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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Though Wilbur and Orville had excelled at aeronautical design, tasks like sales and marketing did not come naturally to them. "The Wrights weren't bad businessmen, but running a business was a whole lot tougher for them than the process of invention," says Wright biographer Crouch. "I think people sometimes have the notion that the Wrights were these guys who were on fire to go out and bore holes in the sky, and they really weren't. The charge that they had always gotten out of it was the whole business of solving difficult challenges that had beaten everybody else. ‘Isn't it wonderful that all these problems have been preserved all these years just so we could solve them,' " is how Orville once put it.

In November, after meets in Chicago and St. Louis, the Wrights quietly released Knabenshue and the team (Welsh stayed on with the Wright Company as a test pilot). Coffyn went to work for the Alger brothers, thrilling enormous crowds by flying a Wright Model B over New York City. Turpin and Parmelee rented two airplanes and a tent from the Wrights and traveled to Venice Beach, California, where they sold rides.

By March 1912, Turpin wrote Orville that the upcoming season would be a busy one, and suggested getting a new Wright model for sale or rent. Orville replied that the airplane, a Model C, was "a dandy," and although they were undecided about an exhibition team for 1912, they thought that if they did go out on the road, they would prefer to use men they knew.

Two months later, any hope of a new team was dashed. Turpin and Parmelee took two airplanes to Washington state, where they got back into the exhibition business. On May 30, Turpin was landing in front of a Seattle grandstand when a photographer ran in front of him. Turpin pulled up and clipped a small pylon, and the impact pivoted him toward the grandstand. Terrified onlookers scrambled as his airplane slammed into the upper tier, instantly killing a spectator. Turpin was dragged unconscious from the wreckage, bruised but otherwise unhurt.

The next day, news broke that Wilbur had died in Dayton, succumbing to a month-long bout with typhoid fever.

The following afternoon, Parmelee took off in Yakima, Washington, and minutes later lost control in a gust, crashed, and was killed. Among his effects was an unopened letter from his father. "Glad to hear you say you were going to quit…be careful, boy and not get hurt. Be one of the boys who gets out of it before it's too late."

Two weeks later, while testing the new Wright Model C at College Park, Maryland, for the U.S. Army, Al Welsh was killed. He had just returned from Wilbur's funeral. Orville and Katharine now came to his, and once again arranged support for a grieving family.

There would never again be another Wright exhibition team.

Orville, Knabenshue, Brooky, Coffyn, and Turpin all lived into old age. Orville sold the Wright Company in 1915, and retired to a quiet life as an elder statesman of aviation. Knabenshue returned to dirigibles but ultimately left flying and went to work for the National Park Service. Brooky returned to and retired from aviation several times, but he was never again a star. Coffyn wound up in the helicopter business. Turpin retired to Cape Cod and never flew again.

In less than two years, the Wright exhibition team had performed 77 times. Despite the tragedies, the pilots had helped introduce the airplane to the public long before the era of barnstormers and the modern airshow. For the Wrights and their competitors, exhibition flying was an opportunity to earn money after years of inventing and investing, and the performances spurred the growth of the aviation industry. For the men on the team, it was a chance to leave an old life and go on an adventure, possibly grab some glory, and play a part in the new world coming. Whether they intended to or not, they delivered a powerful and indelible message: Flight is real.

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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