Harry Atwood was among the most flamboyant of the celebrated and often foolhardy pioneers of American aviation. Part daredevil, inventor, entrepreneur, and con artist, he became renowned for his flying feats, his plans for a bewildering variety of aircraft, an his ability to inspire otherwise sensible Yankees to invest enormous time and money in his invariably ill-fated projects.
As part of the early circle around Wilbur and Orville Wright, Atwood set many of the early US flying records and was constantly in the headlines for two decades after 1910. He built his own airplanes and developed imaginative but never-quite-realized plans for flying wings, Navy seaplanes that would carry immense cargoes, and cheap one-person planes that would be made from a single birch tree. His is a classic American story about riding the wave of enthusiasm in an era of technological progress while "selling blue-sky" to an eager and gullible public. Atwood's biography describes a larger than life individual, whose personal life was as complex and bizarre as his professional escapades, during the vibrant and innocent years when the sky no longer was the limit
|Publisher:||University Press of New England|
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The Lark Ascending
The summer of 1911 was one of the hottest on record. Boston hit 104 degrees. Five thousand people slept outside on the Boston Common one night. There was an "ice famine." An ice cartel had created a shortage to drive up prices. People crowded into Atlantic City, the White Mountains, all pools and beaches. The news carried stories of death by drowning, heat stroke, and arguments and shootings provoked by the great heat. London recorded the warmest July in forty years and Paris had a droughtnot one cloud was seen over Paris for the first three weeks in July.
In Washington, D.C., Alexander Graham Bell invented a way to stay cool. He set up his study in an empty indoor pool and hooked up an "ice stove," a fan to blow air over ice and pump it into his pool-bottom room.
That hot summer was the beginning of Harry Atwood in the world. He was twenty-seven.
In the spring he was a college dropout running a car repair garage in a town north of Boston. He had a daughter and a failing marriage. He had made two attempts to get a degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but had failed. He did own one success: he had patented two designs for electric meters and sold the patents to General Electric. He would use that money to free himself. He was going to fly.
The second aviation meet to be held in America took place near Boston. Some of the great aviators were at the Harvard-Boston aero meet. Wilbur Wright was a judge and President William Howard Taft handed out theprizes. An Englishman, Claude Grahame-White, won the top prize of ten thousand dollars. He flew out to the Boston Lighthouse and backthirty-three miles. Harry Atwood was there early each day and stayed late. His head was full of the "science and gossip of aviation," his father said.
In the decade after the Wright brothers had triumphed at Kitty Hawk, each flight was an experiment, a leap into the unknown that had about it the feel of a kitchen-table science project. When you flew, you sat on the edge of the wing, suspended in space on a web of spruce and wires and fabric. The aeroplane was still more idea than machine, a tentative sketching in the blue sky, a da Vinci drawing come to life.
"The inventors up to that time had been hopeful rather than precise," a friend of the Wrights, Griffith Brewer, said of the earliest efforts.
Atwood yearned to join this great experiment and it had led to despair at MIT. "How well I recall one beautiful spring morning when I was obliged to call upon Physics Professor Dr. Comstock to explain my delinquencies in physics," he said.
"I carried a little bundle with me. It contained a homemade model of my idea of a possible flying machine. I figured that it might cause Dr. Comstock to dispose of my case with an attitude of sympathy rather than harshness. It did. He treated me with profound sympathy. In fact he treated me as a psychopathic doctor treats a patient. He talked to me about mental lapses and disorders. He suggested remedies. He gave me a fatherly talk about the dire future of young people who persist in cluttering their minds with fantastic junk. He climaxed his remarks by informing me that I was in the wrong institution, if I was unable to engage my mind upon the concepts of sanity. He paid no attention to my flying machine creation.
"I left Dr. Comstock's office a frustrated and 'flunked' freshman, and went straight to 237 Beacon St.," the home of his fraternity, Phi Beta Epsilon, known on campus as Phi Beta Cash because of its wealthy members, including Duponts and an heir to the Kodak fortune. Some students were assigned three rooms, one for a study, a bedroom for themselves, and a room for a servant. The son of an accountant, Atwood had grown up in Roxbury in modest circumstances. One summer before college he washed windows in his neighborhood, cleaning the storefronts that sat under the elevated trains. To speed his work he invented a squeegee-like device. But at college he adopted the Phi Beta Cash style. He traveled first class, even though he didn't have a return fare. He'd find a way home.
