The Stuntman, Part III: Precipice


Part I: Gas Bag Doings

Part II: Headless

Lincoln Beachey spent the weeks following his sensational Niagara Falls flight by giving well-received exhibitions in western and upstate New York, and in western Pennsylvania. His wife had evidently returned home long before then, and Beachey was accompanied throughout this time by Miss Mae Wood, who gave her age as nineteen and who had first publicly appeared with him at the Wilkes-Barre exhibition in May. Miss Wood rode repeatedly with Beachey over the summer of 1911, with some newspapers delicately excusing her companionship through the explanation that she was “taking lessons on the management of air craft.” Though never seen at the controls of the machine, whenever she was asked about her most memorable flights she spoke of the rides with Beachey as if she had been operating the aeroplane.

In late July news broke that Beachey, Ely, and Hugh Robinson would take part in the first true intercity aeroplane race in America. Curtiss business manager Jerome Fanciulli had arranged for the Gimbel Brothers department store to sponsor a three-way, all-Curtiss air race between its New York and Philadelphia stores, with a prize of $5,000 to the winner. The race would take place on Saturday, August 5.

Although there was no particular novelty in the announced route—Charles K. Hamilton had flown solo from New York to Philadelphia and back again in June 1910—the race was nevertheless billed as an “epochal event” because of its format. And by the time Ely and Robinson reached the East Coast, there was a potential fourth entrant: Hamilton himself, who had recently resolved his differences with Curtiss and returned to the exhibition company. Certainly he was a logical entrant in the Gimbels race, given his historic round-trip flight. He pulled out at the last minute, however, for reasons that are unclear.

One at a time, the three aeroplanes left Governors Island that Saturday morning and disappeared north into a thick haze that covered the city. They passed over the official starting line, the New York Gimbel Brothers store, roughly ninety seconds apart, with Beachey leading and Ely second. Robinson had trouble locating the specific railroad tracks he needed to follow; by the time he reached Rahway, New Jersey, he was seven minutes behind the others, who were essentially flying together.

Ely soon developed engine trouble and abandoned the race. Beachey easily beat Robinson, crossing above the finish line (the Gimbels store in Philadelphia) with an elapsed time of 2:01, which included a scheduled stop for fuel in Trenton. As soon as he landed before a crowd estimated at 100,000, Beachey was “warmly greeted” (the more discreet reports characterized it as a “handshake”) by Mae Wood, wearing a stylish purple hat and a purple-and-white gown. Newspapers rightly lavished praise on him: “Lincoln Beachey, hero of hundreds of conquests of the air, won the cross-country air race from New York to Philadelphia this afternoon hands down.”

As the three Curtiss racers traveled to Chicago for the final major meet of the summer, Beachey had unquestionably elevated himself to the premier aviator in the country, winning even the admiration of veteran flyers. Lieutenant Ellyson attended the Chicago meet and reported back to the Navy’s aviation expert, Captain Chambers: “Beach[e]y’s flying was the most wonderful that I have ever seen.” Ellyson went on to say that Breachey

flew about 15 feet from the ground and when he rounded the pylons the turn was so short that it seemed as if he hooked one aileron on the pylon. At another time he and [Frenchman René] Simon were flying at an altitude of 4500 feet, and Simon is noted for his quick dashes back to the earth. Simon started on one of his glides but Beach[e]y waited until Simon was not over 1000 feet from the ground, made four complete spirals then seemed to dive straight to the ground, and landed while Simon was still 500 feet in the air. You could hear a sigh—an awful sound—go up from the crowd, because everyone thought that the machine had gotten beyond his control.

Beachey himself, “whose stunts at the present meet [were] declared by experts never to have been equaled in the history of air sport,” reportedly engaged in lengthy debates with newspapermen “in an attempt to prove that the spiral glide as he does it is not necessarily dangerous.”

Nonetheless, two aviation fatalities occurred at the Chicago meet that week. One of the deaths was that of a young Pittsburgh socialite, Bill Badger, who had recently earned his aviator’s license and who flew for Captain Baldwin’s exhibition team. On August 15 Badger kept diving repeatedly at the ground and pulling up sharply, an ill-advised attempt to copy Beachey’s manner of flying that ended when the wings of the Baldwin machine crumpled under the strain. Badger plowed into the ground at high speed and died of a broken neck.


“Jolly Bill Badger,” 26, killed in a crash at Chicago

Afterward, the aviation expert for the Chicago Tribune wrote soberly that Beachey, with his greater experience, “has been doing tricks successfully so far. . . . But all men fail some time.” If the sky was a type of precipice, Beachey was flying himself and others closer to the edge.

But the public’s appetite for this more dangerous form of flying seemed limitless. Even though the day following the Chicago fatalities was a Wednesday, one of the largest crowds of the meet jammed the aviation fieldto say nothing of nearby streets, parking spaces, and the bleachers erected on roofs of high-rise buildings“in the morbid hope that the spectacular accidents of Tuesday would be repeated.”

On previous days they had come to see mechanical contrivances shooting through the air. [Wednesday] they came to see live men, daring young aviators, hurtling to their death through space. They were disappointed, for only once did they rise to their feet and utter groans—half delight, half horror—as Lincoln Beachey shot from a height of nearly 3,000 feet and seemed to be rushing to his death with the speed of an express train.

Then when he settled easily with the wind a few feet above the ground and landed gracefully, cheer after cheer rang out. Exclamations of relief and sighs of satisfaction were heard on all sides. Every one was pleased, having witnessed a man shooting to earth and [having] experienced all the thrills of a great catastrophe without the toll of human life.

 High winds limited the number of events that day, but “[f]ollowing Beachey’s spectacular drop, many [spectators] concluded that they had witnessed the most exciting event of the day and departed [happily].” Beachey won nearly $12,000 in prizes during the week of the Chicago exhibition, the equivalent of roughly $300,000 today. He went on to experience similar if somewhat less extravagant successes in September and October.

And he was constantly looking for new ways to entertain crowds. During the first couple of months of 1912 he created the character of a hitherto unknown French aviatrix, “Madame Cozette de Truse,” supposedly a rival of Blanche Scott (who was also appearing regularly at aviation meets by then). The mysterious aviatrix would fly erratically and comically in Beachey’s machine—and then, after “Madame” finally landed, Scott would grab at the Frenchwoman’s hair and pulled off a wig, revealing that the incomparable Beachey had flown in drag.

For the most part, however, during the first three or four months of 1912 Beachey “laid off” exhibitions but remained affiliated with the Curtiss team. Appalled by the trial court’s decision against Curtiss in the Wright brothers patent dispute, he apparently suggested an attempt, which Curtiss later carried out, to reconstruct Samuel P. Langley’s Aerodrome in order to disprove the validity of the Wright claims.

Beachey also became fascinated with the idea of completing an aerial loop, which had never been done and which the construction of his Curtiss machine would not accommodate. When Curtiss refused to build a machine specifically capable of looping, Beachey left the team to perform on his own.

Meanwhile, he was coming under great stress in his personal life. His wife tried to divorce him in June 1912, claiming that he had “acted improperly with other women in no [fewer] than nine cities” from 1908 to 1911; Mae Wood, who had by then disappeared from public view, was implicated. Unable to amass evidence to support her claim, Mrs. Beachey agreed to a reconciliation but filed a new suit in January 1913, alleging mental cruelty. A California court speedily granted the divorce decree.

Two months later, five days after his twenty-sixth birthday, Beachey made a highly publicized announcement of his retirement. He explained that he was haunted by the memory of the men who had died trying to copy his stunts, Ely supposedly among them. The timing of the divorce decree with Beachey’s retirement announcement perhaps was not a complete coincidence, given that California is and was a community property state; still, Beachey did seem genuinely remorseful.

His retirement lasted little more than six months. In September 1913, Russian Pyotr Nesterov and Frenchman Adolphe Pégoud each succeeded in completing an aerial loop. Curtiss thereafter relented and built the “looper” Beachey wanted. Its engine allowed him to fly upside down, while the seat was positioned as far forward as possible, essentially on top of the front wheel, as pictured in Part II.

During an unannounced early test flight with the new machine on October 7, 1913, Beachey lost control, clipped the ridgeline of a large canvas tent, and crashed. Ruth Hildreth was one of two sisters who, along with their Navy dates, had climbed onto the tent for a better view only moments before. When Beachey’s looper caught the tent Hildreth fell, striking her head on a parked automobile. She died soon afterward of a fractured skull.

Beachey had not invited spectators that day, nor was he found to have been attempting anything exceptional at the time, so the coroner exonerated him. Reports that he had gone back into retirement were wrong. On November 19, he succeeded in “looping the loop” for the first time, and on Christmas Day he strung together five consecutive loops.He soon had another, more maneuverable machine built. It had a rotary engine and was called the Little Looper. He had his name painted on the top of the upper wing, so spectators could more easily track the loop from the ground.

Beachey’s stunts demonstrated a remarkable control of his machine. In addition to flying upside down, he reportedly could land on the roof of a moving train or pick up a tented handkerchief on the ground with a hook attached to his wingtip. One apocryphal story had $300 in gold coins falling from his pockets to the ground as he flew inverted. He famously flew inside the grand Palace of Machinery while it was being constructed for the Pan-Pacific International Exhibition (PPIE) at San Francisco. He engaged in a series of staged races against famed automobile racer Barney Oldfield. He made a mock attack on Washington, more dramatic even than Claude Grahame-White’s 1910 landing on Executive Avenue, just to demonstrate how unprepared the nation was for aerial warfare.

Millions of people saw Beachey fly; his name was a byword. His personal income for 1914 alone was estimated to exceed $250,000 ($6.25M today). It was said of him that he made more in a single day than the average American worker could earn in a year.

In late 1914 Beachey finally revisited the monoplane configuration he had used in his initial attempts to fly five years earlier. The new machine, made especially for aerobatics, was constructed of aluminum and was designed to fly at 100 mph in level flight. Again, he had his name painted in large block letters on top of the wing.

After a short period of practice in March 1915, Beachey made his first public appearance with the new monoplane over San Francisco Bay. March 14 had been designated “Lincoln Beachey Day” by the PPIE directors. The crowd was enormous.

The “master birdman” soared to three thousand feet. When he went into a steep dive, however, the rear spars on both wings snapped and the wings collapsed, as had happened to Bill Badger nearly four years earlier.

Beachey plunged straight down into the water with such speed and force that his machine stuck in the muddy bottom some thirty feet under the surface. When divers recovered his body an hour later they discovered that, incredibly, he had survived the crash but—unable to free himself from the tangle of wires—had drowned.

