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Millions of visitors to the St. Louis Exposition were awed by the feats of aeronaut Roy Knabenshue (in New Jersey, fourth from left, in 1910, with Walter Brookins, in short-sleeve shirt, and Glenn Curtiss, wearing bicycle inner tube). (Empire State Aerosciences Museum)

Kings of the Air

Two showmen, one dirigible, and the flight that changed aviation.

The two men built the frame and propeller, then inflated the bag. Six days before the deadline, they launched.

On October 25, 1904, the Arrow was taken out into the concourse. Knabenshue climbed aboard, and the Curtiss motor was started. It shook the frail frame violently. “I longed for a piece of rubber to put between my chattering teeth,” Knab­enshue recalls in his unpublished autobiography. He yelled at Baldwin to get a mechanic, but Baldwin misheard and ordered the ad hoc ground crew to let go. Flying straight at the hangar, Knabenshue tugged the rudder and swung around—directly toward the dreaded fence. Heaving over some ballast, he watched the fence slip by underneath. America’s first public dirigible flight was under way.

With the motor spewing flame and black smoke, Knabenshue climbed, threading his way among the domes and spikes of the fair’s ornate palaces. Narrowly missing the giant Ferris wheel, he swung out over the grounds as tens of thousands cheered and gaped—someone at St. Louis was actually flying! And then it was over. The Curtiss coughed and died, and Knab­enshue began to float east. He crossed the Mississippi and landed in a cornfield in East St. Louis. He missed the course altogether, but he, Baldwin, and the Arrow were heroes.

The newspapers roared. “Airship Arrow Scores Triumph!” “Aeronaut Knabenshue is Now Hero of the World’s Fair!” The flights continued until early November. Knabenshue thrilled the crowds with turns, circles, figure eights, and landings back at the concourse. Memories of failure evaporated, but sadly, so did the grand prize. Baldwin was awarded only $500 for demonstrating “dirigibility.”

It didn’t matter. Newspapers from New York to the Yukon trumpeted the pair’s success. The American public no longer needed Santos-Dumont nor anyone else from overseas for aerial heroes. Knabenshue and Baldwin headed for California, and for the next four years, the one-man dirigible owned the American sky.

Their partnership did not last long. The two turned in a set of stunning flights in Los Angeles: in one, Knabenshue was filmed in what he claimed was the first movie ever shot in the city; in another, he entered a race to Pasadena with the owner of a Pope automobile and won. Having earned nationwide fame, Knabenshue and Baldwin parted ways in the spring of 1905.

***

Returning to Toledo, Knabenshue quickly crowned himself King of the Air. He built two new airships, and instantly made a splash for his hometown crowd by landing on the roof of the Spitzer building. As he traveled all over the country, headlines followed his adventures, including a flight up Broadway and a landing in Central Park, a dawn flight around the Ohio state capitol in Columbus, Henry Ford’s personal offer to provide a new engine clutch (and go into business together), and a nearly suicidal high-wind flight in Brockton, Massachusetts. Knab­enshue was carried around on a lot of shoulders.

Baldwin went to Portland, Oregon, for the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition. Still too heavy for his airship, he hired a short, athletic teenager he’d known from San Francisco to be the pilot: Lincoln Beachey. The young pilot’s precocious skill and daring made him the star of the show. It was Beachey’s first taste of fame. He would go on to help design a dirigible known as the Beachey-Baldwin, and thrill millions with his exhibition flying. Beachey would die in 1914, in a monoplane accident at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.

Baldwin accumulated success for the Arrow, but he hit a snag, then a catastrophe. First, Professor John Montgomery of Santa Clara sued him, alleging he stole secrets that made the Arrow fly; then the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck, and he lost everything.

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