Lee U. Eyerly (1892-1963) was an Oregon civil aviation pioneer and amusement ride manufacturer.
Lee U. Eyerly
He was born in Cuba, Illinois, and raised in Canton. In 1909, his family moved to the Judith Basin area of Montana to take advantage of the Homestead Act. Because he was mechanically handy, he found work repairing broken farm equipment. While in his early 20s, he built his first airplane in the lobby of the hotel his mother managed, but was unable to fly it because he had no suitable engine. Around this same time, he married his wife Meta.
By 1919, Montana suffered from wind erosion and drought, and the opportunities for repairing farm equipment dwindled. Eyerly moved his young family to Salem, Oregon, where he became a heavy-equipment operator , working on the state’s burgeoning system of roads. As automobiles became more popular, he opened a service station called "The Grease Spot." In 1920, he took three hours of flying instruction from Elmer Cook – the only formal flying instruction he ever received. In 1921, he enrolled in the engineering program at the Oregon Agriculture College, where he was hired as an instructor shortly after. From 1923 to 1926, Eyerly and his family lived in Waldport, Oregon, where he worked as a ferry operator and opened another service station. In 1926, they moved back to Salem, and he purchased his first aircraft, a small mail plane.
With funds raised by the American Legion, Lee purchased a five acre (20,000 m²) plot of land near the former Governor’s Mansion on which he established Salem’s airport. By 1929, he founded an aviation school, and later, the first aircraft service station on the west coast. When the Great Depression hit, he devised two inexpensive ways to train pilots. The first was the Whiffle Hen, a plane which only burned two US gallons (8 L) of fuel per hour of flight. The second was a ground-based flight training device patented under the name "Orientator". The Orientator consisted of a small airplane suspended in what looked like the tines of a giant tuning fork. Air from the electrically driven propeller passed over the wings and rudder, and the operator controlled the movements of the plane in a manner similar to a real aircraft.
The Acroplane, Loop-O-Plane and dual Roll-O-Plane
The Orientator was produced commercially, but didn’t gain much popularity as a flight trainer; the only buyer was the Cuban government, which purchased five. It was not until Eyerly took the Orientator to several fairs as an amusement ride, where he noticed from the air that the queues for it were much longer than for real airplane rides, that it became a success. The Orientator was re-named the Acroplane, and over 50 were manufactured and sold to carnivals and amusement parks.
Eyerly patented many amusement rides, some of which had their origins in aeronautic maneuvers. The Loop-O-Plane and Roll-O-Plane simulated aerial loops; the Octopus’ action was similar to hitting an air-pocket; and the Fly-O-Plane was an aerial carousel that allowed riders to spin their vehicles in a barrel roll. Other rides included the Rock-O-Plane (a variation on the Ferris wheel) and two kiddie carrousel rides, the Midge-O-Racer and Bulgy the Whale.
Although the focus of Eyerly’s manufacturing business was amusement rides, he never lost interest in aviation, and the name of his company remained "Eyerly Aircraft." After World War II he became a member of the Oregon Aeronautics Board, and served as chairman for ten years.
In 1954, Walt Disney Imagineering contacted Eyerly Aircraft and negotiated with them to build Disneyland's Dumbo ride on a modified Octopus frame. Plans were drawn and models built, but Walt ultimately gave the job to the fledgling Arrow Development company.
After a ten year battle with cancer, Lee Eyerly died in 1963.