University Weekly Makes Leap of Imagination
In 1916, The University Weekly published a short advance regarding reports that an engineering student planned to leap off the south tower of Old Main with a biplane glider as part of the St. Patrick's Day festivities, which were celebrated by engineering students annually. The event would give The Weekly a chance to publish one of its earliest spot news stories. Indeed, the paper published a story the next week about Henry Coffield's daring leap:
Aviator H. Coffield Makes Leap for Life
Most Daring Feat Ever Performed
by a Student of the University of Arkansas
Three-sixteenths of a second — this was the offical time for the sensational leap for life performed by H.A. Coffield, the experienced aviator. Nearly 500 spectators stood breathless during the exhibition with breathless interest and heaved sighs of relief when the glider alighted safely.
The wind was blowing briskly from the southwest. Aviator Coffield climbed to the dizzy height of the south tower of the University hall, and cast his eagle-like glance around over the landscape. The crowd of spectators below began to move about uneasily.
"About 135 feet, I should guess," he said tto [sic] Mickie Milton, his assistant. "Pretty fair jump for a glider of this type, although I have made jumps of 162 and 147 feet." The assistant did not reply, but lightened up one of the guy wires and smoothed out several creases in the planes.
Aviator Coffield was dressed in full aviator’s costume, and paused for a few seconds to adjust his helmet. The glider had been placed in position on the tower, and soon Aviator’s Assistant Mick Milton had everything in readiness for the flight. In true Wilbur Wright style, Aviator Coffield went over the entire glider carefuly. Each wire, each plane, each piece of wood was carefully examined. Nothing escaped his quick eye.
There was an involuntary hum of awe and fear from the crowd below as he took his place on the dizzy height. His tall, erect, agile figure clad in gray, was clearly silhouetted against the sky, while the white wings of his glider closely resembled a huge bird of prey that was about to swoop down on defenseless beings below.
The aviator takes his place. A woman screams in the crowd below. Breathless silence reigns. The aviator shakes hands with his assistant, and turns and looks down from the dizzy height.
The wind meantime has veered slightly to the right, so the glider is shifted accordingly. With an anxious eye, Mick tests the wires, and pronounces all well.
"Tell ’em I died a hero,” exclaimed Aviator Coffield, as he made a clean jump, just clearing the tower with the rudder of the glider.
Although the descent occupied only three-sixteenths of a second, the crowd below thought that it must have lasted for at least half an hour. With one graceful sweep it rushed with lightning-like speed and lodged in one of the trees of the campus, about 50 feet from Arkansas avenue. The glider was dashed into a thousand pieces, but just before it struck, Aviator Coffield jumped clean and alighted on the ground. Outside of a few bruises, he was unhurt. Dr. C.E. Kitchens, who was present, examined him and pronounced him sound and well.
Whether the leap actually occurred is another story. A similar story was published in the Fayetteville Star giving some credibility to the event, but the story appears too well written compared to other stories written during the time period and the feat of getting a biplane to top of the south tower itself would be difficult if not impossible let alone leaping from the tower.
In an account published 40 years later in The Traveler for a subsequent St. Patrick's Day edition, an engineering student claimed that sources had revealed that the original story had been a hoax.
The University Weekly. March 17, 1916.
The Arkansas Traveler. Marcy 15, 1946.