Takasow, Takayuki (1886-1941)

  • By Kathrine Beck
  • Posted 11/17/2021
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21353

Five years before June 15, 1916, when Boeing Airplane Model 1, also known as the Bluebill, flew for the first time, Takayuki Takasow (sometimes spelled Takasou) was the first person to build and fly an airplane in Seattle. He came to Seattle from Japan in 1909 and began building his airplane immediately. Headlines such as "Japanese Flies Biplane in Wind: Seattle Aviator Demonstrates Home-Made Machine Before Cheering Crowd" made him a much-admired local celebrity. Despite walking away from a crash landing from 80 feet, and a spectacular near miss over Elliott Bay viewed by thousands, he remained unflappable. He left Seattle during World War I, with his plane, to participate in a siege against a German fortress in Tsing-Tao, China.

Mischievous and Rebellious

Takayuki Takasow was born on June 25, 1886 in Yamanashi Prefecture. (The spelling of his last name in America reflects the conventions of his time. Today his name would be spelled Takasao in the Roman alphabet.) His parents divorced when he was very young, and his mother, Chiyo, had remarried by the time he was 3. Takayuki had always been a mischievous child, and his inability to adjust to life with his new stepfather made him grow even more unruly. In 1892, the 6-year-old Takayuki was entrusted to the care of the Seikou-ji Temple in Yamagata Prefecture, to be cared for by the monks, and possibly brought up to become one himself. There, Takayuki grew even more rebellious, and the temple priests found him impossible to control. A year later he was forced to return to the family home.

Takayuki was then sent, under protest, to live with an aunt who owned a bicycle repair shop in the Kyobashi district of Tokyo. Takayuki seems to have enjoyed living with his aunt and helping out at the shop when he wasn't riding bicycles throughout the city. After completing elementary school, he attended the Faculty of Commerce and Industry of Keio Juku, a school which later became a university. He dropped out. In 1905, the 18-year-old Takayuki went to work at the newly established Tokyo Automobile Manufacturing Works. Years later, America's Aero magazine would report that Takayuki was the first person in Japan to drive an automobile.

In 1908, now 21, Takayuki used his prize money from bicycle racing to set out for Seattle, with the additional help of a benefactor named Horitoshi Ohmiya. His goal was to learn to design, build, and fly airplanes in America, where the Wright Brothers had made their first flight just five years before.

He was soon hired as a chauffeur by C. J. Takahashi, president of the Oriental Trading Company in Seattle, and also worked as a taxi driver. But he was able to devote many hours to designing, building, and flying a series of airplanes. While based in Seattle, he also spent time in California, which was then a busy center of the new technology. In 1908, while in the San Francisco Bay Area, he placed a want ad seeking a job as a chauffeur or automobile mechanic in Fresno. He said he had five years experience and wanted $40 a week.

He was also on hand at the King County Marriage Clerk's office in Seattle in the spring of 1910, when 15 young Japanese women -- "picture brides" who had crossed the Pacific to marry Japanese men -- needed two witnesses to complete the paperwork. One of the witnesses was George T. Takasow, the name he would use during his years in America. He lived at the Great Northern hotel in Pioneer Square, and later had what was either a home or workshop (or both) on Maynard Street, as well as a hangar on Harbor Island, where he began to build Seattle's first airplane.

Takasow's biplane, named the Takasow No. 1 Aeroplane, had a framework of bamboo poles imported from Asia, making it much lighter than the Wright Brothers' metal frame. Specially prepared cloth was chosen for its aerodynamic qualities, and it had a collapsible seat. A seven-foot long propellor was attached to the driving rod of the engine. Piano wires braced the structure, which was mounted on bicycle wheels. A four-cylinder Ellbridge engine was located in the rear of the airplane, and it had a Wright vertical rudder and a Curtiss horizontal rudder. The plane weighed 578 pounds and cost $1,800 to make. He told reporters it was the first airplane he'd ever seen, let alone flown.

Takasow Takes Flight

In 1911, Takasow made a successful trial flight south of Seattle at Thomas, a no-longer-extant community near Kent, an area where many Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans owned farms and dairies. The United Press wire service covered the flight, and the story, datelined April 27, 1911, was picked up by newspapers around the nation.

A few days later, still trying out his machine at Thomas, some wind came up three minutes into the flight, pitching his plane sideways while it was 80 feet in the air. Upon landing he jumped clear of the wreckage and landed bruised and sprawling on the ground. He told reporters, somewhat taken aback by his calm demeanor, "It fell like a shot, and some way I jumped clear of it" ("Japanese Flyer Falls ..."). He said he would need about two months to build Takasow No. 2, and that his loss was about $700. He said he could salvage the engine, but the bamboo framework and propellor were broken beyond repair.

