 1914, and November 5, 1915) or testing untried aircraft for the first time, to help improve upon their design (such as the Model C seaplane in November 1916 for Boeing). Equipped with a new aircraft for his own aerial tours business, Munter turned toward the Cascade Range and its high peaks as his new challenge as the summer of 1920 approached.

Unsubstantiated claims had been made by fliers for the U.S. Army that the trans-Cascade flight had already been accomplished in 1919 (Spitzer, 73). Munter's own record of aerial achievements in his day was often afforded little mention as newsworthy, with a public perception that the new science of aircraft flight, or lighter-than-air travel, was an entertainment for those on the ground, and nothing more. This gradually changed as fliers sought recognition not only at the national and international level, but with local fliers and clubs in the Northwest. Munter was counted among these. His plan involved an extended flight using the new Boeing aircraft to crisscross the state, and in the process, the Cascades.

First of Two Pioneering Flights

On June 19, 1920, Munter successfully piloted his BB-L6 biplane from his airfield in Kent to Eastern Washington and Idaho, accompanied by his brother, Archie, and a second passenger, Fred W. Strang (1861-1943), representing the Seattle Chamber of Commerce. The journey took the trio back from Walla Walla through southern Washington, following the Columbia River to Portland, Oregon, and back up north to Seattle. Archie served as an aerial photographer and captured multiple views of peaks the aircraft passed along the way. Among these, Mount Rainier and Mount Hood were photographed from an altitude of 10,000 feet, with reproductions of the photos appearing one week later in The Seattle Times. These views were among the first aerial photographs made of the Cascade mountains.

Mount Rainier Viewed From Above

Emboldened by the success of the trans-Cascade flight, Munter next looked to Mount Rainier to circle with his aircraft and to also fly over the summit. A month later, on July 15, reporters interviewed the flier at his Kent airfield as he prepared for the flyover that day. Accompanying him once more would be Archie, and a Selznick News motion picture cameraman, Charles Perryman. The choice of another for the photography was deliberate, as Archie had admitted after the June 19 flight that he "'never snapped a kodak [camera]' ... until about six months ago, and that he merely 'saw interesting things and squeezed the bulb'" ("Hidden Beauties ... "). By Munter's estimate, the peak would be reached in about 90 minutes of flight time.

However, the July 15 flight was postponed, with Munter's next attempt made 10 days later, on July 25. This time, he achieved the first aerial flyover on record for Mount Rainier, circling the peak three time before crossing over the summit's 14,410-foot elevation. George Maxey (1898-1977), a reporter with The Seattle Times, accompanied him and captured a stunning photograph of the mountain, shown rising up through moderate cloud cover from an altitude of 16,000-feet. The flight lasted two and a half hours.

The photograph of Mount Rainier captured that day appeared in the following day's edition of The Seattle Times, and in a testimony to the feat on a national scale, was accompanied by the caption "Gazing Down on the top of the United States" ("How Summit of Mighty ... "). This view of the mountain would become an icon associated with the identity of the Boeing Airplane Company in the decades that followed.

After his historic flight, Munter continued his Aerial Tours Company, until a hangar fire in 1923 at the Kent airfield destroyed his BB-L6 aircraft and other company assets. Munter continued his aviation and other ventures in the years that followed, including flying the mail run between Seattle and Victoria, managing his own automobile business, racing speedboats, and founding his own aviation transport company for service between Seattle and Ketchikan, Alaska.


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; "Hidden Beauties of Cascades Bared on Flight -- Seattle Aviators Pioneers of Air Route," The Seattle Times (Editorial section), June 27, 1920, p. 17; "How Summit of Mighty Mountain Looks from Plane," Ibid., July 26, 1920, p. 7; "Boeing Machine at Aviation Show," Ibid., April 25, 1920, p. 46; "Preparing for Flight From Kent Over Mt. Rainier," Ibid., July 15, 1920, p. 7; Lorinda Miskel, "Pioneer Pilot," Ibid., (Pacific Parade magazine section), October 13, 1946, p. 5; "First Seattle-Made Plane Recalled -- Pioneer Flyer Honored at Diner," Ibid., November 2, 1937, p. 2; Charlotte D. Widrig, "Herbert Munter -- Early Birds of Aviation, Inc.," earlyaviators.com website accessed May 31, 2019 (http://earlyaviators.com/emunter.htm).


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