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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.

A calamitous natural disaster was nothing for Tom Baldwin. He moved to Hammonds­port and started over with Glenn Curtiss. Perhaps no one was more affected by Baldwin and Knabenshue’s success. Overnight, they had converted Curtiss into an airship engine builder, and his reputation was growing. Curtiss had exhibited at the Aero Club of America’s show at the New York Armory in 1906, where he caught the attention of Alexander Graham Bell, who was looking for motors for his nascent aerial experiments. And because of Baldwin, Curtiss met the Wright brothers.

In the fall of 1906, Baldwin was flying his California Arrow II at the Dayton fairgrounds. Curtiss was there as a mechanic. It was not exactly a coincidence. Curtiss wanted to sell motors to the Wrights. They met when the Wrights came to see Baldwin perform (and even joined a rescue party when the Arrow escaped its mooring). The Wrights invited Baldwin and Curtiss to their Dayton shop and showed pictures of their Flyer. Although Curtiss initially saw aviation as a new market for his motors, his personal interest in flying grew. In June 1907, with Baldwin’s encouragement, he flew one of Baldwin’s ships for the first time. A few months later, Bell invited him to join the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA) to pursue heavier-than-air flight. Curtiss was on his way to the airplane.

And the airplane was on its way to the public. The Wright brothers had already triumphed, privately, and were approaching a public debut. In the meantime, Santos-Dumont briefly recaptured headlines when he hopped his first airplane, the 14-bis, in Paris in 1906. The heroes of St. Louis stuck with the dirigible as long as they could. There was still plenty of business. It wasn’t always easy, as Knab­enshue discovered when he attempted to launch a team. With four new ships and novice pilots, he set out in 1907 with $425,000 in pending contracts. But he later noted, “With partly or poorly trained pilots I hoped to collect this money. My banker must have been a very patient and believing man….” In one day, two of his pilots crashed and destroyed their ships, and Knabenshue’s own ship exploded. He struggled through the rest of the season, then disbanded his team.

Meanwhile, Baldwin convinced the U.S. Army that a dirigible would be a sound investment, and he was awarded a contract for the military’s first powered flying machine. Curtiss built the motor, and together they arrived at Fort Myer, Virginia, to conduct tests in public. On August 4, 1908, the two made their first practice flight. But four days later, Wilbur Wright flew before an audience of thousands in Le Mans, France, and everything changed.

Curtiss and the AEA had actually built and flown three airplanes by that time, and Curtiss had even won the Scientific American trophy for a straight-line, one-kilometer flight. Henry Farman of France had flown a kilometer in a crude circle. (In their 1905 private flights in Dayton, the Wrights had flown 38 times that distance.) But at Le Mans, Wilbur’s sweeping, banking turns and figure eights—plus the Wrights’ revolutionary propeller—placed the brothers far beyond anyone else in the air.

The Wrights had done it. With paying customers, and a patent to boot, the airplane had truly arrived, and the Wright brothers now owned the sky.

***

Knabenshue, Baldwin, and their dirigibles reunited in St. Louis for the city’s centennial in October 1909, but competed for attention with Glenn Curtiss, who was flying his Gold Bug biplane, having just won the first Gordon Bennett Cup race, held in France. The gasbag’s last stand came in January 1910 at Dominguez Field in Los Angeles (see “The Big Race of 1910,” Dec. 2009/Jan. 2010). Knabenshue and Beachey vied valiantly for attention as Curtiss and French aviation enthusiast Louis Paulhan sped past them and overwhelmed the crowd.

As aviation moved rapidly ahead, Knab­enshue and Baldwin did too. Baldwin set up shop in New York and designed his own airplane: the Red Devil. He went back on the road as an exhibition pilot, even returning to Asia. Knabenshue became the Wright brothers’ exhibition team manager. It didn’t last long. The deadly business dried up after less than two years, and Knab­enshue started over. He built a non-rigid dirigible capable of carrying 13, and launched a passenger service in Los Angeles, then Chicago. Both ventures failed.

World War I engulfed them all. Baldwin joined the Connecticut Aircraft Company to build airships for the Navy, then ran the Curtiss training facility in Newport News, Virginia. In 1917, he was commissioned as an actual captain in the Army Signal Corps. From Akron, Ohio, he supervised the inspection of all airships and balloons coming out of the United States. He left the service with a promotion to major and a stable job at Goodyear.

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