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Oliver Andre Rosto: The first Norwegian to fly (?)

By: Rob Mulder
For: www.europeanairlines.no

In 1912 Christian Lie was the first civilian to take off from Norwegian soil and to make a flight with his Grade monoplane. For generations this has been seen as the first flight of a Norwegian civilian from Norwegian soil. But thanks to the historian Hans Olav Løkken in Norway we have to rewrite Norwegian aviation history… or not?

It was a great pleasure to read in the leading Norwegian aviation magazine Flynytt of February 2005 an article that could change the course of aviation history in Norway. Hans Olav Løkken wrote an interesting article about the first Norwegian to build and fly a heavier-than-air craft. For generations the general acceptance was that on 28 July 1912 Christian Lie was the first civilian aviator to fly an aircraft in Norway. He had been trained in Germany and brought a Grade monoplane to Norway for demonstration flights. The first Norwegian to fly was Lieutenant Hans Fleischer Dons, who on 1 June 1912 flew at Horten in a Rumpler Taube named “Start”.

First I would like to publish here parts of the Norwegian article about Oliver A Rosto. It has been published in Flynytt of February 2005 and written by Hans Olav Løkken.

“Ole Augustinussen Røstø was born on August 25, 1881 at Bjørkneset in Hemne. His parents were Augustinus Olsen Belsvik (1853-1934) and Anne Kristoffersdatter Røstø (1855-1942). They married in Trondheim in 1877. Their son Ole would be third child in a row of nine children. In 1888 the families bought a piece of land at Bjørkneset and build a house on it. Once Ole had grown up he moved to his grandparents Kristoffer (1811-1903) and Elisabeth (1820-1915) on the island Røstøya. His grand uncle Hans J W Strøm (1825-1906) governed the island. Ole had heard of people immigrating to the USA. At that time Ole took the last name of his grandparents and was now called Røstø.

Once he had to go school, he came to Svanem on the mainland and stayed at strangers again. After school he left for Trondheim, where he started to work in the workshop of Johan Lefstad (Lefstad Sportforretning). Here he mainly worked with bicycles. Ole even tried as a cyclist. He was so fanatic that he even won a big bag with coffee. In the end he had the same background as the Wright brothers and another Norwegian John Bochkon. All started with bicycles.

To America

Around the turn of the century many from his area immigrated to America. From his area some 30 persons left for America. This was nearly the whole population. The young and even a little adventurous Ole Røstø was 19 years when he immigrated to the USA. The same did his brother and two sisters (Eilert Kristian, Agnes and Elisabeth) and two of their uncles with their family. Upon arrival in America Ole changed his name or was given a wrong name by the US immigration service. He was now called Oliver Andre Rosto. He settled in Minnesota. New challenges awaited him. He worked in the car industry and studied during the evenings. Already by 1909 he built his own primitive aircraft, Duluth No.1 – called after his hometown in Minnesota. American sources mention this was already in 1908. The aircraft had a 35 hp engine. Since there was no airfield in Minnesota he had to use a frozen lake to take off. When Ole made the first flight with his homebuilt aircraft in 1909 it was only six years since the Wright-brothers had managed to take off. The Norwegian’s first flight took twenty minutes and he reached a height of 100 feet, flying at a speed of 40 mph. The young Norse-American Ole Røstø had later air certificate No. 131. After a while he stopped working on aviation mainly out of economic reasons.

Norwegian aviation history

Several Norwegian tried to establish themselves during the first 10-15 years of the 20th century as aviation pioneers, but most attempts ended in failure or accident. Some imported equipment, others constructed aircraft themselves. Names that can be mentioned are Wilhelm Henie and engineer Lilloe. The first to fly an aircraft in Norway was Baron Carl Cederström (1867-1918). That was in October 1910. Hans Dons was as mentioned before the first Norwegian to fly in Norway, on 1 June, 1912. The first Norwegian with a flying permit was possibly Christian Lie. He got his flying permit in Germany in 1912. The first Norwegian issued flying permit was issued on June 11, 1914 to Roald Amundsen (1872-1928). The Norse-American Ole Røstø, alias Oliver Andre Rosto (1881-1972) was the first of all of them?”

