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 3 of 7)
"Airmen Play Tag With Moonbeams; Hoxsey and Johnstone Unexpectedly Make Two Night Flights at Asbury Park."
"Aviator Drops 800 Feet But Lives."
"Hoxsey and Johnstone Set Crowd Wild in Plane Tilting and Short Whirls."
There were some minor accidents and organizational hitches, but the experiment seemed to be working. By mid-1910, five pilots were on the road, and Knabenshue could have the team spread across five states at once. Better still, the receipts were good. At the end of August, Wilbur reported to Wright company board member Russell Alger that the team had earned $186,000 in exhibition receipts, outstanding contracts, and guarantees for upcoming meets in St. Louis and New York. Alger was delighted: "I had no idea we would have any such brilliant year. I have paid my way toward the Aviation Meet and I naturally hope we will do as well as you predict and I see no reason why we should not." Alger, like everyone else, was waiting for Belmont.
The International Aviation Tournament at Long Island's Belmont Park promised to be the largest meet ever held, bringing top aviators from Europe and the United States. For the Wrights, Belmont was of singular importance. Although it featured prizes for distance, duration, passenger carrying, altitude, and a race to the Statue of Liberty, the most anticipated event was the Gordon Bennett speed competition. Winning the Gordon Bennett would, the Wrights believed, maintain the reputation of their airplanes, which would help keep their order book full, allowing them to invest in further development.
Curtiss had won the prize in 1909, and afterward, Wilbur wrote to Orville with plans for a racer. His calculations had a clear purpose: "I think it would be a mistake to get up a racer with less speed than 70 miles [per hour]. We ought to beat them badly if we go into it at all." The finished airplane was far different from anything they'd done before. It was tiny, with wings half the length of those on their standard machine. A monster V-8 engine replaced the four-cylinder version. The aircraft even had a flashy name: the Baby Grand. The day before the meet, Orville clocked in at a blistering 78 mph.
The Belmont meet began with miserable weather and few spectators, but it quickly gathered momentum. Thousands came to see the competition, the newspapers publishing long lists of society notables in attendance. As many as 10 aircraft could be in the air at once, and there were daily spectacles. Three days into the event, Johnstone and Hoxsey braved fierce winds to duel for altitude records. As they turned into the oncoming gale, their airplanes struggled to make headway, slowed to a hover, and began to fly backward out of sight. Hoxsey came down 25 miles from the racetrack. Johnstone landed even farther away—55 miles—but in the process set an altitude record. An ebullient Katharine wrote her father a postcard: "Yesterday was Wright Day all right. Johnstone holds the American record for height. Orv took our big (or little) racer and made almost seventy miles an hour."
On October 29, the Gordon Bennett race got under way, the teams taking turns in individual timed trials, flying 100 kilometers (62 miles) over a five-kilometer course. The Wrights' chief competition was Claude Grahame-White of Britain, flying a 100-horsepower airplane designed by French inventor Louis Blériot. Brooky, whom Orville had chosen to fly the Baby Grand, took to the field around 10 a.m. He rose quickly to make his first pass, the crowd cheering as he came into view and sped past the grandstand. With Orville, Wilbur, and the entire team fixed on him, Brooky was banking into the turn and coming around to officially begin the timed trial when the engine began making a strange noise. It turned out Brooky had lost four of eight cylinders, and the airplane began to drop.