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