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.



Lucky Bob

St Henry

June 9, 1911. Fargo, North Dakota. With every bank and store in town closed for the occasion, Robert C. “Lucky Bob” St. Henry soars over Fargo in Sweetheart, his Curtiss biplane. It isn’t the first aeroplane flight in North Dakota—nearly a year earlier, Arch Hoxsey appeared in the skies above Grand Forks—nor does the exhibition have a wider significance than that the aviator hails from North Dakota. What is remarkable is that “Lucky Bob” St. Henry, a man who has been flying for less than four months, does not really exist.


Castle W. Shaffer was born in Nebraska in 1882, the son of a carpenter. Following his high school graduation, he served a machinist apprenticeship with the Union Pacific Railroad.  Shaffer met and married Ellen Kerr in Colorado in 1901, when they were 19. Two years later she sued for divorce, claiming desertion.

It turned out that Shaffer had moved to Detroit, where he joined the Buick Motor Company under the assumed name Robert C. St. Henry, with a claimed birthplace of Texas. In the course of demonstrating Buick’s “horseless carriage” throughout the country in 1903, Shaffer married nineteen year-old May Padbury in Ontario, Canada (just across the river from Detroit). They had a son in 1904, but soon afterward St. Henry left them, supposedly returning to Nebraska.

St. Henry’s movements and employment over the years that followed are something of a mystery. By 1909 he was operating an automobile garage in Carrington, North Dakota, where the local newspaper described him as a “doughty little redheaded mechanic, . . . wiry and a daredevil to the core.” He left North Dakota, turning up more than a year later in San Diego, where he paid a thousand dollars to take flying lessons from Glenn Curtiss. Just where he came up with that money, equivalent to roughly $25,000 today, is unclear—as is the basis for his interest in aviation.

St. Henry was one of the first two civilian students accepted by Curtiss; the other was Charles C. Witmer from Illinois. Tuition money could be applied against the purchase of a flying machine if the student proved adept, and within a month St. Henry was clearly good enough to go on the road. Curtiss wrote to his business manager:

We can sell him a 4-cylinder. The original plan was [for him] to give some exhibitions in Canadian towns [on his own] and pay us a royalty, but, as he is hardly proficient enough, and the aeroplane is not ready to deliver, he is [g]oing up [north] and book[ing] these towns, which he has already lined up, for [Hugh] Robinson to play, . . . or if Robinson goes to Dallas and south, Witmer can play them. This will leave Robinson in the Northwest for June engagements, which I understand [advance man] Moore has booked. We can then ship a machine to St. Henry and he can work in as a 2d man in these engagements.

St. Henry thus quickly became an established member of the Curtiss exhibition team, billed initially as a “Special Student of aeronautics under Glenn Curtiss, and the most daring and foolhardy aviator of them all.” Within a month, however, he was appearing as “Lucky Bob” St. Henry. Even though he hadn’t suffered any notable crashes, the name pithily suggested the riskiness of his flights.

Along with Witmer and Jimmie Ward, St. Henry traveled to Wichita for a Curtiss exhibition beginning May 4. The meet was to be headlined by Eugene Ely, whose January 1911 ship landing was being hailed as the greatest aviation feat ever accomplished. As it happened, St. Henry prudently declined to risk his new machine in the uncertain weather, but the more experienced Ely gave a performance that delighted the crowd.

During that Wichita meet, Curtiss advance man R.R. Young arranged for a two-man exhibition to take place in Butte, Montana, on June 11-13, at which the aviators were to be Ely and Hugh Robinson. The cautious  promoters of the Butte meet vowed that spectators would get “the worth of their money”:

It will be “no fly, no pay” with the Butte men. And more than that, the aviators are compelled, according to the agreement, to remain in Butte until they make the number of flights named in the contract in a satisfactory manner.

Those “Butte men” insisted on having at least two aviators present, as the contract specified. Unfortunately, by the time Ely headed for Montana, compliance was out of the question. Robinson was stuck on the east coast with Witmer, Charles Willard and J.A.D. McCurdy had quit the Curtiss team, and St. Henry was booked for a tour of central Canada and North Dakota.

Curtiss knew about the “no fly, no pay” provision in Butte. Of his four aviators other than Ely, the only realistic possibility was St. Henry, who just might be able to get to Butte in time. But that would mean missing his dates in North Dakota—where the promoters, like those in Butte, had an “ironclad contract with the Curtiss company.” In early June Curtiss, Ely and St. Henry exchanged a flurry of telegrams as they tried to figure out what to do. “While you were away” on the west coast, Curtiss wrote to his business manager, Fanciulli, “I got mixed up in the Butte affair.”

St. Henry first wired it would cost $150.00 to get a special train [to Montana]. He later found out it would cost $800, which makes it practically prohibitive for him to go to Butte. I wired Ely repeatedly to re-arrange the contract for one man. He could do it if he [wanted to], I am satisfied. . . . I don’t know what will happen, but we might as well have a law-suit in Butte as in Dakota, and from what I know I think St. Henry should stick to his dates.

