Dash Through the Clouds


November 7, 1910. Columbus, Ohio. To demonstrate the aeroplane’s commercial potential, Wright Exhibition Team aviator Phil Parmelee transports a shipment of silk, weighing a hundred pounds and valued at $1,000, from Dayton to the state capital. Flying at three thousand feet, Parmelee makes the 65-mile flight without incident in 66 minutes, setting a new cross-country speed record. With his successful landing at Columbus, Parmelee completes the world’s first air freight shipment.

Philip Orin Parmelee was born in Michigan on March 8, 1887, and showed mechanical aptitude from a young age. After constructing a series of small motors, he designed, built and drove a basic steam-powered automobile. Fascinated by silent movies, Parmelee landed a job operating a projection machine at a local theatre. While still a teenager, he was also hired to work in the machine shop of a local company that manufactured engines for motor launches.

Parmelee’s obvious mechanical talent moved his employer to give him a reference to the Buick company, which was in the process of becoming the leading automobile manufacturer in the U.S. Parmelee started at Buick in 1906, just as Norman DeVaux was participating in the record-breaking transcontinental Buick journey. There’s no indication that Parmelee was involved in that attempt, but at one point he did serve as a mechanic for a car competing in the Glidden Tour, an annual endurance competition designed to provide consumers with a way to measure the relative reliability of the various makes of automobiles.

There’s some suggestion that Parmelee met the Wright brothers by chance while they were training Walter Brookins and other pupils in Montgomery, Alabama. Although Parmelee had no experience as an aeronaut, his familiarity with engines won him a spot on the Wright Exhibition Team shortly after its first appearance at Indianapolis in June 1910. By early September he was making regular passenger flights at Wright exhibitions.

Following his record-setting commercial freight flight in November, Parmelee traveled with the rest of the team to the west coast. During the last week in December, he raced daily in Los Angeles against Eugene Ely (in a Curtiss biplane) and Englishman James Radley (in a Blériot monoplane), coming in last on each occasion—a function of the limited power of his engine, not his flying skills.

In January 1911, at the San Francisco meet where Ely made the historic first landing of an aeroplane on a ship, spectators were treated to the rare sight of four aviators in the air at once (Glenn Curtiss, Ely, Parmelee and Brookins). To test the aeroplane’s usefulness as a scout, Ely and Brookins each set out from the aviation field with a passenger, to search for groups of soldiers “defending” and “attacking” the city. In a separate test, Lt. Myron Crissey flew as a passenger with Parmelee (pictured above) and—a world’s first—dropped live bombs from a reported thousand feet high. As was standard practice at the time, Crissey hurled his bombs by hand; the devices were feathered with wooden strips, imparting a rotating motion that was supposed to assist in accuracy. Later in the same meet, Parmelee established a new American endurance record  of 3:39:48. When he landed he was too stiff to crawl from the seat on his own.

Over the first few months of 1911, the United States came to take the growing Mexican insurrection seriously enough that, for the first time, it employed an aeroplane in connection with an armed conflict. The sole flying machine owned by the U.S. at the time was a Wright Flyer purchased in 1909. It was already obsolete, but Robert Collier, the wealthy magazine publisher, agreed to loan the War Department his more modern Wright Flyer.

The Collier aeroplane was shipped express by train to Laredo, Texas. There Lt. Benny Foulois and Parmelee—the latter sent by the Wrights as an instructor, part of a deal in which the government had agreed to purchase a new machine—patrolled the Rio Grande for over a hundred miles between Laredo and Eagle Pass, intermittently using radio communication to identify their position. (One sensational news report had the flyers nailing an American flag to the lower plane of their machine and carrying a gun “within reach.”) On the return trip to Laredo, made on a Sunday, Parmelee accidentally hit the engine cutout cord, and the pair crashed into the river, luckily without injury. The machine was hauled to San Antonio, where ten thousand troops Mexican were reportedly headed—but Parmelee’s greatest fear was that the Wrights would learn he had violated his contractual proscription against Sunday flying.

Once the Flyer was repaired, Parmelee and Foulois experimented with the type of practical aerial scouting first attempted at San Francisco a couple of months earlier. They also demonstrated their theoretical ability to carry messages safely between two friendly forces, notwithstanding the presence of “enemy troops” in between.

Parmelee was present at Salt Lake City in April when Curtiss made the first public demonstration of his hydroaeroplane. At Salt Lake City, Parmelee gave a ride to U.S. Navy Lt. Theodore Ellyson, soon to become the first naval aviator, and thereby proved the feasibility of passenger-carrying at altitude.

Following the formal disbandment of the Wright Exhibition Team, Clifford Turpin and Parmelee were the only aviators left flying for the brothers, but soon afterward a dispute, reportedly over prize money, led the pair to quit in January 1912. They continued exhibiting on their own for the next few months; unconfirmed reports said they had to pay royalties to the Wrights for each exhibition.

