Ladies and Gentlemen, The Aeroplane!

In 1910, showmen flew death-defying stunts in Wright airplanes. Sometimes, death won.

Wilbur (holding onto the tail boom, suit wrinkled by prop blast) and Orville Wright (standing at front, cap backward) had high hopes that the Baby Grand would win the speed contest at Belmont. But the little racer never made it to the final event. (NASM (SI A-3486))
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Essentially free to do as he pleased, Brooky experimented with flying techniques and taught himself stunts. Under a full Alabama moon, he and Hoxsey made the first recorded night flights, circling the field for hours. Later, Brooky took Crane up for a training flight, taking off toward the edge of the field, which was bordered by a road and telephone lines. They rose slowly, and when Brooky realized he would not clear the wires, he calmly pushed the nose down, flying under them and between the poles. Completely unnerved, Crane was on the train home to Dayton that night, preceding his arrival with a telegram to Orville: "This and other things force me to decline to ride again here…. With me it is a matter of needless risk. If you feel this is a lack of nerve my resignation is in your hand. Without hesitation I advise closing camp at once."

By the end of May it was warm enough for Orville to move the training camp to Dayton. The team had just three weeks to practice before heading to the brand-new Indianapolis Motor Speedway for their first performance.

The night before the meet, the pilots were handed contracts, offering $20 per week and $50 per day of flying. They were responsible for seeing to their own injuries. And in keeping with the Wrights' own practice, the pilots were asked to refrain from flying on Sundays, drinking, and gambling. The Wright Company would keep any prize money. Brooky balked, and almost all the others joined him. Coffyn, however, urged them to accept, and in the end all of the pilots signed.

Brooky quickly established himself as the star. On the first day of performance in Indianapolis, he broke the world's altitude record, rising to 4,939 feet. On June 16, his secret practice in Montgomery paid off. He rose several hundred feet, dove, and rolled into a 90-degree bank. Hauling back on the elevator, he spiraled the airplane through 360 degrees. Wilbur was astonished: "It was the most hairlifting performance I have seen. The circle was not over a hundred feet in diameter…. It was a beautifully executed feat, but the strains are too great to make such things safe for everyday work."

Over the next four months, the team traveled to 25 cities, from New Hampshire to North Dakota to Alabama, shipping themselves and their airplanes by rail and showing up at Fourth of July celebrations, state fairs, and tournaments. They garnered plenty of headlines:

"Goes Up 6,175 Feet in Wright Biplane; Walter Brookins Beats His Own World's Record in a Flight at Atlantic City."

"Airmen Play Tag With Moonbeams; Hoxsey and Johnstone Unexpectedly Make Two Night Flights at Asbury Park."

"Aviator Drops 800 Feet But Lives."

"Hoxsey and Johnstone Set Crowd Wild in Plane Tilting and Short Whirls."

There were some minor accidents and organizational hitches, but the experiment seemed to be working. By mid-1910, five pilots were on the road, and Knabenshue could have the team spread across five states at once. Better still, the receipts were good. At the end of August, Wilbur reported to Wright company board member Russell Alger that the team had earned $186,000 in exhibition receipts, outstanding contracts, and guarantees for upcoming meets in St. Louis and New York. Alger was delighted: "I had no idea we would have any such brilliant year. I have paid my way toward the Aviation Meet and I naturally hope we will do as well as you predict and I see no reason why we should not." Alger, like everyone else, was waiting for Belmont.

About Paul Glenshaw

Paul Glenshaw is a frequent Air & Space contributor who writes from Silver Spring, Maryland. He created education programs for the Wright Experience and Discovery of Flight foundation, and is the co-writer and co-director of the documentary The Lafayette Escadrille.

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