Historical Society to honor early aviator
By Gordon Dritschilo
Staff Writer | April 29,2013
Who is George Schmitt?
It’s a question James Davidson of the Rutland Historical Society says is understandable.
Schmitt, who will be honored this week with a historical marker at the Rutland fairgrounds, set a handful of aviation records in the early days of flight, became the first pilot to fly from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and, in 1913, had the less happy distinction of being Vermont’s first aviation fatality at the age of 21.
“We have to realize, this happened 100 years ago,” Davidson said. “There’s nobody who was at the event or read about it in the newspaper — it was too long ago. ... That’s what the historical society is all about — making sure those other periods of time that have slipped by are understood.
The marker commemorating Schmitt will be unveiled at 1 p.m. Wednesday in a small ceremony.
“He flew over many parts of the U.S.,” Davidson said. “He flew over two continents that comprise the Western Hemisphere. He’s not just a local yokel, but he’s an early international aviator.”
Schmitt’s story is told in a quarterly published by the Rutland Historical Society and available on their website, rutlandhistory.com. Born in New York City in 1892, Schmitt was still a child when he came to Rutland. His father, George Schmitt Sr., was a German immigrant and owner of Marble City Bakery. The family lived on Royce Street.
The younger Schmitt graduated from Rutland High School in 1910 and left to study electrical work at a New York trade school. His studies were shortlived, though, as the sky beckoned.
It was seven years since Kitty Hawk, and pilots around the country were putting on exhibitions to rapt crowds. Schmitt had already dabbled in building gliders, and at his trade school in New York he found himself making repeat visits to a Long Island airfield. He bought a biplane with the help of several local backers, intending to show it off at the 1910 fair in Rutland, but it never got far enough off the ground.
Undaunted by that early failure, Schmitt continued to learn to fly, and soon formed an aviation company that put on exhibitions, mostly at fairs in the Northeast. In 1911, he set an altitude record for New York state, getting his plane above 5,000 feet. He also set a world speed record for biplanes, traveling 24 miles between two Ohio towns in 16 minutes.
Schmitt finally made a successful flight at the Rutland fair in 1912. From there, he toured the Caribbean, Central America and the northern part of South America. A flight over the Isthmus of Panama made him the first aviator to cross from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.
Returning to Rutland for the fair in 1913, Schmitt took up passengers. It was on one of these flights he crashed into a nearby field. He was rushed to the hospital, where he died four hours later. His passenger, 22-year-old lawyer J. Dyer Spellman, survived.