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Clayton Folkerts

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Given the odds, young Clayton Folkerts should not even have been alive by the time he arrived in Bettendorf, Iowa, in October of 1926, fresh from a farm near Bristow.

Folkerts had dropped out of school after 10th grade because of the anti-German sentiment directed against his immigrant family, but he was handy with tools. In 1916, he became so enthralled by the description of a flying machine his father had seen at the state fair that he decided to build one himself. He had seen a flying machine Popular Mechanics and Aviation magazine. Using parts ordered from the Heath Aeroplane Company, and a 7-horsepower motorcycle engine bought from a neighbor for three dollars, and a propeller he whittled himself, Clayton built his first airplane from four bamboo poles held together with baling wire.

Just as well that the plane broke in half when it taxied into a ditch. The second airplane added controls. Clayton was able to tell how far it had hopped by following its tracks in the snow.

Plane number three, made out of old bicycle parts, scrap lumber, and braided clothesline, was able to hop over fences. The next one, in 1919, was able to rise a few feet and was exhibited at county fairs for 20 cents a look.

Just before coming to Bettendorf, Folkerts's last plane, powered by a Model T engine, was a success; it got him up and down alive.

And so, Clayton Folkerts did make it to Bettendorf alive, but he probably should not have been hired by Central States Aero of Bettendorf as the chief designer and engineer of an enclosed cabin airplane the company hoped would revolutionize aviation. He had been recommended by a traveling salesman for a novelty company over university-trained engineers.

But Clayton Folkerts was hired, and given a year, at 35 dollars a week, to design and build the airplane. As so often happens in American culture, the college of hard knocks proved superior to theories learned from textbooks. The Monocoupe, with its revolutionary enclosed cabin, side-by-side seating, one-piece wing and steel tube fuselage, lifted off on April 6th, 1927, in less than a hundred feet, and flew into aviation history as the first commercial light plane.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.