Fully fifteen years ahead of Charles Lindbergh, Parmelee was interested in attempting the first transatlantic aeroplane flight, but he was unable to persuade the Navy to provide a fast destroyer to accompany him as a safety measure. He appeared in February 1912 at an Oakland meet, where he was one of the few aviators who flew in the very dangerous weather conditions on Eugene Ely Day (Ely had died in October 1911, and the Oakland exhibition, organized by Bud Mars, was intended to raise funds for his widow).

In mid-April, Parmelee was back in Los Angeles, making exhibition flights and carrying passengers, one of whom completed the first successful parachute jump from an aeroplane; adding to the spectacle, Parmelee flew spirals around the descending parachutist. Blanche Stuart Scott, who happened to be in town exhibiting with Glenn Martin, witnessed the feat.

At Los Angeles, Parmelee suffered (and survived) the first recorded “bird strike”—literally crashing into one or more birds in midair, an event with potentially fatal results to the aviator, not to mention the birds. The handsome one-time motion picture projectionist was also hired to appear, with his flying machine, in an eight-minute comedic silent film, Dash Through the Clouds, as Hollywood belatedly discovered the cinematic potential of aeroplanes. The movie claimed to demonstrate the “Technical Perfection of the Modern Flying Machine – A Far Cry from the Original Invention of Wilbur and Orville Wright”; Parmelee, as Slim the Aviator, made several filmed ascents and landings.

In May, Parmelee and Turpin traveled to the Pacific Northwest for a series of exhibitions. On May 31, the day after Wilbur Wright’s death from typhoid fever, Turpin was attempting to take off in Seattle when an “amateur photographer” ran in front of his machine. In attempting to avoid the man, Turpin crashed into the grandstand, killing a spectator and injuring several others as well as himself. The next day Parmelee was flying at Yakima, Washington, when a gust of wind threw his machine to the ground, crushing him under the engine. He was 27.

Dash Through the Clouds, which starred a young Mabel Normand, had its theatrical release a few weeks after Parmelee’s death. The film was produced by the Biograph Company, for which Harriet Quimby had written several treatments. It can be viewed at https://archive.org/details/ADashThroughTheClouds1912.



Dash Through the Clouds

The Spiral Glide

Walter Brookins

August 10, 1910. Asbury Park, New Jersey. The worst non-fatal accident in early American aviation occurs on opening day of an exhibition by the recently formed Wright Exhibition Team. Walter Brookins, the Wrights’ first pupil (and star of the team), is about to land after a successful flight when news photographers run onto the track to get pictures of the flying machine. With his engine shut off for landing, Brookins is unable to rise again. He swerves to avoid the newsmen and crashes into the grandstand, wrecking the aeroplane and injuring seven spectators. Brookins suffers a broken ankle and nose, and several of his teeth are knocked out. The day after the crash, ticket sales to the aviation meet increase by 100%.


The Wright brothers had lagged behind Glenn Curtiss in entering the exhibition business. Not until early 1910 did they invite Roy Knabenshue to assemble and manage a team of flyers, in connection with which the Wrights opened a “flight school” in Montgomery, Alabama. Soon they were rumored to be teaching half a dozen Army officers to fly.

In fact, the brothers at first brought to Montgomery only one man: twenty-one-year-old Walter Richard Brookins, their Dayton neighbor and a former student of their sister Katherine’s, whom they had known since he was a toddler. Just what might have impressed Wilbur and Orville about his potential as an aviator is unclear, but in March they personally set about giving him lessons at Montgomery.Brookins learned quickly and was soon teaching the rest of the Wrights’ would-be exhibition team. On May 25 he and teammate Arch Hoxsey reportedly made two trips by moonlight, “circling, wheeling and going through all the evolutions customary in daytime.”

The first public appearance of the team took place at Indianapolis in mid-June 1910, shortly after Blanche Stuart Scott passed through on her transcontinental automobile journey. Brookins flew for a total of nearly eight hours over the course of that meet, taking his machine up numerous times to nearly five thousand feet while repeatedly breaking the world’s altitude record.

The printed daily schedule at Indianapolis reflects the degree to which the Wrights desired a controlled, uneventful exhibition of their flying machines: specifically identified aviators flew each day at particular times. And yet, as noted by one reporter:

So far as the flying itself was concerned, the meet proved pretty conclusively that the Wright aeroplane is a very steady and dependable machine. There were about sixty flights during the six days of the exhibition, and there was no suggestion of an accident.

 In the tranquility of the performances—the invariably successful starts, and quiet, uneventful landings—lay the chief beauty, from the writer’s standpoint[,] of the meet.

