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 4 of 7)
The crowd could see Brooky struggling to keep the little racer from coming down too fast. It was level when it hit the ground, pitching forward and raising a cloud of dust. As the air cleared, Brooky was seen several feet away, staggering to his feet, clutching his sides, and finally collapsing to the ground. He was rushed to the hospital, severely bruised but otherwise uninjured. The Baby Grand was demolished. Grahame-White easily took the prize from the remaining contestants, flying nearly 10 mph slower than the Baby Grand had flown during Orville's unofficial test run.
The Baby Grand, like the team itself, was an experiment. For the Wrights, a failure was disappointing, but it was an accepted part of the process of innovation. They had a lot of experience with risk, and faced the setback with firm resolve to compete harder than ever. But in the challenge they faced now, they risked more than a lost race or a wrecked aircraft. To keep the team competitive, the Wrights would have to keep up with the advancing technology they'd created. Unfortunately, the brothers had spent so much time filing patent infringement suits against Glenn Curtiss, their technology development had suffered. "After 1910, the Wrights were not building the leading aircraft anymore," says historian Jakab. "They were very much in the middle of the pack in terms of what they were producing. As far as the performance and reliability of their designs, they were starting to lag behind other aircraft, namely those of Curtiss and Blériot."
Still, the Wrights saw the team as a way to make money, and to keep the business profitable, they needed a full calendar and focused pilots. The team aviators, who had been on the road for five months, were young and easily diverted. "Be Careful Girls, In Flirting With the Wright Men," advised the Dayton Herald, printing two lists of team members: married and single. "All the Wright aviators from Cliff Turpin, who is only 21, and Brookins, who has not yet turned 22, up to Parmelee, who stands near 30, are held up as ‘love premiums'…. The Wright septet has been worshipped by women, young and old, all over the land."
The brothers tried to counter the head-turning publicity and inclination to showmanship. Wilbur had already chided Hoxsey and Johnstone: "I am very much in earnest when I say that I want no stunts and spectacular frills put on the flights there…. Anything beyond plain flying will be chalked up as a fault and not a credit." Hoxsey was scolded with good reason: In Milwaukee he had hit a grandstand and injured a spectator, who sued.
The Wrights also began to have their doubts about Knabenshue, noting that as 1910 was ending, he had scheduled the team for only four events: Macon, Baltimore, Denver, and Los Angeles. They would soon learn that an empty schedule was not the worst problem a team could face.
In mid-November, Hoxsey, Brooky, and Johnstone went to Denver for a two-day meet at Overland Park. Late on the 17th, Brooky had finished flying, but Hoxsey and Johnstone were still in the air. Johnstone started to descend in a steep spiral, when Brooky noticed the airplane's wings oddly distorted. Johnstone was seen struggling with the controls as the airplane slammed into the ground. He was crushed in the wreckage. The newspapers reported a swarm of airshow spectators probing his mangled corpse for souvenirs, yanking a strut out of his body and stealing his gloves. Hoxsey landed and found Brooky at the wreck; together they pulled Johnstone out and drove off past a band playing ragtime.
Wilbur attended Johnstone's funeral in Kansas City, and the Wright Company established a generous annuity to support the pilot's widow. Wilbur tried to piece together from conflicting reports what had happened, and he wrote Orville detailed theories, but the brothers could arrive at no certainties except one: There would be no more taking chances. Wilbur sent Parmelee to Los Angeles with a special high-altitude Flyer—and instructions. The only one who would fly it was Parmelee, who had been trained by Wilbur personally. Brooky angrily objected. Wilbur fired back through Knabenshue: "After we lost thousands of dollars of prizes at Belmont…it would be crazy foolishness to put the only machine of the kind you have out there in the hands of untrained men…." He added in a telegram: "Do not use unless it will win."
The Los Angeles meet began in triumph. On December 30, Hoxsey climbed to 11,474 feet, a record. But Knabenshue's telegram to Wilbur three days later held no joy: "Meet closed today forty thousand Less the guarenters [sic] will pay us with prize money won. Arch Hoxsey will be cremated tomorrow at two-thirty."