Eleven days past his twenty-eighth birthday, Lincoln Beachey died in the city of his birth. His final flight took place above the same waters over which Eugene Ely passed four years earlier in the course of proving that an aircraft could safely land on a warship.


Beachey’s crumpled monoplane about to hit the water (March 14, 1915)

Lincoln Beachey & The Exhibition Era, Carroll Gray’s forthcoming biography, covers Beachey’s life and career in comprehensive detail. My thanks to Mr. Gray for reviewing these blog posts and offering clarifications.


The Stuntman, Part III: Precipice

The Stuntman, Part II: Headless


Over the latter half of 1910, Lincoln Beachey struggled to make the transition from dirigible virtuoso to heavier-than-air aviator. During the first two months of 1911, however, apart from his near-crash into the Cuban president’s automobile, Beachey flew competently. In February he beat the far more experienced J.A.D. McCurdy in a five-mile race. News reports reflect that he routinely charmed spectators at Palm Beach, Florida.

As spring neared, Beachey worked his way slowly up the East Coast. Around the time he arrived in North Carolina, in early March, descriptions of his flying began to reflect an increased confidence. He produced “straight line effects, circles, curves and almost everything else,” thrilling the crowds who came to see him. “Instead of the large audience being excited or fearful that Beach[e]y would fall,” though, “the majority of them watched with eager eyes the graceful flights and perfect control of the machine displayed by the aviator.” His name recognition grew to such an extent that at one point he became a pitchman for the Cape Fear Oil Company.

Curtiss business manager Jerome Fanciulli appointed Beachey as the resident instructor at a temporary “aviation school” set up at the luxury resort in Pinehurst, North Carolina. Beachey’s wife, Minnie, joined him for the three weeks he worked there; the “instruction” consisted of giving paid rides. Commander Saito of the Japanese Navy, who had arrived to learn about American flying machines, rode twice as a passenger. In short, Beachey appeared to have developed into a conventional flyer for Curtiss.

Then, early in May, Beachey and McCurdy arrived at Washington for a meet at the Benning race track; Curtiss team member Hugh Robinson was there as well. The event was billed as a series of races—aeroplanes against one another, motorcycles against one another, and aeroplanes against motorcycles—but there would also be passenger-carrying flights.

On opening day at the Benning meet, however, Beachey abandoned the announced program. No doubt remembering the adulation that had greeted him five years earlier when he circled the Washington Monument in his dirigible and landed on the White House lawn—or perhaps to prove that he had become just as good at operating a heavier-than-air machine—he impulsively flew his Curtiss pusher biplane to nearby Washington, circled the dome of the U.S. Capitol, and might have gone on to the Washington Monument as well, had the winds not been too strong.

Beachey qualified for his Aero Club license (No. 27) at Benning. Fulfilling the various requirements “seemed to be an easy matter for Beach[e]y, and, as the last number on the program, he made his aeroplane do every antic known in the world of the air.”

[D]riving his aeroplane to a height of 600 or more feet, [he] glided in a spiral fashion almost to the earth, and as the machine was about to touch the ground he pointed its nose upward, and a few minutes later was again near the clouds. This was done repeatedly.

It was a return to the glory days of his “gas bag doings.”

Curtiss arrived in Washington the day after the Capitol circumnavigation, and it would not be surprising to learn that he was horrified by reports of what had happened, aware as he was of the dangers attendant on flying over populated areas—to say nothing of the risky spiral glide, which is what Beachey appears to have been doing. But it was about to get worse.

Lincoln Beachey lacked an engineering background. In 1914 he would famously assert: “You can fly a kitchen table, if your motor is strong enough.” Accordingly, when he crashed into a fence on June 2 at Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and damaged his front elevator, he simply removed it. The next day he flew “without any front canvas surface,” and on the day following that he used only a small front control. Beachey eventually found he could fly in a much freer manner after creating the “headless” configuration (pictured above), although at first he reportedly found it “difficult to operate his machine with this makeup.”

That the change to his machine drew scant comment was perhaps attributable to something more marvelous that occurred at the Wilkes-Barre exhibition: with a motion picture camera strapped beside him, Beachey managed to fly while he himself cranked the camera, producing what is believed to be the first movie footage ever shot from an aeroplane. But it’s also true that the headless configuration was not an innovation.

The Wrights had introduced their headless Baby Grand at Belmont Park in October 1910, and Lieutenant Ellyson had already anticipated removal of the front control for experiments with Curtiss hydroaeroplanes. As Captain Chambers, the Navy’s aviation expert, noted two months before Beachey first appeared as an amateur flyer:

The aviators of both the Wright and Curtiss schools seem to think this [headless configuration] is logical progress, but the performances of the Wright biplanes in comparison with the Curtiss and Farman biplanes, both of which [retain] the front control, . . . indicate that if this is so, the new position of the elevator planes [at the rear] requires more skill, as in the monoplanes, to handle the machines while landing.

Chambers even speculated that the deaths of John Moisant and Arch Hoxsey on New Year’s Eve could be attributed to loss of balance, “thus causing the machines to revolve suddenly about their centers of mass situated near the front ends” instead of near the middle of the aeroplane, as would be the case in a machine with a front elevator.

Whether Beachey was further emboldened by the acquisition of a formal license or for other reasons, the switch to a headless configuration allowed him to fly in a manner that Curtiss, traveling with him in Connecticut while searching for a suitable factory location, considered utterly reckless. As Curtiss wrote to Fanciulli in mid-June: “So far, we have been extremely fortunate in not having any accident happen to the men or spectators, but we cannot hope for this good luck to continue long when we consider how Beach[e]y is flying.”

At Bridgeport, Beachey again flew over a city, and he later made a short cross-country flight to New Haven to perform at Yale’s aviation meet. In a visit to Mineola, Long Island, where he wasn’t scheduled to appear, he reportedly accepted an invitation to fly a Baldwin “Red Devil.” Even though he had never operated such a model, he was soon demonstrating “[e]very spectacular stunt known to aviators.” At the end of the month he took a passenger, Miss Mae Wood, up to a reported thousand feet.

In mid-June, Beachey appeared unannounced at a meet in Waltham, Massachusetts, flying over from his own nearby exhibition. He was described as shooting down “in a spiral curve, with his machine dangerously near the perpendicular, banking right and left, and shutting off his power at just the right moment, when the machine seemed to straighten out and land on the field like a feather.” Spectators had seen this kind of flying before. Of all the Curtiss aviators, it was Beachey who came closest in his flying style to that of another former trick bicycle-rider, the ill-fated Ralph Johnstone.

While Eugene Ely was grinding out performances in Montana, advertisements erroneously included him among the aviators scheduled to appear at a “Great Aviation Meet” to be held at the Fort Erie Race Track in Buffalo from June 20-22. That exhibition, when it took place, was notable mostly for Beachey’s willingness to fly his headless pusher in winds estimated at 40-45 mph gusts. He then upstaged himself by announcing his intention of flying over Niagara Falls, down into the gorge, past the whirlpool, and below the suspension bridge downriver. If Curtiss had been previously apprehensive about Beachey’s flying, this news must have prostrated him.

Promoters were constantly ballyhooing the sensational as a means of driving up ticket sales. This time was different; the occasion for Beachey’s promised flight was the second annual International Carnival at Niagara Falls, which marked the formal opening of the summer season and was filled with legitimately sensational attractions. Other anticipated performers were Robert Leach, who expected to shoot the whirlpool rapids in a steel barrel, and the Great Houdin (not to be confused with Harry Houdini), who proposed to slide across the gorge on a tight-wire while holding on by his teeth alone. Some three hundred thousand spectators were said to be heading to Buffalo for the carnival.

How much money Beachey was promised for attempting the Niagara Falls stunt is unclear—obviously it was not an engagement of which Curtiss approved—nor is there a way to discern the extent to which Beachey was motivated by the search for “new thrills in aviation.” But he was certainly game to try. He electrified the crowd with the effort he made simply to get there, racing a storm from Fort Erie over the housetops of Buffalo, “barely two minutes ahead of the downpour and going like the wind.”

On June 27, an estimated 150,000 spectators watched Beachey rise from a baseball diamond on the Buffalo side of the river, roughly a mile north of the cataract, and cross over the American Falls. He circled around once and shot toward the rim of the Horseshoe (Canadian) Falls but pulled up abruptly. He then made two more circles, dropping to an estimated two hundred feet above the river. Suddenly he dove down over the falls and into the gorge.

Keeping barely above the turbulent surface of the river, Beachey flew through the mist—one report said he had to shut his eyes against the stinging—and under the span of the Upper Steel Arch Bridge, also known as the Honeymoon Bridge. He continued down along the river almost to the whirlpool rapids, “mounted again, and, shaving the wooded cliff, landed safely and unconcerned on the Canadian side.”


With that one spectacular flight, Beachey effectively ended the “exhibition” era. No longer were crowds content to watch a flying machine circle a track, just to see with their own eyes that man could really fly. As one editorial writer cogently explained:

With all due respect to Glenn Curtiss, the Wrights and other pioneers whose achievements will ever be remembered, the ordinary aeroplane flights such as they now give, even with the new hydroplane device, no longer satisfy the public. And this is no compliment to the public, either. Recent events are demonstrating that the people want thrillers and, in plain terms, this means an extreme risking of human life. The ordinary flights have become so common as no longer to attract crowds . . . .

Beachey promised to repeat his stunt on the following day, confident that he could fly even closer to the water. But conditions on June 28 proved too unstable, and he was thereupon said to vow never again to attempt to fly under the Honeymoon Bridge. Indeed, his successful flight on June 27 was the only time he tried it.

It hardly mattered. His Niagara Falls stunt far eclipsed the most sensational of his dirigible flights and, by July 1911, Lincoln Beachey was once again the talk of America.


Part I: Gas Bag Doings

Part III: Precipice

For much more on Beachey’s life and career, please visit historian Carroll Gray’s excellent Lincoln Beachey website.





The Stuntman, Part II: Headless

The Stuntman, Part I: Gas Bag Doings


June 14, 1906. Washington, D.C. Nineteen-year-old dirigible pilot Lincoln Beachey culminates a year of increasingly daring exhibitions by circling the Washington Monument, landing on the White House lawn in the hope of meeting President Roosevelt, and proceeding on past the U.S. Capitol building. “It is safe to say,” reports the Washington Evening Star, “that there was not a full hour’s work put in by any of the employe[e]s of the government or any of the other offices within view of the flight from 10 a.m. till after 12.”