 But in just that same tranquility lay its chief drawback from the standpoint of the box-office. Peace and quiet are all very well in their way, but after a man has loafed around a railroad station thirty-eight minutes waiting for transportation to the field, has quietly sat on a plank upholstered bleacher divan at a temperature of 120 Fahr. for three hours waiting for something to happen, and with equal peace of mind has finally watched—at a distance of half a mile or more—these great white birds rise gently into the air and sail placidly around the track until fancy moved them to descend, that man is apt to lean toward something more stirring than the prospect of quietly walking for two or three miles along a country road to where he can find a suburban trolley to take him back to town.

Alerted to the need for “something more stirring,” Brookins and the other Wright aviators would soonagainst the express wishes of the brothers, who by then rarely took to the airbecome known more for corkscrews and other aerial stunts than for the placidity of their flying.

Brookins appeared in late June at a Montreal exhibition with J.A.D. McCurdy, then traveled to Atlantic City, giving Glenn Curtiss his first opportunity to compete directly against a Wright aeroplane. The crowds were enormous and the flying spectacular. Curtiss made a fifty-mile overwater flight just offshore (ten laps of a five-mile course) for a $5,000 prize, while Brookins exceeded six thousand feet in altitude for a like prize, thereby becoming the first aviator to take an aeroplane more than a mile high. To verify his altitude achievement, Brookins carried with him a barograph (a barometer with an inked stylus). It was the first time the device had been used in flight, and it quickly became the standard method for judging altitude contests.

Later that summer, the Wrights publicly introduced their Model B Flyer as the replacement machine to be used by Brookins following his spectacular Asbury Park crash. The Model B had a 35-hp engine capable of propelling it at a brisk 45 mph, but—this was clearly an unintended consequence—its “headless” design made it better suited to aerobatic maneuvers. By September, the lead Wright aviators (Brookins, Hoxsey and Ralph Johnstone) were using their Model B Flyers to engage in “fancy aeroplaning.”

Johnstone’s favorite act was to indulge in steep slides, shutting his engine almost off, then suddenly shooting down until he almost touched the ground, then sweeping up like a bird in flight.

 Brookins performed the most daring feat of the afternoon in making his famous short turns, standing his biplane almost on edge as he made a complete circle in scarcely more than six seconds. His machine reached an angle of more than 80 degrees at times.

Brookins’ signature stunt, popularly known as the “spiral glide,” was quickly copied by Hoxsey and Johnstone, who thereafter performed it routinely. Crowds showed up expecting to be thrilled, and the Wright aviators continued to risk their lives for a weekly salary of $20 (equal to $500 today), plus a $50 bonus earned on each day they flew.

Meanwhile, the possibility of long-distance air flights had captured the public’s imagination. On September 30, Brookins flew non-stop for half the length of Illinois, from Chicago to Springfield; his flight outdistanced each leg of Charles K. Hamilton’s record New York-to-Philadelphia trip, and it shattered the one-way distance record set by Curtiss along the Hudson River in May. Under the terms of his contract, however, Brookins was entitled to none of the prize money he won.

That same month marked the passage of two years since the sole aviation fatality to date in America (that of Lt. Tom Selfridge, when Orville Wright crashed during an acceptance test for the War Department). As flight after flight ended without serious accident, journalists began to comment on the apparent safety of flying machines as compared to automobiles. But the stresses placed on the bamboo framework of the machines were considerable, and the Wright aviators simply could not continue to fly as they did without consequence.

It all unraveled over the course of ten weeks at the end of the year. Wilbur and Orville had built a racing biplane, the Baby Grand, with which they expected Brookins to compete for the prestigious Gordon Bennett Cup at Belmont Park in October. Orville himself achieved an astonishing 78 mph during a practice run, but Brookins crashed the Baby Grand just before the start of the big race, and the machine was wrecked. Three weeks later Johnstone was killed when the wings of his Model B snapped and folded in the middle of a “spiral glide,” and six weeks after that Hoxsey died in a New Year’s Eve crash while attempting to break his own world’s record for altitude: 11,474 feet.

Brookins thereafter became a more cautious flyer, abandoning the “spiral glide” and devoting himself to scientific demonstrations of the aeroplane. During an aviation meet at San Francisco in January 1911, he took up as his passenger an army observer who shot aerial photographs from twelve hundred feet and made sketches while the pair tried in vain to spot an “invading” military force. Brookins later organized and led a “safe and sane” flying movement, intended to outlaw aerobatics as needlessly dangerous.

Following the disbanding of the Wright Exhibition Team in November 1911 (some commentators say Brookins “broke” with the Wrights), he experimented with the design of a flying boat, as well as a self-starting mechanism that would do away with the need to crank an aeroplane’s propeller. A story under his byline in early 1912 correctly predicted that aeroplanes would soon fly at a hundred miles an hour.