To be fair, it’s not clear that Ely would have had the success predicted by Curtiss. Two days before the meet was to begin, Butte newspapers were reporting the fiction that “Robbins” had wired from Denver that he would be coming, while Charles Walsh (at the time, an independent aviator reported to fly a “Curtiss-Farman” biplane) had done the same from Portland. And soon enough the story changed again: Ely was heading a party of “three more aviators and a dozen mechanicians, hang[a]r attendants, watchmen, etc.” Ely was said to have expressly promised spiral glides, altitude flights, and an attempt to cross the Continental Divide. The suspicious Butte promoters nonetheless added motorcycle races and horse races as a hedge against the failure of the three aeroplanes they were expecting. Having arranged the “Most Auspicious Event Butte Has Had in Years,” they were disinclined to give an inch on the terms of the contract.

In any event, while St. Henry amazed the Fargo crowd, Ely was left on his own in Butte. The weather didn’t cooperate, and his exhibition was consequently a failure. At the end—unsurprisingly, in light of the promoters’ insistence on strict adherence to the terms of the contract—Ely “appeared to be willing to do almost anything to make reparation to the disappointed spectators.” Reports came in that St. Henry had sought to arrive in time to fly on the final day; when that proved impossible, “it was decided to call his engagement off.” Although Curtiss dodged the lawsuit he feared, the Butte promoters unilaterally withheld $1,000 of the amount due, because the “contract called for three machines and three [sic] aviators, and [Ely] came here by himself and brought but one machine.”

St. Henry never saw Ely again. Present when nineteen year-old Cromwell Dixon fell to his death in Spokane at the beginning of October 1911, St. Henry agreed to fill Dixon’s upcoming engagements for the Curtiss company. But when Ely himself died three weeks later, the man known as “Lucky Bob” canceled a planned world tour and announced that he was quitting aviation.

He must have reconsidered, because he flew again during the summer of 1912 before publicly leaving the business in 1913. He also claimed, much later, to have delivered Curtiss aeroplanes to the Chinese government, as well as to Russia, where he said he had taught several novice aviators.

St. Henry resumed using the name Castle W. Shaffer, remarried yet again, and settled in Nebraska. For half a year in 1915 he served with the rank of captain as chief aviation officer in the Nebraska National Guard. In connection with that position, he was expected to give exhibitions. Although he was an experienced aviator, his unaccountable inability to make any successful flights led to his dismissal. Later he would tell of instructing aviators in England during World War I. Whether he did so is unknown.

Using his real name, Shaffer became a member of the Early Birds of Aviation. Throughout the 1920s he was associated with an underwriting company and other businesses in Lincoln, Nebraska. During the Great Depression he moved across the state to the small town of Sidney, where the son of a carpenter opened a cabinet shop that he operated for the rest of his life. He died of a stroke in 1954, at the age of 72.

Lucky Bob

The British Invasion


October 29, 1910. Belmont Park, Long Island. After a week of strong winds makes flying nearly impossible, the weather finally cooperates for the international Gordon Bennett speed race, twenty laps of a five-kilometer course. A year earlier, Glenn Curtiss won the inaugural Gordon Bennett Cup in France with an average speed of 47 mph. But in 1910 no Curtiss machine is fast enough to compete, while the Wrights’ speedy Baby Grand crashes before officially starting the race. Englishman Claude Grahame-White, flying a French-made Blériot monoplane, dominates the contest by completing the 62-mile course at just over a mile per minute pace. America has lost not only the Cup, but also its reputation for aeronautical supremacy.

Claude Grahame-White was born in 1879 in the former shipbuilding town of Bursledon, in Hampshire, England. He became interested in automobiles in his teenage years and owned one of the first petrol-driven cars in England. In 1905 he opened an automobile showroom in the exclusive Mayfair area of London. Soon boasting a motorboat and a sailing yacht as well, he developed a reputation as an incorrigible ladies’ man.

In 1908 Grahame-White watched Wilbur Wright fly in France. One year later, he was a spectator at the first Gordon Bennett Cup race and decided to learn to fly. After ordering a monoplane from Louis Blériot, who had just narrowly lost the race to Glenn Curtiss, Grahame-White supposedly made his first flight without any formal instruction. He was the first Briton licensed in France, and he received the Royal Aero Club’s Certificate No. 6 in April 1910. Shortly afterward he competed in a 180-mile air race from London to Manchester, at one point flying at night in an effort to catch up with eventual winner Louis Paulhan.

Having given a series of exhibitions in England that earned him the equivalent of more than a million dollars in today’s money, Grahame-White sailed for America in August 1910 to try his luck at the substantial prizes being offered at aviation meets across the country. His presence, along with that of A.V. Roe, allowed the September Harvard-Boston Aero Meet to bill itself as “international.” His Blériot machine was late in arriving, so he borrowed a Farman biplane from millionaire amateur aviator Clifford B. Harmon. As one journalist described Grahame-White’s appearance at Harvard-Boston:

The hum of his motors reached across the field, coming out of the fog like a dream creature. Around came the humming. Then, like a phantom taking shape, the machine swooped into view, looming suddenly, like an apparition, out of the fog. So hard was it to tell where the plane would swoop into sight that it brought home forcibly the possibilities of the airship in war.

