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.