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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The International Aviation Tournament at Long Island's Belmont Park promised to be the largest meet ever held, bringing top aviators from Europe and the United States. For the Wrights, Belmont was of singular importance. Although it featured prizes for distance, duration, passenger carrying, altitude, and a race to the Statue of Liberty, the most anticipated event was the Gordon Bennett speed competition. Winning the Gordon Bennett would, the Wrights believed, maintain the reputation of their airplanes, which would help keep their order book full, allowing them to invest in further development.

Curtiss had won the prize in 1909, and afterward, Wilbur wrote to Orville with plans for a racer. His calculations had a clear purpose: "I think it would be a mistake to get up a racer with less speed than 70 miles [per hour]. We ought to beat them badly if we go into it at all." The finished airplane was far different from anything they'd done before. It was tiny, with wings half the length of those on their standard machine. A monster V-8 engine replaced the four-cylinder version. The aircraft even had a flashy name: the Baby Grand. The day before the meet, Orville clocked in at a blistering 78 mph.

The Belmont meet began with miserable weather and few spectators, but it quickly gathered momentum. Thousands came to see the competition, the newspapers publishing long lists of society notables in attendance. As many as 10 aircraft could be in the air at once, and there were daily spectacles. Three days into the event, Johnstone and Hoxsey braved fierce winds to duel for altitude records. As they turned into the oncoming gale, their airplanes struggled to make headway, slowed to a hover, and began to fly backward out of sight. Hoxsey came down 25 miles from the racetrack. Johnstone landed even farther away—55 miles—but in the process set an altitude record. An ebullient Katharine wrote her father a postcard: "Yesterday was Wright Day all right. Johnstone holds the American record for height. Orv took our big (or little) racer and made almost seventy miles an hour."

On October 29, the Gordon Bennett race got under way, the teams taking turns in individual timed trials, flying 100 kilometers (62 miles) over a five-kilometer course. The Wrights' chief competition was Claude Grahame-White of Britain, flying a 100-horsepower airplane designed by French inventor Louis Blériot. Brooky, whom Orville had chosen to fly the Baby Grand, took to the field around 10 a.m. He rose quickly to make his first pass, the crowd cheering as he came into view and sped past the grandstand. With Orville, Wilbur, and the entire team fixed on him, Brooky was banking into the turn and coming around to officially begin the timed trial when the engine began making a strange noise. It turned out Brooky had lost four of eight cylinders, and the airplane began to drop.

The crowd could see Brooky struggling to keep the little racer from coming down too fast. It was level when it hit the ground, pitching forward and raising a cloud of dust. As the air cleared, Brooky was seen several feet away, staggering to his feet, clutching his sides, and finally collapsing to the ground. He was rushed to the hospital, severely bruised but otherwise uninjured. The Baby Grand was demolished. Grahame-White easily took the prize from the remaining contestants, flying nearly 10 mph slower than the Baby Grand had flown during Orville's unofficial test run.

The Baby Grand, like the team itself, was an experiment. For the Wrights, a failure was disappointing, but it was an accepted part of the process of innovation. They had a lot of experience with risk, and faced the setback with firm resolve to compete harder than ever. But in the challenge they faced now, they risked more than a lost race or a wrecked aircraft. To keep the team competitive, the Wrights would have to keep up with the advancing technology they'd created. Unfortunately, the brothers had spent so much time filing patent infringement suits against Glenn Curtiss, their technology development had suffered. "After 1910, the Wrights were not building the leading aircraft anymore," says historian Jakab. "They were very much in the middle of the pack in terms of what they were producing. As far as the performance and reliability of their designs, they were starting to lag behind other aircraft, namely those of Curtiss and Blériot."

Still, the Wrights saw the team as a way to make money, and to keep the business profitable, they needed a full calendar and focused pilots. The team aviators, who had been on the road for five months, were young and easily diverted. "Be Careful Girls, In Flirting With the Wright Men," advised the Dayton Herald, printing two lists of team members: married and single. "All the Wright aviators from Cliff Turpin, who is only 21, and Brookins, who has not yet turned 22, up to Parmelee, who stands near 30, are held up as ‘love premiums'…. The Wright septet has been worshipped by women, young and old, all over the land."

The brothers tried to counter the head-turning publicity and inclination to showmanship. Wilbur had already chided Hoxsey and Johnstone: "I am very much in earnest when I say that I want no stunts and spectacular frills put on the flights there…. Anything beyond plain flying will be chalked up as a fault and not a credit." Hoxsey was scolded with good reason: In Milwaukee he had hit a grandstand and injured a spectator, who sued.

The Wrights also began to have their doubts about Knabenshue, noting that as 1910 was ending, he had scheduled the team for only four events: Macon, Baltimore, Denver, and Los Angeles. They would soon learn that an empty schedule was not the worst problem a team could face.

In mid-November, Hoxsey, Brooky, and Johnstone went to Denver for a two-day meet at Overland Park. Late on the 17th, Brooky had finished flying, but Hoxsey and Johnstone were still in the air. Johnstone started to descend in a steep spiral, when Brooky noticed the airplane's wings oddly distorted. Johnstone was seen struggling with the controls as the airplane slammed into the ground. He was crushed in the wreckage. The newspapers reported a swarm of airshow spectators probing his mangled corpse for souvenirs, yanking a strut out of his body and stealing his gloves. Hoxsey landed and found Brooky at the wreck; together they pulled Johnstone out and drove off past a band playing ragtime.

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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