October 31, 1910. Belmont Racetrack, Long Island. Wright aviator Ralph Johnstone sets the world altitude record by ascending to 9,714 feet in a Wright “Baby Grand” biplane. His achievement marks the culmination of a week of spectacular performances by the Wright team. Five days earlier, Johnstone and teammate Arch Hoxsey ascended into the gathering darkness and were lost to sight for ten minutes; journalists who speculated that they had “gone up to light the stars” dubbed the pair the “Heavenly Twins” or —the label that stuck—the “Stardust Twins.” They landed safely. The next day, strong winds pushed their lightweight aeroplanes backward, with Johnstone landing forty miles behind the place he started. But the altitude record outshines the earlier feats. And Johnstone is annoyed with himself for not having broken the ten thousand-foot barrier.
Born in eastern Kansas in September 1879, Ralph Johnstone discovered bicycles around the age of twelve. Within five years, as Norman DeVaux bicycled across the country, Johnstone was endorsing Oriental brand wheels and booking paid engagements in which he held himself out as the “champion trick bicycle rider of the world.” He toured the east coast in vaudeville shows, drawing praise and astonishment. Described as a “daredevil,” “the premier of all trick cyclists,” “phenomenal” and “the reckless king of bicyclists,” Johnstone developed a signature stunt in which he ascended a flight of stairs while balanced on one wheel (presumably the rear, although that was never specified) and then dropped twelve feet to the stage, still mounted, to ride away unscathed. Reviewer after reviewer marveled that he hadn’t yet broken his neck.
By the time he was twenty-two, Johnstone was married and performing in Europe. “There are cyclists and cyclists,” said a London reviewer, “and I am not going to start comparisons, but there is no doubt, in his trick jumping, Johnstone can justifiably announce himself as the Champion Trick Rider of the World.” Among other marvels, he could pirouette casually on his bicycle or play a tune by landing his front wheel sequentially on the keys of a specially-designed piano. His signature staircase stunt evolved to seventeen upward steps with three drops, including a final “dead drop to the stage.”
Around the end of May 1910, Johnstone gave up his bicycle performances and began learning to fly at the Wright brothers’ Huffman Prairie flying field, near Dayton. Wilbur Wright would later call Johnstone “the quickest pupil we had”—and small wonder, given his exquisite sense of balance. Within three weeks the Wrights were confident enough in Johnstone’s flying to add him to the program for the first public appearance of their exhibition team, at the Indianapolis motor speedway.
For Johnstone, an aeroplane was a bicycle he could ride in the sky. He noted that the Wright brothers were
the creators of the machines. I am in another class. I find these aeroplanes ready to be used for my purpose just as I found the bicycle. I couldn’t invent either a bicycle or an aeroplane, but I can use them, and use them better than the men who made them. Moreover, I can go on and on in discovering new methods of controlling and handling them, because I have the vaudeville performer’s instinct.
He had spent his entire adult life as a paid performer; impressing crowds was what he did.
Two months after Johnstone took up flying, a Wright exhibition at Asbury Park, New Jersey, ushered in the heavily advertised competition between “[i]mmaculate Archie Hoxsey, the dude of the Wright aviators, and his rival, Ralph Johnstone, the former trick bicycle rider.” Newspapers reported that the “deadly rivalry . . . provoked an exhibition of the most reckless flying that has ever been seen in America.” The two flyers staged “a thrilling aerial duel of sensational performances” and “flirted gaily with death in order that no one might be able to say that one was more skillful than the other.” Wilbur Wright confirmed much later that, for Johnstone at least, the competition was no act: “He was dissatisfied,” Wilbur said, “with merely equaling another’s achievements—he wanted to excel.”