At that same aviation meet, Grahame-White won a mock bomb-throwing contest and flew his 100-hp Blériot to win a $10,000 prize for the fastest two-circuit over-water flight to Boston Lighthouse and back.

Along with Harmon and wealthy American socialite John Barry Ryan, Grahame-White immediately set out to demonstrate the military possibilities of the aeroplane. They first arranged an exhibition at Benning Racetrack, within the District of Columbia. The Washington Post had just offered Grahame-White a $10,000 prize ($250,000 today) if he broke the record for a long-distance flight (i.e., the 104 miles claimed by Arch Hoxsey. Grahame-White proposed to do so by flying round-trip between Washington and Baltimore. He and Harmon sent formal invitations to various high-ranking army and navy officers, offering them admission to attend Benning meet free of charge.

On October 14, completely unannounced, Grahame-White circled the Capitol dome and landed his Farman biplane on Executive Avenue, right between the White House and the State, War and Navy Building (see photo). The feat was hailed as “the most remarkable and daring landing ever made from such a height by an aviator.” The next day he canceled his planned attempt to break Hoxsey’s record; he cited minor damage to both of his machines, but it seems clear that Ryan, who was in the process of establishing the paramilitary “United States Aeronautical Reserve,” didn’t want to risk the sort of negative publicity Eugene Ely had garnered earlier that same week with an unsuccessful cross-country attempt from Chicago to New York.

Grahame-White’s surprise landing galvanized the American military. Newspapers ran banner headlines: “AERIAL FLEET AND PILOTS TO AID AMERICA IN WAR.”

A week ago in Washington it was rather a difficult matter to interest the man in the street in the aeroplane as an engine of war. Even though he were too polite to tell you so, it was easy to discern that he thought you were looking into the far distant future. To-day, however, the flights of Grahame-White and Clifford B. Harmon, especially when the huge biplane descended gracefully on Executive [A]venue, have demonstrated to all the vast [military] possibilities of the heavier-than-air machine.

Grahame-White was accorded the unofficial title “World’s Greatest Aviator.” Within six weeks, the dashing Englishman had swept America off its feet.

But, less than a fortnight later, as weather limited the flying at Belmont, the press cast about for other news. Americans began to read disapproving stories of Grahame-White’s very public attentions to sporty socialite Eleanora Sears, whom he had met and first taken for an aeroplane ride during the Harvard-Boston meet, at a time when he was supposedly engaged to actress Pauline Chase—and Miss Sears to Harold S. Vanderbilt. (Vanderbilt, in fact, cut short his European visit the day before the Belmont meet opened, sailing on the Hamburg-American liner Kaiserin Auguste, a vessel shortly to play a pivotal role in the life of Eugene Ely.) Soap operatic as the situation was, for many Americans the thought of losing the Cup—and international prestige—to an individual of Grahame-White’s now questionable character was particularly galling. And so, although Grahame-White easily won the Gordon Bennett speed race on October 29, the ability of new favorite son John Moisant to claim second place led most of the newspaper accounts of the contest.

The next day saw a highly anticipated race from Belmont Park to the Statue of Liberty and back. Moisant accidentally taxied into Harmon’s parked aeroplane, wrecking his own machine; Grahame-White’s time beat that of the only other competitor to start in advance of the designated cutoff time. At the last instant, though, Alfred Moisant bought another Blériot for his brother, and John Moisant was permitted to start right after the official window closed. By using a compass and a more direct route, he completed the round-trip flight forty-three seconds more quickly than had Grahame-White.

The enthusiasm of the day before that had greeted Moisant’s second-place finish in the Gordon Bennett race was nothing next to the jubilation attending his Statue of Liberty victory.

Belmont Park rocked and roared . . . with an outburst of wild, uncontrolled enthusiasm . . . Mr. John B. Moisant, American, had won the Statue of Liberty flight after it had passed hopelessly to all appearances to Mr. Claude Grahame-White.

The British aviator sportingly congratulated his rival and announced that he would try again the next day, presumably intending to fly the direct course. But the Aero Club accepted Moisant’s argument that the meet had officially closed on Sunday—notwithstanding an earlier announcement that it would be extended for a day.

The willingness to bend the rules against Grahame-White reflected such blatant provincialism that aviator J. Armstrong Drexel (an American, but close friends with the British flyer) deemed the ruling “a piece of shameless jugglery” and convinced nine other aviators to boycott the dinner to be given by the Aero Club that night as a celebration of the close of the tournament. Drexel even held a competing dinner in honor of the British aviator. Grahame-White submitted a formal protest to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, thus further antagonizing the American public. (Ultimately, the FAI disqualified both Grahame-White, who had grazed a pylon while landing, and Moisant.) Forgotten was the adulation of September; now he was a pariah.

Grahame-White returned in 1911 to England, where he established a flying school at Hendon Aerodrome in London, made the first official air mail delivery in Britain, formed a company to build aircraft, and published the first of his dozen books on the topic, The Story of the Aeroplane. Long a subject of gossip columns, in 1912 he married a New York socialite and heiress—who was neither Eleanora Sears nor Pauline Chase.