Brookins was employed as a military flight instructor until 1915, and he was the passenger in an aeroplane that crashed into Pensacola Bay at the hands of novice naval aviator Kenneth Whiting (famous for having successfully escaped from a submarine through its torpedo tube in 1909). Neither man was seriously injured.

Brookins worked as an aviation engineer in the 1920s. He gave up flying, only to resume it in 1930, by which time he was a member of the Early Birds of Aviation (he served as its president in 1937). He moved to Los Angeles and ran the Davis-Brookins aircraft factory, producing wing assemblies for B-24 airplanes during World War II. He eventually became associated with the Institute of Aeronautical History. In 1953, Walter Brookins died of a heart ailment at the age of 63. He was the first person to be buried at the Portal of the Folded Wings Shrine to Aviation in North Hollywood.


The Spiral Glide

Silver Dart


February 23, 1909. Bras d’Or Lake, Nova Scotia. Douglas McCurdy skitters across a frozen lake at the controls of the fourth flying machine built by Alexander Graham Bell and his Aerial Experiment Association. Officially designated “Aerodrome No. 4” (at this point, aerodrome—from the Greek for “sky runner”refers to the machine itself, rather than a place to house it), the craft has been christened Silver Dart by McCurdy because of the silver balloon cloth used to cover its wings. McCurdy has also designed its water-cooled engine, which will allow the flying machine to run for longer periods, perhaps even long enough to win the Scientific American prize for the first continuous public flight of more than twenty-five kilometers. But, as he leaves the surface of the iced-over lake and flies 800 meters at 40 mph, McCurdy is making a different sort of history: Silver Dart becomes the first heavier-than-air flying machine to rise into the skies over Canada, or indeed anywhere in the British Empire.


John Alexander Douglas McCurdy was born in 1886 at Baddeck, Nova Scotia, the son of Alexander Graham Bell’s personal secretary. With financial assistance from the Bells, McCurdy graduated from the University of Toronto in 1906 with a degree in mechanical engineering. Along with a classmate and fellow engineer, Frederick W. “Casey” Baldwin (no relation to dirigible pioneer T.S. “Captain Tom” Baldwin), McCurdy spent a postgraduate summer visiting the Bells in Baddeck. As a result of their conversations during that visit, the three men, along with Glenn Curtiss and U.S. Army Lt. Tom Selfridge, formed the Aerial Experiment Association in the summer of 1907, with the idea of investigating the possibility of heavier-than-air flight. (The Wright brothers were keeping their success at Kitty Hawk four years earlier a secret.) Mabel Bell financed the AEA; McCurdy and Baldwin each received an annual salary of $1,000, roughly equivalent to $25,000 today.

The AEA achieved success in a matter of months, when Casey Baldwin rose briefly into the air near Hammondsport, N.Y., at the controls of Aerodrome No. 1, Red Wing. But just a year later, shortly after McCurdy’s pioneering flight in Silver Dart, Curtiss formed his ill-fated business partnership with Augustus Herring (see 26 Feb 16 post), and the AEA dissolved on March 31, 1909.

McCurdy and Baldwin, with Bell’s encouragement, formed the Canadian Aerodrome Company with an eye toward supplying the aeroplane needs of the British Army. Bell figured England would perceive the significant advantage in having access to a manufacturing facility in Canada, far beyond the reach of the war in Europe that already seemed more than a theoretical possibility.

When the Canadian government proved cool to the idea of military aircraft, McCurdy began exhibiting on his own in the spring of 1910, with his brother Lucian serving as his manager. One of his first public performances was in Montreal, alongside an exhibition team recently formed by the Wrights. By summertime the relationship between Glenn Curtiss and Charles K. Hamilton was in tatters (see 13 Feb 16 post), so Curtiss added his former AEA associate McCurdy—as well as Eugene Ely—to the “Curtiss Exhibition Company,” an entity he was then formally organizing.

McCurdy was present for the Sheepshead Bay meet at which Bud Mars thrilled the public by giving aeroplane rides to women (see 19 Feb 16 post), and indeed on August 27, 1910, McCurdy was credited with accomplishing what the Curtiss press agent termed the greatest of all the experiments at Sheepshead Bay: sending a message to the ground by wireless telegraphy. Wireless technology was already in use by ships, and rumor had it the Zeppelin dirigibles in Germany carried telegraph equipment. Adapting the technology to aeroplanes would clearly be a selling point for Curtiss with the U.S. military.

In October 1910, McCurdy became the eighteenth aviator licensed by the Aero Club of America. One month later, the following story appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the country, under the headline “TO FLY FROM LINER”:

New York, Nov. 2–J.A.D. McCurdy, of Glenn Curtiss’ staff, will attempt to fly by aeroplane from the deck of a vessel 50 miles at sea to a point on Manhattan Island  next Saturday. The Kaiserin Auguste Victoria, of the Hamburg-American Line, sailing at 10 a.m. Saturday, will carry McCurdy and his Curtiss biplane.