Lincoln Beachey, the man popularly (if wrongly) thought to have had the most profound influence on Eugene Ely’s flying career, was born in San Francisco in March 1887. Around the turn of the century, he developed an interest in spherical gas balloons. By the time he was seventeen Beachey was winning motorcycle races in the Bay Area. At some point he and his older brother Hillery met Captain Tom Baldwin, who was attempting to build a dirigible airship; although there is no direct evidence of this, they were also likely acquainted with Baldwin’s collaborator, balloonist Bud Mars.

When Baldwin exhibited his first successful airship, California Arrow, at the St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Exposition in October 1904, he employed as his pilot Roy Knabenshue. After additional exhibitions at Los Angeles, Baldwin planned to fly a new airship, equipped with a more powerful Curtiss motor, at the Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland, Oregon. Before that could happen, a rift with Knabenshue led Baldwin to hire Lincoln Beachey as his new pilot. Beachey headed for Portland in 1905 with plenty of nerve but virtually no experience in motorized airships.

Knabenshue was known as a cautious dirigible operator. Beachey, in contrast, quickly gained fame as an aerial acrobat who could make an airship “do practically everything but turn somersaults.” He flew high and low over Portland. He landed on the roofs of office buildings. And he felt supremely comfortable in the sky. “Even when I first went up in a balloon,” he told a journalist, “I was not nervous. I really liked the sensation. Some people instinctively like certain things, and I guess that is the way it is with me and the airship. I don’t know what fear is when I am in the air.”

Following the Portland exhibition, Beachey left Baldwin and joined up with Knabenshue in Toledo, Ohio. Taking a cue from their former employer, the partners relied on Curtiss engines for their airships. If Beachey hadn’t previously met Glenn Curtiss in person through Baldwin, he certainly did so in partnership with Knabenshue.

Having established a truly national reputation with his dramatic flight over Washington in June 1906, Beachey went on to dazzle spectators in cities along the East Coast for the next two years. His flights were advertised as “the Utopian pinnacle of modern sensationalism.” He dropped paper “bombs” on the forts of New York Harbor to demonstrate the ease with which aerial attacks could be carried out. He won the $2,000 first-place prize ($50,000 in today’s dollars) at a dirigible race against, among others, Baldwin. He exhibited in Mexico for three solid months. While the Wright brothers steadfastly declined to fly their aeroplane in public, and heavier-than-air flight was widely believed to be impossible, Beachey helped to make 1907 “The Year of the Airships.”

Beachey swiftly became, without doubt, a world-famous pioneer in aerial navigation, but by mid-1909 he and Knabenshue could see that aeroplanes were the flying machines of the future. Because (a) they did not know how to build heavier-than-air flying machines, (b) the Wrights declined to hire them, and (c) Curtiss had not yet started giving exhibitions, Beachey and Knabenshue were stuck operating dirigibles.

To generate greater enthusiasm at exhbitions, they spent the rest of 1909 staging dirigible match races. At a November exhibition in Cincinnati, where Curtiss and Charles Willard had difficulty getting their aeroplanes to fly, Beachey, Knabenshue, and teenage dirigible operator Cromwell Dixon were the stars/ They “swept around the track, intersected it, swept over and above each other, and finally came back to earth, each time within a few feet of  the spot from which they had started.”

America’s first international aviation meet, held at Dominguez Field meet near Los Angeles in January 1910, marked the permanent transfer of public enthusiasm from lumbering dirigible airships to nimble aeroplanes. “Gas bag doings have become commonplace,” wrote one journalist at the meet. “The aeroplane is the real thriller.” Indeed, upon seeing the speed and the ease with which Curtiss flew at Dominguez Field, Beachey reportedly turned to his partner and said: “Roy, our racket’s dead.”

Within a few months the Wrights had hired Knabenshue to manage their aeroplane exhibition team. Beachey and his brother Hillery, for their part, started experimenting with monoplane aircraft construction. Despite his unparalleled status as a dirigible aeronaut, Beachey was an amateur aviator. He was present at the Wright team’s inaugural exhibition at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in June 1910, but he was not a member of the team; although he brought a skeletal monoplane of his own design, he was unable to get it reliably into the sky.


Within two weeks of the Indianapolis meet, perhaps hoping to learn by studying aeroplanes up close, Beachey secured a position as “chief assistant” to Charles Willard. In that capacity, he brought his primitive monoplane to the Curtiss team’s exhibition at Minneapolis in late June 1910. There is no record of his ever flying more than three feet high, however, apart from the curious report in one newspaper: “While it is not so successful in making curves, dips and other maneuvers as the Curtiss aeroplane, it has remarkable speed.” That conclusion appears to be nothing but puffery.

Beachey traveled with Willard to Kansas City as a mechanic but left him soon afterward to spend time with Curtiss. At an Atlantic City meet held over the Fourth of July weekend, Beachey rode as an ad hoc passenger; evidently without any safety restraint, he “stood on Curtiss’ seat behind the aviator and waved his hands to the cheering crowd.” He then left the team.

In October, while Ely was attempting to complete the first aeroplane flight from Chicago to New York, there is a suggestion that Beachey and his dirigible were the featured attraction at the Appalachian Exposition in Knoxville, Tennessee (this may have been a misidentification). He returned afterward to San Francisco, ostensibly for the winter. Indeed, at a November meet in Fresno that marked Mars’ final appearance for the Curtiss team, Beachey was specifically identified as a spectator rather than a participant.

But it seems he decided right around then to take another crack at the heavier-than-air “racket.” To do so he either bought, leased, or borrowed Whipple Hall’s old aeroplane and brought it to Los Angeles for the second Dominguez Field meet of 1910. On December 22, Beachey “made flights all afternoon to learn the intricacies of the Curtiss machine.” The press identified him and Hugh Robinson, the Curtiss mechanician and one-time aeroplane designer who was likewise learning to fly a biplane, as “replacements” for Mars on the Curtiss team.

Beachey continued teaching himself to fly during the final week in December 1910. Eventually he felt confident enough in his abilities to announce that he would take part in a scheduled “aviation derby”—multiple machines racing simultaneously, as opposed to serially against the clock. He was said to have made the fastest speed trials for that race, but ultimately he declined to compete against the professionals on December 27. Nor, on the following day, did he take part in the “air derby” for amateurs; before the race could even start, he crashed from a height of fifteen feet.

Beachey’s smashups at Dominguez Field eventually transformed into an apocryphal story regarding his first flights: supposedly he traveled to the Curtiss factory at Hammondsport, crashed twice, disgusted Curtiss, and was saved only through the good graces of manager Jerome Fanciulli. But it’s clear that Curtiss, who had known Beachey for years and had even employed him as a mechanic for a time, first saw him attempt to fly an aeroplane at Minneapolis in June 1910. When Beachey flew as an amateur six months later in California and crashed, moreover, Fanciulli was on the East Coast.

Beachey improved sufficiently to gain prominence in mid-January 1911 as the first novice to negotiate the half-mile course at a San Francisco international aviation meet. He also reportedly made precision landings that were said to have “surprised the professionals who were present.” At the end of the month he headed for Cuba, where Fanciulli, despite misgivings by Curtiss, had arranged a major exhibition at which J.A.D. McCurdy was to appear. Fellow flyer Hugh Robinson recalled later that “Curtiss discovered that the [Havana] contract called for two aviators. Whether or not the second aviator could fly did not matter, so Curtiss laughingly decided to send Beachey.”

Beachey might have been sent as a joke, as Robinson claimed, but his part in the Havana exhibition verged on disaster. On January 29, 1911, having narrowly avoided smashing the Curtiss Hudson Flyer into an automobile in which sat the President of Cuba and his family, Beachey couldn’t avoid crashing into another auto parked a few yards away. Luckily, no one was seriously hurt. Still, after a full month of flying in public, Beachey was performing at a decidedly amateur level.

That was about to change.

Part II: Headless

Part III: Precipice

For much more on Beachey’s life and career, please visit historian Carroll Gray’s excellent Lincoln Beachey website.




The Stuntman, Part I: Gas Bag Doings

Eye in the Sky


frank-coffyn frank-coffyn-2

February 7, 1912. Manhattan. Frank Coffyn, former member of the Wright Exhibition Team, takes off from the ice-choked Hudson River in a hydroaeroplane and flies over New York Harbor. Coffyn’s passenger is Adrian C. Duff, “The Camera Kid,”a photographer for the American Press Association. Photos have been shot from aeroplanes before, but Duff takes the first aerial pictures of New York, including a shot of Castle Williams (above right), constructed as part of the defensive system for the inner harbor. After the flight, Duff opines that a man with a camera in an aeroplane “could take pictures of any fortification in the world, down to their finest details.” A New York World editorial optimistically calls the results of the flight “only a suggestion of what the aeroplane may do to make war farcical in its preparation and too deadly for indulgence in its actualities.”


Frank Trenholm Coffyn was born in South Carolina in 1878, the son of a banker. In March 1910 he was working in New York City, married and the father of two children, when he saw pioneer French aviator Louis Paulhan fly at the Jamaica race track on Long Island. Wilbur Wright was also present, having come with his lawyer to watch Paulhan, against whom the brothers had brought a patent infringement suit.

Coffyn does not appear to have had any mechanical or engineering background, but he was already “an ardent flying enthusiast.” His father knew Andrew Freedman, one of the directors of the Wright Company; through Freedman, Coffyn met Wilbur Wright shortly after the Paulhan flight, begged for a job in the brothers’ company, and managed to extract an invitation to visit them. Coffyn traveled to Dayton around April 1910 and was adjudged competent enough to begin flying lessons. He received one and a half hours of instruction from Orville Wright, followed by an hour of check flights with the brothers’ first student, Walter Brookins.

Roy Knabenshue, manager of the newly formed Wright Exhibition Team, had been working since early March on logistics for the team’s first public exhibition, to be held at Indianapolis in mid-June. The brothers themselves proposed to do no flying there, but Knabenshue had assembled a team of six aviators: Coffyn, Brookins, Arthur Welsh, Duval La Chappelle, Ralph Johnstone and Arch Hoxsey. On the eve of the meet the aviators were presented with two-year contracts, under which they would be paid $50 for every day they flew ($1,250 in current dollars), plus a $20 per week base salary and $6 per diem for expenses and transportation. The contract prohibited team members from flying on Sundays or taking passengers not approved by the Wrights. If they quit before the term of the contract, they agreed not to fly professionally for a year. All six signed the contracts.