Grahame-White published The Aeroplane in War in 1912. Building on his experience with the U.S. Aeronautical Reserve, he promoted the military application of air power by touring his home country in a program called “Wake Up Britain,” during which he provided H.G. Wells, author of the novel The War in the Air, with his first aeroplane ride. During 1913 Grahame-White proposed a commercial air service between London and Paris and helped to test an aerial machine gun.

An enthusiastic believer in the future of aviation, Grahame-White echoed John Moisant’s prediction at Belmont that transatlantic air travel would be possible within five years.By the end of 1911 he was seriously discussing the possibility of crossing the Atlantic in under thirty hours, using a machine with four engines generating 250 hp each and carrying a crew of six. He targeted the summer of 1915 for a westward transatlantic flight—an accomplishment he considered “comparatively simple.” He was preparing to raise $250,000 for a construction fund in the summer of 1914 when World War I broke out, promptly ending all civilian flying.

Grahame-White was one of the few pioneer aviators active during 1910-1911 who also saw aerial combat. He received a temporary commission as a flight commander in the Royal Navy Air Service, in connection with which he reportedly flew over London looking for Zeppelins during the opening days of the war. In early 1915 he participated in a bombing raid on Belgium; on the return flight he had to ditch in the English Channel. Later that year, with espionage hysteria sweeping England, he was reported to have been shot as a German spy in the Tower of London; accounts that he had been severely wounded in France were equally unfounded.

Friction with his immediate superior in the air service, Commander John Cyril Porte, coupled with Grahame-White’s primary interest in continuing to build aeroplanes, precipitated an abrupt end to his military service. Roughly coincident with that event, he was rumored to be keeping company with “an actress”—who turned out to be Ethel Levey, ex-wife of vaudevillian and composer George M. Cohan. In 1916 Grahame-White’s own wife, from whom he had been separated for some time, initiated divorce proceedings that were followed eagerly by the press. Hardly was the divorce finalized before Grahame-White married Ethel Levey.

Ultimately, the first nonstop Atlantic crossing took place in 1919 without any involvement by Grahame-White. During the war he had loaned his Hendon aerodrome to the government, which afterward took it by eminent domain. Grahame-White became entangled in a legal battle over compensation for the taking, and for sums he claimed owing for aircraft manufactured during the war. When the litigation finally ended in 1925 he received the equivalent of $2.5 million today. He gave up aviation and didn’t fly again until 1933.He continued to write but otherwise faded from the public eye. His second wife divorced him in 1939 after he admitted to adultery. He remarried yet again.

Grahame-White made another fortune developing property in the United States and Britain. During World War II he purchased an American yacht to be used by the British military as a hospital ship. He maintained a primary residence in Beverly Hills, but for the last several years of his life he and his wife lived in Nice, France.

He died in 1959, two days short of his eightieth birthday.

A biography, Claude Grahame-White, by Graham Wallace, has recently been digitized.


The British Invasion

Shooting Star


January 28, 1911. Havana, Cuba. Cubans celebrate the second anniversary of the restoration of their republic with a military parade at Camp Columbia, the U.S. Army barracks established during the Spanish-American War. After the parade, and in anticipation of an aviation meet to be held under the auspices of the Havana Post (and the “patronage” of the Cuban government), Curtiss aviator James J. “Jimmie” Ward flies in a 30 mph wind. President Gómez, along with his Cabinet “and other notables,” watches the first ascent of a flying machine over Cuba. No one present realizes that Ward’s exhibition marks the end of exclusively civilian flying. The following day Mexican rebels will “liberate” the city of Mexicali, accelerating American willingness to consider the use of aeroplanes in warfare. Within two months, the U.S. Army will establish its first aero squadron at San Antonio, and Glenn Curtiss will consider sending Ward there to train the army aviators.

“Jimmie Ward” was, in fact, an assumed name. Born Jens Peter Wilson in 1886, in Denmark, he had immigrated with his family to the United States in 1888; they settled in Crookston, a city in northwest Minnesota. As a boy, Jens clashed with his well-digger father. He Americanized his name to Jimmie, ran away to Chicago, and became a chauffeur. He also changed his surname to Ward, supposedly to avoid losing his license after acquiring a number of speeding tickets.

Ward took a job as “mechanician” for then novice aviator Bud Mars in the spring of 1910. He attended the Curtiss team’s meet in June at Minneapolis, where he told a reporter he hoped “to follow aviation as a profession.” Shortly after that, Ward returned to Chicago and met James Plew, president of the Illinois Aero Club. Plew owned a Curtiss aeroplane (Herring-Curtiss No. 4, purchased in November 1909), but he needed someone to fly it for him.

Despite the lack of formal instruction, Ward used his general familiarity with the machine to make a few successful flights for Plew in Galesburg, fifty miles south of Rock Island, at the end of September 1910. Glenn Curtiss arrived in Chicago a day or two after those flights and was sufficiently impressed that he hired Ward to cover an exhibition in Lewiston, Idaho, beginning October 13. Before leaving town, Ward posed for a photograph that identified him as one of “America’s Famous Aviators.”

