John “Jack” McGee lost his life doing what he loved – skimming across Narragansett Bay until his plane caught a wave and crashed

John F. “Jack” McGee, an aviation pioneer and one of Pawtucket’s most famous sons, was born in 1885 in Central Falls but spent most of his life in Pawtucket. He attended public school in Pawtucket and worked in many odd jobs as a youth. A machine shop job led to a chauffeur’s position with a wealthy person who was directly responsible for McGee’s introduction to flying. It happened at a flying meet at Squantum, Massachusetts, in 1911. Harry Atwood and other immortals were in the air, and Jack McGee was on the ground, deciding to become a pilot. After considerable difficulty securing the funds for lessons, he enrolled in the Atwood Aviation School in Cliftondale, Massachusetts. Atwood was an American engineer known for pioneering work in the early days of aviation. One of his first students was Jack McGee, later described by Atwood as a natural pilot. 

McGee made his first solo flight in August 1912, and by the end of the year, he had made a name for himself as an exhibition stunt pilot. Early exhibition aviators competed against each other to see who could perform the most daring aerial stunts. They also vied to see who could fly the fastest, farthest, and highest. They were courageous individuals who experimented with the limits of airplane design at a time when many designers were still struggling to solve some of the most fundamental aeronautical engineering problems. Although early exhibition aviators like Jack McGee provided Americans with a great deal of entertainment during the pre-World War I era, they also suffered for their profession. True to their daredevil attitudes, many exhibition aviators pushed their airplanes past their limits and lost their lives.

McGee was one of the most inexhaustible daredevils of the early exhibition pilots, and thousands of Rhode Islanders attended his exhibitions at shore resorts, including Newport, Rocky Point, Crescent Park, Narragansett Racetrack, and the Woonsocket Trotting Park. Like all the early exhibition aviators, McGee knew that many people came to his shows to see him flirt with death. Crowds as large as 50,000 gathered to watch him perform his “dip of death” and other stunts. During the winters, he went to Florida and entertained crowds from Palm Beach to St. Petersburg. In 1913, he made front-page headlines by racing an express train from Boston to New York. He was big news in Rhode Island during his flying career. Hardly a week went by without his name appearing in front-page headlines. McGee was the first American to request the entry papers for the British Aero Club’s $50,000 prize to be awarded to the first person to fly across the Atlantic. World War I intervened, and in 1917, McGee worked as a test pilot for the Gallaudet

Aircraft Corp. He also trained Army aviators to fly at the Gallaudet Training School. One of Mc Gee’s most memorable flights was from Boston to Newport, when he was blown out to sea. He regained control and landed in a stadium at Readville, Massachusetts. While taking off the next day for Newport, he crashed into a tree to avoid hitting a baby carriage a woman left in his path. 

On June 11, 1918, Jack lost his life in a crash of one of the seaplanes he was testing for the Gallaudet Aircraft Corporation. The wing of the low-flying plane caught a wave, plunging it into Cowesett Bay in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. McGee was trapped in the wreckage and drowned. On June 18, 1983, a plaque was dedicated at Slater Park, Pawtucket, honoring Jack McGee as Rhode Island’s “First Aviator.” Jack McGee was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1989, and The Rhode Island Aviation Hall of Fame in 2003.

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