Fabulous and Foolhardy Flyers II
1907 Henry Farman takes the Deutsch-Archdeacon prize for
a public flight of more than one kilometer in length.
Part 2: Flight from Wilber to War
On a wind-swept beach at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina
on December 17th, 1903, history records that the Wright Brothers
made the first heavier-than-air-flights. The longest of these
flights was only an 852-foot hop, yet scarcely 6 years later
aviators would be braving the 20-mile wide English Channel.
By the middle of World War I, aircraft would have matured into
fighting machines capable of penetrating hundreds of miles behind
hostile enemy lines. In less than 15 short years the airplane
would move from an inventor's toy to a weapon of war.
Early European Aviation
Much experimentation with early aviation occurred
in France. The first manned hot-air balloons were built by the
Montgolfier brothers in 1783. In 1884 a French inventor built
the first successful dirigible. In 1890 Clement Ader, a French
electrical engineer, created a steam-powered heavier-than-air
machine that managed a brief uncontrolled hop. Despite Ader's
success, at the beginning of the 20th century most French would-be
aviators, with the one exception, seemed to be focused on lighter-than-air
research rather than heavier-than-air flight.
That exception was Captain Ferdinand Ferber, an
artillery commander whose interest in aviation had been kindled
by the gliding experiments of Germany's Otto Lilienthal. Ferber
started corresponding about aviation with Octave Chanute, a
friend and counselor to the Wright Brothers. Later, Ferber exchanged
letters with the Wright Brothers themselves and developed a
great respect for them. Ferber, in turn, lectured and wrote
(often under the pen name of Monsieur de Rue) about aviation
in Europe and influenced many would-be aviators there, including
a man named Earnest Archdeacon.
Archdeacon, a Frenchman of Irish decent, wanted
France to be first in flight and helped found the Aero Club
of France. After hearing of the Wright's success in 1903, Archdeacon
(along with Henry Deutsch de la Meurthe) put up a prize of 50,000
francs ($10,000) to go to the first aviator that could publicly
fly a heavier-than-air machine around a one kilometer course
and land it safely.
By 1905 the Deutsch-Archdeacon prize was still
unclaimed when unbelievable news reached Europe from the United
States: In Ohio the Wright Brothers had flown a plane they dubbed
the Flyer III as far as 24.2 miles over the Huffman Prairie
(which was the equivalent of 39 kilometers). The debate that
followed at the Aero Club was lively. Captain Ferber accepted
the reports as true while Archdeacon refused to believe them.
Archdeacon even issued a public letter to the Wrights including
I take the liberty of reminding you that there
is, in France, a modest prize of 50,000 francs bearing the name
'Pix Deutsch-Archdeacon,' that will go to the first experimenter
who flies an airplane in a closed circle of not 39 kilometers
but only one kilometer. It will assuredly not tire you very
much to make a brief visit to France simply to 'collect' this
The Wrights, always more interested in the business
of selling airplanes and protecting their patents and design
secrets than in what they called "circus" flying,
did not even respond to the challenge.
It wasn't until 1906 that a European made his
first flight. Brazilian-born Alberto Santos-Dumont was a short,
slim, dapper, man rich from the profits of his family's coffee
plantation. As hobbies he had raced motorized tricycles and
flown primitive dirigibles. In 1904 he began experimenting with
gliders and in 1906 completed a powered flying machine dubbed
a canard in French because it looked like a duck. It
had a 24-horsepower engine and a box-like rudder and elevator
that jutted out from the front of the craft like the head of
a waterfowl. Santos first tested it by dropping the craft from
his dirigible. In September, after replacing the engine with
a more powerful one, Santos managed to get the plane to rise
off the ground and hop less than fifty feet. About a month later
a flight of 197 feet was made and on November 12 Santos and
his plane flew 722 feet.
The news electrified Europe, but the Santos' record
was still less than the Wrights had achieved on their first
day of flight in 1903.
In 1907 a man named Henry Farman, son of an English
newspaperman based in Paris, became interested in aviation.
Farman decided he would be that man to win the Deutsch-Archdeacon
prize and ordered a plane from the newly-founded airplane manufacturer
Vosin Freres. The plane he ordered had a reputation of being
difficult to fly, so Farman (who would later go into airplane
manufacturing himself) added a front rudder, cut the tail down
and adjusted the trim. Being satisfied with his changes, he
went after the prize on January 13, 1908. The flight was slow
and far from graceful. European aviation had yet to discover
the Wright's secret to making a banking turn through warping
the aircraft's wings. Even so, Farman won the prize and Europe's
admiration by completing the course in one minute and 28 seconds.
A Wright Brother Goes to Europe
By 1908 the Wright brothers began to have some
success at selling their airplanes and it was decided that Wilber
should travel to Europe to demonstrate their model "A"
plane to French businessmen that were interested in licensing
the design. When Wilber arrived in France he found the plane
he'd shipped over was damaged (apparently by customs officials
when they were examining it) and would take weeks to repair.