Ward seems to have done no flying between mid-October and late November, but when Curtiss headed west for the winter, taking Charles Willard and Bud Mars with him, he left his business manager, Jerome Fanciulli, in charge of the “Department of the East.” The Curtiss aviators who reported to Fanciulli were Eugene Ely, J.A.D. McCurdy, and novice flyer Augustus Post. Whether on his own or at the direction of Curtiss, Fanciulli engaged Ward as well. Ward’s first appearance as part of the Curtiss team was with Ely on November 21-22 in Birmingham, Alabama.

In December, Bud Mars quit to tour the Orient on his own. “Mars got away,” Curtiss confided to Fanciulli, “owing us considerable.” Fanciulli, who viewed Mars as a traitor, immediately began imagining trouble from the other aviators: “I am arranging to drop Ward,” he wrote to Curtiss. “He is too careless, is rotten morally, and so ignorant that he reflects discredit on the whole organization. He resembles Mars in too many ways.” Curtiss must have talked Fanciulli out of it, because Ward remained on the team.

The Department of the East continued to give exhibitions without incident throughout the Southeast. At New Orleans, Ward flew to four thousand feet, setting an altitude record for a 25-hp flying machine. As a marketing device, he began calling his aeroplane Shooting Star. At an Atlanta exhibition, “Ward surprised the crowd by his high flights in his 4-cylinder Curtiss, while Ely and McCurdy raced each other and conducted bomb dropping tests.”

To take Mars’ place in California, Curtiss summoned Ely to the west coast; Ward and McCurdy proceeded to Dillon, South Carolina, where they received “$1,000 for the day’s flights although the entire population of the town is less than 1,100.” Ward flew higher than five thousand feet over Charleston, and the team moved on to Virginia and Florida.

By late January 1911 Ward was in Havana on behalf of Curtiss. Fanciulli began advertising him as “the world’s youngest aviator” (even though he was no younger than Ely) and—an equally false claim—the “official aeroplane instructor to United States army and navy officers in Cuba.”

Later that spring, Ward met and impulsively married Maude May Mauger in Tennessee; he took her for her first aeroplane ride a month later, at Wichita (pictured above). Meanwhile, Curtiss needed a professional aviator to fly acceptance tests for the army’s powerful new “war machine” in San Antonio. Ward was, Curtiss wrote to Fanciulli, “the only aviator who could be spared or who would accept the offer,” but he was hardly the ideal choice, given his inexperience with eight-cylinder machines. The solution Curtiss chose was to telegraph Ely, asking him to give up his engagements and head to San Antonio in April. Ely agreed and spent a short time in Texas before meeting up with Ward and other Curtiss flyers in Wichita.

Later in the summer, Ward gave exhibitions with Hugh Robinson in Arkansas and Kansas, by now specializing in altitude flights. When asked whether he felt fear in the air, Ward said: “I feel perfectly natural all the time, and am never afraid. While I appreciate the dangers of flying, I never worry about death, but go ahead and take all the precautions possible.” He went on to Nebraska, then back home to Minnesota. “The day is coming,” said one newspaper, “when flying machines will be common enough, but the first exhibition here of the conquest of the air is worthy of a celebration.”

The last big aviation meet of summer 1911 was held in Chicago, and Ward arrived to find himself held out as the hometown hero. He passed the test to obtain his license from the Aero Club of America (No. 52), which allowed him to compete for prizes. He won nearly $3,000 at Chicago, but his fame had an unintended consequence: he found himself the defendant in a suit for abandonment and non-support by Margaret Warner, a young woman who asserted that she was his wife, and the mother of his child. Ward settled the suit by the payment of $250.

Ward became attracted by the lure of the $50,000 Hearst prize offered for the first transcontinental flight completed within thirty days before October 11. He quit flying for Curtiss—as an independent aviator he could keep the entire prize if he won—but the fact that he had a new machine, built by the Curtiss factory and christened Hearst Pathfinder, was enough to draw public support from Curtiss for the attempt.

Ward set off from New York City on September 13. As would Cal Rodgers, who set out a few weeks later, he encountered no end of mechanical difficulties. Unlike Rodgers, however, he dropped out of the contest within a week and a half—having failed to fly much west of Hammondsport, where his aeroplane had been built.

Ward started his own aviation exhibition company, at one point appearing with Blanche Stuart Scott. Increasing competition and declining public interest forced him out of the business in 1913. He spent the next two years trying to develop the “Ward Cycle Car,” an automobile equipped with a motorcycle engine and wheels. He then went into business with Horace Wild, a former dirigible pilot, serving as chief instructor of the International Aircraft Company.

With the advent of World War I, Ward found work as a civilian instructor for the army air service. He resumed public instruction and exhibition flying in Arkansas after the war, and he was one of the few “barnstormers” who could claim pre-war experience. Although he was a careful flyer who claimed never to have had a serious accident, Ward lost a finger and part of a hand in 1920 while cranking a propeller before a flight.

It’s unclear when Ward last flew. After his wife died in a hotel fire, the distraught Ward drifted to Miami, where Glenn Curtiss sheltered him. As Ward’s depression worsened in early 1923, Curtiss had him committed to a state mental institution. He died there later that year of a cerebral hemorrhage, at the age of 37.

