Cheston Lee Eshelman's failed 1939 flight to Mars

Among U. S. citizens who listened, hair on-end, to Actor Orson Wells's Martian newscast was a doddypolled 22-year-old airplane mechanic named Cheston Lee Eshelman. More piqued than panicked, he got an idea. He wanted to pay the Martians a return visit, stake out a refuge for "harmless people" during the next war. Secretly, he wrote to Britain for maps and other information that would be useful in a transatlantic flight.

Chief problem was how to fly there. He had serviced many a plane but had never piloted one. Mechanic Eshelman forthwith took eight hours' flying instruction, four hours' solo.

Last week, equipped with a khaki flying suit, a pistol, seven-rounds of ammunition, two chocolate bars, sandwiches and 55¢, he marched blithely into one Edward Walz's drive-yourself aerodrome at Camden, N. J., rented a two-seated, highwing Luscornbe monoplane ($9 for one hour). In its gas tanks were eight gallons, barely enough for a 175-mile hop.

Novice Eshelman, an astral gleam in his eye, took off for what he said (in a letter to the press) would be Mars 51,813,800 miles away.* Near Philadelphia he alighted briefly to take on 55 gallons (which, he later explained, was to carry him beyond gravitational pull, whence he could glide the rest of the way). He took off again, headed north over a fog-blanketed Atlantic. By the time Owner Walz had raised the alarm for his $2,600, uninsured monoplane, Cheston Lee Eshelman was skittering hither & yon, munching chocolate, trying to find a hole in the fog. A broken fuel line which caused him to pancake into the Atlantic about 175 miles southeast of Boston. A trawler fished him dripping from the sea, seconds after the monoplane sank. Oil-stained, tattered. handcuffed, but merry as a tumbling bug, Cheston Lee Eshelman returned to Camden under police escort, was tossed into jail. He faced 1) a prison term for larceny, 2) a $4.000 fine for violating at least four Civil Aeronautics Authority rules. His sole profit: by-line story in Mr. Hearst's New York Journal and American)**

* A voyager to Mars would have done better to wait until July 27, when the planet will be at its closest to the earth in 15 years (36,000,000 miles), a saving of 15,913,800 miles.

**Eshelman was unluckier than Douglas Corrigan, whose "wrong-way" flight to Ireland brought him Hollywood riches, luckier than Fliers Thomas Smith and Charles Backman whose unauthorized transatlantic flights in spring in bantam low powered planes carried them into limbo.

Source: "Trip to Mars," Time Magazine, (June 19, 1939), p.50

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Last updated Wed, 08 Oct 2003 12:47:06 GMT