The test, the first of its kind, will be observed by a party of navy and army officers, and a flotilla of torpedoboats will patrol the course. The aeroplane will be launched from a platform built on the forward deck of the ship.

The test is to demonstrate the feasibility of equipping the new liner Europa, the largest ship in the world, now under construction, with a regular aeroplane service for transferring mail at sea.

McCurdy will carry in the test on Saturday a small mailbag, containing letters from the passengers, which he expects to deliver at the New York postoffice.

Reports hailing the event as “a flight such as the world never saw before” did not exaggerate. Captain Frank Fletcher, a high-ranking assistant to the Secretary of the Navy, was quoted as saying that if the experiment proved successful “it would demonstrate that for scouting purposes an aeroplane costing from $5,000 to $10,000 was considerably cheaper and more economical than an armored cruiser costing $5,000,000.”

When bad weather forced McCurdy to reschedule his attempt, the Navy rushed to conduct its own experiment before the German steamship line could succeed. Eugene Ely made the historic flight two weeks later at Hampton Roads, Virginia, an accomplishment that formally marked the birth of naval aviation.

The prospect of even more far-ranging naval flights tantalized the public. In January 1911, McCurdy set out on a ninety-mile solo flight from Key West to Havana, hoping to win an $8,000 prize. No one had ever made an over-water flight of such a distance. Besides which, McCurdy would be out of sight of any land for much of the time, and aerial navigation by compass was in its infancy, so the Navy agreed to station six ships—a lighthouse tender, a revenue cutter, and four destroyers—in a direct line across the Florida Straits, at roughly ten-mile intervals, not merely to provide emergency rescue services but to guide the aviator toward Havana.

McCurdy launched at 7:22 a.m. on January 30, 1911, wearing the same life vest used by Ely at Hampton Roads. As he gained the open ocean under a cloudless sky, McCurdy experienced a mirage: without any point of reference, the sea appeared as a huge vertical wall directly in front of him. At 9:17 he had U.S.S. Paulding, his final guiding ship, in sight, but sixteen minutes later the lubricating oil in his engine ran out and the bearings burned up. He was only twelve miles from Havana, but he had to ditch.

The rudder and the rear elevating planes broke with the impact of the crash landing. Under-wing pontoons did their job in keeping the machine afloat, but it was badly unbalanced. The engine went under water, tipping the front elevator planes high into the air. McCurdy, unhurt, had no need of the life vest and did not so much as get wet. As sharks began circling, he was rescued by the Navy destroyer over which he had just passed.

Although some newspapers characterized the attempt as a failure, the New York Times expressed the prevailing view: “McCurdy will presumably receive a medal, the general sentiment being that his performance is just as meritorious as if he had made the remaining ten miles.” Indeed, the President of Cuba handed McCurdy an envelope, adorned with green and red seals and ostensibly containing $5,000. McCurdy later revealed that the envelope was empty—but he said the American minister to Cuba subsequently advised him to let the matter drop.

On March 17, 1911, McCurdy successfully demonstrated the Curtiss “war machine,” which the U.S. Army had agreed to purchase for its newly formed Provisional Aero Company. He then returned to giving standard exhibitions, but he grew increasingly uncomfortable with the demands for sensational flying. “The trouble with the American public,” he was quoted as saying, “is that they expect aeroplaning to be developed on circus principles.” He himself regarded aviation as “a field for scientific experiment,” and he vowed to do no “fancy work,” promising only that he would make his flights on schedule. June 1911 saw McCurdy’s final flight for Curtiss. He thereafter went into the aeroplane manufacturing business with his brother.

During World War I McCurdy teamed with Curtiss to build the JN-4 “Jenny” for the Allies. Curtiss was able to evade the Wrights’ patent on adjustable lateral surfaces by shipping to England machines that had no means of lateral stability control; the McCurdy plant in Toronto, beyond the reach of the U.S. patent, manufactured ailerons that could simply be added to the Curtiss machines in England.

Following the Armistice, McCurdy and Curtiss formed the Curtiss-Reid Aircraft Company. McCurdy went on to establish the first aviation school in Canada and is considered chiefly responsible for the creation of the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1924. With the advent of World War II, he joined the government, overseeing Canada’s aircraft purchase and development. For his considerable efforts, the King appointed him a Member of the Order of the British Empire.

McCurdy served as lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia from 1947 to 1952. Various trophies and awards were named after him, as was an airport. In 1959, fifty years after his first flight, he received the McKee Trophy, Canada’s highest aerospace award. When he died of leukemia in 1961, at age 74, he was buried at Baddeck. His headstone looks out over the lake where, in 1909, he inaugurated Canadian aviation by taking the wheel of Silver Dart.