Ward’s life is the subject of a biographical sketch, Shooting Star: Aviator Jimmie Ward of Crookston, by Steven R. Hoffbeck.


Shooting Star



October 11, 1910. Kinloch Field, St. Louis. As Eugene Ely struggles to make the first aeroplane trip between Chicago and New York, former president Theodore Roosevelt arrives in St. Louis to campaign for Missouri Republican candidates. After initially declining a spontaneous offer to take a ride in an aeroplane by Arch Hoxsey, one of the leading Wright aviators, Roosevelt changes his mind and accepts. Hoxsey and teammate Ralph Johnstone will be dubbed the Stardust Twins within two weeks. Today, Hoxsey is the man who takes a U.S. president into the sky for the first time, performing a series of roller-coaster dips as Roosevelt clings to a strut. The Wright brothers are so incensed by Hoxsey’s recklessness that they consider firing him on the spot.

Archibald Eckles Hoxsey, born in downstate Illinois in April 1879, became fascinated by machinery from a young age. Named after his father, he went by plain “Arch” and was said to dislike the overly familiar “Archie.” His father died when Hoxsey was thirteen. Thereafter he lived with his mother, and would do so until well into his twenties. Eventually they moved to Pasadena, slightly northeast of Los Angeles.

Following the rise to popularity of the horseless carriage in the late 1890s, Hoxsey found employment as a chauffeur, obtaining one of the earliest licenses issued by the State of California. Dirigible pioneer T.S. “Captain Tom” Baldwin then arrived in Los Angeles in 1904 with his California Arrow, fresh off its triumph at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. On February 12, 1905, the Baldwin dirigible, piloted by Roy Knabenshue, won a cross-town race against a Pope-Toledo automobile for a hundred-dollar bet. The finish line was Hoxsey’s home town of Pasadena.

The capacity for speed of the airship fascinated the mechanic in Hoxsey, who began to associate with experienced aeronauts Knabenshue and Baldwin in order to learn all he could about dirigibles. Twenty-five year-old Hoxsey was described in the newspapers as a “boy genius” who spent all his time around machine shops.

In the autumn of 1905 Hoxsey built an airship of his own, based loosely on California Arrow. On January 2, 1906, he attempted his maiden sky voyage. “[F]inding that the gas bag would not raise the framework which he had built for his sky yacht, [Hoxsey simply] attached a [hot air balloon-style] basket, climbed in, cut loose the airship and sailed over the city at an elevation of thousands of feet,” for close to two hours. In the wake of that flight, Baldwin made a prescient comment: “I believe that I will live to see the time when some of we older fellows will have to take off our hats to him.”

Hoxsey gave up dirigibles soon after that first flight, however, sticking to the more remunerative occupation of driving automobiles. He served as chauffeur for Charles G. Gates, son of the oil and steel tycoon (and “barbed wire king”) John Warne Gates. A report published after Hoxsey’s death claimed that he had driven the younger Gates in Europe, which is certainly possible. But, by the end of 1909, Hoxsey was seeking new work.

Knabenshue, his old acquaintance and mentor, initially hired Hoxsey to assist in maintaining the engines of the Beachey-Knabenshue Racing Airships at the international aviation meet held in January 1910 at Dominguez Field, ten miles north of Long Beach. Two months later the Wright brothers were looking to assemble an aeroplane exhibition team, and they hired Knabenshue to manage it. He in turn recommended Hoxsey—who, if nothing else, had experience with flying machine engines, and even some time in the air.

Hoxsey, one of the first Wright students, went to Montgomery, Alabama, to take flying lessons. On April 29 he sent a telegram to his mother reporting that he had enjoyed his first ride in an aeroplane, with Orville Wright himself the instructor. Several weeks later Hoxsey flew for half an hour under the guidance of fellow student Walter Brookins. On May 25 the pair reportedly made two trips by moonlight, “circling, wheeling and going through all the evolutions customary in daytime.”

Hoxsey appeared in public for the first time at the Indianapolis aviation meet that Knabenshue arranged on behalf of the Wrights for the week of June 13. Hoxsey flew uneventfully for nearly three months after that, but early in September he had his first accident when he crashed into a barn in Lincoln, Nebraska. “Treacherous air currents,” rather than reckless flying, was identified as the cause. But in truth Hoxsey, like Johnstone, had grown overconfident and was experimenting with stunt flying.

Two days after Wilbur Wright ordered Johnstone and Brookins to quit all dangerous maneuvers at the Harvard-Boston meet, Hoxsey’s takeoff in Milwaukee went wrong when he was caught in a side wind. He crashed into the grandstand, without harming himself but injuring seven spectators. Immediately after the accident Wilbur Wright, having dispatched Hoxsey and Johnstone to Detroit for an unsupervised exhibition, felt the need to memorialize his strictures. He wrote to Hoxsey: “ I am very much in earnest when I say that I want no stunts and spectacular frills put on the flights there. . . . Please let Mr. Johnstone see this letter so that both may have the same instructions.” His final sentence underscores the extent to which the rivalry between the pair of flyers was genuine.