So far the translation and extraction of the Norwegian article.

Questions

After read the article I had some questions:

What was the exact date of the first flight?

Where did the first flight take place?

With what kind of aircraft did he fly?

What was the exact date of the first flight?

In the article I noticed that there was no date of the first flight, only the year 1909. In the copies of the documentation Hans Olav Løkken put at my disposal I could not find any date either only the year 1909. I started to correspondence with Alvin Grady at Duluth International Airport at Duluth, Minnesota, USA and tried to clear this question. Information from the late Oliver A Rosto revealed the date 15 November. The date 15 November was mentioned on a plaque: “Commemorating the first solo flight of Oliver A Rosto made on November 15, 1909 – Awarded by THE EARLY BIRDS an organization of pioneer aviators who flew solo before December 17, 1916”. But there is also a document at The Early Bird Association with a statement that “Oliver A Rosto learned to fly in Duluth and made his first solo flight on November 5, 1909 in a ROSTO monoplane”. So the question is thus was the plaque or paper wrong? But most likely is at least November 1909 correct. But did he fly? I will deal with this now.

Where did the first flight take place?

I am quite confident that his first flight did not take place in Duluth in 1909, but near Paris in Europe. In an newspaper article dated 29 March 1912 it is written: “Jim” McCrudden (should probably be McCurdy – RM), one of the bird men who has made himself famous is a friend of Rosto’s and with him the Duluth man made flights in Paris, France. This statement came from Oliver A Rosto himself and thus his first flight must have been in Europe in the autumn of 1909, rather than in Duluth, Minnesota, USA. In a 1913-article it is also mentioned that he spent some time in Germany and France studying aviation.  In 1939 Oliver A Rosto told a journalist of the Oakland Tribune: “When Rosto was a young engineer he made his first flight in Paris, going up as passenger in an old Curtiss which an acquaintance of his was flying”. The first Curtiss in Europe arrived in August 1909 when Glenn Curtiss participated in the famous international air meet of Reims (France): Glenn Curtiss won the coveted speed race (47.65 mph for the two laps) in an aircraft of his own design. Was Oliver A Rosto there to help Glenn Curtiss?

With what kind of aircraft did he fly?

Hans Olav Løkken and “The Early Bird” Association mentioned also that Oliver A Rosto build and flew his first aircraft, the “Duluth No.1” (named after his hometown Duluth, Minnesota, USA) in 1909, but it seems that this is not correct. In the earlier mentioned newspaper article of 29 March 1912 the journalist described the aircraft and wrote that the aircraft will fly within ten days. Oliver A Rosto was waiting for a 45 hp Curtis engine that was to be shipped from New York to Duluth. It was not until 1911 until Curtiss started to produce engines on a large scale. In that year he offered aircraft with 40 hp (4 cc), 60 hp V8 and 75 hp V8 engines (1).

I will come back to the aircraft at a later stage. Another newspaper article from The Duluth Herald dated 21 January 1913 revealed an aircraft completely similar to the picture eligibly made of the 1909-aircraft. An American journalist visited Oliver A Rosto workshop and wrote in the article: “…The aeroplane is the property of O A Rosto of 1013 East First Street and was made by him. He expects to fly the machine the first clear, still day. He will start from the ice on the harbour, and alight there after making a flight over the city. He may not essay a flight over the city on the first attempt, but may spend some time practicing over the ice, not going far from the surface. Mr. Rosto has been working on the machine for many months. He spent several years in Germany and France before coming to this country, and made a study of aeroplanes there. The new machine is a new model embodying many of his own ideas. It is a monoplane, but of a new type. When James “Jimmy” Ward, the aviator, was here last fall, Rosto showed him his plans and the partly finished machine (underlined by RM), and Ward was most enthusiastic over it…The machine has been at the Auditorium for some time, but as soon as the weather moderates it will be taken down to the harbour for its first flight.”

