Crazy Man of the Air


March 5, 1910. Portland, Oregon. Charles Keeney Hamilton answers the question of whether an aeroplane can outrace an automobile.

Charles Hamilton was a former balloonist and parachute jumper who became involved with aeronautics at the age of twenty in 1905, testing the gliders of New York attorney Israel Ludlow first on a Florida beach, then over waterways in the New York/New Jersey area: the glider—a giant box kite—would be towed by automobile or tugboat until Hamilton rose into the air. Because the Wright brothers hadn’t yet disclosed their success at Kitty Hawk two years earlier, a November 1905 Scientific American article on the Ludlow/Hamilton flights noted that, until the invention of lightweight motors, it would be “impossible to launch an aeroplane flying machine by means of its own power.” In their final collaboration, in Florida in April 1906, Ludlow became paralyzed in a glider crash. He nevertheless maintained his enthusiasm for aviation.

In the spring of 1909 Hamilton traveled to Japan to fly dirigible airships at exhibitions. Ever since the French had begun their aeroplane experiments, he had wanted to try. He already knew of Glenn Curtiss as a manufacturer of lightweight airship motors, but when he read of the money Curtiss had won in the international aviation meet in France (roughly equivalent to $375,000 today), he returned to America forthwith. The two met during the Hudson-Fulton Celebration around the end of September.

Hamilton was not a large man: he stood barely five feet and weighed a hundred pounds. And he could point to that size as a significant advantage in operating underpowered aeroplanes. When Curtiss, looking to monopolize the exhibition business, proved receptive to the request, Hamilton became in effect the first member of the Curtiss exhibition team. Technically, he agreed to lease an aeroplane from Curtiss in exchange for a percentage of the money he earned at exhibitions.

Hamilton’s formal instruction began on October 31, 1909. The following day, after a bit of practice, he flew for more than twenty-five consecutive minutes. A month later he launched his career as a professional aviator in Missouri and then went on to fly at Dominguez Field with Charles Willard (see 05 Feb 16 post). By late January he was on tour in the Southwest, operating the famous eight-cylinder Curtiss Rheims racer.

In the spring of 1910, Hamilton’s tour of the west coast included a stop in Portland, where a newspaper reporter attempted to describe for readers the experience of witnessing, with one’s own eyes, a man in a flying machine:

“He’s off!” someone shouts. Down the rolled speedway at the rate of 25 miles an hour, running handily on its trio of wheels, the machine goes. Now it is barely skimming the ground; the wheels are stopping their revolutions. Attenuated by distance, the strange moving thing presents the appearance of a gigantic insect, its long, thin bamboo limbs stretched out. Now it is a foot off the ground. Suddenly a slight depression is reached in the ground ahead, the aviator ducks his machine downward for one last spring and shoots upward as if climbing an incline of blue ether. Higher and higher he goes and the gaping throng stretches its neck and gasps.

 The machine is circling the race course beneath. With the ease and grace of a seagull the turns are made. From the aviator’s mouth an occasional puff of smoke can be seen issuing. Now he has taken the cigarette in his hand to flick the ashes from the tip. In a moment he is above the spectators who, gazing upward, suddenly see him dip downward. Many cry in affright, but with a slight touch, as if responding to a telepathic message rather than to a mechanical theory, the plane dashes upward again, describing a graceful parabolic curve.

 Once more he is circling the course, mounting higher and higher at each lap, suddenly turning off at the farther side and continuing to mount upward. Now he is 500 feet in the air and is coming back toward the field. While yet many yards from a position over the field the motor stops.

 The crowd is horrified. Many think they are about to witness a tragic scene. Everyone is holding his breath. Far up in the air, clearly visible against the sky of blue the aeroplane maintains its equilibrium. It is coming down. The altitude [elevator] is pointed downward and even those who are acquainted with the theory of aeroplanics are fearful for the safety of the daring bird man. When within 100 feet of the ground the machine gives a beautiful, graceful, sinking sweep and the spectators can hear the swishing sound as it rushes through the air and alights on the ground, racing along the course for half a hundred yards by its own momentum.

 Most of the time the crowd has been too busy holding its breath to cheer, but it is all over and gray-haired men, boys with excited flushed faces, and women rush down the field to where Hamilton has stopped his machine, which is immediately taken in charge by two of his men. More with the air of a stage flunky who is removing a setting than of a star who is responding to a repeated encore, Hamilton walks back to his temporary hangar, while the spectators applaud and the band strikes up a patriotic air.

Immediately after that performance, Hamilton defeated a Buick in a match race, winning $100. Eugene Ely, who was living in Portland at the time, may have watched the race. Within a month he, too, would become an aviator.

Hamilton quickly gained a reputation as the “crazy man of the air.” Days after his Portland appearance, while deliberately diving toward a pond at The Meadows in Seattle (near the site of present-day Boeing Field), he crashed and had to be hospitalized. His own manager sued him, claiming drunkenness.

On June 13, 1910, Hamilton completed the first flight ever made between two cities—New York to Philadelphia and back in a single day—and won a prize variously reported as $5,000 and $10,000. But a dispute with Curtiss over how much of the money he was entitled to keep ended their professional relationship. In the lawsuit that followed, and many others as well, Hamilton’s attorney was one-time glider inventor Israel Ludlow.

During the summer of 1910 Hamilton ordered a 110-hp biplane, built to his specifications. He named it the “Hamiltonian” and expected to compete with it against Curtiss and others, but a near-fatal crash in Sacramento kept him from flying much in September and October. He joined Alfred Moisant’s International Aviators in November, performing over the next few months in Texas, the Southeast, and Mexico. He appeared to have resolved his differences with Curtiss by the summer of 1911, when he was scheduled to take part in a three-way race of Curtiss machines between the Gimbel department stores in New York and Philadelphia. At the last moment he begged off, and his place was taken by Ely.

Hamilton continued to fly throughout 1912—and to crash. He claimed to have had a silver plate implanted in his head, and to have to have ordered a watch charm fashioned from the fragment of skull that it replaced. He announced plans to complete an aerial loop-the-loop, considered impossible at the time, but he never intentionally accomplished it. In early 1913 he survived yet another crash, this time in Florida, by jumping clear of his machine at the last moment.

Divorced by his wife, Hamilton remarried in October 1913. Three months later, at home in bed, he suffered a fatal hemorrhage that some historians believe to have been tubercular, although it was attributed in his death certificate to a broken rib suffered in a crash. He was 28 years old.

Thanks to John Sippel, author of a forthcoming Hamilton biography, for suggesting revisions to this entry.

Crazy Man of the Air

2 thoughts on “Crazy Man of the Air

  1. Nice collection of articles. I appreciate the intersecting pursuits of Curtis, Knabenshue, Ludlow, Ely and Hamilton. I live in the Hometown of Charles K. Hamilton and am scratch-building a model commemorating his July 2, 1910 flight here in New Britain Connecticut.


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