The Canadian Centennial of Flight has produced a short video about McCurdy and Silver Dart. It can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VddF3nq0IGw.


Silver Dart


Hugh Robinson

October 17, 1911. Minneapolis. Curtiss aviator Hugh Robinson takes off from nearby Lake Calhoun in a “hydroaeroplane”—a type of flying machine invented by Glenn Curtiss only nine months earlier—on a proposed two thousand mile flight down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. Towns along the river have promised to contribute to a $20,000 fund that will just cover Robinson’s expenses, in return for his promise to touch down at those towns along the way. He has been authorized by Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock to carry a reported one thousand pounds of U.S. Mail.

Hugh Armstrong Robinson was born on Friday the 13th of May 1881, in Neosho, Missouri. Throughout his life he embraced 13 as lucky, even featuring the number prominently on his aeroplane. Robinson was adventurous from a young age, once accepting a dare from friends to ride his bicycle down the hundred steps in a local park (he crashed, wrecking the bike). Later he professionally rode and repaired bicycles, at one point performing a Circle of Death routine in which he rode around the inside of a large cylinder at a near-horizontal angle. He was at one time employed by the Grace Shannon Balloon Company to make parachute jumps from spherical balloons at county fairs. By 1909, however, he was trying to build his own aeroplane.

Robinson held a degree in mechanical engineering. He had already designed and built various machines, including an automobile, a glider that was towed behind a moving auto, and a dirigible—the last inspired by the sight of Roy Knabenshue flying California Arrow. During a 1908 visit to Europe, while serving as chauffeur to a wealthy businessman, Robinson watched Wilbur Wright fly in France and was moved to write an article predicting that the successful aeroplane of the future would be a monoplane with two or more propellers. When Glenn Curtiss met him in October 1909 at a St. Louis exhibition, Robinson was having difficulty getting a “tractor” monoplane of his own design aloft (the Wrights and Curtiss employed “pusher” biplanes). Curtiss loaned Robinson a propeller better suited to his needs, with which he achieved modest success.

Curtiss was then in the process of forming an exhibition team, and there is a suggestion he offered Robinson a job when they first met. If so, Robinson declined, but a year later he agreed to come to the camp on North Island (near San Diego) where Curtiss was spending the winter of 1910. Robinson then traveled with Curtiss to San Francisco in early 1911 and played a major role in Eugene Ely’s historic ship landing on January 18. Some reports credit a component of Robinson’s “Circle of Death” stunt as the inspiration for the tailhook design used by Ely to bring his aeroplane to a gradual halt.

Robinson returned to North Island and worked with Curtiss and Lt. Theodore Ellyson, U.S.N. (soon to become the world’s first naval aviator), on a hydroaeroplane with a tractor configuration. Although it was generally unsuitable for naval use because of the limited visibility offered by the spinning propeller, on February 17 Curtiss flew the hydroaeroplane across the bay, landed beside the armored cruiser Pennsylvania, and arranged to have it raised by a crane to the deck; after reversing the process, he flew back to his North Island camp. The feat was celebrated as proof that naval aviation did not require the use of an “artificial deck” for takeoffs and landings.

Robinson learned to fly Curtiss machines over the next few weeks and became so proficient that Curtiss gave him an exhibition contract. In his first appearance, at San Bernardino, he went aloft and scattered five hundred envelopes, three of which had tickets entitling the finder to a aeroplane ride, the rest containing advertisements for the local newspaper. Throughout the summer of 1911 Robinson flew primarily in a hydroaeroplane, most notably at the Seattle “potlatch” festival held in July. At a meet in Chicago, he demonstrated the usefulness of hydroaeroplanes for rescue work on open water when two other aviators crashed into lake Michigan. He also participated that summer in the first inter-city aviation race in America, between New York and Philadelphia. Flying a conventional Curtiss biplane, he took second place to Lincoln Beachey.

The commencement of Robinson’s Mississippi River flight was delayed because of weather, and by the time he reached Rock Island, Illinois, on October 21—four days after leaving Minneapolis—some of the downriver cities had grown frustrated by his inability to hold to a strict schedule. When they withdrew their commitments to the $20,000 fund, Robinson abandoned his attempt.

In January 1912, Robinson sailed with Curtiss manager Fanciulli for St. Petersburg, specifically to demonstrate the hydroaeroplane to the Russian government. He remained in Europe for several months, surviving a spectacular crash into the sea at Monaco (see photo above). Upon Robinson’s return to America, Curtiss allowed him to buy shares in the aeroplane manufacturing company and also made him chief instructor at the aviation school in Hammondsport (among Robinson’s pupils were three lieutenants in the Japanese navy). He is credited as a co-author of The Curtiss Aviation Book, which was published in 1912.