Was he a Norwegian or an American citizen?

Another question in this context is whether we can see Oliver A Rosto as a Norwegian or as an American. I was told that when immigrating to the USA you were given the American citizenship. This is confirmed by the fact that Oliver A Rosto wrote in the application form of the United States Civil Service Commission that he was an American citizen. In addition he had an American pass. Is it therefore correct to classify him as a Norwegian? Correct is to say that he was of Norwegian origine.

The aircraft

Basically the aircraft was a monoplane inspired by the Blériot XI, which he had seen in Paris. Not many measures are known, but here some of them and we compare it with the Blériot XI:

Rosto monoplane Blériot XI
Length 35 ft/10,67 m 26,24 ft/8 m
Span 30 ft/9,14 m 23,61-27,55 ft/7,20-8,40 m
Speed 40 mph/64,28 kmh 46 mph/75 kmh
Max.speed 50 mph/80,35 kmh
Engine 35 hp Anzani V 35 hp REP 7 cc
Propeller 2 bladed 2 bladed

The Rosto Monoplane was larger than the Blériot XI in both length and span. The engine had the same horsepower. The speed of the Rosto Monoplane was lower than of the Blériot XI. The Rosto Monoplane was a one-seat tractor monoplane with a square section fuselage made of longerons and tightened by steel wires. The whole fuselage including the engine was covered. It was all of hickory and elm. The wings were embraced with piano wire and screws and steered from the fuselage by loosening the cables connecting them together. Regular silk and rubber composition covered the wings. The landing gear is connected to the fuselage by two A-shaped struts and forward facing skis have been added to avoid a tip-over on the noose. The two wheels had spokes. There was a slid at the rear end of the fuselage. The elevator wings were situated under the fuselage and connected with wires to the cockpit. The tail had a square form and was also controlled by wires. In front of the cockpit were two V-shaped struts turned upside-down that held the wires to the wings.

As early as 29 March 1912 it was announced that the aircraft was nearing completion and that Oliver A Rosto would soon try it on ice if the engine arrived in time. He expected the engine to come within ten days. At that moment he had ordered a 45 hp Curtiss engine and Curtiss propeller at the cost of several hundred dollars. When completed the aircraft would represent about 1,500 US Dollars (approx. 67.000 in 2002-US.$) outside of the time and labour. The motor weighed some 170 pounds (77,27 kg).

It seems that the Curtiss engine was not mounted and that the plans were postponed until the next year. On 21 January 1913 an article in “The Duluth Herald” showed the aircraft in its full glory and again Oliver A Rosto expected to be able to take-off from the ice within a few days, but not until there was a clear day. The machine was stored at the Auditorium in Duluth and would be taken down to the harbour for its first flight. Oliver A Rosto has confirmed that the aircraft has flown. Two articles from respectively 1939 and 1944 informed us a little bit. He had made some twelve flights and he seemed to have crashed several times, but escaped without damaging either himself or his ship beyond repair. He said to a journalist in 1944: “The aircraft had just one speed. I would press the button, she would scoot along, take to the air at 50 mph and remain there until I got her down again”. It was also written in some papers that the first flight lasted for 20 minutes. The aircraft had a speed of 40 mph (well 64 kmh) and flew at a height of 100 feet (well 30 metres). As mentioned some twelve flights were made. Further research in the USA should be done to find out more about the flights in Duluth in 1913 and perhaps we can even find out when the first flight of the Rosto Monoplane was.

One problem has also not been solved: In a 1917-application form of the United States Civil Service Commission at Washington DC he wrote that “…In 1907 worked, designing and constructing monoplane in Duluth Minnesota”. But he also wrote: “…1909 and 1910 built 2 special motorcars in connection with R. N. Marble”. So we cannot rule out 100 % that he did not fly in 1908 or 1909, but it might well be that he missed a proper engine or that he simply did not remember the correct years. And when was he in Europe? He told in the previously mentioned application that he started to work in 1907, which would mean that he must have been in Europe before 1907, but the Curtiss did not come until August 1909. This is all very confusing.

