Ladies and Gentlemen, The Aeroplane!
In 1910, showmen flew death-defying stunts in Wright airplanes. Sometimes, death won.
- By Paul Glenshaw
- Air & Space magazine, May 2008
NASM (SI A-3486)
It's a rare film, and we're lucky to have it. The cameraman must have had nerves of steel. Standing in the middle of a St. Louis, Missouri field in October 1910, he cranked his camera as the big Wright biplane took off and flew straight at him. It approached quickly, climbing, then suddenly pitched forward and dove for the ground. Closing fast, it pulled out, dashed its wheels on the ground with a cloud of dust, and rose—right over the photographer's head.
The pilot might have laughed, or maybe he was sweating. Fans, promoters, reporters, his boss, and fellow pilots were all watching him do his best to show off a new technology. It was another typical day for the Wright exhibition team.
For 16 months, from June 1910 to November 1911, the team members performed at air meets across the country, uncrating their aircraft from rail cars, thrilling crowds, haggling with promoters, perplexing their bosses, falling in love, getting divorced, counting gate receipts, and setting aerial records. With their American and European rivals, the Wright exhibition pilots introduced the airplane in dozens of towns across the United States. "All you have to do is look at some of the newspaper reports to see just how stunning the exhibition flights really were," says Tom Crouch, author of the Wright brothers biography The Bishop's Boys and a National Air and Space Museum curator. "People were fainting. People were absolutely dumbfounded to see this thing in the air. It's clear that the exhibition teams had an extraordinary psychological impact."
A year before, the Wright team members were scattered around the country, unaware of one another. Arch Hoxsey, soft-spoken and always impeccably dressed, lived with his widowed mother in Pasadena, California. When he wasn't chauffeuring his wealthy employer, he was earning a reputation as a gifted mechanic. Ralph Johnstone had left Kansas City, Missouri, far behind to perform a bicycle stunt act on the vaudeville circuit. Strapping and jovial, he could hop the bicycle up a flight of stairs, and, as a grand finale, flip it in a mid-air forward somersault. At 31, Frank Coffyn was the oldest of the group and probably the wealthiest. He was growing bored with his desk job in the well-heeled New York City business world. Philip Parmelee was testing automobiles for Buick and living with his parents in St. Johns, Michigan. Al Welsh had come the farthest. Born in Russia, he grew up as Liebel Wellcher in the Jewish neighborhoods of Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. He changed his name when he joined the Navy, and later took a job as bookkeeper at a Washington, D.C. gas company.
Three of the Wright team members were, like the Wrights themselves, from Dayton. Spencer Crane was a mechanic, as was Clifford Turpin, an engineering graduate from Purdue University who had returned to the city to start a motorcycle business with his father. Then there was Walter Brookins. A fixture at the Wright bicycle shop, he had known the brothers since he was four. Orville and Wilbur's schoolteacher sister Katharine had taught him in high school. The Wrights called him by his nickname, Brooky.
The Wrights had decided to form a team at the urging of others. The brothers deliberated for a long period over the decision. They had publicly demonstrated their airplane for the first time in 1908. Although powered flights had been made in Europe and the United States before then, other pilots could not control their machines as completely as the Wrights controlled their Flyer, and their rivals were stunned by the demonstration. But in Reims, France, in August 1909, at the first international air meet, the Wrights' arch-rival Glenn Curtiss won the signature event: the Gordon Bennett speed competition. If the Wright brothers were to hold onto the reputation their early demonstrations had won, they'd have to compete.
As the Wrights set about organizing their corporation in 1909, they were hounded by a genial but persistent Toledo, Ohio resident named Roy Knabenshue. He warned the Wrights that they should be represented at air meets, and, having toured the country since 1904 demonstrating dirigibles, he offered to be their road manager. In January 1910, as French pilot Louis Paulhan dominated the first U.S. meet, in Los Angeles, Knabenshue finally got a telegram from Wilbur: "Company ready discuss exhibition business seriously. When can you come Dayton."
In truth, Orville and Wilbur found the carnival-like atmosphere of the air meets distasteful. "They reluctantly got into the exhibition business," says Peter Jakab, a National Air and Space Museum curator of early flight. "They didn't really care for what they referred to as ‘fancy flying'—the daredevil aspect of it. But they saw it as the viable way to make money with airplanes, and they wanted a chance to show what their technology could do. This was a way to put Wright aircraft on view."