In advance of the Indianapolis meet, the assembled Wright aviators spent two days conducting private trial flights that were closed even to the press. The public performances that followed were carefully scripted, safe, and uneventful. During Coffyn’s first solo flight he was bitten near the eye by a spider that had crawled unnoticed into his flight goggles while they hung in the shed. He landed safely.

Although Brookins, Johnstone and Hoxsey would soon be known more for corkscrews and other aerial stunts than for the placidity of their flying, Coffyn never developed a similar reputation. He appeared at meets in Atlantic City and Toronto over the summer of 1910 without drawing any particular attention and survived three crashes that he attributed to “structural failure,” one of which resulted in his swimming from the wreck.

Beginning in January 1911, Coffyn was in Augusta, Georgia, operating the Wrights’ aviation training school, which was reputed to draw millionaire students. While in Georgia, he set a new nighttime altitude record (800 feet) and experimented with cross-country passenger flights.

Concerns about the Mexican Revolution caused the U.S. Army to form a Provisional Aero Squadron in March 1911 and station it in San Antonio. The only aeroplane the Government owned at the time was an obsolete 1909 Wright Flyer, so millionaire Robert Collier loaned his machine to the Army until a new Wright Model B could be shipped to San Antonio. On April 19, Coffyn came to Fort Sam Houston to demonstrate the new Wright machine. Eugene Ely arrived at the same time to fly the new Curtiss “War Machine.”

Before formal acceptance tests began on April 24, Ely and Coffyn made trial flights. Ely twice took Lt. George Kelly as a passenger, while Coffyn gave a ride to Lt. Benny Foulois, the sole army aviator designated for training in the Wright machine. Coffyn stayed aloft with Foulois for ninety minutes in a steady rain, proving it was possible to do so. During a military parade held to celebrate the San Antonio Spring Carnival, Coffyn (again with Foulois as passenger) and Ely flew before the military reviewing stand and a large crowd of civilians.

Captain Paul Beck and his board of student military aviators devised a practical test: the Southern Pacific Railroad would be “theoretically blown up” somewhere between San Antonio and Galveston, and the aviators would have to find the point of destruction. While Ely and Coffyn waited to make the test, they took each other as passengers into the clouds in order “[t]o show there is such thing as c[ama]raderie of the air.” The railroad test never came off, but the Army soon accepted both aircraft.

In September 1911 the Wrights “loaned” Coffyn to a pair of wealthy Detroit brothers who wanted to learn to fly. Because they lived on the shore of Lake St. Clair, Coffyn added aluminum pontoons to his Wright B, possibly the first of their kind in the world. Coffyn had grown quite comfortable with the hydroaeroplane by the end of 1911, when the Wrights disbanded the exhibition team. He returned to New York and went into business for himself, securing a contract with leading motion picture company Vitagraph Company of America to provide aerial footage of the city.

The Camera Kid, Adrian Duff, had never previously ridden in an aeroplane, so Coffyn’s flight with him over the harbor was in the nature of a test run. On February 13 they flew again, this time with Duff operating a hand-cranked motion picture camera, but his hands were so cold that he found it difficult to film. (The low-resolution footage can be seen here.) Coffyn subsequently invented a chain drive to operate the camera, dispensing with the need for a cameraman/passenger. He ultimately produced a thousand feet of film for Vitagraph.

On the same February day that George Beatty caused a sensation by landing in Central Park, Coffyn made a lasting impression of his own by flying his machine under the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. The publicity from his various flights produced $50,000 worth of additional contracts, but an automobile accident in Central Park kept him from flying for nine months.

Coffyn appeared with his aeroplane in an early silent film drama in which ex-President Taft made a cameo. He also served as test pilot and chief instructor for the Burgess Airplane Company before returning to South Carolina, where he ran the Wright Flying School. Among his pupils was Norman Prince, who later organized the Lafayette Escadrille, a squadron of American pilots who flew combat missions for France from 1916-18. After the United States entered the World War, Coffyn was commissioned a captain in the Air Service and was responsible for flight instruction at Waco, Texas, and on Long Island. Just before he was to be promoted to Major and sent overseas with five squadrons, the war ended.

Coffyn resumed his film acting career until the Great Depression. He served as well as a freelance pilot or “aviation consultant,” a term he despised. He wrote articles urging the establishment of more flying schools, because “60 percent of what constitutes good and safe flying lies in the human element.”

With the advent of World War II, Coffyn registered for the draft at the age of 63. He sold aircraft and worked for a company that produced flight instruments. He obtained a helicopter license at age 66, the third person so licensed by the C.A.A.. Even well into his seventies, he continued to lecture on aviation history. Coffyn was an 82-year-old “semi-retired” consultant for the Hiller Helicopter Company when he died in in 1960 in Palo Alto, California, the last survivor of the Wright exhibition flyers who had flown half a century earlier.


Eye in the Sky

The War Machine


January 19, 1910. Dominguez Field, California. At the first international aviation meet held in the United States, Lieutenant Paul Beck of the U.S. Army Signal Corps rides as a passenger with French aviator Louis Paulhan. From a height of some three hundred feet, Beck uses a primitive bombsight of his own design to drop sandbag “bombs” toward a measured piece of ground standing in for a ship. “None of the bombs struck the desired spot,” a reporter will record, “but they landed close enough to prove that a ship could be struck in such a manner, if the aeroplane were not first destroyed by gun fire.” Paulhan, who has recently set the world altitude record of more than four thousand feet, is quick to claim that, with a powerful enough motor, he could rise to ten thousand feet while carrying several hundred pounds of dynamite. “What [ship’s] gunner,” Paulhan asks, “could hit such a small speck in the sky as my machine would appear?”


Paul Ward Beck was born in 1876, the son of a career Army officer stationed at a frontier outpost in Texas. Beck was commissioned as an infantry lieutenant in 1899 and served in the Philippine-American War. In 1907, soon after he was detached from infantry duty and commissioned in the Signal Corps, that branch assumed responsibility for “all matters pertaining to military ballooning, air machines, and all kindred subjects.” The Signal Corps purchased the Army’s first aeroplane from the Wright brothers in 1909 but did essentially nothing with it.

Beck was assigned to attend the Dominguez Field meet, held south of Los Angeles, in part to have charge of the Army’s sole dirigible but also as an observer. At the time, the usefulness of aeroplanes for any military purpose beyond scouting was an open question. One officer of the Coast Artillery wanted to know whether it was possible to drop bombs into gun pits dug along the coast. There was also speculation that enemy ships anchored off the coast might be susceptible to aerial bombardment. The results of Beck’s mock bombing runs on January 19 were sufficiently encouraging that, over the summer of 1910, they gave rise to a number of similar experiments on the east coast.

In January 1911, San Francisco held an aviation meet, largely to prove the city’s suitability for hosting the Pan Pacific International Exhibition (PPIE), which would celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal. Beck, stationed nearby, was named secretary of the organizing committee; his specific role was to serve as a military liaison in formulating demonstrations calculated to catch the eye of Congress, which would be choosing the host city for the PPIE.

Glenn Curtiss, who hoped to sell flying machines to the military, offered to provide free flying instruction to one or two officers each from the Army and the Navy. On January 19, exactly a year after Beck’s bombing experiment at Dominguez, the Army selected two officers from the thirty-five who had applied. One of the two was Beck, and the other was Lt. John Walker, Beck’s assistant at the San Francisco meet (pictured above, demonstrating to Eugene Ely how feathering made bombs more accurate). Within a month Lt. George Kelly, who had ridden with Wright aviator Walter Brookins in a troop-scouting experiment at San Francisco, would also be assigned to the Curtiss flight school. According to one news report, the officers “were chosen for their mechanical skill and because immune to seasickness.” The three, along with Navy Lt. Theodore “Spuds” Ellyson, reported to Curtiss at San Diego and began their training.

By March 1911 the Mexican revolution was causing significant concern in the United States. As soon as the War Department (forerunner of today’s Department of Defense) took delivery of a new, powerful machine from Curtiss, the three student army aviators received orders to report to San Antonio, joining Lt. Benny Foulois, who was already there with the Signal Corps’ old Wright machine and was awaiting delivery of a new Wright military flyer. Beck was promoted to captain and, although he had not entirely learned to fly, was ordered to become the chief flight instructor at the Army’s newly created “Provisional Aero Company.” The three officers departing San Diego requested that Curtiss, as naval student aviator Ellyson snidely put it, send “an aviator and mechanicians to their aerodrome in order to set up the machine and keep an eye on the [army] aviators.”

The new Curtiss “War machine” first flew at Washington before being dispatched to San Antonio for acceptance tests. Beck suggested a two hundred-mile run, but Curtiss assured him that long cross-country flights were “unnecessarily arduous for aviator and machine,” and that the machine’s capabilities could “be proven without risk.” Privately, Curtiss expressed shock at the Army’s decision to relocate his students. He wrote to Jerome Fanciulli, his business manager:

San Antonio is one of the worst places in the country to fly. It is wicked to send inexperienced m[e]n there. Foulois has had three years. In a few weeks Beck will be pretty good, if he can practice here [in San Diego], but to go there now is the biggest mistake that could be made.

 Kelly and Walker are not cut out for aviators, although they may get along. . . . None of these men have made a turn yet or gotten more than 10 feet high. My policy in teaching men flying is first to take care of the[ir] machines themselves, so that they will be responsible for their own safety. I will not let anyone fly until they know enough about the machine to be responsible, and anyway it takes a good while to become a real aviator. I cannot understand it, ordering these men out there and expecting them to do real flying.

In April, consistent with Beck’s request, Curtiss sent Eugene Ely to conduct the acceptance tests in San Antonio, and to continue the officers’ instruction. But, two days into the acceptance tests, General Allen sent orders that the new Curtiss and Wright machines were to be accepted forthwith.

Ely turned his attention to instructing the three former San Diego pupils, none of whom had yet been certified as competent in a four-cylinder aeroplane, let alone the powerful eight-cylinder war machine. Beck, however, decided “that Ely was of little benefit to the officers, or, in fact, that any aviator sent there could be of much value to them.” It was an arrogant conclusion, soon to have fatal consequences.

