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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Wilbur attended Johnstone's funeral in Kansas City, and the Wright Company established a generous annuity to support the pilot's widow. Wilbur tried to piece together from conflicting reports what had happened, and he wrote Orville detailed theories, but the brothers could arrive at no certainties except one: There would be no more taking chances. Wilbur sent Parmelee to Los Angeles with a special high-altitude Flyer—and instructions. The only one who would fly it was Parmelee, who had been trained by Wilbur personally. Brooky angrily objected. Wilbur fired back through Knabenshue: "After we lost thousands of dollars of prizes at Belmont…it would be crazy foolishness to put the only machine of the kind you have out there in the hands of untrained men…." He added in a telegram: "Do not use unless it will win."

The Los Angeles meet began in triumph. On December 30, Hoxsey climbed to 11,474 feet, a record. But Knabenshue's telegram to Wilbur three days later held no joy: "Meet closed today forty thousand Less the guarenters [sic] will pay us with prize money won. Arch Hoxsey will be cremated tomorrow at two-thirty."

On New Year's Eve, after climbing to 7,000 feet, Hoxsey had started to descend—steeply. Knabenshue reported the details in a letter to Wilbur: "His angle of descent…would figure about 80 degrees from the 1000 foot level, and this angle never changed until he struck…. Firmly believe the poor boy had either been dead in his seat, or in some manner beyond control, for the machine continued to turn, striking head on…. I will not at this instance tell you the condition of his body…."

Brooky could add little. "I did not examine the machine or Hoxsey…as I had seen enough of the horrible."

The Wright Company established an annuity for Hoxsey's mother, who had been receiving $50 a month from her son. Parmelee and Brooky continued on to San Francisco, the only performance scheduled for the coming year. A winter flying school was set up in Augusta, Georgia, which Coffyn was to manage. The calendar was otherwise empty. Hoxsey's death had stunned the team into immobility, and it faced 1911 without a future.

Katharine reported that New Year's Day was "a night-mare for all. I am so sick of this exhibition business. It is so absolutely wrong."

On February 15, Knabenshue submitted his resignation, citing "considerable interference from several members of your organization." At the end of March, the Wrights countered, telling Knabenshue he would report directly to them. In the face of ever-increasing competition, the brothers decided to keep the exhibition experiment alive. Knabenshue accepted their counteroffer, and after three months of inactivity, went out to hustle for jobs.

Although the Dayton flying school was busy, the exhibition season looked bleak. Orville reported, "[Knabenshue] came back completely discouraged. He found that the Curtiss people have been out, while we were fooling around, securing our business…. The Curtiss outfit are taking work at one half to two thirds of our prices…. I told him he must take the work away from Curtiss, whether we made any money on it or not…." The calendar finally started to fill, and eventually the team had even more engagements than it had flown in 1910: from Miami to Walla Walla and Manitoba to Corpus Christi. Turpin's itinerary, for example, had him traveling to 14 cities.

Turpin had proved to be a valuable asset: He fulfilled his contracts, didn't crash, and was a favorite with the press. Brooky, on the other hand, was changed. "Brooky is also in the West, but we have lost all interest in him," wrote Katherine. "[H]e is so ridiculously conceited that his days of usefulness are just about over…. Now even Orv can't endure him." Orville confirmed his misgivings in a letter to Wilbur: "I think something is wrong with the machinery inside of [his head]; his whole manner is so entirely changed from what it was a year ago. He spends his whole time talking of his superiority, and of the small amount he is paid for his services." On May 21, Brooky's wife divorced him. Soon after, he quit the team.

In June, Orville assessed the team's finances and reported to Wilbur: "Our receipts to date amount to $22,540. Our expenses, not including the expenses of the New York office nor any expense for wear and depreciation of machines, amounts to $19,400." Wilbur understood: "If it appears that the exhibition business is not really profitable, my idea would be to get out of it as soon as possible. Only big profits and a quick release from worry could compensate for putting up with it at all." The experiment was over.

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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