Wilber got along well enough with the local workmen he'd hired
to assist him, but was annoyed by the French press who tried
to snap unauthorized pictures of the flyer.
By August 8th, though, the plane was repaired
and ready for a short test flight. A crowd (including some of
Europe's leading authorities on aviation) gathered at a race
track near Le Mans some 115 miles southwest of Paris. Among
them was Archdeacon. The flyer was readied, and after a false
start ran down the wooden track the Wrights' used for a runway
and lifted into the sky. Aviation writer Francois Peyrey later
wrote they watched "the great white bird soar above the
racecourse and pass over and beyond the trees. We were able
to follow easily each movement of the pilot, note his extraordinary
proficiency in the flying business..." The flight lasted
only one minute and 45 seconds but left not doubt in the minds
of the observers that the Wrights had solved the problems of
controlled flight with astounding success. The flight, and others
that would follow, ensured the formation of Wright-licensed
companies throughout Europe.
The demonstration also helped European aviators
understand how to modify their own planes to get greater control.
In 1909 the British newspaper, the Daily Mail, laid down
a challenge that now the bravest aviators might consider accepting:
A flight across the 21 miles of the cold waters of the English
Channel. The prize would be a thousand English pounds ($5,000).
The English Channel Challenge
The press asked Wilber Wright if he would attempt
the channel crossing challenge. He currently held the record
for the longest continuous flight: 1 hour, 31 minutes and 25
seconds. This was more than enough time necessary to cross the
channel. Wright was not interested putting the challenge down
as a "useless risk."
Bleriot sits in his aircraft waiting for his attempt
to be the first aviator to cross the English Channel.
Others thought otherwise. In the end two men would
compete for the prize: Twenty-six year-old Hubert Latham, a
Frenchman with an English background, and Louis Bleriot, a longtime
French aviator with an impulsive spirit.
Latham, rich and handsome, had led an adventurous
life. He raced motorboats and hunted big game in Africa. Just
that year he had taken up the sport of flying and had already
held the record for flying endurance in a monoplane: 1 hour
7 minutes and 37 seconds. He flew an Antoinette IV, a slim and
graceful aircraft designed by Leion Levavasseur.
The engine in the Antionette was also designed
by Levavasseur and had many advanced features including fuel
injection and a crankcase made of aluminum. Despite this, the
engine had a habit of cutting out in mid-flight, something that
would plague Latham in his attempt to win the prize.
His opponent, Louis Bleriot, was perhaps the most
erratic of the early aviators. Bleriot, easily recognized by
his mustache and prominent nose, used the funds from his prosperous
automotive accessories business to pursue his interest in flying
and designing airplanes. He operated in a reckless and haphazard
manner, trying one idea after another. Some flew, but almost
half never got off the ground or crashed immediately. Some of
this was due to his unorthodox design, but much of it was because,
according to his contemporaries, he was a poor pilot. "As
soon as we had fixed up a plane the boss, burning with eagerness
to succeed, would try it out right away, without paying the
slightest attention to air currents," recalled one of his
By the time of the channel challenge Bleriot had
spend almost all of his fortune on flying machines. He was also
hobbling around on crutches as he recovered from a burned foot.
He had, however, a working airplane he'd designed designated
the Bleriot XI. It wasn't nearly as elegant as the Antionette,
but it had one feature that would prove critical for the trip:
an engine designed by Alessandro Anzani. The engine was crude,
half the power of the Antionette's and it rattled and spit oil
out on the pilot with every stroke. It had one redeeming virtue,
however. It kept running and running.
Latham tried his first attempt at the channel
on July 19th. All was well for the first seven and one half
miles until the Antoinette's engine stopped and it glided into
the water. Latham was rescued and vowed to try again with a
The weather turned bad and neither pilot had a
chance to fly until July 25th. Around midnight the night before
the wind began to slacken and the Bleriot camp came alive. By
2 AM the air was clear and calm. Despite this Bleriot wasn't
in the mood to fly. "I would have been happy if they'd
told me the wind was blowing so hard there was no point in trying,"
he said later.
But the weather stayed calm and the plane was
readied. Bleriot took it up for a test spin and found no problems.
At 4:41 AM the sun rose and Bleriot took off. By mid-channel
he was doing so well that he outdistanced the ship escorting
him. It was soon lost behind him and all Bleriot could see was
the ocean all around him. A wind started sweeping him northward
past and he might have flown into the North Sea if he hadn't
spotted three ships heading toward the port city of Dover. Bleriot
soon found the famous white Dover cliffs and landed at an opening
in them near the castle. Waiting for him with a French flag
was Charles Fontaine, a French newsman. Bleriot had crossed
the channel in 37 minutes while Lathem, still asleep when Bleriot
had taken off, had never gotten off the ground.