"The fraternity chef assisted me in burning the model in the kitchen fire, without asking questions. He seemed to fathom my dejection. The noon hour arrived and I was silent through the luncheon period. Then I paid a visit to the piano, and immediately gave a new rendition of my 'flying ditty,' 'Shall We Ever Be Able To Fly.'
"I played it again and again, and played nothing else. Each rendition was made with an acceleration of tempo, crescendo, and modulation. My thoughts were far away in the realm of the skies. I was clearing my mind from the clutter of fantastic junk, and trying to determine whether Dr. Comstock or I was in the wrong institution. When I had finished, the boys overwhelmed me with unusual applause. They did not know that they were applauding a 'coroner's inquest.'
"I did not graduate."
He went on to the most exclusive school in the country, the Wright brothers flying school in Dayton, Ohio. There were only two dozen aviators in the country, and the Wrights had trained about a dozen. The school was out on the trolley line at the Simms Station stop, in a farmer's cow pasture, Huffman Prairie. Clearing the field of cow pies was one of the student chores. The Wright brothers had made their second greatest flight here back in 1905. They had flown in a circle; the practical aeroplane was born. At the time, only a reporter from a small journal, Gleanings in Bee Culture, thought it noteworthy. When Wilbur Wright performed the same feat three years later in France, he caused a sensation: the French had been flying for two years, but no one had done that.
Atwood arrived in Dayton in May 1911, joining two army officers, Lt. Henry H. "Hap" Arnold and Lt. Thomas "Dashing" Milling. Arnold would later lead the air force in World War II. At this moment the army had but one aeroplane and no qualified pilots. Among the other students were Howard Gill, who would join the Wright Exhibition Team, and Cal Rodgers, who would be the first to fly from coast to coast. Both would be killed in plane crashes within two years.
Though the Wrights had been running the school for only a year, already there were many established traditions and stories. Most of flying was waiting. ("Aviwaiters" in one phrase.) A wind much more than ten miles an hour kept the aeroplanes on the ground and twenty minutes aloft was a long flight. A cross-country flight of eight miles was noted in the press. In addition, the Wrights did not fly on the sabbath. There was plenty of time for talk and pranks.
"The Atwood legend was the top," recalled Grover Loening, an airplane designer who worked for the Wrights and was the first to receive a master's degree in aeronautics, at Columbia in 1912.
When Atwood arrived at school he was "pretty confident of himself," said Loening. He was a perfect target for Hap Arnold and the others. They "picked on his zeal to do everything to be a perfect aviator as a swell chance for some first-class kidding," said Loening. "They explained to him carefully how important it was to develop a sense of balance, and that the way they had all practised was by mounting a two-wheeled handling truck and, standing at the center of the truck with a long board across the shoulders, proceed to balance the board and all on the two wheels. Atwood got to work at this practically impossible task, with Cal Rodgers sitting at a table checking Atwood's skill on a score pad they had rigged up, which would tell whether or not Atwood would be good enough at balancing to fly.
"Then, not content with the immense success of this episode, they told him that to be a really good aviator one had to learn to fly in a straight line and that it was the custom at the school for a new pupil to make his own line to practise on. So they presently had Atwood with his whitewash pail and brush painting a white line several hundred feet long on the grass field. Intensely serious, Atwood took a long time to catch on."
The joking was not much different from the actual course, which included hours of learning to balance a trainer the Wrights had devised. Wright training began with a tour of the factory and included thorough instruction in the assembly of the aeroplane and the engine. An aviator's life depended upon it. He would have to oversee the reassembly of planes after shipping, rebuilding after crashes, and before every flight would have to check each wire and rib. The mechanical instruction came easily to Atwood; as a boy he had worked on motorcycles and boats.
Then the students practiced the controls in the Wrights' trainer, an old plane set up on sawhorses. The Wrights' system used three controls, by far the most unnatural set-up. Their rival, Glenn Curtiss, had controls close to the modernpull a wheel back to make the plane climb, push it forward to dive. To turn right, lean to the right in your harness.
Flying a Wright aeroplane required some thinkingtoo much thinking and not enough reacting and you were in trouble, the aviators said. One lever controlled the elevator and moved in the expected manner: push it forward to dive, pull it back to climb. The other control lever was of two parts, controlling both the rudder and the wing warping. The Wright wing was controlled by warping, the trailing edge of the wing flexed much like the tips of a bird's wing. To turn right, for example, the pilot had to pull the lever back to lift the left wing, while also turning the top of the lever the correct number of degrees to move the rudder.
