Don McGee’s short life had the blaze and brilliance of a shooting star, marveled at and gaped at, before it plummeted into perishing darkness.
McGee recalls the airman’s credo: “There are old pilots and bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.” McGee was the first Saginaw man to fly his own airplane and that of his own construction. He made his first airplane flight in June, 1915, and his last on October 10, 1917, ending in a fatal crash. He died when he was 21. He introduced Saginaw to the dawning aviation era. Young as he was, he saw its promise plainly when it was only an improbable glimmer on the horizon to others.
Don McGee was born in Cleveland, Ohio, February 26, 1896. A few years later, he came to Saginaw with his parents. He attended East Side schools and Saginaw High School. He was a star football quarterback at Saginaw High and was captain of the school’s 1913 team. By the time he was eight years old, he had startled his parents by jumping off a barn roof, holding an umbrella over his head. When he was 11 years old, he had begun to make gliders—and fly them. When he reached Saginaw High School, young McGee, swift of foot and compactly-built, became the football hero of the day. He also did fairly well in his scholastic work, but still was preoccupied with flying machines and the day he would have his own to fly. Some of his high school teachers had cause to despair when they approached his desk and found him sketching gliders behind the protection of a propped-up book. Don drew gliders and he built them. The first were small models which had the characteristics for flight but not the ability. Then came the larger ones which could support a person on their framework.
McGee had a young high school friend whose father owned an automobile. They used it to tow Don’s home-built gliders to Hoyt Park for testing. Don never got off the ground very far astride his gliders and he crashed often. But he was learning something about flight and aerodynamics. These glider flights went on all through high school. Meanwhile Don was reading all he could find about airplanes. The first successful airplane was built by Americans, but flying experts of that early time were the French. Authoritative books on flying, such as they were, were written by Frenchmen. Young McGee picked up enough French to translate French theories of flight.
In 1915 McGee bought a “knock-down” airplane which the former Brooks Boat Company of Saginaw began making in 1910, after successful production of knock-down boats, built in sections which could be assembled by buyers. But its planes, as constructed, didn’t pan out and were both unwieldy and undependable. McGee rented an empty building to assemble the knock-down plane he had bought at a bargain price, he thought. He started to assemble the parts but found himself disagreeing with the Brooks plane designer. He made changes in the design. His theories came from the French books he had read. For four months he worked on it. He moved the wings forward and changed the way they set. The plane was a two-winger, made of spruce ribs and cotton cloth. The upper wing was 42 feet long, the lower one 32 feet. The cockpit had room for only one person. The landing gear consisted of a pair of bicycle wheels protected by a pair of skis. The plane was powered by a four-cylinder, 60 horsepower motor built in Detroit. The instrument panel had fewer knobs and dials than a Model-T Ford. McGee never had a minute’s instruction about how to fly. He practiced on country fields near Saginaw, away from public view. He got the feel of the plane, taxiing on the ground, then in brief, low flights.
In August, 1915, he made his first public flight at the Harvest Festival in Merrill. McGee gave a safe, precise performance and thrilled thousands with his derring-do. Saginaw realized it had a new hero—a self-made plane pilot when aviation still was in its infancy. On August 21, 1915, McGee made his first airplane flight over the city of Saginaw. Thousands left their homes and offices to watch Saginaw’s daring young man in his flying machine.
One newspaper account told of the flight: “Steadily and surely the bird-like machine approached from the west, crossed Saginaw River, sailed over Genesee Avenue to Weadock, turned south and proceeded to grounds at Sheridan and Washington, where a landing was made. A flight over the city is regarded as difficult, but McGee made it without trouble.” He had flown from Merrill in 20 minutes that morning, landed in a field on Gratiot, just outside the city limit. He let his engine cool awhile, then proceeded to make the flight over Saginaw. McGee was much in the newspaper headlines after that. He made many flights from Saginaw. His name became a byword throughout the state. He was in constant demand to give flying exhibitions at county fairs and other outdoor gatherings.
During the winter of 1915-16 he built a new airplane with the help of Amasa Roberts and William Houston, school woodworking instructors. The new plane was larger, heavier and sturdier than the old plane he had sold. It also was more powerful. It had an eight-cylinder engine putting out 90 horsepower. It also had two cockpits. All during 1916, Don McGee barnstormed the country in his home-built plane. He had some close scrapes but no crashes. Early in 1917 he became ill, required an operation and couldn’t fly. During his convalescence he rebuilt his plane.
During World War I, he became a flight instructor at Selfridge Field. When on a solo flight on the noon of October 10, 1917, he was killed when his plane mysteriously crashed in Lake St. Clair. Cause of the accident eluded investigators.
A grateful Saginaw subscribed $10,000 for the Don McGee Memorial Fund at Saginaw High School for a student scholarship.