Or Die Trying

After the Wright brothers flew, a handful of inventors were determined to join them.

Henry Walden designed two unsuccessful airplanes before coming up with a flyable monoplane, the Walden III. (Cradle of Aviation Museum)
Air & Space Magazine

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Born in 1865 in North Carolina, Christmas came to Washington, D.C., to conclude his medical studies. He became fascinated with flight, and said he learned everything he needed to know from the study of birds. On March 6, 1908, according to Christmas and several witnesses, he flew a powered machine in Falls Church, Virginia. He formed the Christmas Aeroplane Company in 1910. A year later, one of his designs flew in College Park, Maryland, and in 1912, he exhibited at the New York Aero Show.

After proposing a giant bomber to the military in 1915, Christmas began work on the Bullet. He was convinced that his revolutionary “flexible wing” concept would result in the fastest aircraft ever built. The wing spars were made from “sawmill blade steel” and designed to flex upward the faster the airplane went. With thoroughly convinced investors behind him, Christmas negotiated a contract with Continental Aircraft to manufacture two airplanes. Ignoring the concerns of the Continental engineers, Christmas authorized two test flights; in both, the wings failed. Pilot Cuthbert Mills landed hard and was burned to death. Allington Jolly spun in when the wing twisted off; he also died. Christmas blamed the pilots and unnamed saboteurs.

Was Christmas ever ahead of his time? He insisted that he was the sole authority for his concepts, which were similar to those of the leading designers. The Bullet roughly resembles the Dayton-Wright RB-1 racer—an airplane widely considered revolutionary—which flew two years later. He proposed the gigantic Christmas Supertransport passenger airplane, which was not unlike those actually flown by Hugo Junkers and other contemporaries. After the Bullet, none of Christmas’ airplanes was ever built.

Still, his claims of supreme aeronautical achievement got him attention. By 1942, the Supertransport had morphed into the 200,000-pound, all-wood Christmas Battleplane. Following a letter from Christmas, U.S. Senator Robert Reynolds of North Carolina directed George Lewis of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) to conduct wind tunnel tests and begin production. When Lewis replied that it would take 1,000 engineers a year and a half to develop a prototype in the middle of a war, Reynolds backed away. Christmas did not.

His 1947 letter to Spaatz was typical. The “fastest plane” he proposed would indeed be fast: Mach 0.92. Three weeks from the letter’s date, Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. Christmas died in 1960 at the age of 95, still predicting the future, still making claims.

The Doomed Enthusiasts
Watching the Wrights fly must have been like watching Fred Astaire dance. Their seemingly effortless grace masked their discipline, caution, and skill. Respect for undiscovered aerial hazards led them through a progression of experiments and kept them alive. Many of the aviators who tried to copy them fell victim to the anxious rush to fulfill a dream.

Addison Vespucius Hartle
Perhaps his middle name had something to do with it. Hartle was born in 1886, and back then, Vespucius was an unusual, but not unheard of, boys’ name. It is the Latinized version of Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci’s last name. For Vespucci, it was all about heading west. In 1911, so did Hartle, leaving his hometown of Marseilles, Ohio, in search of flight.

Hartle was used to forging his own way. When he was 15 years old, his parents died of pneumonia within three days of each other. He and his eight siblings were divided up to live with various relatives. At age 21, Hartle set out to make his way in the world. Tall, uncommonly strong, temperate, and good-natured, he held a variety of jobs: selling laundry bluing, then Christmas cards; sheet metal roofer. He could afford to pick and choose: He and his siblings had inherited their parents’ modest fortune. He was mechanically curious, owning the first car in Marseilles.

In early 1911, Hartle moved to Los Angeles. Besides being the home of his sister, Anna, Los Angeles had an active aviation scene. An air meet held at Dominguez Field in January 1910 had attracted the luminaries of the day: Curtiss, Louis Paulhan, Roy Knabenshue, Lincoln Beachey, Walter Brookins, and Arch Hoxsey. Hartle quickly found Harry Dosh, who, with six “Curtiss-type” airplanes to his name, was already a veteran airplane builder. Hartle spent $1,500 to commission a large machine. Immediately after it was finished, he took it to Dominguez Field.

Forgoing any initial “grass-cutting” practice, Hartle made his first flight on May 16, 1911, and for a completely untrained pilot, it was an incredible success: a distance of three miles, full circles, and an altitude of more than 100 feet. He wrote about it that evening to a friend in Ohio: “Reached an altitude of about 125 feet and controlled the machine perfectly. Shall do better tomorrow, that is, I think I shall, and you know that helps a little…. Yours in a hurry, ADDISON V. HARTLE.”

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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