Students worked at this for days. Sometimes Orville Wright would walk up behind them, unseen, and pull down on a wing to test their reactions.
Once off the trainer, students flew with an instructor, as passengers first, then gradually taking over the controlsthe shared, central wingwarping and rudder lever, and one of the dual elevator levers. Students and instructors sat side by side, but not as they do today with the pilot on the left. The Wright system produced pilots who flew from the left seat and others who flew from the right, depending on how they were trained. Atwood was a left-handed Wright pilot.
After about a two dozen flights, and two or three hours in the air, a student soloed and realized how little he knew and how many questions he had. The sky was an uncharted ocean and he had just been given a rowboat and two oars.
"All those early aviators knew more than they could tell anybody. But what was it they knew, or knew they didn't know?" Hap Arnold said. "Things happened, that was all. The air was a tricky place. The best laws, discovered and formulated by the best aeronautical brains, could still be upset, it seemed in a second."
There was "serious, mysterious talk of 'holes in the air,'" said Arnold. Each crash, each flight was dissected. The students and the instructors joined in the birth of an aviation tradition, "hangar flying." "The best times of all in that Simms field 'hangar' were when the Wright brothers joined us," said Arnold. The Wrights would say little and listen as everyone had their say. "They were usually so courteous, almost diffident, really. Wilbur, for example, often hesitated to give an opinion without first consulting the little black notebook of aeronautical data he always carried with him.
"Once, I remember well, a loud argument was in progress about just how the loop would be accomplisheda time we hoped was not far off. Opinions differed as to whether it would be done from 'the inside' or 'the outside' ... The Wright brothers listened with interest, never saying a word. Then, as everyone was laying down the law about this or that approach, Wilbur quietly attracted our attention and pointed overhead. In the slightly windy air far above the shed, a lark was fighting hard to fly straight upward, and as we watched, the bird struggled over on its back and curved down again, coming out in level flight from a crude but indisputable loop."
After two weeks of training, talking, and flying, Harry Atwood graduated. He had completed eighteen lessons and flown for a total of one hour and fifty-five minutes. In later years he told a different story: "Orville had gone to town one day and I decided I'd fly the machine. I had never been up but one time and then it was only for a few feet. But this time I got the thing off the ground and into the air.
"I had to learn how to maneuver the stick and make the airplane fly. I simply got the thing into the air and didn't know how to get it down. It took about two hours for me to get the feel of it and to know just how to make it do what I wanted. After that it was easy and I landed and found I'd been in the air longer than any other person.
"Everybody thought I was a hero."
He said he had been aloft longer than Orville Wright. He had broken Orville's record. That was a story for later years, a good tale for hangar flying. Just then the record showed no trace of his claim. But he did learn to fly, and in a few weeks he would be a hero.
With less than two hours in the air, Harry Atwood was now qualified for his new job: chief instructor at a new aviation school south of Boston in Squantum. The school was located at the Harvard Aviation Field where Atwood had watched the aero meet the previous fall. His new boss was a yacht designer, Starling Burgess. He had a contract to build Wright aeroplanes under license and he had sent Atwood out to Dayton.
Burgess had designed more than two hundred yachts by this time and would go on to design three America's Cup winners, just as his father had done. He had left Harvard in his senior year, at age twenty-two, started his business, and published a book of poetry, The Eternal Laughter and Other Poems.
Early on, in 1908, he saw Orville Wright fly. "As the beautiful creature left the rails and with a low bound cleared the earth, tears came unbidden to my eyes. Shall I ever forget that moment?" he wrote in his unpublished aviation memoir, Take Off. It was, he said, "the most exciting day of my life." He later signed on as the Wrights' first civilian student.
But Burgess also saw the dangers of flying, as a Harvard classmate recalled. "I well remember asking Starling if aeroplanes would be of value in war, to which he replied, 'Yes, but how can the enemy be persuaded to go up in them?'"
In his years of flying, his one serious crash was due to a moment of speculation. He was demonstrating a recently completed Wright-licensed aeroplane for the army. After a thirty-minute demonstration flight, the plane would be delivered. Something caught his attention below: a series of small canals crisscrossing the land, just like the ones on Mars. The newspapers had lengthy stories about the Martian Canals. Burgess flew over to have a better look, stalled and crashed. He walked away, but he had just wrecked a five-thousand-dollar machine. He had been looking at a goldfish farm.