Beck 2

Ely, Walker, Foulois, Kelly and Beck at San Antonio (April 1911)

Walker crashed on his first attempt to fly after Ely left San Antonio. With the damage repaired, Beck took a turn the following day. He was flying at about three hundred feet when the engine stopped. He landed safely but, according to Foulois, “ended up in a heap” in a wilderness of mesquite and cactus. The crash wrecked both wings of the War machine and damaged the front wheel. Beck, as Foulois remembered it, was knocked unconscious and came to his senses “walking around through the brush with the control wheel in his hands.”

On May 10, as soon as the War machine was repaired, Kelly attempted to solo. He crashed at the end of his short flight, was thrown free and broke his neck. He was the first officer to die at the controls of an aeroplane. (Kelly Field Annex, formerly Kelly AFB,in San Antonio is named for him.)

Frightened by the power of the War machine, General Allen was disinclined to order a replacement, and in fact he closed down the Provisional Aero Squadron. Fanciulli wrote to Curtiss: “Beck is very anxious to get leave and fly for us for a while, both for the experience and the money. . . . If he cannot fly for us, Beck wants to go to Hammondsport, or wherever you may be[, to take lessons].” He was unsuccessful in obtaining leave, but he did receive further instruction from Curtiss and was present at the Nassau Boulevard aviation meet where Earle Ovington made the first scheduled air mail delivery. On opening day of that meet, while riding as Ely’s passenger, Beck tried in vain to spot a squad of soldiers hiding somewhere within three miles of the aviation field. The Army ultimately accepted a less powerful Curtiss “War machine.”

When the Army’s aviation school moved to Georgia for the winter of 1911-12, Beck went with it and learned to fly a Wright. He experienced two serious accidents, but in July 1912 he became the fourth army pilot to be rated a Military Aviator, earning an Expert certification from the Aero Club of America. He contributed a chapter on potential military uses of the aeroplane to The Curtiss Aviation Book, which Curtiss published in 1912.

During all his time with Curtiss, Beck had been detached from the infantry to the Signal Corps. In 1912 he was ordered back to the infantry under the so-called Manchu Law, which decreed that no officer below the level of major could be detached from his regular duty for more than four years. In a possibly related development, Beck publicly urged creation of an “air arm” as a separate branch of the Army, independent of the Signal Corps and reporting directly to the Chief of Staff, in what would be the first step toward creation of a U.S. Air Force. Beck lobbied Congress and succeeded in having legislation introduced to create a semi-autonomous air force with himself at the head. The version of the bill that became law, however, kept aviation within the Signal Corps and did not include Beck.

By the time America entered World War I, Beck was serving as an infantry major with a temporary promotion to colonel. Before his unit could be transported to Europe, he was ordered to duty as military attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Cuba. He served in that capacity until 1920.

Under the National Defense Act of 1920, the Air Service became a separate combatant arm of the line. Beck was promoted to lieutenant colonel on the effective date of the Act and was transferred into the Air Service. Because his flying for the Army had ended eight years earlier, he had to requalify as an Airplane Pilot, which he did in March 1921. He was ordered to Henry Post Field at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Three months later he became Commandant of an Air Service Observation School established there. In connection with his new duty, Beck suggested that every city in the state establish a “safe landing field for airplanes.”

When Beck’s wife died soon after they arrived in Oklahoma, he lived with his aging mother in quarters at Fort Sill and became active in Oklahoma City society. On April 3, 1922, he flew himself ninety miles to have dinner and stay the night with friends of his, retired Oklahoma Supreme Court justice Jean E. Day and his wife, Audrey. In the early morning hours, after a night of socializing, Judge Day supposedly saw his wife and Beck embracing, went upstairs and retrieved a pistol, and killed Beck with a single shot to the back of the head. Beck was 45.

Although the coroner’s jury found that Judge Day had acted in self-defense because Beck tried to assault him (he claimed that he struck Beck on the head with the pistol and that it discharged accidentally), a board comprising three of Beck’s fellow officers from Post Field attended the inquest. They were able to relate, in a formal report to the Secretary of War, that the testimony established that Beck had been sober on the night of his death, whereas Day was intoxicated. The Army concluded that Beck had been killed in the line of duty, and “not due to his own willful misconduct.” Paul Beck was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The service included a flyover by aircraft of the new Air Service.

No formal biography of Beck has been published, but Dwight R. Messimer, former lecturer in military history at San Jose State University, is an authority, and Beck’s military career (and the circumstances of his death) are detailed in an excellent Wikipedia entry.


The War Machine

Air Mail


September 23, 1911. Garden City Estates, Long Island. Under the authority of U.S. Postmaster General Frank H. Hitchcock, a canvas tent is erected on the grounds of the Nassau Boulevard International Aviation Meet, officially “Aeroplane Station No. 1” of the U.S. Post Office. Fifteen pounds of posted letters and cards are put into a sack that is handed to independent aviator Earle Ovington, sworn by Hitchcock “to defend the mails” as the country’s first Aeroplane Mail Carrier. On several previous occasions, individual notes and letters have been carried by aviators, but today Ovington completes the country’s first scheduled air mail delivery. He flies three miles across Long Island, balancing the sack on his knees before dropping it to the ground, where it bursts open. The postmaster of Mineola, New York, collects the scattered mail and brings it to his post office for processing. One of the air mail letters is addressed to Ovington himself. It provides his written authorization to make the delivery.


Earle Lewis Ovington, born in 1879 in Chicago, showed a keen interest in electricity as a young boy. He was sixteen when his father, a dealer in china and bronze, died. Ovington left school and moved to New York, where he took a job as an engineering assistant to Thomas Edison. An inveterate tinkerer and inventor, he received a number of patents, most notably co-inventing a high-frequency coil based on the ideas of Nikola Tesla.

Wanting to complete his formal education, Ovington enrolled at Boston Tech (now MIT) at the age of twenty, competing on the track team as he pursued his engineering degree. He graduated in 1904 and formed a company that made medical devices, including x-ray machines. Later he formed the Ovington Motor Company, manufacturing engines for motorcycles. He was a founding member of the Federation of American Motorcyclists and became its president. In that capacity, he befriended Glenn Curtiss, a motorcycle engine manufacturer who would become interested in flight in 1907.

Ovington was self-employed as an electrical engineering consultant when he attended the Belmont International Aviation Tournament in October 1910 as a special correspondent for the New York Times. Glenn Curtiss was there, along with his exhibition team (including Eugene Ely), but the fastest flying machines at the competition were French-made Blériot monoplanes. Because no American flight schools existed, Ovington traveled to France in January 1911 and learned to fly at the Blériot school in Pau. Every morning he would sit in bed for fifteen minutes to practice, imagining that he was flying and teaching himself to recover from unexpected setbacks. He went aloft for the first time on January 20, by accident, and earned his brevet (license) after just eight lessons.

Ovington, like Hugh Robinson and Matilde Moisant, considered thirteen a lucky number. His Pau hotel room happened to be No. 13, as was the slip of paper on which he first registered for the Blériot school. He always flew with a good luck charm, a gendarme doll nicknamed “Treize” (thirteen), that dangled from the fuselage of Ovington’s machine.

Ovington 2

Ovington returned to the United States in early April 1911 with a 70-hp Blériot. He proposed to give exhibitions, including a flight up Broadway. At the end of the month he made a successful sixty-mile flight over Long Island and somewhat impulsively married Adelaide Alexander, an American student in Paris whom he had met on the voyage from France. Children who attended one of his exhibitions called his Blériot a “dragonfly.” Ovington liked the name so much that he had it painted beneath the wings.

In July, Ovington proposed to sell Curtiss biplanes and to operate the new Curtiss Aviation School on Long Island, although he himself was only just learning to fly biplanes. He found the Curtiss control system “instinctive” and announced that he would fly a Curtiss machine at an international meet to be held in Chicago in August: “I feel as at home in it, or more so, than in my Blériot.” Ovington believed himself to be the only aviator in America to fly both the monoplane and the biplane. He crashed his new Curtiss in Chicago, however, and thereafter stuck to monoplanes.

During the following month, the marquee event of the 1911 Harvard-Boston meet was a 160-mile, three-state, diamond-shaped cross-country race with designated checkpoints: Boston-Nashua (NH)-Worcester (MA)-Providence (RI)-Boston. Four aviators started. Two finished. Ovington won the race in his Blériot.

The final international meet of 1911 was held September 23-30 at Nassau Boulevard Field on Long Island, which Ovington had made his headquarters for most of the summer. Eugene Ely was assigned aircraft identifier No. 13 in the printed  program, but Ovington already bore that number, on his Blériot and on an American-made Blériot replica “Queen” monoplane he had purchased. Back at Blériot’s flight school, Ovington had painted the number on his new monoplane before its maiden flight, had used the number for Chicago and Harvard-Boston, and wanted to keep it for Nassau Boulevard. Ely had flown with No. 4 for the previous month, so he painted a “1” in front of the “4,” creating a “No. 14” that wasn’t listed in the program. Spectators were confused, and a baseless story circulated that Ely had refused to accept No. 13 out of superstition.

The Nassau Boulevard meet was billed as a “regular event” designed “to test the advantages of the aeroplane from a business standpoint”—notably, the delivery of mail and newspapers. The imaginative Ovington “looked ahead several years and could see aerial mail routes established all over the country.” He volunteered to make the pioneering flight.

Postmaster General Hitchcock supported the test, and there was excited talk of imminent Congressional appropriation for a regular “aero post” between New York and Philadelphia. During the Nassau Boulevard meet, Ovington made daily deliveries of mail sacks weighing up to seventy-five pounds. Although the sacks invariably burst when they hit the ground, he didn’t dare try to land with such a load balanced in his lap.

On the strength of his successful air mail deliveries, Ovington planned to fly from New York to Los Angeles via Chicago, attempting to win the $50,000 Hearst prize while carrying U.S. mail. Because he wouldn’t be able to get enough spare parts from France for his Blériot, he planned to fly the similarly constructed Queen monoplane.

During the Nassau Boulevard meet, Charles Clarke Bunting, a trick bicycle rider who performed as “Dr. Charles B. Clarke,” made an unauthorized ascent in the spare No. 13 machine while Ovington was off on a mail delivery. The woefully unqualified Bunting crashed shortly after takeoff and died of his injuries. Ovington returned minutes later to discover that nearly everyone present thought he had been killed at the controls of the crashed machine. (A few spectators, confused by the numbering in the printed program, believed it had been Ely.)

In October, Ovington turned his attention to the cross-country flight. No dedicated airports existed anywhere in the United States, so he planned simply to fly each day until his fuel ran out, and then to descend wherever he happened to be. His wife “was to follow Ovie’s airplane in our special train, with the manager, five mechanics, a moving-picture man, a post-card photographer, and several reporters.”