The Rheims Airshow
Bleriot was a hero both in his native France and
England. A month later he appeared as the star attraction at
the world's first organized aerial competition at Rheims, France.
The show at Rheims drew aviators from all over the world. Acres
of grainfields had been cleared to build what was termed an
"areopolis" consisting of grandstands, hangers, restaurants,
and a ten kilometer flying circuit. Competitions included the
Grand Prix for distance with a 50,000 franc prize and the International
Aviation Cup (with a 25,000 franc cash award) for speed. Newspapers
reported that "The air was thick with areoplanes."
and that it was "a spectacle such as has never before been
witnessed in the history of the world."
of the planes involved in the Rheims airshow were exhibited
the following month at the International Exposition
of Aerial Locomotion in Paris at the Grand Palis.
The Wright brothers, never interested in racing,
abstained from the show. However, America was represented by
Glenn Curtiss. Curtiss was a mechanical expert who had a self-professed
craving for speed. He raced motorcycles, designed engines and
in 1906 had tried to make a deal with the Wright brothers to
have his engines used in their planes. The Wrights weren't interested.
Curtiss had picked up the flying bug and in 1907 joined with
Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, to form the
Aerial Experiment Association. The A.E.A's aim was to make a
working airplane, but they had to try to do it without infringing
on the Wright's patents for controlling the craft by warping
the wings. By 1908 they were making short hops with a plane
named the Red Wing. On the 4th of July that year Curtiss
used another A.E.A. plane, June Bug, to win Scientific
American's $2,500 silver-trophy for the first public flight
of a plane over a one-kilometer course (a prize that the Wrights
could have won years earlier, if they'd been interested).
After the A.E.A was disbanded, Curtiss went into
the airplane building business with August Herring. This immediately
drew the attention of the Wrights who accused Curtiss of patent
infringement and legal battles started that would continue between
them for many years. Curtiss took the first design of the new
company, a plane called the Golden Flyer, to Rheims for
Curtiss hoped he would do well in the speed competition,
but was discouraged when he heard that Bleriot had installed
a huge eight-cylinder 80 h.p. engine on his new Bleriot XII
aircraft. Curtiss' mechanic, Tod Shiver, reminded Curtiss how
he'd succeeded when he was racing motorcycles. "Glenn,
I've seen you win many a race on the turns."
Curtiss had only one irreplaceable airplane and
avoided competing with it until the speed competition for several
good reasons. "At one time," he later recalled, "I
saw as many as 12 machines strewn about the field, some wrecked
and some disabled and being hauled slowly back to the hangers,
by hand or by horses." On the morning of the race, Curtiss
took the Golden Flyer up for a test run. He hit a rough,
turbulent updraft that pitched his plane around the course.
He was surprised to find that when he reached the ground that
his time around the course had been the shortest yet recorded
and reached the conclusion that the turbulence somehow had added
to his speed.
After finding this out he decided to take his
turn at the course immediately to try and take advantage of
the turbulence. "The shocks were so violent indeed that
I was lifted completely out of my seat and was only able to
maintain my position in the aeroplane by wedging my feet against
the frame." Curtiss completed two circuits around the 10-kilometer
course in 15 minutes and 50 seconds with a speed of 46.5 miles
per hour, beating Bleriot's time later that day by 6 seconds.
Exhibition and Competition Flying: Glory,
Gold and Death
The Rheims show was so successful that the idea
was copied all over Europe and the United States. Though many
were not as financially rewarding to organizers as Rheims, the
air show quickly became an established institution. The size
of the prizes offered at these competitions reflected the public's
interest in aviation. In 1909 nearly half a million dollars
were put up as prizes at various shows.
Flying at Old Rheinbeck Aerodrome
not nearly as dangerous as the airshows of yesteryear,
exhibition flying of aircraft from the first decade
of flight continues at Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in
Rhinebeck, New York. Founded by Cole Palen to preserve
early flight history, the museum features World War
I and pre-World War I aircraft in airshows many weekends
during spring, summer and fall. For more information
about visiting this flying history museum, go to the
Rhinebeck Aerodrome website.
Soon exhibition teams, often sponsored by an aircraft
manufacturer, were put together to tour with the various shows.
Even the Wright Brothers fielded an exhibition team. Pilots
for these teams could earn immense sums, as much as $1,000 a
day, but took incredible risks by pushing themselves and their
machines to the limit. Each race seemed to get longer and faster
as more and more pilot's lives were claimed in the pursuit of
glory and money.
