Local ‘trailblazer’ was flying ace, motorcycle record holder

PHOTO PROVIDED Cleo Pineau at the Riverview Motordrome in Chicago in 1912.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Today the Sun-Gazette offers the next installment in a weekly history series that tells the stories of those who came before us.)

Ace pilot and motorcycle racer, Cleo Pineau, had a drive for adventure that will forever stamp him into the historical footprint of Lycoming County.

“He was so far from an ordinary person that it’s hard to imagine,” said Andree Phillips, Pineau’s only child. “He was a trailblazer, there’s no question about it.”

Phillips sat in the home her father designed and had built, flipping through two full suitcases of letters, newspaper clippings, medals and memorabilia.

A humble man, Pineau rarely talked about his many exploits both as an ace pilot in World War I or as a record holder in motorcycle racing on the vaudeville circuit.

“He was a very humble person. Not at all pretentious,” Phillips said. “He was a small person, but not the kind of person that had to be a tough guy.”

But despite his “behind-the-scenes” nature, Phillips said her father’s achievements made it hard for him to fly under the radar.

Need for speed

Born in 1893, Pineau reportedly was expelled from school in sixth grade, not because he wasn’t smart, but because he couldn’t sit still in the classroom. Phillips said her father had other things he wanted to do and sitting still in a classroom for hours was not one of them. And so he misbehaved.

“It enabled him to have more time for adventures,” she said. “Speed was his thing.”

Pineau began competing in the vaudeville circuit in 1911, when he would have been only 17 or 18 years old. Boasting only about 5 feet 3 inches, Pineau may have been small in size but he dominated the track for years, becoming one of the nation’s leading motorcycle racers.

He competed on what was called the “globe of death” or the motordrome, a circular track made up of wooden planks.

Pineau raced the Flying Merkel and the Indian motorcycles, racing against and beating other motorcycle legends, such as Barney Oldfield, a motorcycle and car racer who was one of the early winners of the Indianapolis 500.

Flying ace, war hero

Pineau’s need for speed didn’t end with motorcycles. When World War I broke out he looked to join even before the United States had entered the war.

Trying first to join in France where his family originated, Pineau was denied because he wasn’t a French citizen. He then went to the Royal Canadian Air Force and became a pilot.

“He wanted to fly,” Phillips said.

In a letter he wrote to his mother, informing her of his enlistment, Pineau made an attempt at reassurance.

“Flying is so much less dangerous than motorcycle racing,” he wrote. “In fact there is no danger in it at all. I will get a good commission.”

Pineau loved to fly, and would write home about doing acrobats in the sky for fellow soldiers. He shot down six enemy aircraft during the war, writing the names of each plane he downed inside his flying cap. But it was after his sixth victory in the sky that Pineau was shot down over enemy territory and taken to a prisoner of war camp.

Phillips said her father rarely talked about his experiences in the war, or his imprisonment. But, Pineau saved a lump of bread from the prison camp and every Thanksgiving he would bring it out and give thanks for the blessings he and his family had.

When the war was over, Pineau received a letter from King George V, penned in his own hand.

“The Queen joins me in welcoming you on your release from the miseries and hardships which you have endured with so much patience and courage,” the King wrote. “During these many months of trial, the early rescue of our gallant officers and men from the cruelties of their captivity has been uppermost in our thoughts.”

Pineau was decorated with Britain’s Distinguished Flying Cross, the British War Medal and the Franco-Belgian War Medal.

Return from war

Pineau’s return from war marked the beginning of an investment in Williamsport that would leave his footprint in the region’s history forever.

Even though the area had no airport, Pineau continued to fly with other local pilots, landing in farmers fields and regaling locals with their acrobatics.

Pineau was instrumental in the effort to found an airport in the region and with the help of others in the area started the Williamsport Regional Airport. Through his influence, aviation pioneers such as Wiley Post and Amelia Earhart came to show their respects at the airport’s dedication in 1929.

He also founded Radiant Steel Products, a company still in existence today, and the West Branch Manufacturers Association.

Pineau died in 1972 when Phillips was in her 30s.

“He made an impact on me, that’s for sure,” Phillips said. She said her parents raised her to be confident and try to achieve her dreams.

“My parents made me confident,” she said.