Ovington and the mechanics spent day after day preparing for the flight, making minute adjustments. The controls of the Queen didn’t respond properly, however, and Ovington never made it off Long Island. At his wife’s request, he gave up exhibition flying entirely around the end of 1912, following the birth of his first child.

After World War I ended, Ovington managed a “flying station” at Atlantic City, giving rides to paying passengers. As of 1920, according to his wife, he was the only American aviator still flying who had flown back in 1911; all the others were dead or retired. Ovington served as the second president of the Early Birds of Aviation, an association of those who first flew prior to the war.

Ovington moved to Santa Barbara and worked as an engineer, then a real estate developer. To mark the twentieth anniversary of his pioneering air mail flight, he took the controls of a tri-motor Fokker monoplane and flew a cargo of mail from Los Angeles to Tucson, Arizona. One of his passengers was former Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock, who had become a newspaper publisher in Tucson.

Earle Ovington died in 1936, following an “emergency operation,” at the age of 56. He was an avid stamp collector who devoted much time to autographing cachets memorializing his Nassau Boulevard flight. Regrettably, no stamp has ever been issued to honor the man who made the country’s very first air mail delivery.

The definitive biography of Ovington is Robert D. Campbell’s Reminiscences of a Birdman. Adelaide Ovington’s memoir,  An Aviator’s Wife, was published in 1920 and can be viewed in its entirety online. The photograph of Postmaster General Hitchcock handing Ovington a sack of mail (above) is generally believed to have been taken some time after the pioneering flight.

Air Mail

In the Pilot’s Seat


April 20, 1912. Hempstead, Long Island. Seeking to prove the potential of the aeroplane for commercial transportation, George Beatty sets a new American passenger-carrying record when he flies himself and five grown men for four miles in his Wright Flyer. One passenger sits beside Beatty and holds another in his lap; the other three lie prone on the wings. The combined weight of the six is 845 pounds. Even with the tremendous extra weight, Beatty flies at 35 mph.


George William Beatty was born in 1887 in Stevensburg, New Jersey. After graduating from high school, he moved to New York City, went into the printing business, and eventually won a job as a linotype (typesetting) operator. He also joined a gliding club and assisted in an unsuccessful attempt to build an aeroplane based on the design of European aviation pioneer Alberto Santos Dumont.

Beatty attended various flying exhibitions in the New York area during 1910 and resolved to learn to fly. In the summer of 1911 he enrolled in the Wright Flying School at Nassau Boulevard, Long Island, where his instructor was Al Welsh. Beatty’s progress was truly meteoric: his first lesson was on June 24, his first solo flight took place on July 23, and on August 5 he flew to over 3000 feet with a passenger, establishing an American two-man altitude record. The next day, he passed the test for his professional license and celebrated by flying his fiancée twelve miles to a dinner date.

At the end of that same week, Beatty set off for an international aviation meet in Chicago, where he won several prizes for carrying one and two passengers. He was the first aviator to set a new world record at the Chicago meet, when he stayed aloft with a passenger for nearly 3½ hours. He also flew a news photographer up to take the first aerial pictures of the city; a caption in the newspaper the next morning instructed readers how to position the photos before them in order to see “how Chicago looks to the aviators when they are several hundred feet in the air.”

It was in Chicago that Beatty met Eugene Ely and Bud Mars. Two weeks later, he gave Ely a ride at the Harvard-Boston meet (pictured above). Ely’s Curtiss machine was insufficiently powerful to allow for passenger rides, and it’s a measure of how cautiously Beatty operated that Mars and Ely were willing to entrust their respective wives to his care at a meet later in September. Mabel Ely and Marie Mars rode together as passengers on Beatty’s Wright Flyer at Brighton Beach, and afterward “the two women pronounced [it] the most delightful excursion ever experienced.”

Beatty met with indifferent success in aviation meets held later during the fall of 1911, failing to complete distance flights or quick starts. But his success at carrying passengers led him to open a flying school on Long Island. Possessed of a keen sense of showmanship, he served as his own best advertising. In February 1912 he landed his Wright Flyer, unannounced, in New York’s Central Park.

Beatty continued to set passenger-carrying records. In March he took up a man and three boys at once; the following month he crammed the five adult riders onto his machine. His most famous passenger was Cornelius Vanderbilt III.

Cited once for driving an automobile at an unlawful 38 mph, Beatty flew himself to the courthouse to pay the fine. The next time it happened, he tried to excuse himself by claiming that he routinely flew at 60 mph and therefore was a poor judge of speeds on the ground. On one occasion he flew above the moving train of a newlywed friend and fellow aviator, pelting the train with rice.

Shortly after Beatty was hired to star in a Pathé short film, “An Aeroplane Love Affair,” he pleaded guilty to third-degree assault in a domestic altercation that had started when his newlywed British wife found “endearments” penned by other women in his pockets. In a case of life imitating art, the couple reportedly patched up their differences a few days later when he took her aloft.

In mid-1912, following the death of Beatty’s former instructor, Al Welsh, he traveled to College Park, Maryland, to complete the army’s acceptance tests of a new Wright machine. He then sailed to London and flew in Europe, returning in order to appear at the Smithsonian’s “Langley Day” celebration in May 1913. But when a former wife turned up and brought suit against him for desertion, Beatty (who claimed they were legally divorced) went back to England and set up a flying school at Hendon. He reportedly trained a thousand pilots for various branches of the British military during World War I. His British wife left him after three years of marriage.

Just seven years after obtaining his license, Beatty was done with flying. He moved to Paris after the war ended and went into business manufacturing motorcycle engines. When he visited America in 1921, his first wife resurfaced and had yet another a warrant sworn out against him. Once more he fled to Europe.

With the collapse of the world economy in 1929, Beatty returned to the United States but couldn’t find steady employment for nearly five years. In 1934 he returned to his original vocation when he was hired by a printing company in Pennsylvania. He eventually worked his way up in the company to mechanical superintendent.

A member of the Early Birds of Aviation, Beatty was invited to a convention held in 1948 to honor Orville Wright. He remained in the employ of the printing company until his sudden death in 1955 at the age of 67.

In the Pilot’s Seat



June 30, 1911. Boston. As he himself will soon tell the story, Harry Atwood, an aviator with but a few weeks’ experience, wakes up one morning and decides he wants to see the Harvard-Yale crew race in New London, Connecticut. No seats are available on the special observation train that is the only practical way to watch the race, so in less than three hours Atwood flies himself and a mechanic more than a hundred miles to New London, establishing a new passenger-carrying distance record. The next day, again evidently on the spur of the moment, Atwood continues onward and completes the first flight between Boston and New York. Buoyed by his success, he presses on toward Washington. After ten days of mishaps he lands on the White House lawn and is greeted by President Taft.

Harry Nelson Atwood was born in 1883 in Boston. He attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but never graduated. Like Augustus Herring, he was unable to convince the faculty of his school that flying machines had any practical application, or that a sane person would spend time on the problem of powered flight.

When he was twenty-two and employed as an electrical engineer, Atwood married a bank clerk nine years his senior. At a time when he worked operating an automotive garage, with a young daughter and a failing marriage, he was granted two patents associated with an electric meter. In 1911 he assigned the patents to General Electric and took the proceeds to Dayton, Ohio, where he enrolled in a course of flying lessons from the Wright brothers.

Fellow students, including two Army officers and Cal Rodgers, enjoyed playing pranks on the eager and supremely confident Atwood, such as insisting that each student had to paint his own landing stripe on the field to practice flying in a straight line. Atwood, a quick study, graduated within two weeks.

He returned to Boston at the end of May 1911 and took a job as chief instructor at a flying school recently opened by W. Starling Burgess, a Massachusetts yacht designer who had survived a brief business partnership with Herring in late 1909 and learned to fly a Wright machine over the winter of 1910-1911. Burgess, building biplanes under license from the Wright brothers, was the first licensed airplane manufacturer in the United States. Every time Atwood appeared in the sky, Burgess registered a marketing success.

Atwood’s chief role as “instructor” was to give passenger rides, including several that he provided to Charles K. Hamilton, the former Curtiss and Moisant team member who had purchased the first Burgess Model F machine and was trying to master its Wright-style control system. On June 19, Atwood took six news reporters serially from Boston to Concord, New Hampshire. Ten days later he began his impromptu trip from Boston to Washington.

The idea of multi-day point-to-point air travel had fascinated the public ever since the summer of 1910, when two newspapers sponsored a Chicago-to-New York race in which the first aviator to complete the trip within a week would win $25,000. Ultimately, Eugene Ely was the only contestant to start; mechanical issues plagued him, however, and he abandoned the attempt after covering barely twenty miles.

Although Walter Brookins and Arch Hoxsey were making one-day cross-country flights at roughly the same time (from Chicago to Springfield and Springfield to St. Louis, respectively), the Wrights refused to go after the prizes dangled for truly long-distance flights. “The man w[ho] tries the flight which Eugene Ely has just abandoned,” predicted their manager, Roy Knabenshue, “will lose money.”

Wright-style aeroplanes therefore had no history of multi-day distance flights when Atwood set out from Boston to New York and Washington. Motivated by a new $10,000 prize, he then proposed to travel from St. Louis via Chicago to New York in August 1911. Just where he obtained the funds to purchase his machine (if he did) is a mystery; it’s possible Burgess offered him a substantial discount in return for the publicity.

Atwood succeeded in reaching New York for the second time. He took eleven days to cover 1265 air miles, a mark rightly hailed at the time as “the greatest cross-country flight in the history of aviation.” (Three weeks later, Cal Rodgers and his Vin Fiz Flyer began the transcontinental journey that would shatter Atwood’s record.) In fulfillment of Knabenshue’s prophecy, however, Atwood revealed that the $10,000 prize barely covered his expenses. He was quoted as saying he thereafter planned to go into “the business end of flying.”

Atwood announced that he intended to cross the Atlantic in April 1912, tracing the route customarily used by ocean liners. Not until 1913 would the London Daily Mail offer a £10,000 prize for the crossing, but Atwood already understood that, so long as he remained in the public eye, investors would back his ventures. Figuring he could reach England in under thirty hours while subsisting on “condensed food tablets,” he converted his Wright-Burgess to a hydroplane and began to make practice flights over water. After suffering numerous crashes, he postponed his transatlantic flight to the summer while he sought to persuade the Secretary of the Navy to provide him with a cruiser or torpedo boat escort.