Once he had flown with the aircraft he might perhaps have found out that it was not as successful as anticipated and he did not improve or change anything on it. The ultimate fate of the aircraft is partly known.  None of the articles found mention what happened until in 1952 Oliver A Rosto told another magazine (CA News, Volume 6, No. 4, April 1952) that he bequeathed his monoplane to the YMCA at Duluth, where he had built it, but by 1952 it was gone.

Rosto’s life until 1919

But after his attempts with the monoplane, he did not leave the aviation business. He became assistant chief inspector at the Curtiss Company for one year under Lynn Blankman and was at the time of application (see above) working at the Curtiss Engine Company at Garden City, NY.  He applied for the position of Inspector of Engineering Material (Aeronautical) at US Navy Office at 2000 N Elmwood, Buffalo, NY. During his time at Curtiss (autumn 1916) he met with the famous Swedish aviator Baron Carl Cederström (the first man ever to fly in a heavier-than air craft in Norway!) and Captain Carl Gustaf Krokstedt. They were in the USA on behalf of the Swedish aeroplane factory Nordiska Aviatikbolaget – NAB (Nordic Aviation Co.).

Soon afterwards Oliver A Rosto would leave for a hazardous trip to Russia (Petrograd), where he would enter the aviation corps of the Russian government. He departed from New York by ship for Russia on 9 December 1916. Before he left he made an interesting statement: “Following the war will come an era of commercial flying development and it will be the veterans of the war, men who have made flights under all circumstances and conditions that will be called upon to help develop the business. There is a great future in commercial flying…”.

While in Russia Oliver A Rosto went with a squadron into Russia on a special mission involving delivery of new planes to air forces in that country. The revolution broke out while he was in Russia. Subsequently he encountered considerable difficulty in getting out of Russia, but 1917 found him back in the USA as a member of the flying corps of the United States Navy. His technical skills led to his return as assistant chief inspector for the United States Navy in the Curtiss company plant in Buffalo, NY. He inspected aircraft and engines until he was moved to the Curtiss plant on Long Island, where he remained until the end of the Great War (November 1918). On 14 December 1918 he send in his resignation as from 1 January 1919, that was granted by Bergmann, the chief of the Appointment Division.

Conclusion

I still support the theory that Oliver A Rosto did not fly solo until after 1909. He might well have started to construct an aircraft (as early as 1907?), but if it was based on the Blériot XI this aircraft did not come until January 1909. I believe he made his first flight as a passenger in France in November 1909 and that he after that started to build his Rosto Monoplane based on the Frenchman’s aircraft. Thus we should move the whole time perspective from 1907 to 1909. He might have flown in 1912, but more likely it should be in the winter of 1913. Further research should be done to try to establish his first flight. I feel that IF he had flown in 1908-09 there would have been much more media attention. It was just a few a short while ago (21 May 1908) that Glenn H Curtiss made with his first airplane “White Wing” the first flight of an aircraft equipped with wheels. That would mean that Oliver A Rosto would have designed and built his Blériot-type monoplane before the end of 1909. That would have been an achievement that would certainly be well noted in the USA. I still recognize that the work done by Oliver A Rosto is of interest to us all and we should try to find the correct facts. And if he really has flown his own monoplane in 1909 I will be the first to admit that he did so. But until no contemporary source has been found I feel it is too early to change the history of Norwegian aviation.

This article could not have been made without the help of Alvin Grady (Duluth International Airport), Gérard Hartmann, Dave Reid, Bill Matthews, Lennart Andersson, Lars Sundin, Maurice J Wickstead,  Nick Folder, Hans Olav Løkken and Jan Waernberg. Alvin Grady has supplied the pictures.

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