Kings of the Air
Two showmen, one dirigible, and the flight that changed aviation.
- By Paul Glenshaw
- Air & Space magazine, February 2013
Empire State Aerosciences Museum
(Page 2 of 5)
Baldwin’s parachute act took him to Europe, South Africa, New Zealand, and Asia. Somewhere in his adventures, he became “Captain” Tom. Always looking for his next act, Baldwin became interested in the flights of Santos-Dumont, and began his own experiments with steerable balloons—dirigibles. His search for a powerful, lightweight motor ended in Hammondsport, New York, at the workshop of a young motorcycle manufacturer named Glenn Curtiss.
In August 1904, Baldwin completed his first airship back home in San Francisco, and gave the inelegant craft a decidedly ambitious name, perfect for advertising: the California Arrow. With a net covering an oblong, hydrogen-filled silk bag, it looked like a giant captured potato. Underneath was slung a triangular wooden frame that held the Curtiss engine, a rudimentary propeller, and the pilot. It was an acrobat’s machine. Although it had a rudder for steering, the pilot controlled pitch by making his way forward and backward along the frame. By the time Baldwin tested the ship, Santos-Dumont’s misfortune in St. Louis was old news. Baldwin arrived in St. Louis on September 10, 1904, with only the bag and the motor. He was in luck. The deadline for the grand prize had been extended to the end of October, and he needed to build a new frame. Soon after he arrived, he recruited the slender, lightweight Knabenshue to be the pilot. At 220 pounds, Baldwin was 100 pounds too heavy; the Arrow couldn’t lift him.
The two men built the frame and propeller, then inflated the bag. Six days before the deadline, they launched.
On October 25, 1904, the Arrow was taken out into the concourse. Knabenshue climbed aboard, and the Curtiss motor was started. It shook the frail frame violently. “I longed for a piece of rubber to put between my chattering teeth,” Knabenshue recalls in his unpublished autobiography. He yelled at Baldwin to get a mechanic, but Baldwin misheard and ordered the ad hoc ground crew to let go. Flying straight at the hangar, Knabenshue tugged the rudder and swung around—directly toward the dreaded fence. Heaving over some ballast, he watched the fence slip by underneath. America’s first public dirigible flight was under way.
With the motor spewing flame and black smoke, Knabenshue climbed, threading his way among the domes and spikes of the fair’s ornate palaces. Narrowly missing the giant Ferris wheel, he swung out over the grounds as tens of thousands cheered and gaped—someone at St. Louis was actually flying! And then it was over. The Curtiss coughed and died, and Knabenshue began to float east. He crossed the Mississippi and landed in a cornfield in East St. Louis. He missed the course altogether, but he, Baldwin, and the Arrow were heroes.
The newspapers roared. “Airship Arrow Scores Triumph!” “Aeronaut Knabenshue is Now Hero of the World’s Fair!” The flights continued until early November. Knabenshue thrilled the crowds with turns, circles, figure eights, and landings back at the concourse. Memories of failure evaporated, but sadly, so did the grand prize. Baldwin was awarded only $500 for demonstrating “dirigibility.”
It didn’t matter. Newspapers from New York to the Yukon trumpeted the pair’s success. The American public no longer needed Santos-Dumont nor anyone else from overseas for aerial heroes. Knabenshue and Baldwin headed for California, and for the next four years, the one-man dirigible owned the American sky.
Their partnership did not last long. The two turned in a set of stunning flights in Los Angeles: in one, Knabenshue was filmed in what he claimed was the first movie ever shot in the city; in another, he entered a race to Pasadena with the owner of a Pope automobile and won. Having earned nationwide fame, Knabenshue and Baldwin parted ways in the spring of 1905.