The Big Race of 1910
How the first U.S. air race launched an aviation tradition.
- By Don Berliner
- Air & Space magazine, January 2010
(Page 2 of 3)
The star of the show was a charismatic Frenchman, Louis Paulhan, who had brought two Farman biplanes and two Blériot monoplanes and was guaranteed $25,000 to appear. Described in newspapers as "the wonderful little Frenchman," he had worked in a military balloon factory and taught himself to fly airplanes. Paulhan's appearance qualified the meet as "international," and he set new world records for endurance and altitude. He took to the air at the slightest encouragement, often appearing to plan his flight as he went along. Paulhan's 45-mile round trip between the field and the Santa Anita racetrack brought thousands of people to rooftops and farm fields in hopes of seeing the fearless aviator.
Curtiss, who was the first in the air over Dominguez Field in his Reims racer, was not bothered by all the applause for Paulhan, according to C.R. Rosenberry's book Glenn Curtiss: Pioneer of Flight. "I am satisfied to let Paulhan have the applause, providing I am able to take the prizes," he was quoted as telling a colleague.
Curtiss may have feigned indifference, but he was under enormous pressure at the time, says Ken Pauley, a retired aerospace engineer in San Pedro who has produced a photo book about the meet in conjunction with the centennial. "He was due in court in New York the next month to answer the Wright brothers' lawsuit [over patent infringement]. The Wrights had clamped down lawsuits against both Curtiss and Paulhan." Curtiss, in fact, used the meet to try to gather witnesses to bolster his defense. He "seized every opportunity, when the field was free from program events, for demonstrations calculated to disprove the claim of the Wrights that the control of his machines, like theirs, depended on a combination of the rear vertical rudder with the action of the ailerons," Rosenberry wrote.
Although the Wrights did not accept an invitation to attend the meet, they were kept well informed about it. Before it was over, Wilbur Wright had cabled Roy Knabenshue, asking him to come to Dayton, Ohio, to discuss managing a flying team (see "Ladies and Gentlemen, The Aeroplane!," Apr./May 2008); by mid-March, Knabenshue was on the payroll.
"The meet really had a tremendous impact on how people thought about transportation," says Pauley, who worked on the Apollo heat shield for North American Rockwell. "Aviation was something new for them and no longer a joke or a fantasy. I remember my grandfather's skepticism about going to the moon. It was the same thing here with the airplane."
Air racing today generally involves similar airplanes forming up and tearing wingtip to wingtip around pylons. In 1910, such behavior was simply unheard of. The most popular challenge then was to set the fastest time for a single lap around a six-pylon, 1.6-mile course. Four pilots, flying one at a time, made at least one attempt at that at Dominguez Field, with Curtiss making five separate laps on four days. His fastest speed was 43.9 mph, nearly as fast as his winning speed at Reims, where the course was much longer and thus enabled higher speeds (Curtiss had won the Gordon Bennett Trophy with a speed of 46.5 mph). His nearest rival was Paulhan, almost nine seconds slower. The only other airplane race to attract more than one pilot was a 10-lap circuit, which Curtiss also won over Paulhan.
Curtiss again was crowned the "king of speed" after a wind-aided dash in front of the crowd at an estimated 60 mph. But his was a solo run. What brought the crowd to its feet was a head-to-head dirigible race around the oval by Knabenshue and Lincoln Beachey. It was the most exciting air race yet seen—even though both were chugging along at less than 20 mph. Beachey, who won by a few seconds, sensed the end of the airship era at Dominguez Field and "wondered how long his dirigible career would last," wrote Frank Marrero in Lincoln Beachey: The Man Who Owned the Sky. Beachey went on to become one of America's greatest acrobatic airplane pilots and the first to fly a loop.
A wealthy Seattle timber man named William Boeing was so impressed that he asked nearly every pilot to take him up for a ride. Only Paulhan agreed. The 28-year-old Boeing waited three days, but discovered on the fourth that the Frenchman had left the meet. (Four years later, a friend gave Boeing his first ride, in a Curtiss hydroplane that he found noisy, unstable, and terribly uncomfortable. He decided he could build a better airplane.)