Typical of this era was the challenge to fly the
Alps. Italian promoters posted a $14,000 prize for the first
aviator to fly though the Simplon Pass, a height of 6,600 feet,
which lay between Switzerland and Italy. Thirteen aviators entered
the contest, but the race committee only accepted five who seemed
to have the best credentials. One of them was a Peruvian aviator
named Jorges Chavez Dartnell (who was referred to France as
Georges Chavez). In preparation for the flight Chavez took his
Bleriot XI up in a test flight 8,487 feet, breaking the current
The race opened on September 18, 1910, but Swiss
authorities forbade flying as it was a Swiss holiday. The next
day the weather turned bad and for the next four days either
the Swiss or Italian side of the pass was clouded over. Chavez
took his plane up for a look and was tossed about, "The
machine, it was like a toy in that wind," he said later.
On September 23, weather cleared and Chavez decided
to make an attempt. Slowly his plane climbed to the top of the
pass. Witnesses on the ground reported that he seemed to be
hanging onto the controls as the wind tossed his craft violently
around. He made it through the dangerous, twisting gorges, though,
and headed for a landing at the town of Domodossola on the Italian
side. As he approached the landing field he gave the Bleriot
a little gas to get past a road. Then suddenly it happened.
The craft was so weakened by the high winds it failed under
the strain. "I saw the two wings of the monoplane suddenly
flatten out and paste themselves against the fuselage,"
a watcher said "Chavez was about a dozen meters up; he
fell like a stone." Four days later Chavez, age 23, died
of massive internal injuries.
Such fatalities did not seem to reduce the public's
interest in flying competitions or shows. It would not be long,
however, before airplanes would find uses beyond exhibitions.
The Wrights had been trying to sell airplanes to the military
almost since they had invented them. Also a stunt by aviator
Ralph Johnson at a Boston air meet in 1910 had intrigued military
observers. Johnson, using a standard Wright Biplane had made
"bombing" runs at a mock battleship using plaster
bombs. He scored nine straight hits on the model.
In 1913 stunts took a different turn when Frenchman
Adolphe Pegoud, who was nicknamed "the foolhardy one,"
started experimenting with air maneuvers that previously would
have been considered suicidal. First he learned how to fly his
airplane upside down and right it again. Then, before an astounded
crowd, he took his plan up to 10,500 feet, dove screaming toward
the ground, then pulled up to complete an inside loop.
Pegoud wasn't the first to try this maneuver.
A month earlier a Russian military flyer named Peter Nesterov
had done one just on a lark (and ended up under house arrest
for endangering government property). Pegoud was the first though
to systematically push the airplane to its acrobatic limits.
Pegoud's object wasn't just to create amazing stunts. As he
said later, "It seemed important to me to prove to my comrades
that they should never believe themselves lost. I would like
to say, 'My friends, you have seen me fly upside down; you know
that it is possible. Consequently, if the day comes when, in
a dive, your plane goes over on its back, let it do it. Deliberately,
calmly, take your time and straighten it up, using the controls
as if you were flying normally.'"
Aerial acrobatics soon became standard fare at
airshows, though they had a dark side. These maneuvers, so well
explored by Pegoud would become the standard tools of fighter
pilots as the airplane became a military weapon.
The Wright's Patent War
While World War I was still a few years away,
the war between the Wright brothers and the rest of the world
of aviation was in full swing. The Wrights held patents to key
aviation technologies and charged a significant fee for licensing
them. Other aircraft builders who did not want to pay the fee
had to challenge the Wrights on legal grounds, or find a way
to control the aircraft that did not fall under the Wright patent.
This second approach led to a string of strange designs many
of which flew poorly or not at all.
1914 Glenn Curtiss gets Samuel Langley's 1903 aircraft
to lift off the water's surface in an attempt to break
the Wright's patents.
Curtiss tried a different approach. At about the
same time the Wrights were preparing their first aircraft in
1903, Samual Langley (of the Smithsonian Institution) had been
working on a plane to be launched from the top a houseboat.
During tests it crashed because of a failure of the catapult
mechanism designed to launch it. In 1914 Curtiss made an agreement
with the Smithsonian to rebuild the craft so that it was identical
to the original design to see if it would fly. Curtiss thought
that this would show that the Langley craft could have
flown before the Wright brothers Flyer did and therefore
be used to break their patents. Curtiss did manage to get the
craft rebuilt and into the air, but secretly made modifications,
including a bigger engine, heavier trussing and changes to the
camber of the wings, that made it flyable.
The legal battle continued past Wilber's death
at age 45 in 1912. It was effectively ended in July of 1917
when three months after entering World War I the U.S. government
forced a pooling of all aircraft patents in the national interest.
Orville, who had sold out of the company in 1915, continued
to devote his life to aviation serving as an advisor to federal
boards and private foundations until his death in 1948.
One decade after invention, airplanes had moved
from infancy to adolescence. In the next decade they would pulled
in to the very adult world of war.
Read the conclusion of the story on early flight
in Part3: The Warbirds
Back to Part 1