Robinson became associated with the Benoist aircraft company, which manufactured a “flying boat” in competition with Curtiss. He volunteered for an aviation reserve corps but quit exhibition flying in late 1913 to go into the motion picture business. The following year he resurrected his Circle of Death act, this time with a motorcycle. After injuring himself one evening, he trained his assistant to perform the stunt in his place.

During World War I, Robinson worked for the Curtiss Airplane Company and was credited with helping to design the engine for the famous Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” aircraft. In addition, he and his son experimented with wireless telephone technology as early as 1920. Later that decade Robinson moved to Coral Gables, Florida, renewing his association with Curtiss in connection with development of the AeroCar, an aerodynamic camping trailer. Around the time of World War II he was working as a consulting engineer in Washington, D.C. A member of the Early Birds of Aviation, he was much in demand for his anecdotes of the early flying days.

Robinson continued flying on his own into the 1940s. He died of a heart attack in 1963 at age 81, after which the airport in his hometown of Neosho, Missouri, was named in his honor.

Much more about Robinson’s life can be found in Hugh Robinson, Pioneer Aviator by Dr. George L. Vergara.



Rare Bird

Harriet Quimby

April 16, 1912. Dover, England. Twenty years before Amelia Earhart’s historic transatlantic flight, a pioneering aviator sets out to cross the English Channel in a primitive machine she has never flown before. Holder of the first license ever issued to a woman by the Aero Club of America, she’s also a former stage actress, a well-known author of magazine articles, and the writer of screenplays for silent movies. She likes to wear a stylish, hooded, plum-colored satin flying costume, which some observers feel suggests clothing from a harem. The aeroplane she will pilot this April day is equipped with a compass, the operation of which is explained to her just minutes before she takes off into the fog that lies thick above the Channel.


Harriet Quimby was born in 1875—possibly in Michigan, although that has never been proven—the fifth child (and second to survive to adulthood) of a Civil War veteran farmer and his wife, a medicinal herbalist. At the turn of the century the 25-year-old Quimby still lived with her parents in San Francisco and listed her occupation as “Actress,” but her real talent lay in writing. She authored a regular arts column for the San Francisco Call in 1901, and by the following year she was publishing pieces in Sunset and other magazines, and in the New York Evening Post.

Around 1904 Quimby gave up her dream of being an actress and moved to New York, where she became drama critic and “woman’s page” editor for Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, publishing numerous articles on a range of topics both frivolous and serious. In 1906 she wrote of traveling at 100 mph as a passenger in a racecar, which she later learned to drive. As to the fascination women had with automobiles, she said:

It is only natural that one should find a fascination in driving this new vehicle, which seems a thing lifeless and inanimate, but which plunges forward the moment you turn on the power, and reverses and stops and turns to right or left by mere application of a lever. 

Other articles of hers described the life-saving station at Manhattan Beach on Long Island, the art of trick bicycle riding, addictive gambling by women, and the importance to the modern playwright of featuring a passionate kiss—“the wheel upon which the machinery of the scenes runs and the plot depends.” Whenever newspapers summarized or quoted her stories, they included her byline (“Until recently, says Harriet Quimby in Leslie’s Weekly, people who relished snails were regarded with sentiments which savored of disgust, but that notion has changed”). Quimby received credit for hundreds of published photographs that accompanied her articles and those of fellow writers. She traveled internationally in connection with her work.

In 1909 Quimby arranged to appear as a fishermaiden in a one-reel film directed by D.W. Griffith (husband of Quimby’s friend Linda Arvidson), “Lines of White on a Sullen Sea,” in which future movie star Mary Pickford also had a minor role. It was Quimby’s only screen appearance, but she went on to write screenplays for several Griffith films. At the time of the 1910 census she was living alone in a suite at the Victoria Hotel on Broadway, giving her age as 27 (she was 35) and her place of birth as California.

The summer of 1910 saw enormous public interest in flying machines, nowhere more so than the New York City area. In August the Wright Brothers held an exhibition at Asbury Park, New Jersey, and Glenn Curtiss staged a competing exhibition at Sheepshead Bay, Long Island. The Manhattan Beach Hotel, adjacent to the Oriental at which Quimby was spending the summer, sponsored a model aeroplane flying contest in August, at which Quimby was described as Chairman of the Ladies’ Committee of the Junior Aero Club of America. Her interest in aviation increased when she attended the international meet held at Belmont Park in late October 1910 and met famous aviator John Moisant (see 11 Mar 16 post). She already knew how to drive, so she asked him to teach her to fly.