To fund his venture, Atwood formed the General Aviation Corporation, bought a racetrack near Boston and converted it to an airfield he named after himself, and proposed to give flight instruction. He flew from Atwood Field to make the first air mail delivery in New England, but he never liked the job of teaching. After a dispute with his business partner and fellow instructor, he quit the enterprise a few months later.

In June 1913, spurred on by the Daily Mail prize, Atwood spoke of having flown two hundred miles over Lake Erie. He had run out of gasoline, effected a water landing, and had to be rescued. He subsequently made other unsuccessful attempts to cross the lake. Even if he had succeeded, it wouldn’t have mattered. Orville Wright was quoted as saying that, unless an aviator proposed to carry literally a ton of gasoline (a weight that no airplane of the time could lift), it would be necessary to make a refueling stop. It’s unclear how Atwood proposed to solve that problem on the open ocean.

Atwood, who experimented with wood veneer as an aviation construction material, next had a brief and unhappy association with the du Pont family, during which he ran an aviation school for them that he seems to have used mostly to generate funds for his overwater flight. He had yet to work out a viable crossing plan when World War I rendered his proposed flight impossible as a practical matter, since he would be flying to a combatant country.

During and after the war Atwood gave lectures on aviation. In 1919, two Britons claimed the Daily Mail prize when they made the first Atlantic flight. Atwood, undeterred, was said to be working on a “very big” plane for crossing the ocean. He failed to deliver on a contract to build a seaplane for the Navy and thereafter abandoned his work on overwater flights.

Atwood continued to experiment with various materials, patenting a successful wood-rubber combination that led him to incorporate Rubwood, a company that manufactured automobile tires and other products. Rubwood had a promising future, but Atwood’s appalling business sense drove it into bankruptcy.

During the Great Depression, Atwood began experimenting with thermoplastics. In the mid-1930s he claimed to have designed a four-passenger “flivver” airplane, which he foresaw as “the automobile of the skyways.” Although no such machine ever came into existence, he did invent Duply, a kind of plastic (otherwise described as pressed “paperized wood”), named in a nod to the contributions of the du Pont family.

Atwood went on to build a working monoplane that was supposedly capable of flying 120 mph. During World War II he designed a remote-controlled anti-aircraft missile, which he named “the Weasel.” The Canadian government reportedly contracted with him to build a sample of his all-plastic airplane. But nothing ever came of any of those inventions.

A veteran reporter who had known him for years, alluding at the time to Atwood’s many eccentricities, said: “He had more ideas to make millions than the average person could dream up in that number of years.” But Atwood was a man destined never to realize his dreams. Constantly tinkering, he reinforced his home with concrete and heated it with steam, causing the wallpaper to peel. In 1953 he was jailed “in some unpleasantness over an automobile.” He died in 1967 at the age of 83, having never once flown across the Atlantic, not even as a passenger.

The sole published biography of Atwood is Skylark: The Life, Lies and Inventions of Harry Atwood, by Howard Mansfield. My thanks to John Sippel at the University of Massachusetts for assistance with this post.



Lucky Bob

St Henry

June 9, 1911. Fargo, North Dakota. With every bank and store in town closed for the occasion, Robert C. “Lucky Bob” St. Henry soars over Fargo in Sweetheart, his Curtiss biplane. It isn’t the first aeroplane flight in North Dakota—nearly a year earlier, Arch Hoxsey appeared in the skies above Grand Forks—nor does the exhibition have a wider significance than that the aviator hails from North Dakota. What is remarkable is that “Lucky Bob” St. Henry, a man who has been flying for less than four months, does not really exist.


Castle W. Shaffer was born in Nebraska in 1882, the son of a carpenter. Following his high school graduation, he served a machinist apprenticeship with the Union Pacific Railroad.  Shaffer met and married Ellen Kerr in Colorado in 1901, when they were 19. Two years later she sued for divorce, claiming desertion.

It turned out that Shaffer had moved to Detroit, where he joined the Buick Motor Company under the assumed name Robert C. St. Henry, with a claimed birthplace of Texas. In the course of demonstrating Buick’s “horseless carriage” throughout the country in 1903, Shaffer married nineteen year-old May Padbury in Ontario, Canada (just across the river from Detroit). They had a son in 1904, but soon afterward St. Henry left them, supposedly returning to Nebraska.

St. Henry’s movements and employment over the years that followed are something of a mystery. By 1909 he was operating an automobile garage in Carrington, North Dakota, where the local newspaper described him as a “doughty little redheaded mechanic, . . . wiry and a daredevil to the core.” He left North Dakota, turning up more than a year later in San Diego, where he paid a thousand dollars to take flying lessons from Glenn Curtiss. Just where he came up with that money, equivalent to roughly $25,000 today, is unclear—as is the basis for his interest in aviation.

St. Henry was one of the first two civilian students accepted by Curtiss; the other was Charles C. Witmer from Illinois. Tuition money could be applied against the purchase of a flying machine if the student proved adept, and within a month St. Henry was clearly good enough to go on the road. Curtiss wrote to his business manager:

We can sell him a 4-cylinder. The original plan was [for him] to give some exhibitions in Canadian towns [on his own] and pay us a royalty, but, as he is hardly proficient enough, and the aeroplane is not ready to deliver, he is [g]oing up [north] and book[ing] these towns, which he has already lined up, for [Hugh] Robinson to play, . . . or if Robinson goes to Dallas and south, Witmer can play them. This will leave Robinson in the Northwest for June engagements, which I understand [advance man] Moore has booked. We can then ship a machine to St. Henry and he can work in as a 2d man in these engagements.

St. Henry thus quickly became an established member of the Curtiss exhibition team, billed initially as a “Special Student of aeronautics under Glenn Curtiss, and the most daring and foolhardy aviator of them all.” Within a month, however, he was appearing as “Lucky Bob” St. Henry. Even though he hadn’t suffered any notable crashes, the name pithily suggested the riskiness of his flights.

Along with Witmer and Jimmie Ward, St. Henry traveled to Wichita for a Curtiss exhibition beginning May 4. The meet was to be headlined by Eugene Ely, whose January 1911 ship landing was being hailed as the greatest aviation feat ever accomplished. As it happened, St. Henry prudently declined to risk his new machine in the uncertain weather, but the more experienced Ely gave a performance that delighted the crowd.

During that Wichita meet, Curtiss advance man R.R. Young arranged for a two-man exhibition to take place in Butte, Montana, on June 11-13, at which the aviators were to be Ely and Hugh Robinson. The cautious  promoters of the Butte meet vowed that spectators would get “the worth of their money”:

It will be “no fly, no pay” with the Butte men. And more than that, the aviators are compelled, according to the agreement, to remain in Butte until they make the number of flights named in the contract in a satisfactory manner.

Those “Butte men” insisted on having at least two aviators present, as the contract specified. Unfortunately, by the time Ely headed for Montana, compliance was out of the question. Robinson was stuck on the east coast with Witmer, Charles Willard and J.A.D. McCurdy had quit the Curtiss team, and St. Henry was booked for a tour of central Canada and North Dakota.

Curtiss knew about the “no fly, no pay” provision in Butte. Of his four aviators other than Ely, the only realistic possibility was St. Henry, who just might be able to get to Butte in time. But that would mean missing his dates in North Dakota—where the promoters, like those in Butte, had an “ironclad contract with the Curtiss company.” In early June Curtiss, Ely and St. Henry exchanged a flurry of telegrams as they tried to figure out what to do. “While you were away” on the west coast, Curtiss wrote to his business manager, Fanciulli, “I got mixed up in the Butte affair.”

St. Henry first wired it would cost $150.00 to get a special train [to Montana]. He later found out it would cost $800, which makes it practically prohibitive for him to go to Butte. I wired Ely repeatedly to re-arrange the contract for one man. He could do it if he [wanted to], I am satisfied. . . . I don’t know what will happen, but we might as well have a law-suit in Butte as in Dakota, and from what I know I think St. Henry should stick to his dates.

To be fair, it’s not clear that Ely would have had the success predicted by Curtiss. Two days before the meet was to begin, Butte newspapers were reporting the fiction that “Robbins” had wired from Denver that he would be coming, while Charles Walsh (at the time, an independent aviator reported to fly a “Curtiss-Farman” biplane) had done the same from Portland. And soon enough the story changed again: Ely was heading a party of “three more aviators and a dozen mechanicians, hang[a]r attendants, watchmen, etc.” Ely was said to have expressly promised spiral glides, altitude flights, and an attempt to cross the Continental Divide. The suspicious Butte promoters nonetheless added motorcycle races and horse races as a hedge against the failure of the three aeroplanes they were expecting. Having arranged the “Most Auspicious Event Butte Has Had in Years,” they were disinclined to give an inch on the terms of the contract.

In any event, while St. Henry amazed the Fargo crowd, Ely was left on his own in Butte. The weather didn’t cooperate, and his exhibition was consequently a failure. At the end—unsurprisingly, in light of the promoters’ insistence on strict adherence to the terms of the contract—Ely “appeared to be willing to do almost anything to make reparation to the disappointed spectators.” Reports came in that St. Henry had sought to arrive in time to fly on the final day; when that proved impossible, “it was decided to call his engagement off.” Although Curtiss dodged the lawsuit he feared, the Butte promoters unilaterally withheld $1,000 of the amount due, because the “contract called for three machines and three [sic] aviators, and [Ely] came here by himself and brought but one machine.”

St. Henry never saw Ely again. Present when nineteen year-old Cromwell Dixon fell to his death in Spokane at the beginning of October 1911, St. Henry agreed to fill Dixon’s upcoming engagements for the Curtiss company. But when Ely himself died three weeks later, the man known as “Lucky Bob” canceled a planned world tour and announced that he was quitting aviation.

He must have reconsidered, because he flew again during the summer of 1912 before publicly leaving the business in 1913. He also claimed, much later, to have delivered Curtiss aeroplanes to the Chinese government, as well as to Russia, where he said he had taught several novice aviators.

St. Henry resumed using the name Castle W. Shaffer, remarried yet again, and settled in Nebraska. For half a year in 1915 he served with the rank of captain as chief aviation officer in the Nebraska National Guard. In connection with that position, he was expected to give exhibitions. Although he was an experienced aviator, his unaccountable inability to make any successful flights led to his dismissal. Later he would tell of instructing aviators in England during World War I. Whether he did so is unknown.

