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 4 of 5)
Curtiss and the AEA had actually built and flown three airplanes by that time, and Curtiss had even won the Scientific American trophy for a straight-line, one-kilometer flight. Henry Farman of France had flown a kilometer in a crude circle. (In their 1905 private flights in Dayton, the Wrights had flown 38 times that distance.) But at Le Mans, Wilbur’s sweeping, banking turns and figure eights—plus the Wrights’ revolutionary propeller—placed the brothers far beyond anyone else in the air.
The Wrights had done it. With paying customers, and a patent to boot, the airplane had truly arrived, and the Wright brothers now owned the sky.
Knabenshue, Baldwin, and their dirigibles reunited in St. Louis for the city’s centennial in October 1909, but competed for attention with Glenn Curtiss, who was flying his Gold Bug biplane, having just won the first Gordon Bennett Cup race, held in France. The gasbag’s last stand came in January 1910 at Dominguez Field in Los Angeles (see “The Big Race of 1910,” Dec. 2009/Jan. 2010). Knabenshue and Beachey vied valiantly for attention as Curtiss and French aviation enthusiast Louis Paulhan sped past them and overwhelmed the crowd.
As aviation moved rapidly ahead, Knabenshue and Baldwin did too. Baldwin set up shop in New York and designed his own airplane: the Red Devil. He went back on the road as an exhibition pilot, even returning to Asia. Knabenshue became the Wright brothers’ exhibition team manager. It didn’t last long. The deadly business dried up after less than two years, and Knabenshue started over. He built a non-rigid dirigible capable of carrying 13, and launched a passenger service in Los Angeles, then Chicago. Both ventures failed.
World War I engulfed them all. Baldwin joined the Connecticut Aircraft Company to build airships for the Navy, then ran the Curtiss training facility in Newport News, Virginia. In 1917, he was commissioned as an actual captain in the Army Signal Corps. From Akron, Ohio, he supervised the inspection of all airships and balloons coming out of the United States. He left the service with a promotion to major and a stable job at Goodyear.
Knabenshue struggled. He failed to sell his passenger airship to the Navy but continued to promote dirigibles. He devised elaborate schemes for Zeppelin-like passenger airships—even passenger service to Hawaii. Finally, he went to work for the National Park Service, spearheading aviation projects (including the purchase of the service’s first airplane and autogyro). But as his health failed, he was practically exiled to White Sands, New Mexico. When he retired, he had to plead for a meager pension.
Baldwin died suddenly of a heart attack on May 17, 1923; he was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.