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Moments and Milestones: Airfairs

Moments and Milestones: Airfairs

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Many of the plans to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ 12-second ascent into history in 1903, such as the Aviation World’s Fair in Virginia next spring, recall earlier celebrations of aviation progress—in particular the 1910 Los Angeles International Air Meet.

Curiously, the Wrights’ achievement on North Carolina’s Outer Banks did not put the United States into a dominant position among developers of airplanes. As the National Air and Space Museum’s Donald Lopez wrote in Aviation: A Smithsonian Guide, “European designers and pilots completely outclassed the Americans at the first international air meet, held at Rheims, France, in August 1909. Even though Glenn Curtiss [of the U.S.] won the prize for speed, all other prizes went to the Europeans. Of the 22 participating aviators, most were French.”

Once back home, Curtiss joined with other promotion-minded fliers like Charles Willard and Roy Knabenshue to put together an American event to claim some of the glory—and have another shot at the prize money. In four months, the group lined up a site—Dominguez Field in southern California—arranged for pioneer pilots to appear, initiated publicity, erected grandstands, and beefed up the passenger platform at a nearby railroad station in anticipation of the crowds.

During 10 days in January 1910, some 226,000 spectators watched pilots like Curtiss, Willard, Knabenshue, Lincoln Beachey, and Charles Hamilton put their machines through record-setting paces. Ironically, the star attraction was Frenchman Louis Paulhan, who brought two Blériot monoplanes and two Farman biplanes. At the air meet, Paulhan set an altitude record (4,164 feet) and an endurance record (64 miles in 1 hour, 49 minutes, 40 seconds). Curtiss, in a biplane of his own design, also garnered some prize money: for speed with a passenger (55 mph) and for the quickest start (6.4 seconds covering 98 feet).

Although no records are likely to be set at the 2003 Aviation World’s Fair, scheduled for April 7 to 27 at Virginia’s Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport, several record-setters will appear. The oldest aircraft still flying in the United States, a 1909 Blériot XI from Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, will fly when conditions allow. Louis Blériot flew a similar model across the English Channel on July 25, 1909, becoming the first person to fly long-distance over open water.

A replica of another craft designed early enough to have flown at the 1910 air meet, a 1909 Demoiselle, will also attend. Designed by Alberto Santos-Dumont, the Demoiselle holds the record for best nickname: “infuriated grasshopper.” Other replicas planned are a 1911 Curtiss Pusher Model D, 1917 Sopwith Camel, Fokker D.R. 1, SPAD VII, Albatros D.Va, and 1918 Vickers Vimy. A 1903 Wright Flyer replica will fly daily.

It’s a shame the Wrights themselves won’t be on hand for all the celebrations of their achievements next year, but then they didn’t attend the 1910 event either. They were in court trying to stop Glenn Curtiss and other designers from infringing on their patents.

—Stuart Nixon

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