The Detroit exhibition passed without incident. A few days later Hoxsey flew nonstop from Springfield, Illinois, to St. Louis, a distance he estimated as 104 miles (point to point, it was closer to eighty-five, but he spent time circling in the air). His accomplishment was hailed as an unofficial American sustained flight record, no doubt much to the Wrights’ satisfaction. In his enthusiasm, Hoxsey capped the feat by giving the unauthorized ride to Roosevelt.

The problem the Wrights faced, notwithstanding their opposition to risky maneuvers, was the popularity of their star flyers—and the amount of money the sensational flights made. During the Belmont Park meet, the Stardust Twins alone brought to the company over $10,000 in prizes within a ten-day period (the equivalent of a quarter million in today’s dollars). Every penny in prize money went to the Wrights, while Hoxsey and Johnstone were paid twenty dollars each for the whole week, plus fifty dollars for every day they were in the air—days that excluded Sundays, by order of the pious brothers. So the Twins kept their employment, even as they continued to make spectacular flights.

Ralph Johnstone died in the crash at Denver on November 17, within three weeks of his Belmont Park triumph. As it happened, the Wright team was next scheduled to appear in Los Angeles, so Hoxsey went home to Pasadena for a rest. While he was there, Georges Legagneux, a French aviator, set a new world altitude record of 10,499 feet.

The Wrights did authorize altitude flights, and on Christmas Day 1910 (unaccountably, a Sunday), Hoxsey flew up to just short of eight thousand feet with ease. When he returned, he “descended so rapidly that he seemed to be falling.” All told, he remained in the air nearly two hours, performing various stunts “while the crowd went wild in its appreciation of his efforts.” On the following day, before a crowd of seventy-five thousand, he flew to 11,474 feet—well over two miles high—surpassing Legagneux’s mark by nearly a thousand feet and reclaiming the world record for the Wrights.

Hoxsey also, for the first time in his career, participated in a mock bomb-dropping accuracy contest that day, rising two hundred feet higher than any of his competitors and demonstrating a cavalier attitude toward the contest by eating one of the oranges to be used as “bombs.”Even with a three-point penalty for “malicious waste of ammunition,” he took second place in the event. His playful attitude manifested itself as well when he dive-bombed the judges on the ground.

Hoxsey established a new American endurance record on December 30, staying aloft for three and a quarter hours as he sought to break his own altitude record. His mother was said to be in the stands, watching and waiting, as he fought his way through some “air holes” at seven thousand feet that nearly caused his engine to stop.  He figured to have easily eclipsed his own altitude mark, but it turned out he had misread the barograph, believing he was at 12,575 feet when he was exactly two thousand feet lower. Somewhat ominously, he told newsmen that he had found it difficult to breathe even as low as seven thousand feet.

On the final day of the year, certain that no one would eclipse any new mark he set for 1910, Hoxsey rose high into the sky, chasing the twelve thousand foot barrier he thought to have shattered the day before. By some accounts, he was concerned that his December 26 record might not be accepted by European officials.

Hoxsey was gone an hour and a half when spectators spotted him descending, first in circles and then—from roughly five hundred feet up—in an uncontrolled tumble to the ground. Unlike Johnstone, he did not appear to have been attempting any aerobatics. Still in his seat, Hoxsey was crushed beneath the engine. An apocryphal story maintained that the news of his death was going out by telegraph even before he hit the ground.

The condition of the corpse made specifying the cause of death impossible, although the barograph showed that he hadn’t gone above seven thousand feet. Hoxsey might, perhaps, have lost consciousness after climbing at an unusually steep rate while attempting to conserve fuel. At seven thousand feet, he shouldn’t have been affected, but it’s worth recalling that he had reported trouble breathing at that exact altitude twenty-four hours earlier. Also possible is that the machine somehow malfunctioned and that, by diving too quickly in an effort to get to the ground, he blacked out.

Hoxsey was cremated three days later, after a service in Pasadena. Reports of the funeral listed Ely and Curtiss among the pallbearers and recorded that thousands of people came to pay their respects. A true national celebrity, Hoxsey had enjoyed a flying career that lasted barely eight months. He was thirty-one, and he died a bachelor.

A more extensive article about Johnstone and Hoxsey is due to be published in the Summer 2016 edition of the American Aviation Historical Society Journal.



The Reckless King of Bicyclists


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.

The Reckless King of Bicyclists

Vin Fiz

Cal Rodgers

September 17, 1911. Sheepshead Bay, Long Island. Three years to the day after the world’s first aviation fatality, Cal Rodgers lifts off in a modified Wright B Flyer, intending to fly all the way across the country. Newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst has a standing offer of $50,000 to the first aviator who flies from coast to coast in either direction within thirty days, using start- and end-points at New York (or Boston) and Los Angeles (or San Francisco) and passing through Chicago. For eleven months after Hearst’s announcement of the prize, which will expire on October 10, no one has even tried. Cal Rodgers, 32, is the third aviator to start an attempt in September 1911. Rodgers has fewer than one hundred days of experience in the air. And he is completely deaf.