The early Burgess aeroplane designs were crude. One was the first to fly in New Englanda short hop in February 1910and a later design, the Model B, was so unstable Burgess couldn't get a good flight out of it. He sought out an experienced aviator and convinced Glenn Curtiss to take it up. He flew, gratefully landed and pronounced it the most dangerous thing he had ever flown.
This left the young company a little short on accomplishment. An early advertisement in 1910 put in a few claims:
OUR AEROPLANES ARE SAFE
They fly well, too.
Our Model A flew successfully
but our Model B
Our new Model C is
The designs may have been crude (and the Model C probably never flew) but the yacht builder's workmanship had impressed Wilbur Wright at the Harvard-Boston aero meet. "One fact could be noticed at a glance," said Burgess. "Every detail in the construction of my ship, each strut, each turnbuckle, each finely wrought socket and metal part showed reasonable preparation and the work of master craftsmen. A sailor would say, 'All was shipshape and Bristol fashion.'"
Burgess became the sole American licensee of the Wrights, paying them one thousand dollars for each plane built and a further royalty of one hundred dollars each time one was used in an exhibition. He built a modified Wright Model B, a reinforced, 163-pound heavier version he called the Burgess-Wright Model F. This was the only deal in town: his own designs were foundering, and the Wrights were about tie up all aircraft design in America with a court injunction.
The Burgess School of Aviation opened on May 30, 1911, with an instructorHarry Atwoodjust a week or so out of school himself. Tuition was five hundred dollars for twenty-four lessons each lasting about twelve minutes, four hours of actual flying. The school assumed "the cost of all breakage" during instruction.
Three students had enrolled. Atwood was not much interested in the actual chore of instructionthe day hemmed in by twelve-minute lessons, yelling at students over the noise of the engine. All this was relieved only by taking up paying passengers and answering the same fool questions all day. Teaching was a dull and potentially dangerous occupation.
He set about adding to his flying time. The first day he flew 104 miles in sixteen flights, the following week 385 miles. The students languished, but the school, and Atwood, were getting noticed, even for the smallest flight. One evening Atwood missed the trolley car to go to the inn for dinner, so he flew. "This is the first time anyone has flown to dinner in an aeroplane in New England," reported the Boston Herald. Another first. The press was getting to like this new invention.
In the school's opening week, Atwood flew with a student twenty-five miles to a country club. They had some fun along the way, coming in low over a beach, scattering the bathers, and diving down to within fifteen feet of a locomotive for a race. (Atwood said he was trying to keep his hands warm.)
This may not have been what Burgess had in mind for the role of his chief instructor, but his school was in the news. He dispatched Atwood to fly to Boston for the Dorchester Day celebration. The school would receive "considerable inducements" for the flight and a thousand-dollar bonus if Atwood cut "fancy figures."
As part of the show, Atwood proposed that Boston's mayor, John F. Fitzgerald, take a ride with him. The mayor declined for the good of the Commonwealth. "Personally I would not mind flying with him a bit, but it is a question of propriety," the mayor said. "The people would probably not care to have their chief executive taking risks of this sort, and my family certainly would not care to have me risking my life."
Understand, the mayor said, that "an over-city flight is different from a trip around an aviation course," which he had done the year before at the Harvard-Boston aero meet. "If weather and other conditions are ideal I might be induced to take a little spin over the field, but it would be improper for the mayor of a city to tempt fate by a dangerous over-house trip."
On Dorchester Day, "Honey Fitz" led the opening march, gave a speech, helped stop runaway horses, made three more speeches, drove a horse to victory in a race, and then led three more marches. He didn't fly.
Boston's reporters were, out of necessity or curiosity, more willing. Atwood arranged to fly a relay of reporters from an airfield outside Boston, at Waltham, north into New Hampshire. He wanted to break the American record for long-distance passenger carrying, then 116 miles. He had been flying three weeks. It would be the first extended flight into New Hampshire, and to each city and farm he flew over, he would bring the news of the aeroplane.
The aeroplane Atwood was flying had been named the "Moth," but as Atwood flew into New Hampshire, the moth was transformed into a "scorpion." From the state line to the lakes in the north, newspapers praised the flight of the scorpion. And Atwood was transformed into the latest "daring young aviator."
He flew reporters from six of Boston's leading newspapers: the Post, Globe, American, Herald, