Oregon’s Military and Naval Aviation Pioneers, Frank W. Wright and Louis T. Barin, Jr.

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., USAF (Retired)
  • 142nd Wing / History Office

Over a century ago, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, the fighting in Europe on land, sea and air between Allied forces and Imperial Germany ceased.  World War One was over.

Looking back in time, we note that Oregon’s military aviation roots emanate from this period.  Although the 123rd Observation Squadron is properly feted as Oregon’s first military aviation unit, and celebrates its 80th anniversary this month, Oregon’s first military and naval aviators started flying more than 100 years ago. 

America’s status as an aviation nation grew after the Wright Brother’s first powered flight on 17 December 1903.  The Pacific Northwest was not to be left out as interest and enthusiasm in spread contagiously across the country.

Another Wright, Frank Wilbur Wright, was born in Portland, Oregon on 26 August 1886.  In 1903 he enlisted in the Oregon Naval Militia as an Apprentice Seaman 3c.  He was in the Cadet Corps at Oregon Agricultural College (Oregon State University today) between 1908 and 1910, then graduated.  Wright enlisted in 1910 in the Oregon National Guard, Company F, of the 3rd Oregon Infantry.  In December, 1911 he was commissioned as an officer and by 1914 commanded the Eighth Company of the Oregon Coast Artillery Corps and also the Coast Artillery Band.

To compare and contrast, Louis Theodore Barin, Jr., was also born in Portland, Oregon on 20 August 1890.  He went to Pacific College for pharmacy but was “bitten” by the “flying bug” early and began to build and fly his own airplanes.  Barin joined the Oregon National Guard in in April, 1910 as a Private in B Company, 3rd Infantry and was honorably discharged from the unit in October the same year. He then joined the Oregon Naval Militia in November, 1915. 

Already an aviation enthusiast and pilot, Barin aspired to establish an aviation corps in the Oregon Naval Militia (ONM).  In January, 1916, he test-flew his aircraft at Vancouver Barracks, Washington for several officers of the Oregon National Guard, who upon successful demonstration of a flight were to determine Barin’s fitness to serve as an officer in this fledgling aviation corps.  Barin became the last of the early aviation pioneer aviators to fly out of the polo field at Vancouver Barracks before World War I.  He favorably impressed Oregon Military Department staff and served on the ONM staff until he was commissioned as an Ensign in July, 1916.  Barin was then placed in charge of the budding Aviation Corps of the Oregon Naval Militia and had the rank of Chief Mechanician.

In early 1916, both Wright and Barin received orders to attend the Aviation School at San Diego, California.  Wright’s tuition for the aviation course was paid for by the Aero Club of America, while the Curtiss Aeroplane Company, already closely tied to the Navy, picked up the tuition for Barin. Wright was to undergo the six-week training course, while Barin, already an experienced pilot, was to attend just long enough to get a pilot’s certificate.  Wright soloed on 1 June 1916.

Ostensibly both men were to return to Oregon and help start aviation units.  Oregon Governor Withycombe remarked to the effect that if Oregon had trained aviators the equipment would probably come later.  So, the Oregon Military Department made the effort to get personnel trained.

But America’s entry into World War I on 6 April 1917 ended that plan.  The nation mobilized for war and needed many skilled officers and men from the National Guard.  As a result, both Wright and Barin were placed on active duty in the Army and Navy respectively.

Barin was detailed to Naval Aeronautic Station Pensacola, Florida, before the US joined the war,  in February, 1917.  He was at Pensacola when war was declared and was promoted to Lieutenant, US Navy Reserve on 8 June 1917. 

That same month Wright was ordered to the Signal Corps Aviation School at San Diego, California for examination to determine his qualifications for rating as a junior military aviator.  He was successful and Wright, now a Captain, was attached to the aviation section of the US Army Signal Corps effective 5 August 1917.

With his pioneer aviator background and experience, Louis Barin served as an instructor at Naval Aeronautical Station Pensacola and flight-tested new aircraft for the Navy.  He soon received the nickname “Daredevil Barin” for his aeronautical prowess. 

In one example, at Pensacola, “…his nerve had to face a severe ordeal.  He was up at 6,000 feet with a new machine when it went wrong and, turning over, began to fall. Down it came, apparently a hopeless wreck, but Barin kept his head and worked with might and main to regain control.  Within a few hundred feet of the water he succeeded, but his helmet and goggles were gone and his clothes torn off him by the air pressure of the descent at such a velocity from a great altitude.”

By the end of the war, due to the efforts of Barin and the training cadre, some 1,000 naval aviators graduated at Pensacola.

Meanwhile, Wright’s path took him overseas for wartime service from January to March, 1918. He was assigned to the 173rd Aero Squadron in the AEF’s 3rd Aviation Instruction Center at Issoudun Aerodrome, France for advanced training to familiarize pursuit pilots with current tactics and aircraft being used at the in front.  By the time of the Armistice, Issoudun, about a 100-miles southeast of Paris, had become the largest flying school in the world, and ultimately some 1,800 men received training there.

Due to a shortage of aircraft and units in the AEF, there was an overage of pilots available for duty.  Rather than wait for mobilization and construction to catch up, some American pilots were assigned to flight duty in British and French flying squadrons. 

In April, 1918, Frank Wright was assigned to Royal Air Force (RAF) 209 Squadron and flew the Sopwith Camel F.1 in combat at the age of 32.  This was the RAF squadron which  battled the famous German fighter pilot Manfred von Richtofen, the Red Baron, and his Flying Circus on the day the Red Baron was shot down and killed, 21 April 1918.  According to RAF operations records for 209 Squadron, Wright did not fly on that mission that day.  He remained on duty with 209 Squadron until the Armistice.

After the war, Louis Barin flew Curtiss H-12 and H-16 seaplanes at Naval Air Station Rockaway, New York.   He then distinguished himself as a co-pilot in the six-man crew of the large Curtiss NC-1 flying boat (126-foot wingspan) and was a member of the Navy’s transatlantic flight involving three of these NC (“Nancy”) flying boats in May, 1919. 

On the crossing Barin performed navigation duties for more senior pilots.  The NC-1 he flew made it across the Atlantic as far as the Azores before being forced to land by fog and thus being unable to spot the high peaks of the islands.  The flying boat landed on 12-foot waves and was unable to take off again in such rough seas.  It was damaged and ultimately sank while under tow by a rescuing ship.  Barin was awarded the Navy Cross for his role on the mission and also received the Portuguese Knight of the Order of the Tower and Sword.

Tragically, Louis Barin was killed at age 29 in an accident on 12 June 1920, a mid-air collision between his naval aircraft and an Army aircraft in the vicinity of Rockwell Field, California, near San Diego.  He is buried in Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, San Diego, California, at Plot OFFIC 305.


Barin was honored by having a naval air facility named after him, Barin Field, (Barin Naval Auxiliary Air Station, commissioned in July 1942) east of Foley, Alabama, now Naval Outlying Field (NOLF) Barin, a satellite training field for Naval Air Station Pensacola.

Our other Oregonian, Frank Wright, decided to stay on active duty after the war, and served through the interwar period.  Among his assignments was duty at Luke Field in Hawaii (on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor) in the early 1920s, likely in the 6th Aero Squadron (later 6th Pursuit Squadron). 

In May, 1938 Lt Col Frank W. Wright became the first commander of McChord Field, Washington, a brand-new Army Air Corps installation.  In March, 1941 he became the base commander for another new Army air facility, Pendleton Field, in northeastern Oregon.  This was the base for many of the B-25 Mitchell medium bomber aircrews who would later go on to fly in the Doolittle Raid on Japan in April, 1942.  The base then served to train the crews of heavy bombers. 

Wright subsequently served in Utah in command of the 18th Replacement Wing from January to March, 1944, and was the base commander at Wright Field, Ohio, from September, 1944 to June, 1945 before he retired from active duty as a Colonel in July, 1946.  Wright passed away at Madigan Army Hospital at Fort Lewis on 9 November 1950 at age 64 and is buried in the Washougal Memorial Cemetery, in Washougal, Washington, at Section 1, Block 3, Lot 70.

Oregon’s two military aviation pioneers blazed the sky trail for future military aviation in the state.  After post-First World War budget cuts, the Great Depression and isolationist sentiments as the storm clouds of World War II gathered, this came to be on 18 April 1941 with the activation of the 123rd Observation Squadron.  Now designated as the 123rd Fighter Squadron, it set the foundation for growth into the Oregon Air National Guard we know today.

As we prepare to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Oregon Air National Guard, let us   remember that over 100 years ago, two bold Oregonians, Frank W. Wright and Louis T. Barin, Jr., first took to the skies in service to community, state and nation.  The men and women serving in the Oregon Air National Guard today are their proud legacy.