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Authors: Gavin Mortimer

Chasing Icarus

BOOK: Chasing Icarus
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CHASING ICARUS

CHASING
ICARUS

The Seventeen Days in 1910 That Forever
Changed American Aviation

GAVIN MORTIMER

For Margot

CONTENTS

Author’s Note

Prologue: The Biggest Events Are Yet to Come

Chapter 1 It’s Europe or Bust

Chapter 2 Let’s Stick by the Ship

Chapter 3 A Sort of Bleeding to Death

Chapter 4 Will Launch Lifeboats and Trust to You

Chapter 5 We Are in Bad Country and Grave Danger

Chapter 6 Progress Slow and Exhausting

Chapter 7 Wait Until Orville Comes

Chapter 8 An Epoch-Making Event

Chapter 9 Tears Started to Our Eyes

Chapter 10 A Death Trap

Chapter 11 Here Are Two Men in a Boat

Chapter 12 Are You These Gentlemen?

Chapter 13 There’s Always a Chimney for a Man to Hang On To

Chapter 14 I’ll Be Able to Give the Wrights a Good Race

Chapter 15 I’m Not Hurt Much but I Want a Long Rest

Chapter 16 It Isn’t True, It Can’t Be True!

Chapter 17 My Disgust at This Betrayal

Epilogue: We’re Sending Sputniks to the Moon

Acknowledgments

Notes

Glossary of Aviation Terms

Selected Bibliography and Sources

A Note on the Author

By the Same Author

In the fall of 1910 no one could agree on what to call this daring new breed of men in the heavier-than-air flying machine.
Aviators
and
fliers
were the most popular (and prosaic) monikers, but journalists trawled their imaginations to come up with more colorful descriptions. Browsing through the newspapers on any given day, one might read of “birdmen” or “man birds,” “dragon fliers” or “flierlings.” Those reporters with a more lyrical bent opted for “wizards of the sky” or “flying gladiators.” Those less predisposed to melodrama simply called the men at the controls “jockeys,” “riders,” “chauffeurs,” or “navigators of the upper regions.” Just about the only word not deemed appropriate was
pilot
. Therefore, in keeping with the times, I refer to the men throughout the book either as
fliers
or
aviators
, and never as
pilots
. Similarly,
aeroplane
was as common as
airplane
, but for expediency I stick with the latter.

In addition, the International Aviation Cup, or the Coupe Internationale d’Aviation as the French called it, was sponsored by Gordon Bennett, publisher of the
New York Herald
newspaper. He also put his name to the International Balloon Cup. The trophies were often described by newspapers as the Gordon Bennett Aviation Cup and the Gordon Bennett Balloon Cup. To prevent confusion, I refer at all times to the International Aviation Cup and the International Balloon Cup.

The value of life lies not in the length of days, but in the use we make of them.

—MICHEL DE MONTAIGNE, 1580

PROLOGUE

The Biggest Events Are Yet to Come

All of America was excited. The first Aviation Meet was about to take place on American soil, and the nation’s newspapers were in no doubt that a new chapter had begun. It was front-page news across the country on Sunday, January 9, 1910, from the
Billings Daily Gazette
to the
Nevada State Journal
to the
Indianapolis Star
. Monday in Los Angeles dawned with a clear blue sky and what one newspaper described as a “mere zephyr of breeze that floated rather than blew up from the sea, and over the valley between the snow-capped mountains.” Across the city thousands of people wolfed down their breakfast before riding the Pacific Electric trains fifteen miles south to what had once been called Dominguez Junction, but was now named Aviation Field. As they poured out of the cars onto the platform, children tugged at their fathers’ sleeves and asked what was that strange noise. Their fathers weren’t sure. Automobiles, most probably, belonging to the rich who had motored out from the city. To some dads, those who had fought in the Spanish-American War, the noise brought back memories of heavy machine guns in action.

