Edgar County’s aviation pioneer

BY DANNY BRISENO dnl.briseno@gmail.com
Posted 7/22/19

Many kids have big dreams. Some know exactly what they want to be when they grow up, but others have no idea.

Those who live life and take it by the reigns often go down in the history books for …

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Edgar County’s aviation pioneer


Many kids have big dreams. Some know exactly what they want to be when they grow up, but others have no idea.

Those who live life and take it by the reigns often go down in the history books for their accomplishments. Never in a million years did John and Lucy Lee expect one of their children to be one for the history books.

John Thomas Lee married Lucy Almeda Bush Sept. 19, 1889, in Edgar County. Their child Eber Hamilton Lee was born April 18, 1892, into a farming family, but he learned early farming was not for him.

At the young age of 18, E. Hamilton Lee helped pilot Calbraith Rodgers with his Wright Model EX biplane, named the the Vib Fiz, when he landed in Chicago attempting the first cross-country flight of the United States. This experience changed Lee forever and from that point on he knew he wanted to be a pilot.

Six years later on June 16, 1916 E. Hamilton Lee soloed his first flight. His pilot license was signed by none other than Orville Wright.

After attaining his license, Lee went barnstorming county fairs, offering rides and showing off with acrobatics meant to dazzle the crowd. However, it did not take long for Lee to realize his piloting skills were meant for so much more.

His career grew with leaps and bounds. With the lack of military pilots, the Army Signal Corps relied on civilian pilots as instructors. Lee jumped at the chance to do it for his country and served as an instructor for the aviation wing of the Signal Corps from June 1917 to December 1918. He taught numerous pilots the ins and outs of aviation.

In 1918 with no radio or parachute on board, Lee made the first Air Mail Run for the United States Post Office. It was a risky career move because the life expectancy of an airmail pilot was only three years at that time. Workplace accidents claimed the lives of 31 of the first 40 pilots hired.

Lee was also part of the first pilot strike by airmail pilots. The strike’s goal was to make the flights safer. Most of the pilots still had their jobs when the strike ended but the jobs were not much safer.

Eber Hamilton Lee continued flying mail for Boeing Air Transport until 1949. By that time Boeing had become United Airlines and he had many memorable moments. One that stuck out the most is when he flew an airmail mission in a DC3 as the captain and his son Robert E. Lee was the copilot.

Affectionately known as “Ham,” Lee was called the flyingest man in the world when he retired in 1949. He was United Airlines most senior captain.

Upon his retirement Lee had amassed an amazing 4.4 million air miles flown in 27,812 hours. A record that still stands among pilots today and one that may never be broken. Another feat is he was the captain on every single flight he was a part of and never sat in the copilot seat.

Eber Hamilton Lee experienced another exciting moment for his 100 birthday. Pilot Clay Lacy with his DC3 painted up in United Airline colors and with hostesses in vintage uniforms let the great Ham Lee sit in the captain’s chair and fly the DC3 from San Bernardino to Van Nuys where a gala by the Postal Service and the Federal Aviation Administration honored Lee.

His final flight came after his Oct. 13, 1994, death. He did not want a service but the United Airlines Museum did so anyway. Lee’s body was cremated and was interred between his father’s and mother’s graves in Cayuga, N.D., leaving behind the notion that when it comes to dreaming, the sky is definitely not the limit.