Moisant died two months later, but his brother Alfred opened a flight school on Long Island in April 1911, and Quimby was one of its first pupils, secretly taking lessons evidently paid for by Leslie’s in return for a series of articles about women learning to fly. Her brief lessons (two or three minutes at a time) took place at 5:00 a.m. over the course of two months. She wore an “aviation jacket and trousers of wool-backed satin, with leather puttees, heavy goggles, and a big aviation cap” over which she kept a veil to hide her identity—and with such effect that she was originally thought a man. Asked why she was taking up the sport, Quimby explained she thought she would enjoy the sensation, while downplaying concerns about its danger. “Actually,” she said, “there is no more risk in an aeroplane than in a high speed automobile and a lot more fun.”

On August 1, 1911, Quimby became the first woman licensed by the Aero Club of America (No. 37 overall). Writing of learning to fly, she said: “I felt like a bird cleaving the air with outstretched wings. There was no thought of obstruction or obstacle. There was no fear of falling because the mastery of a well-balanced machine seems complete.”

She appeared at her first public exhibition in September, when she flew at the Staten Island Fair for a reported $1,500 (equivalent to $37,500 today). In an international meet held at Nassau Boulevard on Long Island at the end of September, she was supposed to compete against John Moisant’s sister Matilde (the second woman licensed in America), as well as leading Belgian aviatrix Hélène Dutrieu and the unlicensed Blanche Scott (see 29 Jan 16 post), but Quimby ended up being the only woman who dared to ascend in strong winds, so she won the $600 prize ($15,000 today) by default.

Quimby became noted thereafter for the unique monk-hooded and plum-colored satin aviation costume that she had designed herself. Inspired by the clothing of Dutrieu, it featured knickerbocker trousers that could be rebuttoned into a walking skirt. The makers of grape soda Vin Fiz eventually began using the image of an anonymous aviatrix in a purple hood to suggest that Quimby endorsed their product, but there’s no evidence she was ever paid for the use of her likeness.

During an autumn tour of Mexico by the Moisant International Aviators, Quimby flew a Moisant monoplane, but she left the team prior to their tour of the southern U.S. states. In March 1912, she sailed on the Hamburg-American liner Amerika, announcing her intent “to try her luck in flying contests in France and England.” In truth, she had a more specific goal: becoming the first woman to fly across the English Channel. She secured sponsorship from the London Mirror and arranged to purchase a 70-hp passenger-carrying monoplane from Louis Blériot, who had made the pioneering cross-Channel flight three years earlier. Pending delivery of the new machine, Blériot loaned her a single-seat 50-hp model. Although it differed slightly from the Moisant monoplane she was used to, bad weather prevented Quimby from making even a trial flight with it before she attempted the crossing.

Early on the morning of April 16, she flew for less than an hour across the English Channel and touched down on the beach at Hardelot, France—missing her intended landing spot at Calais because of the fog—the first female aviator to do so. Photographers and motion picture camera operators captured the takeoff and the scene after she landed. It’s often said that news of her feat was overshadowed by the sinking of the Titanic the day before, which is true, but Quimby’s story nevertheless appeared on the front page of many newspapers across the United States.

Returning to America, she had her powerful two-seat Blériot shipped to Hempstead Plains and proposed to give paid rides; there’s a suggestion she hoped to make enough money to retire, so she could spend time doing serious writing. On a test flight with a 115-pound sandbag serving as her “passenger,” the machine nearly turned turtle, but Quimby recovered, and in June she became the first woman to take a passenger in a monoplane. She had continued to write magazine articles throughout the first half of 1912, many recounting her flying experiences; in particular, she advised anyone thinking of making a career of it that profits would be low unless the aviator owned his machine.

Matilde Moisant had retired in April, but Quimby and Blanche Scott agreed to appear during the first week of July at the third annual Harvard-Boston meet. On July 1, Quimby gave an over-water ride William A.P. Willard, manager of the meet and father of Curtiss aviator Charles Willard (see 5 Feb 16 post). They had begun the descent but were still flying at least a thousand feet high when the Blériot’s tail flipped violently up, almost standing the machine on its nose. Aeroplanes of the day did not have safety restraints, and spectators saw Willard ejected. In the sudden absence of his weight, the machine unbalanced again so badly that Quimby, too, was hurled free. Both tumbled a thousand feet to the shallow waters and mud flats of Dorchester Bay and were killed by the impact. The empty aeroplane glided after them, lodged in the mud, and flipped upside down. The exact cause of the accident was never determined.

Harriet Quimby had turned 37 two months earlier. Having left no relatives other than her parents, she was buried in the village of Valhalla in Westchester County, New York. As part of the Harvard-Boston meet, she had been scheduled to carry mail; even though she died before that could happen, in 1991 an air mail postage stamp was issued in her honor. It shows her in the trademark plum-colored costume and identifies her simply as a “Pioneer Pilot” without referring to her sex. Very likely she would have approved.

Motion picture footage from Quimby’s English Channel flight can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJQfY1_BwRI

Rare Bird