None had ever before seen a heavier-than-air flying machine, and they had only read about them in newspaper articles illustrated not by photographs but by sketches of these newfangled inventions that seemed not much more than muslin, wood, and wire. In one such report, published in the
Chicago Daily Tribune
the previous fall, under the heading WHY AN AEROPLANE FLIES, the paper had explained to its readers, “An understanding of what holds an airplane in the air can best be reached by going back to the old familiar kite. A kite is kept elevated by running with it against the wind, or by allowing the wind to blow against it. When the kite flies two forces work against each other; one, the force of the wind, the other, the weight of the kite. It is exactly the same with an airplane, with the exception that instead of waiting for the wind to blow against it, the airplane drives itself against the wind.” This was done, continued the paper, by a propeller driven by a motor engine, which, for all the thrilling potential of the airplane, held the key to its development. “If the propellers could whirl rapidly enough they could create an absolute vacuum in front and have thirty pounds per square inch on every inch of their back surface. If this condition were possible, or if engines powerful enough and propellers strong enough to withstand that pressure could be made, an aeroplane, according to such experts as the Wrights, could be sent through the air at a rate of 500 miles an hour.” The principles of flight were lost on many among the crowd scurrying toward Aviation Field, but they didn’t care. It wasn’t the mechanics that mattered, it was the fact that man could fly. They all gasped when they saw the grandstand with its tiers of boxes already filling up quickly. It was fifty feet high and ran for seven hundred feet along one side of the field, its flags gently fluttering in the zephyr. On the opposite side were a row of giant white tents and a huddle of smaller tents at the far end of the field.

The crowd queued patiently to get onto the field, shuffling ever closer to the sign that hung at the entrance and boldly proclaimed in chalk letters a foot high THE BIGGEST EVENTS ARE YET TO COME. They handed over their $1 admission fee (approximately $16 today), clicked through the turnstiles, then rushed to seek out the best vantage points. Once they were happy with their spot, they sat on the grass and waited for the meet to start at one P.M. They shaded their eyes from the sun with their hands and looked toward the large tents, from inside which came the gentle whir of dirigible engines being tested. Farther down the field, nearly a mile away, were the smaller tents, and from inside came that strange noise again. The crowd could see men scurrying in and out of the tents, like rabbits in their warrens, and once or twice, just for a fleeting moment, they caught a glimpse of some strange contraption.

All through the morning Aviation Field filled with Americans come to witness with their own eyes the miracle of what some people called the heavier-than-air flying machine, and others the airplane. Between eleven o’clock and noon three-car trains left the city every two minutes, and the thousands of people that they disgorged were corralled from the station to Aviation Field by three hundred deputy sheriffs, many of them on horseback.

Governor Gillett of California took his place in the grandstand, in among the elite of Californian society, who had arrived in the hundreds of automobiles that twinkled under the midday sun. The governor was publicly welcomed to the field by Dick Ferris, the master of ceremonies, who then declared the meet officially open. Few people in the crowd of fifty thousand were looking at Ferris as he spoke. Instead their attention was riveted on the monoplane that had been wheeled out from one of the tents onto the elliptical racetrack. A lean man, a mustache the only extravagance on a serious face, climbed up onto the seat. Ferris turned and introduced America’s own Glenn Curtiss, the greatest flier in the world, so he declared, who had gone to France the previous year and stunned Europe by winning the prestigious International Aviation Cup. The vast throng clapped and whistled, then rose to their feet in wonder as Curtiss’s airplane bounced along the racetrack and climbed slowly into the air. Around the racetrack flew the thirty-one-year-old, at a height nearly as great as the flags on top of the grandstand, before landing with a bump and a jolt twenty-eight seconds later. After a moment’s pause as the crowd struggled to absorb what they had seen, they shouted their approval. A watching reporter for Utah’s
Ogden
Standard
wrote that with that one flight Curtiss had “dissipated any doubt that the fragile contrivance of rubberized silk, canvas, and bamboo could really fly.”

Ferris allowed time for the audience to recover their poise, then announced that Charles Willard would attempt to circle the official course, which was a trifle more than a mile and a half in length. With a collective intake of breath from the crowd, suddenly Willard was off, soaring up to seventy feet as he approached the halfway mark. Then with a cough, and a splutter, Willard’s engine died. He glided down to earth accompanied by groans of disappointment, but his mechanics soon had him airborne so he could finish the lap. Ferris bubbled with excitement as— overlooking the ten minutes Willard had spent waiting for his engine to be fixed—he reeled off the aviator’s lap time: one minute and twenty-three seconds. How about a round of applause, Californian style, for a splendid showing? Ferris asked the crowd.

Soon a canopy of dark clouds covered the field and the zephyr had become a bracing breeze. Some of the more knowledgeable of the crowd, those who kept abreast of aviation matters in the newspapers and science journals, began to fret. The stronger the wind, the less likely the chance of seeing a flying machine in action. “Where’s Paulhan?” they shouted. “We want Paulhan!”

Ferris raised his hands apologetically. “We can’t do anything with that Frenchman,” he boomed into his bullhorn. “He pays no attention to rules and regulations, nor to the course laid out for flights. I would not be surprised to see him appear suddenly on his machine through the top of his tent.”

