Photo of the Clemson Aero Club taken on May 22, 1948. The club’s Piper Cub was hangared at the then-new airport between Clemson and Central.
Visit the State Museum in Columbia and look up as you enter the science and technology section. Hanging from the ceiling as if soaring into the wonderful blue is “little 372,” a single seat, high wing airplane built in 1928-29 by seven students at what was then the Clemson Agricultural College. Modeled after the Heath Parasol, with a wingspan of 23 feet and a 16 foot wooden-framed fabric-covered fuselage, the plane is perhaps the first airplane built by college students in the United States.
The builders were the seven members of the Clemson Aero Club, begun by Dallas Sherman in 1927, the same year “Lucky” Lindbergh soloed his “Spirit of St. Louis” from New York to Paris. Clemson had no program in aeronautical engineering so the students built the plane on their own as an extra-curricular activity. They scrounged lumber from the school’s wood shop and Sherman found the fabric covering at a textile show demonstration. According to “Hooks” Johnston, one of the original club members, Sherman, a resourceful Clemson student if ever there was one, spotted the tightly woven fabric and realized this was a golden opportunity. He talked to the people running the exhibit, explained the nature of the project and how important the fabric was, and asked for the material as a donation. “Damned,” said Johnston, “if they didn’t give it to us.”
Even using scrounged material, the project was not inexpensive. Each member of the club had to cough up $35, a large sum of money in the “roaring twenties” especially when compared to Clemson’s tuition in 1929 which was $40 a semester. The money the club raised probably went to buy the engine that was expected to power “little 372.” According to one account this was a “20 hp 2 cyl[inder] Lawrence,” just barely enough to run a riding lawn mower today!
When they finished construction, the students got the College to truck the plane to the Greenville airport where various visiting pilots tried to fly it, but to no avail. According to Johnston, they got it up about 15 to 20 feet above the ground then quickly landed. “I think,” he remembered, “they were all scared of the damn thing.” Johnston later learned to fly and became a member of the Experimental Aircraft Association and with that experience behind him he added, “I don’t blame them, I’d be scared too.”
When it became obvious that “little 372″ had a limited “flying” career, the students brought it back to campus where it became an exhibit in the College’s wood shop. In 1965, at a reunion of the original Aero Club members, the plane was rescued as it was about to be thrown away. The club members, all but one of whom ended up as executives in the aviation industry, contributed $100 each and had the plane trucked down to the Anderson airport where it was recovered and repainted a beautiful silver gray with red trim. It came back to Clemson once again, went into storage, and then went on exhibit at the Wings and Wheels museum run by Dolph Overton, first in Santee, South Carolina, then in Lakeland, Florida, where it shared attention with such planes as a replica of the original Wright Brothers Flyer, the 1917 Sopwith Camel (the plane Snoopy sometimes flies in the comics), and the famous Ford TriMotor. When the museum closed down, “little 372″ came back to what was now Clemson University for a brief sojourn, and finally found a permanent home at the State Museum.
The Aero Club founded by Dallas Sherman and his six classmates nearly three-quarters of a century ago lives on at Clemson. Known now as the Clemson University Flying Club, and one of the oldest continuous student organizations on campus, the club has permanent quarters at the Oconee County Airport and is the proud owner of two planes that go much higher than 15 to 20 feet off the ground: a small Cessna 152 and a larger Cessna 172, both of which proudly sport the tiger pawprint on their rudders. These planes get so much use from club members, including students who are learning to fly, that the club is considering buying a third plane if it can raise the funds. If some alums want to donate the money – or a tax deductible suitable aircraft – the club members will gladly christen it the “big 372″ in honor of Clemson’s first student airplane.