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)
(Page 2 of 7)
Wilbur headed south to search for a winter training field far from the Ohio cold. He settled on a site just outside Montgomery, Alabama. In March, Orville arrived with Brooky, Hoxsey, Welsh, Crane, and a mechanic named James Davis to begin training. Time was running short (their first performance would be in June). By today's standards, Orville's goal was audacious: Train a group of complete novices to fly and compete as professionals in less than four months.
Brooky, 21, was the first to be trained. Beginning as Orville's passenger, he soon mastered stalls, takeoffs, and landings. Orville was impressed, writing to Wilbur: "Brookins is a first class man. You can give him a job and it is attended to…." The feeling was mutual. Brooky said Orville's training "was so thoroughly explained and demonstrated that you never forgot it." He immediately became an instructor. Orville then returned with Welsh to Dayton, trusting Brooky to continue training Crane and Hoxsey.
Essentially free to do as he pleased, Brooky experimented with flying techniques and taught himself stunts. Under a full Alabama moon, he and Hoxsey made the first recorded night flights, circling the field for hours. Later, Brooky took Crane up for a training flight, taking off toward the edge of the field, which was bordered by a road and telephone lines. They rose slowly, and when Brooky realized he would not clear the wires, he calmly pushed the nose down, flying under them and between the poles. Completely unnerved, Crane was on the train home to Dayton that night, preceding his arrival with a telegram to Orville: "This and other things force me to decline to ride again here…. With me it is a matter of needless risk. If you feel this is a lack of nerve my resignation is in your hand. Without hesitation I advise closing camp at once."
By the end of May it was warm enough for Orville to move the training camp to Dayton. The team had just three weeks to practice before heading to the brand-new Indianapolis Motor Speedway for their first performance.
The night before the meet, the pilots were handed contracts, offering $20 per week and $50 per day of flying. They were responsible for seeing to their own injuries. And in keeping with the Wrights' own practice, the pilots were asked to refrain from flying on Sundays, drinking, and gambling. The Wright Company would keep any prize money. Brooky balked, and almost all the others joined him. Coffyn, however, urged them to accept, and in the end all of the pilots signed.
Brooky quickly established himself as the star. On the first day of performance in Indianapolis, he broke the world's altitude record, rising to 4,939 feet. On June 16, his secret practice in Montgomery paid off. He rose several hundred feet, dove, and rolled into a 90-degree bank. Hauling back on the elevator, he spiraled the airplane through 360 degrees. Wilbur was astonished: "It was the most hairlifting performance I have seen. The circle was not over a hundred feet in diameter…. It was a beautifully executed feat, but the strains are too great to make such things safe for everyday work."
Over the next four months, the team traveled to 25 cities, from New Hampshire to North Dakota to Alabama, shipping themselves and their airplanes by rail and showing up at Fourth of July celebrations, state fairs, and tournaments. They garnered plenty of headlines:
"Goes Up 6,175 Feet in Wright Biplane; Walter Brookins Beats His Own World's Record in a Flight at Atlantic City."