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A Glimpse of Things to Come

A hundred years ago, the International Air Meet gave spectators a look into the future.

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Beyond the official records for altitude, distance, and speed set at the 1910 air meet in Los Angeles, the January 10-20 event itself had a profound effect on aviation in general. The nation's first air race cast airplanes and the men who flew them in an entirely new light, and, over the course of 11 days, provided a glimpse of the future of flight.

Take commercial aviation. French aviator Louis Paulhan, who was the star of the show and won the most money ($19,000), took eight people aloft for two hours in his Farman biplane, a foreshadowing of the role of an early airline captain. American Glenn Curtiss had to turn down would-be passengers, including one who waved $250 under Curtiss' nose, with the explanation that his extra-large fuel tank made it impossible to take anyone else.

On January 14, Paulhan made the first flight over the Pacific Ocean, skimming 200 feet above the water as he circled the hills around San Pedro Harbor. To him, it was yet another stunt, but the trip had major ramifications. The day before, the U.S. War Department had purchased land at San Pedro on which to build artillery to defend the coast—the same land Paulhan had just overflown.

“His demonstration, dramatic in itself, was made more so when upon landing and discussing the feat, he announced that his big Farman, which had already proved its weight-carrying possibilities, was capable of transporting at least 300 pounds of high explosives,” wrote J. Wesley Neal in the December 1961 issue of The Historical Society of Southern California's Quarterly magazine. “In Washington, President [William Howard] Taft let it be known that he wanted the country's next aviation event to be conducted in the capital city so that he, personally, might observe the aeroplane's war potential.”

Some of that potential was on display at the air meet. Paulhan took Army Lieutenant Paul Beck up to an altitude of 300 feet for the world's first demonstration of aerial bombardment. Beck had three small black bags of dirt that he was to throw at a paper bull's-eye on the ground. The closest missed by 58 feet. On the ground, Beck told reporters he was unable to throw the bags himself due to the airplane's rigging and instead had to hand them to Paulhan to drop.

Beck was something of a prophet in his views of bombers of the future (he also predicted a need for ship-based reconnaissance aircraft). “He expressed the opinion that aeroplanes built for war will be specially equipped with a device for holding projectiles in such a position that they can be released by machinery,” the Los Angeles Examiner reported at the time. “Fighting by aeroplanes will be entirely mathematical: the angle of falling bodies. Explosives are to be dropped, not hurled.” Beck went on to become the first Army officer to take the pilot training course at Curtiss' first flying school, which opened in Hammondsport, New York, that September.

Beck's bomb-dropping experiment was seen by representatives of every war office in the world, who no doubt recognized the value of such a tactic. The air meet was instrumental in proving that an airplane was capable of precise maneuvering and confirmed the superiority of the biplane over the monoplane, a point that influenced airplane development around the world. With the exception of the French-built Morane-Saulnier, all the great warplanes of World War I were biplanes.

The air meet also proved aviation's commercial possibilities, showing that an aviator in a competitive meet could earn twice the salary of a U.S. senator. It also elevated the status of the pilots themselves. “Until 1910,” Neal wrote, “aviators and aeronauts had been classified, for want of professional status, along with contortionists, dog trainers, organ grinders, and wire walkers.”

Two years after the meet, the regular manufacturing of airplanes began in southern California when the two Loughead brothers, Allen and Malcolm, built and flew their three-seat seaplane (under a different spelling, their company became Lockheed).

Finally, all the publicity from the air meet—including movies of the races and demonstrations that were shown around the world—probably jump-started another industry for Los Angeles. Before the end of the meet, telegrams from all over the world poured into Los Angeles, requesting movie prints of the airplanes in flight. “The aviators were still packing their equipment when a vanguard of actors and technicians representing the New York Biograph Company arrived in Los Angeles to begin operations,” Neal wrote. “Hollywood's first studio, a converted barn, appeared the following year.”

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