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 3 of 5)
Returning to Toledo, Knabenshue quickly crowned himself King of the Air. He built two new airships, and instantly made a splash for his hometown crowd by landing on the roof of the Spitzer building. As he traveled all over the country, headlines followed his adventures, including a flight up Broadway and a landing in Central Park, a dawn flight around the Ohio state capitol in Columbus, Henry Ford’s personal offer to provide a new engine clutch (and go into business together), and a nearly suicidal high-wind flight in Brockton, Massachusetts. Knabenshue was carried around on a lot of shoulders.
Baldwin went to Portland, Oregon, for the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition. Still too heavy for his airship, he hired a short, athletic teenager he’d known from San Francisco to be the pilot: Lincoln Beachey. The young pilot’s precocious skill and daring made him the star of the show. It was Beachey’s first taste of fame. He would go on to help design a dirigible known as the Beachey-Baldwin, and thrill millions with his exhibition flying. Beachey would die in 1914, in a monoplane accident at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.
Baldwin accumulated success for the Arrow, but he hit a snag, then a catastrophe. First, Professor John Montgomery of Santa Clara sued him, alleging he stole secrets that made the Arrow fly; then the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck, and he lost everything.
A calamitous natural disaster was nothing for Tom Baldwin. He moved to Hammondsport and started over with Glenn Curtiss. Perhaps no one was more affected by Baldwin and Knabenshue’s success. Overnight, they had converted Curtiss into an airship engine builder, and his reputation was growing. Curtiss had exhibited at the Aero Club of America’s show at the New York Armory in 1906, where he caught the attention of Alexander Graham Bell, who was looking for motors for his nascent aerial experiments. And because of Baldwin, Curtiss met the Wright brothers.
In the fall of 1906, Baldwin was flying his California Arrow II at the Dayton fairgrounds. Curtiss was there as a mechanic. It was not exactly a coincidence. Curtiss wanted to sell motors to the Wrights. They met when the Wrights came to see Baldwin perform (and even joined a rescue party when the Arrow escaped its mooring). The Wrights invited Baldwin and Curtiss to their Dayton shop and showed pictures of their Flyer. Although Curtiss initially saw aviation as a new market for his motors, his personal interest in flying grew. In June 1907, with Baldwin’s encouragement, he flew one of Baldwin’s ships for the first time. A few months later, Bell invited him to join the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA) to pursue heavier-than-air flight. Curtiss was on his way to the airplane.
And the airplane was on its way to the public. The Wright brothers had already triumphed, privately, and were approaching a public debut. In the meantime, Santos-Dumont briefly recaptured headlines when he hopped his first airplane, the 14-bis, in Paris in 1906. The heroes of St. Louis stuck with the dirigible as long as they could. There was still plenty of business. It wasn’t always easy, as Knabenshue discovered when he attempted to launch a team. With four new ships and novice pilots, he set out in 1907 with $425,000 in pending contracts. But he later noted, “With partly or poorly trained pilots I hoped to collect this money. My banker must have been a very patient and believing man….” In one day, two of his pilots crashed and destroyed their ships, and Knabenshue’s own ship exploded. He struggled through the rest of the season, then disbanded his team.
Meanwhile, Baldwin convinced the U.S. Army that a dirigible would be a sound investment, and he was awarded a contract for the military’s first powered flying machine. Curtiss built the motor, and together they arrived at Fort Myer, Virginia, to conduct tests in public. On August 4, 1908, the two made their first practice flight. But four days later, Wilbur Wright flew before an audience of thousands in Le Mans, France, and everything changed.