In 1912, a group of leading Japanese businessmen of Seattle formed the Japanese Aviation Takasow Club and began to support his efforts. They paid for him to go to a Los Angeles aviation school, where he participated in a competition in his own plane. Back home in Seattle, he was hailed as the creator of the "first successful built in Seattle air machine" and described as "the daring young Oriental" ("Japanese Aviator Flies ...").

He would go on to build four airplanes in Seattle. They had an open structure with the pilot completely exposed and fully visible from the ground. They were biplanes similar to the Curtiss pusher, but he developed his own controls, which he called a "three-in-one." The fore and aft movement of the control wheel operated the elevator, and the right and left movement of the control wheel moved the ailerons, which were connected to the rudder. A right foot pedal controlled the throttle and a left foot pedal controlled the wheel brake.

After the debacle at Thomas, he moved his testing ground to flat, open fields south of Tacoma, where other aspiring aviators were now conducting flight tests. By this time he had established a Seattle workshop on King Street, where he was said to spend much of his time. By September 1911, he flew the Takasow No. 2 from west of the Northern Pacific railroad tracks on the South Tacoma prairie for about half a mile. In an era where planes sometimes drifted like hot air balloons, he was able to make an impressive landing by returning to the spot where he started the flight. Mechanics assisting him, described in the press as "his countrymen," celebrated. He was also congratulated by a crew working on a nearby Bleriot plane.

In February 1913, Takasow visited San Francisco to buy an engine for a new biplane he had designed and built, and he also made some short exhibition flights across the bay in Alameda. 

Spectacle in the Sky

A month later, Takasow made page one of The Seattle Times, with the dramatic headline "Death Rides With Oriental Birdman But Loses Victim." Despite winds strong enough to kick up the sand near his hangar on Harbor Island, Takasow had started what the Post-Intelligencer described as his "home-made" biplane there and went on a 20-minute flight over Elliott Bay, "swinging in long, graceful circles." Thousands of people watched from the ground.

He headed northward over the water until he was over Colman Dock, then flew over Jackson Street to dip a salute to members of the Japanese community living there. He attempted a wide curve to get back to Harbor Island. but the strong shifting winds resulted in the airplane traveling in a series of jerky leaps. After a final circuit, he got control of the airplane and landed back at the Harbor Island hangar.

An hour later he began another flight. The wind rose to a velocity of at least ten miles an hour faster than the first flight, and he was now flying in a jumble of air currents. The crowd below was horrified as the airplane went through a series of deep plunges, culminating in a large "side slip." Takasow said that he hit "a hole in the air" and plunged straight down for at least 100 feet. He was raised clear off his seat. He described the sensation as like walking off a dock in the dark. Then, a violent current that seemed to come straight up from the ground tilted the craft sideways to 30 degrees from perpendicular -- 15 degrees more than what was known as the angle of safety. The plane was also plunging downward at an estimated mile a minute.

He told the Times that he jammed the ailerons or sidewings, but the airplane failed to respond. He later said it happened so fast he couldn't remember all the moves he made to right the plane, but they involved the front elevator -- a flight surface that controls pitch -- and rudders. After three circuits over the water, he managed to land safely.

He attributed his ability to regain control to the Takasow No. 3's unique design. A proponent of what today is called "human factors engineering," he claimed his airplane controls were designed so that in case of trouble, the aviator had simply to follow natural human instinct. He said of his own ability to regain control of the airplane: "Just how it was done I can't tell because it was all happening faster than I could think" ("Death Rides With Oriential Birdman ...").

Rumblings of World War

In May 1913, Takasow was described as "now at a Japanese colony near Portland, Oregon teaching his countrymen to fly" with one or more planes with him. He was referred to, wrongly, as Lieutenant Takasow. Around the same time, the San Francisco Examiner reported that 11 "expert Nipponese birdmen" were operating on the Pacific Coast, six of whom had earned a pilot's license from the Aero Club of America and four of whom were officers in the Japanese army. They were deployed from Seattle to San Diego, teaching an estimated 100 Japanese men to fly. Takasow was described as unlicensed but experienced, although he did receive his license that month.

