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Jack Tweed, Aviator

Some lucky people seem to know their calling early in life.

For instance, take Madison resident John Hancock “Jack” Tweed, said to have built – and crashed – his own airplane as a 15-year-old kid. This was in 1910, just seven years after the Wright Brothers’ first powered flight off the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk. And he carried on:

The Madison Historical Society has a post card of him flying a 1911 biplane, which he has signed “Sincerely, Jack Tweed, Aviator.” It’s dated 1913 – he’s just 18 – when “aviator” was a brand-new term and an unusual occupation. What audacity!

Photo of Jack Tweed in uniform dated 1918

The society has several pictures of the young Jack Tweed, and research by society member Barbara Cubberly uncovered several documents including his military service record ( Many of the pictures are taken along the beach in Madison near Webster Point, and most show beachgoers gathered around to gawk or help. The planes evolve from the open-frame, single-seat 1911 model in the postcard to a post-war partially enclosed tandem model.

“Aircraft Magazine” of December 1913 noted that Jack had bought the very first Blasiar Flying Boat. It said he was planning to take his new wife on a honeymoon in his plane, “making an extended tour of southern waters.”

“Aero and Hydro” magazine of August 1914 noted Jack was “doing a considerable business in passenger carrying at Madison.”

Four months after the U.S. entered WWI in 1917, Jack enlisted as a Seaman 2nd Class in the aviation section of the U.S. Naval Reserve. He served as a flying instructor, helped build the Naval Air Station in the Panama Canal Zone, and was one of the first to fly the jungle route over the Isthmus. Three months after the 1918 Armistice, he went on inactive reserve as a lieutenant junior grade. True to form, where his discharge paperwork asked for “Occupation after the war,” Jack wrote, “Aviator.”

Jack Tweed landing an early two-seat floatplane in Madison, dated 1917

I suppose Jack was always farsighted. Where the discharge papers asked about his attitude toward military service, Jack wrote, “Liked it all right. I believe that Aviation should be a separate Department of its own.” Nearly 30 years later, in 1947, the U.S. Air Force was formed. After the war, Jack became a test pilot and also did some barnstorming and long-distance flights. In 1925, he established the first air service at the New Haven Air Terminal and helped in planning and building the Municipal Airport. Except during WWII, when the army took it over, he was its only manager for 30 years. The airfield was renamed Tweed-New Haven Airport in his honor upon his death in 1961.

Aviator, indeed!

This story by Bob Gundersen originally appeared as a special to The Shoreline Times.