Cliff Thompson flew combat missions for France in World War I and brought home a wife and a deep love of flying. He was a pioneer in R.I. aviation, a man going places and raising kids. And then one day he climbed into a racy little plane at the Buttonwoods airfield.
First of two parts.
July 26, 1928, was a busy day for World War I flying hero Clifton Badlam Thompson. Recently appointed chief pilot at the first Providence Airport, soon to be built in Seekonk, Thompson had flown a Providence Journal reporter and photographer from Pothier Field, in the Buttonwoods section of Warwick, to see the new site.
Thompson had been back at Pothier for only a few minutes when another former World War I pilot, Osmond Mather of Hartford, Connecticut, invited him to go for a spin in a racy new plane that Mather was trying to sell to the new airport group. Thompson had a student scheduled for a flying lesson, but he figured he could squeeze in a quick flight with an old colleague.
The Monocoupe was tiny compared to other planes at the field, and had been the topic of much speculation and admiration earlier in the day. The Journal reporter “watched the little plane, with Mather at the controls and Thompson as passenger, take off and immediately start to stunt at an altitude of about 100 feet and marveled that such evolutions could be executed at such a low altitude.”
There were perhaps 100 people at the field — plane handlers, other pilots, airfield workers and the general public. Some were waiting for airplane rides or even flying lessons, and others were part of the wave of aviation enthusiasts born from the recent exploits of Charles Lindbergh.
Confirmation that there would finally be a real Providence Airport was heady news. Only a year earlier, on July 21, 1927, Lindbergh had landed the Spirit of St. Louis at the National Guard parade ground at Quonset, the second stop on his nationwide tour after completing his historic flight to Paris. The next day’s newspapers estimated that 300,000 of Rhode Island’s total population of 704,000 saw Lindbergh at Quonset.
At receptions and dinners in his honor, Lindbergh pressed city and state officials about the importance of joining the aerial age. Rhode Islanders heard Lindbergh’s message, and crowds were common at the small grass flying fields that dotted the state.
Thompson’s wife, Adeline, a French war bride, and three of the four Thompson children arrived at…