The U.S. government was not in the business of licensing aviators. Licenses were issued by the Pacific Aero Club, affiliated with the national Aero Club based in New York, and therefore with the Federation Aeronatique Internationale, founded in 1905, which still exists today and is based in Lausanne, Switzerland. The license was an international pilot's license, and Takasow's No. 219 indicated he was the world's 219th licensed pilot. (Orville and Wilbur Wright were Nos. 4 and 5.) The test he passed took place on a flat, muddy field in Alameda, California. It included flying in the shape of the number 8 and landing within 150 feet of the spot from which the plane had taken off. The license gave pilots permission to fly in 19 nations around the globe. Soon, pilots from some of those nations would be fighting each other in the air.

By September 15, 1913, Takasow was back in Seattle, one of at least six aviators from up and down the West Coast who tried to fly in a circle around the newly-built Smith Building during the city's Potlatch Festival. Potentially deadly currents that swirled around the city's first skyscraper threatened to smash their aircraft into the side of the tower, and they all ended up pulling away before they could complete their circles.

On April 6, 1914, it was a front-page story in The Seattle Times when Takasow announced he was about to leave Seattle on the Japanese vessel Aki Maru and that he was taking along the Takasow No. 4, based on a Curtiss pusher but with his own innovations and a 60-horsepower Hall-Scott engine, with him. (Some sources say the plane was an actual Curtiss, built in California. Takasow himself did refer to it as "my Curtiss" in a letter he sent to Seattle from Tokyo.) He said he would tour Japan for 90 days and then become a civilian instructor to what the paper called "the Mikado's Army." The Times said that "great secrecy" had surrounded Takasow's movements for the previous two weeks, and that the Japanese consulate "declined to admit" that he was going to be part of the Japanese army ("Seattle Jap To Teach Flying ..."). 

Back in Japan in April 1914, Takasow was busy. Among other events, he made an exhibition flight at Himeji Military Grounds in Hyogo Prefecture. The next month he won second prize in a contest west of Osaka at Narua Race Track. After that he flew in a memorial flight near Kyoto to honor a pilot who had died in a crash.

By late summer, World War I had begun. Japan was an ally of Great Britain against the Germans. America was neutral and would stay that way for some time. After war was declared on January 8, he sent a letter to his friend A. E. Tasuni in Seattle and told him he was off to war. He and his father, a first lieutenant in the Japanese army, were about to sail aboard the Japanese converted scout cruiser Saibuya, with the airplane on board, to Tsing-Tao (now Qingdao) China, the site of a German naval base that was a target of allied Japanese and British forces.

In the letter, he marveled that just two years before he had been making his first demonstration flights at the Seattle Potlatch celebration, and now he was off to war for patrol, observation, and bomb-dropping duty. He was a civilian volunteer with no rank, under the command of his father. While on bombing duty, he would fly the plane and his father would deliver bombs by hand, throwing them off of the plane from his exposed seat. The government had bought his plane for $6,500 and paid him to convert it into what he called a hydro-plane, including a swiveling spar, a pontoon, a mast, and a sail. The plane could be lowered from the deck of a ship to the water by means of a crane and special cradle in four minutes, and returned to deck in 10 minutes, but great care had to be taken to prevent the plane from crashing to smithereens on the side of the vessel.

Eight days after his scheduled departure, news came from Tsing-Tao that the German fortress had been bombed from the air by a Japanese airplane. Many fans in Seattle believed it was the work of Takasow in his plane from Seattle, but it is not known precisely how the father-and-son team and their plane performed during the siege. The Germans held out against the allies for two months before they surrendered. The siege of Tsing-Tao was the site of the world's first air attack launched from a ship, and its first night-time air raid.

Mission Accomplished

Takasow went on to build a Takasow No. 5 in Japan. He married in 1917, and the Takasows would eventually have five children. In 1919, he returned to Seattle on a visit to thank those who had supported him and update them on his aviation activities in Japan. The members of Seattle's Japanese Aviation Takasow Club dissolved the organization and declared its mission accomplished.

He returned home in 1920. Because he felt it would be irresponsible for a family man to engage in such a dangerous undertaking, he gave up flying. His last airplane, the Takasow TN-6, was built with a partner in Japan named Ikusaburo Nakajima (no relation to an airplane manufacturer of the same name) and it was eventually sold. Takasow went on to new ventures, including becoming an engineer in 1922 at the age of 36, manufacturing and selling typewriters, representing an American company that produced engines used in agriculture and industry, and coming up with some inventions of his own.

His family remembered him as a cheerful, optimistic person, always positive even when facing challenges. According to his twenty-first century descendants in Osaka, Takasow loved his time in Seattle. His youngest daughter Kimiko Ogawa, who died in 2014 at 97, often told her family that her father used to say, "Seattle is my second mother country," and "I have two native lands: Japan and Seattle." Takayuki Takasow died on March 25, 1941.


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