(Salem) Statesman Journal
SALEM (AP) — Lee Eyerly was an aviation pioneer. He set up a flight school and service shop near the Oregon State Fairgrounds, before Salem even had an airport. He was among those who hounded city officials to build one, and when they finally did, he moved his operations there.
Eyerly Aircraft Co. was a fixture at McNary Field for nearly six decades, but the patriarch’s fascination with flying and passion for planes ultimately led to a different kind of business.
The company developed and manufactured amusement rides, such as the Octopus and Rock-O-Plane, from about 1930 to 1985. Many of its rides are still in operation today at carnivals, parks and fairs. This year’s state fair lineup includes the Spider, a variation of the Octopus.
Creating these rides came naturally for Lee Eyerly.
“Being a pilot and knowing what the thrills of being in an aircraft were, he designed them with that in mind,” said his grandson Jon Eyerly, who lives in Keizer. “He did things that were advanced for the time.”
But his grandfather’s shift in business plans was somewhat of a fluke.
Lee Eyerly had devised a ground-based flight training device patented under the name Orientator.
It was a small airplane suspended in what looked like a giant wishbone. The plane had a stick and rudder paddles, allowing the operator to control movements like a real aircraft. Move the stick down, and the plane would nose down. It could roll, loop and turn.
“It would do everything but fly,” Jon Eyerly said.
Five were sold to the Cuban government and used for flight training, according to a summary of the company’s history on Eyerly Aircraft letterhead, but most of the 54 manufactured wound up on the midways of America.
As the story goes, the contraption was sitting in the corner of a warehouse, collecting dust, when someone suggested to Lee Eyerly that he spruce it up with some paint, take it to a public gathering, and offer a spin for a quarter.
No one knows for sure when or where this happened — best guess is around 1930 and at the state fair — but the attraction was an instant hit, proclaimed the best thrill ride since the roller coaster.The device was renamed the Acroplane and was the first in a long line of rides manufactured by the Eyerlys. Recognizing the popularity of the Acroplane, Lee Eyerly began developing other rides that gave the sensation of flight.
Next came the Loop-O-Plane, then the Octopus, the Roll-O-Plane and the Fly-O-Plane, all unveiled before World War II.
The Octopus was perhaps the company’s most popular, with nearly 400 made. One brochure listed a sales price of $6,400 for the Octopus, plus the cost of power unit.
Production of all rides ceased during the war, when Eyerly Aircraft was subcontracted to build bombs and do stainless steel machining, Jon Eyerly said.
The amusement-ride business boomed after the war, with the company rolling out 150 rides each of the first two years. It averaged about 10 per year after that.
The Rock-O-Plane made its debut in 1948, with a sales tag of nearly $11,000. The company then introduced a pair of kiddie rides, Bulgy the Whale and the Midge-O-Racer. Variations on the Octopus — the Monster and the Spider — were unveiled in the 1960s.
The company redesigned the Roll-O-Plane and called it the Sidewinder in the late 1970s. Krazy Kars and the Lady Bug were the last rides developed by Eyerly Aircraft.
A total of about 1,800 were built by the company, which stopped production in 1985. Jon Eyerly was president by that time, the third generation of the family to run the business. It went bankrupt around 1990, in the wake of a lawsuit after a rider’s death on a Monster in Florida.
The expense of liability insurance ultimately led to the demise of the company, but its creations still are whirling at carnivals, fairs and parks nationwide. Oaks Amusement Park in Portland has a Rock-O-Plane and a Spider.
“I would say at least a thousand, for sure, are left and running,” Jon Eyerly said. “I don’t want to be immodest, but our products were some of the best, and they were built for a long life.”
He should know, because he still works in the industry. He’s a technician supervisor for Portland-based Funtastic Rides, which supplies the carnival for the state fair.
Jon Eyerly was destined to work in the industry. As a teenager he started out sweeping the floors at Eyerly Aircraft and making light strings for the rides. He graduated to driving trucks and delivering the machines, and later was in charge of the shop.
As a 21-year-old, he operated the Monster when it made a big splash at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. He was most interested in the mechanisms of the rides.
The action of a ride is what had to be patented, Jon Eyerly said, and his grandfather had several.
“He had patents for rides he never built,” Jon said.
But Lee Eyerly’s greatest contribution to the industry may have been the invention of the “one-truck ride.” His rides were portable and could be taken apart and loaded on one trailer, which made traveling shows more possible. Jack Eyerly, Lee’s son and Jon’s father, furthered the concept by making rides that folded onto a truck and didn’t have to be fully dismantled.
Jon Eyerly has preserved memories of the family’s legacy, with files full of brochures, newspaper clippings and photographs. There’s a postcard-size photo of one of the Acroplanes, which started it all. There are photos of elaborate displays including miniature models that actually ran set up at trade shows in Chicago in the late 1930s.
Most of Eyerly Aircraft’s market was back east.
“We bought all the supplies locally,” Jon Eyerly said. “The money all went back into Salem.”
One of the models used at trade shows, featuring replicas of the Roll-O-Plane and the Octopus, is collecting dust in the corner of his garage.
It belongs in a museum. So do the remnants of the last known Acroplane, which supposedly are on the grounds of the property adjacent to the airport where Eyerly Aircraft once crafted rides that have thrilled so many. Today that property, on the east side of the airport, is home to the Oregon Army National Guard.