But the Wrights were unhappy with the stunt flying of their aviators. Wilbur showed up in person at Asbury Park to caution his flyers against reckless performances. Notwithstanding his orders, Johnstone and Hoxsey began to take increasingly greater risks—including flights made in the rain (against the wishes of promoters, who would have preferred a postponement) and simultaneous night flights. Johnstone, starting at a reported fifteen hundred feet, routinely “lunged toward the earth, whirled his craft around almost in its own length, and then swooped down in front of the grand stand with all the grace of a giant bird.” Hoxsey “made a number of his scant perpendicular turns, hur[d]led over invisible fences, pirouetted like a ballet dancer and did an aerial hop, skip and a jump.” All of this occurred in an era when aviators wore no safety restraints.
The following month, while Johnstone was “grinding around and around the course” at the Harvard-Boston meet for a duration flying contest, he became aware that President Taft was on the ground. The aviator threw in gratuitous “graceful dips and tip-tilted air turns” as a salute. Then he and teammate Walter Brookins [see22 Apr 16 post] engaged in a little “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 being copied by Hoxsey and Johnstone and performed regularly. Crowds showed up expecting to be thrilled by it.
But early aeroplanes were necessarily constructed of lightweight materials, and none of the three flyers seems to have understood the tremendous stresses placed on the fragile wings by such tight turns. Aeroplanes were, after all, built to fly horizontally. By making a turn at even a sixty-degree angle, an aviator experienced a g-force of twice his actual weight—and the spiral glide tipped a machine well past that mark. Wilbur Wright fully realized the danger: when Brookins and Johnstone persisted in their stunts at the Harvard-Boston meet, he “feared for their safety and ordered them to desist.” Johnstone achieved his greatest fame at the Belmont aviation meet in late October, confining himself to altitude flights and eliminating the dangerous spiral glides.
As autumn arrived with its unsettled weather, the Wrights decided to move their exhibitions to the west coast. Having been lectured again by Wilbur about the need to avoid “foolhardy risks,” Johnstone made his leisurely way across the Midwest, stopping to visit relatives in Moberly and Kansas City, Missouri. When asked about the future of aeroplanes, he was quoted as saying:
The machines will be much bigger, perhaps a hundred times bigger than those of today. It will require four men to operate them, and they will have four or five engines. They will have a comfortable state room and observation platform. They could do all that now if they had the engines.
He offered his opinion as well that the practical altitude limit for aeroplanes, given the engines of the time, was roughly fourteen to fifteen thousand feet.
Johnstone promised reporters he would attempt “no tricks” in the thin air at his next exhibition, in Denver. But on November 17—three days after Eugene Ely made the first flight off a warship—he did. Some accounts attribute his behavior to the sight of Hoxsey making a “daring flight far over the foothills.” Whatever the cause, Johnstone threw in a spiral glide toward the end of his first exhibition. He went on to make a safe landing, but the recklessness of the stunt was sufficiently apparent that Brookins, nominally in charge of the other flyers, fired off an ominous telegram to manager Roy Knabenshue [see 4 Mar 16 post]: “Johnstone flies as he pleases.”
As Johnstone prepared to make his second flight of the day, a small dog stood in front of his machine and barked furiously, much to the amusement of the crowd. Johnstone avoided the dog on takeoff, rose to a height estimated at 500-800 feet, and went into the famous spiral glide expressly forbidden by Wilbur Wright.
The wire service account of what happened next includes this vivid description:
The machine tilted at an angle of nearly 90 degrees and [Johnstone] swooped down in a narrow circle, the aeroplane seeming to turn almost in its own length. As he started the second circle, the middle sp[a]r, which braces the left side of the lower plane, gave way, and the wing tips of both upper and lower [left] planes folded up as though they had been hinged. For a second Johnstone attempted to right the plane by warping [i.e., twisting] the other wing tip. Then the horrified spectators say the plane swerved like a wounded bird, and plunged straight toward the earth.
For more than a decade, those who watched Johnstone perform had marveled that he didn’t break his neck. Now it had happened, and in a most gruesome fashion: his back, neck, and both legs were broken, “the bones of his thigh being forced through the flesh and the leather garments he wore.” Less than six months after learning to fly, 31-year-old Ralph Johnstone had become the first American aviator-pilot to die in a crash. Walter Brookins accompanied the body of his teammate home to Kansas City.