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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Forced to become a dentist by his parents, Walden, who then lived in New York City, became a member of the Aeronautic Society of New York, which was then meeting at the Morris Park racetrack in the Bronx. The group could boast of few successes. Descriptions of the members’ experiments included words like “tree” and “fence,” coupled with “plunged” and “smashed.” Still, Walden was entranced, and he began inventing machines. He immediately failed.

His Walden I and II machines of early 1909 never left the ground. The first was a strange tandem-wing design, whose 500-pound engine kept it pinned to Earth. The Walden II was also odd, with its engine turning around the crankshaft and slung like a pendulum for stability. After some taxi tests, Walden planned to make a first flight, but the night before, he left the aircraft outside, and a storm mercifully destroyed it. Walden assessed his work and came to a conclusion: “Freak designs must be avoided.”

His breakthrough was the Walden III. After building a rudimentary wind tunnel and experimenting with different surface designs, Walden settled on the still-unusual monoplane (biplanes dominated the industry). On December 9, 1909, the airplane was ready to test. At Mineola, Long Island, Walden left the ground and flew for a few hundred feet. He put the aircraft back down safely—elated.

By September 1911, Walden had created the Walden IX, a refinement of his monoplane design. He had incorporated a company with George Dyott, taken on students and investors, and begun flying competitively. The 1911 Brighton Beach Air Meet attracted the stars of the aviation world: Claude Grahame-White, Tom Sopwith, Harry Atwood, Eugene Ely—and Walden. He was not the best pilot, nor did he have the best airplane. But while he was in the air, the crowd was informed that he was flying an American-designed monoplane, and that he was the only designer-builder-aviator in attendance. He landed to a hero’s welcome, and quickly amassed a busy schedule of performances around the country.

But his successes never matured into a lucrative career, nor created a lasting influence on aircraft design. The Blériot and Deperdussin designs of 1909 through 1912 were the true forerunners of the modern monoplane.

Walden continued in the flying business until the Great Depression, starting two research companies, developing a radio-controlled missile, amassing more than 50 patents, and losing “two sizable fortunes.” Fortunately, the dental practice never closed. He died in 1964, having once described himself as “rich only in the satisfaction of a life thoroughly lived.”

Frank Boland
Just like the Wrights and Curtiss, Frank Boland and his brothers could trace their aviation business to their bicycle shop. The three brothers made a great team: Frank was the enthusiast, Joseph the engineer, and James the businessman. What began in the 1890s as a backyard business in Rahway, New Jersey, expanded into motorcycles, then automobiles, and in 1907, airplanes. The first Boland aircraft, a tractor monoplane with Joseph’s promising 60-horsepower V-8 engine, failed.

The brothers tried again in 1909, purchasing from William Greene a Curtiss-inspired biplane he had built. Frank removed the tail and installed what they hoped would be a revolutionary set of control surfaces, which they called jibs. Like all would-be aircraft designers of the time, the Bolands had to face the Wright brothers’ wing-warping/lateral control patent. There were three choices: pay the Wrights royalties, build an infringing machine and risk a lawsuit, or create something that achieved lateral control without infringing the patent. Few took the first choice. Curtiss (and those who built Curtiss-types) chose the second, leading to epic court battles with the Wrights. With the jib design, the Bolands took the third route—and succeeded. But not at first.

On his first and second flights, Frank hit the same tree. But his third flight, in late November, with Joseph as passenger, was a success. It was the first flight in New Jersey. The flying continued, as did their growing engine business. Their first original airplane, the Boland Tailless, appeared in the spring of 1910. By October 1911, Frank was making demonstration flights. According to a biography of Boland by Harold Morehouse, Wilbur Wright himself inspected the machine and its jib controls and pronounced it not only non-infringing, but also capable of making the tightest turns he’d ever seen.

The lack of a tail, however, made the aircraft look decidedly strange. And the pilot’s position was positively bizarre: Sitting suspended inside a framework between the airplane’s forward canard and the wings, with his legs spread out in front of him, the pilot looked like a victim of the Spanish Inquisition. But the arrangement worked, and the Bolands were in business.

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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