Instead of Louis Paulhan, Ferris gave the spectators two of America’s mightiest balloonists—Lincoln Beachey and Roy Knabenshue. To a smattering of polite applause they began to pilot their small dirigibles around Aviation Field. It took them five minutes to lumber round the one-and-a-half-mile course, while parents laid out their picnics and children made airplanes with their hands. No one paid much attention to the lethargic dirigibles.

Meanwhile Louis Paulhan and his four French mechanics had wheeled his Farman biplane out of the rear of his tent and down into a gulley out of sight of the stands. The Frenchman’s poodle yapped at his heels as his wife handed him his gray cap and yellow cloak. The daring self-taught aviator had been one of the favorites for the 1909 International Aviation Cup but a crash had wrecked his dream; now he planned to have his revenge by upstaging Curtiss in front of his own people.

Up in the grandstand the reporter from the
Indianapolis Star
was idly watching the dirigibles pass in front of him when “there was a sudden shout and out of the gulley shot Paulhan, the motor of his Farman humming at a tremendous rate. He swung around the course and came down before the grandstand at high speed. He gesticulated first with his right hand and then his left, and at times he let go the steering wheel and waved both arms and shouted to the multitude. Circling the full course once Paulhan then began a second round, but stopped with the halfway pole to cut across the field straight for the grandstand. Suddenly veering he described another circle, finally disappearing from view to the north behind the grandstand.”

Paulhan was soon back, flying so low over the uncovered grandstand that people ducked in fear of their lives. For eight and a half minutes he buzzed around Aviation Field, covering nearly four miles in total and climbing to 150 feet. “Paulhan was cheered madly,” wrote the correspondent for the
Boston Daily Globe
. “Men shouted themselves hoarse, while women applauded and waved handkerchiefs.” The Frenchman had stolen the thunder of Curtiss and the other American pi lots. Curtiss went back in the air, followed by Willard, and then Charles Hamilton, an aviator with a lingering whiff of danger about him, but the name on everyone’s lips that evening as they rode the trains back home was Louis Paulhan.

When the meet ended ten days later Paulhan had won more than $15,000 in prize money and set new world’s records for both endurance and altitude, records that took the breath away. He had flown 75.77 miles in one hour and fifty-eight minutes and attained a height of 4,165 feet, seven hundred feet higher than the previous best.

Across America the Los Angeles event was hailed as a resounding triumph. “Aviation has suddenly developed in the United States as a great show enterprise,” ran an editorial in California’s
Oakland Tribune
on January 21. “The first meet on American soil . . . has been an immense financial success [and] the sum of $75,000 expended in prizes has proved to be a mere drop in the bucket. The meet has given Los Angeles millions of dollars’ worth of free advertising the world over.”

Even the Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville, were impressed by the reaction of the American public. They had shunned the Los Angeles meet, considering it tawdry and unworthy of anyone with a serious interest in aviation. But soon Wilbur had dispatched a telegram to Roy Knabenshue, who had for several months been badgering the brothers to form an exhibition team. The message was brief: COMPANY READY DISCUSS EXHIBITION BUSINESS SERIOUSLY. WHEN CAN YOU COME DAYTON.

The
Oakland Tribune
said that dozens of cities had already begun to petition the Aero Club of America for the right to stage the International Aviation Cup race in the fall, when Europe’s finest aviators would come to America to compete for the title that Curtiss had won in 1909. “That the bidding will be high and the competition strenuous goes without saying,” wrote the
Tribune
, “for aviation fever has developed in every community . . . and the desire is whetted to see it practically demonstrated by the world’s best exponents of the art.”

But Paulhan couldn’t agree. As he packed up his airplane, a nagging sense of unease was in his soul. How swiftly the attitude of the crowd had changed during the meet, he reflected, from the idiotic amazement of that first day when he swooped over the grandstand, to the bored indifference of the final few days. Even his race around the course with Curtiss for the speed prize—which the American had narrowly won— had failed to evoke more than a halfhearted cheer.

Paulhan expressed his concerns in an interview with the
Weekly Sentinel
. “They [the crowd] are ennui,” he sighed. “I shall have to do something to remove that blasé feeling.” The reporter asked whether Paulhan was proud nonetheless to have set a new record for altitude flying. “No!” he exclaimed, throwing up his hands. “I have forgotten that. Records, more records, better records, until, pouf! the breath goes out and I really find that path to paradise—or to Hades.”

BOOK: Chasing Icarus
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