Kings of the Air

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

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)
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Knabenshue struggled. He failed to sell his passenger airship to the Navy but continued to promote dirigibles. He devised elaborate schemes for Zeppelin-like passenger airships—even passenger service to Hawaii. Finally, he went to work for the National Park Service, spearheading aviation projects (including the purchase of the service’s first airplane and autogyro). But as his health failed, he was practically exiled to White Sands, New Mexico. When he retired, he had to plead for a meager pension.

Baldwin died suddenly of a heart attack on May 17, 1923; he was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Knabenshue faded away, living quietly with his wife in a trailer park outside Los Angeles. Every now and again, he’d resurface in the press, and once on national television. Ever the entrepreneur, he tried selling his story to Hollywood. He even tried to get back in the air, building a reproduction of one of his early ships. He was denied permission to fly. But Orville Wright remembered Knabenshue. On the 40th anniversary of the 1904 St. Louis flight, he sent Knab­enshue a telegram saying, “Don’t you remember it, and doesn’t it give you a thrill when you think of it?” Knabenshue died in poverty on March 6, 1960.

Paul Glenshaw is director of the Discovery of Flight Foundation and co-producer of the 2009 documentary Barnstorming. His last article for Air & Space, “Inches to Go” (Dec. 2012/Jan. 2013), reported on a University of Maryland team’s effort to build and fly a human-powered helicopter.

About Paul Glenshaw

Paul Glenshaw is a frequent Air & Space contributor and writes from Silver Spring, Maryland.

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