Using his real name, Shaffer became a member of the Early Birds of Aviation. Throughout the 1920s he was associated with an underwriting company and other businesses in Lincoln, Nebraska. During the Great Depression he moved across the state to the small town of Sidney, where the son of a carpenter opened a cabinet shop that he operated for the rest of his life. He died of a stroke in 1954, at the age of 72.

Lucky Bob

The British Invasion


October 29, 1910. Belmont Park, Long Island. After a week of strong winds makes flying nearly impossible, the weather finally cooperates for the international Gordon Bennett speed race, twenty laps of a five-kilometer course. A year earlier, Glenn Curtiss won the inaugural Gordon Bennett Cup in France with an average speed of 47 mph. But in 1910 no Curtiss machine is fast enough to compete, while the Wrights’ speedy Baby Grand crashes before officially starting the race. Englishman Claude Grahame-White, flying a French-made Blériot monoplane, dominates the contest by completing the 62-mile course at just over a mile per minute pace. America has lost not only the Cup, but also its reputation for aeronautical supremacy.

Claude Grahame-White was born in 1879 in the former shipbuilding town of Bursledon, in Hampshire, England. He became interested in automobiles in his teenage years and owned one of the first petrol-driven cars in England. In 1905 he opened an automobile showroom in the exclusive Mayfair area of London. Soon boasting a motorboat and a sailing yacht as well, he developed a reputation as an incorrigible ladies’ man.

In 1908 Grahame-White watched Wilbur Wright fly in France. One year later, he was a spectator at the first Gordon Bennett Cup race and decided to learn to fly. After ordering a monoplane from Louis Blériot, who had just narrowly lost the race to Glenn Curtiss, Grahame-White supposedly made his first flight without any formal instruction. He was the first Briton licensed in France, and he received the Royal Aero Club’s Certificate No. 6 in April 1910. Shortly afterward he competed in a 180-mile air race from London to Manchester, at one point flying at night in an effort to catch up with eventual winner Louis Paulhan.

Having given a series of exhibitions in England that earned him the equivalent of more than a million dollars in today’s money, Grahame-White sailed for America in August 1910 to try his luck at the substantial prizes being offered at aviation meets across the country. His presence, along with that of A.V. Roe, allowed the September Harvard-Boston Aero Meet to bill itself as “international.” His Blériot machine was late in arriving, so he borrowed a Farman biplane from millionaire amateur aviator Clifford B. Harmon. As one journalist described Grahame-White’s appearance at Harvard-Boston:

The hum of his motors reached across the field, coming out of the fog like a dream creature. Around came the humming. Then, like a phantom taking shape, the machine swooped into view, looming suddenly, like an apparition, out of the fog. So hard was it to tell where the plane would swoop into sight that it brought home forcibly the possibilities of the airship in war.

At that same aviation meet, Grahame-White won a mock bomb-throwing contest and flew his 100-hp Blériot to win a $10,000 prize for the fastest two-circuit over-water flight to Boston Lighthouse and back.

Along with Harmon and wealthy American socialite John Barry Ryan, Grahame-White immediately set out to demonstrate the military possibilities of the aeroplane. They first arranged an exhibition at Benning Racetrack, within the District of Columbia. The Washington Post had just offered Grahame-White a $10,000 prize ($250,000 today) if he broke the record for a long-distance flight (i.e., the 104 miles claimed by Arch Hoxsey. Grahame-White proposed to do so by flying round-trip between Washington and Baltimore. He and Harmon sent formal invitations to various high-ranking army and navy officers, offering them admission to attend Benning meet free of charge.

On October 14, completely unannounced, Grahame-White circled the Capitol dome and landed his Farman biplane on Executive Avenue, right between the White House and the State, War and Navy Building (see photo). The feat was hailed as “the most remarkable and daring landing ever made from such a height by an aviator.” The next day he canceled his planned attempt to break Hoxsey’s record; he cited minor damage to both of his machines, but it seems clear that Ryan, who was in the process of establishing the paramilitary “United States Aeronautical Reserve,” didn’t want to risk the sort of negative publicity Eugene Ely had garnered earlier that same week with an unsuccessful cross-country attempt from Chicago to New York.

Grahame-White’s surprise landing galvanized the American military. Newspapers ran banner headlines: “AERIAL FLEET AND PILOTS TO AID AMERICA IN WAR.”

A week ago in Washington it was rather a difficult matter to interest the man in the street in the aeroplane as an engine of war. Even though he were too polite to tell you so, it was easy to discern that he thought you were looking into the far distant future. To-day, however, the flights of Grahame-White and Clifford B. Harmon, especially when the huge biplane descended gracefully on Executive [A]venue, have demonstrated to all the vast [military] possibilities of the heavier-than-air machine.

Grahame-White was accorded the unofficial title “World’s Greatest Aviator.” Within six weeks, the dashing Englishman had swept America off its feet.

But, less than a fortnight later, as weather limited the flying at Belmont, the press cast about for other news. Americans began to read disapproving stories of Grahame-White’s very public attentions to sporty socialite Eleanora Sears, whom he had met and first taken for an aeroplane ride during the Harvard-Boston meet, at a time when he was supposedly engaged to actress Pauline Chase—and Miss Sears to Harold S. Vanderbilt. (Vanderbilt, in fact, cut short his European visit the day before the Belmont meet opened, sailing on the Hamburg-American liner Kaiserin Auguste, a vessel shortly to play a pivotal role in the life of Eugene Ely.) Soap operatic as the situation was, for many Americans the thought of losing the Cup—and international prestige—to an individual of Grahame-White’s now questionable character was particularly galling. And so, although Grahame-White easily won the Gordon Bennett speed race on October 29, the ability of new favorite son John Moisant to claim second place led most of the newspaper accounts of the contest.

The next day saw a highly anticipated race from Belmont Park to the Statue of Liberty and back. Moisant accidentally taxied into Harmon’s parked aeroplane, wrecking his own machine; Grahame-White’s time beat that of the only other competitor to start in advance of the designated cutoff time. At the last instant, though, Alfred Moisant bought another Blériot for his brother, and John Moisant was permitted to start right after the official window closed. By using a compass and a more direct route, he completed the round-trip flight forty-three seconds more quickly than had Grahame-White.

The enthusiasm of the day before that had greeted Moisant’s second-place finish in the Gordon Bennett race was nothing next to the jubilation attending his Statue of Liberty victory.

Belmont Park rocked and roared . . . with an outburst of wild, uncontrolled enthusiasm . . . Mr. John B. Moisant, American, had won the Statue of Liberty flight after it had passed hopelessly to all appearances to Mr. Claude Grahame-White.

The British aviator sportingly congratulated his rival and announced that he would try again the next day, presumably intending to fly the direct course. But the Aero Club accepted Moisant’s argument that the meet had officially closed on Sunday—notwithstanding an earlier announcement that it would be extended for a day.

The willingness to bend the rules against Grahame-White reflected such blatant provincialism that aviator J. Armstrong Drexel (an American, but close friends with the British flyer) deemed the ruling “a piece of shameless jugglery” and convinced nine other aviators to boycott the dinner to be given by the Aero Club that night as a celebration of the close of the tournament. Drexel even held a competing dinner in honor of the British aviator. Grahame-White submitted a formal protest to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, thus further antagonizing the American public. (Ultimately, the FAI disqualified both Grahame-White, who had grazed a pylon while landing, and Moisant.) Forgotten was the adulation of September; now he was a pariah.

Grahame-White returned in 1911 to England, where he established a flying school at Hendon Aerodrome in London, made the first official air mail delivery in Britain, formed a company to build aircraft, and published the first of his dozen books on the topic, The Story of the Aeroplane. Long a subject of gossip columns, in 1912 he married a New York socialite and heiress—who was neither Eleanora Sears nor Pauline Chase.

Grahame-White published The Aeroplane in War in 1912. Building on his experience with the U.S. Aeronautical Reserve, he promoted the military application of air power by touring his home country in a program called “Wake Up Britain,” during which he provided H.G. Wells, author of the novel The War in the Air, with his first aeroplane ride. During 1913 Grahame-White proposed a commercial air service between London and Paris and helped to test an aerial machine gun.

An enthusiastic believer in the future of aviation, Grahame-White echoed John Moisant’s prediction at Belmont that transatlantic air travel would be possible within five years.By the end of 1911 he was seriously discussing the possibility of crossing the Atlantic in under thirty hours, using a machine with four engines generating 250 hp each and carrying a crew of six. He targeted the summer of 1915 for a westward transatlantic flight—an accomplishment he considered “comparatively simple.” He was preparing to raise $250,000 for a construction fund in the summer of 1914 when World War I broke out, promptly ending all civilian flying.

Grahame-White was one of the few pioneer aviators active during 1910-1911 who also saw aerial combat. He received a temporary commission as a flight commander in the Royal Navy Air Service, in connection with which he reportedly flew over London looking for Zeppelins during the opening days of the war. In early 1915 he participated in a bombing raid on Belgium; on the return flight he had to ditch in the English Channel. Later that year, with espionage hysteria sweeping England, he was reported to have been shot as a German spy in the Tower of London; accounts that he had been severely wounded in France were equally unfounded.

Friction with his immediate superior in the air service, Commander John Cyril Porte, coupled with Grahame-White’s primary interest in continuing to build aeroplanes, precipitated an abrupt end to his military service. Roughly coincident with that event, he was rumored to be keeping company with “an actress”—who turned out to be Ethel Levey, ex-wife of vaudevillian and composer George M. Cohan. In 1916 Grahame-White’s own wife, from whom he had been separated for some time, initiated divorce proceedings that were followed eagerly by the press. Hardly was the divorce finalized before Grahame-White married Ethel Levey.

Ultimately, the first nonstop Atlantic crossing took place in 1919 without any involvement by Grahame-White. During the war he had loaned his Hendon aerodrome to the government, which afterward took it by eminent domain. Grahame-White became entangled in a legal battle over compensation for the taking, and for sums he claimed owing for aircraft manufactured during the war. When the litigation finally ended in 1925 he received the equivalent of $2.5 million today. He gave up aviation and didn’t fly again until 1933.He continued to write but otherwise faded from the public eye. His second wife divorced him in 1939 after he admitted to adultery. He remarried yet again.

Grahame-White made another fortune developing property in the United States and Britain. During World War II he purchased an American yacht to be used by the British military as a hospital ship. He maintained a primary residence in Beverly Hills, but for the last several years of his life he and his wife lived in Nice, France.

He died in 1959, two days short of his eightieth birthday.

A biography, Claude Grahame-White, by Graham Wallace, has recently been digitized.


The British Invasion