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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The next morning he returned to Dominguez Field with his sister. After another successful flight, he announced his intention to fly a figure eight. Within a few moments of taking off, it was clear that the left aileron had come loose: It was flapping uselessly at the end of a control wire. The crowd waved frantically for him to come down, and he appeared to heed the warning. But just as he neared the ground, he pulled back, rose, and began a figure eight. The airplane lurched over on its side and plummeted to the ground. Hartle was thrown forward. The airplane flipped and landed on top of him. He never had a chance. Anna collapsed as they dragged him out of the wreckage, still breathing. He died about 15 minutes later.

His body was returned to Ohio with his traumatized sister. Dosh determined that the aileron had come loose because Hartle had failed to solder a pin holding it in place. Hartle was one of the first amateur aviators to lose his life in a crash. (He was also one of the first to be insured.)

Leonard Bonney
Leonard Bonney decided to go to the Wright School to learn to fly. On May 7, 1911, Orville Wright wrote about Bonney to his brother Wilbur: “Bonney is the most hopeful of our newer men. He is a good worker and enthusiastic. He weighs 125 lbs., and will make a good racer.” Bonney became a member of the Wright’s exhibition team for a few months, flying three engagements before the team was dissolved (see “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Aeroplane!” Apr./May 2008).

He continued with exhibition flying for a short time, including a 112-mile flight from Los Angeles to San Diego with a passenger. He then began a career as an instructor, flying for the Sloan, Moisant, and Curtiss schools, and as a civilian for the U.S. Army during World War I. When the war ended, Bonney, at age 32, retired from flying. He held a title many early birds coveted: survivor.

His retirement, however, did not hold. Ten years later, after marrying, succeeding in business, and settling in Flushing, New York, Bonney returned to homemade aviation. Like Christmas, he studied birds, gulls in particular. Convinced their unique shape held aerodynamic advantages, he began to fashion an airplane. By the spring of 1928, with his own funds, he had designed, built, and wind-tunnel-tested the all-metal manifestation of his dream: the Bonney Gull.

Looking at the dozen or so existing photographs of the machine is like seeing a friend’s unfortunate new hairstyle: You feel awe at the audacity, coupled with worry for the owner’s future. Despite several advanced features, the awkwardness of the Gull’s wings and fuselage, bulbous canopy, fish-like rudder, and avian elevator did not inspire confidence.

Like Gilmore and his monoplane, Bonney and his Gull were captured on film. On May 4, 1928, at New York’s Curtiss Field, he showed the machine off for newsreel cameras. We can see that the Gull is clearly a source of great pride as Bonney, looking older than his 42 years, sits in the cockpit and demonstrates the controls. Soon the Gull starts its only takeoff run and, with an ungainly bounce, begins to climb. You can’t see it in the film, but Bonney began to wave to his wife. At seven seconds into the flight, the Gull suddenly pitches forward. An onlooker, perhaps a reporter, inadvertently steps in front of the camera and we’re spared seeing the Gull plunge into the ground.

Soon after he arrived at the hospital, Bonney died. In the announcement for his funeral, the New York Times reported that when he had ordered the airplane onto the field the day before, his friends, as they had for weeks, “protested against him flying it.” Bonney laughed.

The Successful Dead Ends
Henry Walden and Frank Bolden braved the new world of powered flight by copying no one. They were methodical, creative, and industrious. They made no wild claims. They created truly original designs that flew well—not once, but many times, and professionally. Earle Ovington would have approved.

Henry Walden
Henry Walden’s first experience with flight was watching someone get killed. In 1890, at age seven, Walden was living in Romania, where his father worked as a civil engineer. While at a fair, Walden witnessed a balloonist crash into a church wall. He later wrote that the incident “left a lasting impression.”

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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