Calbraith Perry Rodgers was born in 1879 into a family that had already produced a number of high-ranking American naval officers, but scarlet fever contracted as a child led to a profound hearing loss that rendered him unfit for military duty. The wealthy Rodgers developed a fondness for sailboats, racehorses, fast cars, and cigars.

A younger cousin, John Rodgers, happened to be serving as a lieutenant and assistant gunnery officer aboard U.S.S. Pennsylvania when Eugene Ely made his historic landing on that warship in January 1911. John volunteered for aviation duty shortly thereafter, was assigned to learn from the Wright Brothers at Huffman Prairie (near Dayton), and would soon be formally designated Naval Aviator No. 2. Cal went to Dayton to visit his cousin in June, became enthusiastic about aviation, learned to fly, and bought an aeroplane of his own.

The next major international meet in America would be held at Chicago in mid-August 1911. To be eligible for prizes, each competitor had to hold a license from the Aero Club of America. Rodgers obtained his license on August 7 and headed off to Chicago, where he won more than $11,000, including a substantial prize for endurance flying after logging a cumulative twenty-seven hours in the air. His experience in that event persuaded him that a transcontinental flight was feasible, and he determined to go after the Hearst prize.

With no dedicated airfields along the way, and in anticipation of needing numerous repairs, Rodgers knew the undertaking would be expensive. He persuaded Armour & Company, the producer of a new Vin Fiz (loosely, “bubble wine”) grape soda, to sponsor his attempt. The aeroplane was christened the Vin Fiz Flyer, and the soda’s name was prominently lettered on the wings and tail. In return for turning his machine into a flying billboard, Rodgers received from Armour a support train, reimbursement of all his expenses, and an additional payment of $5/mile from New York to Chicago and $4/mile thereafter—the thought being that, because the country was more sparsely populated west of the Mississippi, the advertising was less valuable. Rodgers generated an additional source of income by charging to carry air mail, for which he had special twenty-five cent stamps printed. His wife Mabel served as his postmistress.

Rodgers left Sheepshead Bay on September 17, well aware that the Hearst prize would expire by its terms hardly three weeks later, but believing he had a chance to beat the deadline. Because he had no navigational instruments, he planned to follow railroad tracks, with the white-painted Vin Fiz support train alerting him to any confusing route issues. Unfortunately, a combination of navigational errors, mechanical difficulties and repeated crashes slowed his progress to such an extent that he didn’t reach Chicago until October 8; there’s even some thought that his deafness may have prevented him from hearing when the engine misfired. Nonetheless, motivated by his contract, as well as a desire to see the thing through, he kept on.

Rodgers flew with his pockets full of cigars, which he chain-smoked to give himself a bit of warmth. He wanted to avoid the Rocky Mountains, so he flew south from Chicago to Texas, and he was in Dallas on October 19 when he learned of Ely’s death that day in a crash. Although Rodgers himself wasn’t flying a Curtiss machine, as Ely had, the news reportedly made him concerned about possible mechanical issues with the Vin Fiz Flyer. He made a special inspection and discovered frayed wires that, it was said, would have caused a potentially fatal crash had they not been replaced.

Although Rodgers had by then already covered nearly three thousand miles in the air, he had taken more than the allotted thirty days to do it. Two days after Ely’s death, Rodgers formally gave up on the Hearst prize but continued the transcontinental flight. At Tucson, Arizona, he passed Robert Fowler, an aviator attempting to make the first transcontinental flight from west to east. Fowler had left San Francisco six days before Rodgers took off from Sheepshead Bay, and he would not arrive at Jacksonville, Florida, until February 1912.

Cheered on by crowds numbering in the thousands, Rodgers reached his intended destination of Pasadena on November 5. The trip had covered more than 4100 miles and had taken 49 days—twelve days more than Norman DeVaux needed in 1896 to bicycle across the country.  Rodgers nevertheless predicted that transcontinental air travel in less than three days would become possible just as soon as a way was devised to protect passengers from the cold, by seating them inside some sort of aerial cabin.

The following week, as Rodgers attempted to fly a final twenty-three miles to the ocean at Long Beach, where he had been offered $1000 by the city to land, he was overcome with drowsiness and crashed, badly injuring himself and wrecking his machine. On December 10, he symbolically completed the transcontinental trip by landing on the beach. Rodgers was still using crutches; spectators pushed the machine down wet its wheels in the Pacific Ocean.

Rodgers stayed on at Long Beach for several months, giving passenger rides. On April 3, flying solo, he plunged into the surf within a few hundred feet of where his transcontinental trip had ended. The engine behind him broke loose and crushed him. Earlier in that final flight he had chased a flock of seagulls, and there’s some speculation the fatal crash was caused by a “bird strike.”

Rodgers was 33 and had flown for less than ten months, but he was something of a national hero. His death led Mathilde Moisant to quit flying altogether and others, like Walter Brookins, to call for an end to sensational flights. Within two weeks of his death, Harriet Quimby became the first woman to fly across the English Channel; although she died on July 1, her likeness would be appropriated posthumously and used to market Vin Fiz.

Cal Rodgers was buried in his home town of Pittsburgh. The epitaph on his headstone reads: I endure. I conquer. He was one of the first aviation pioneers to be enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.


Vin Fiz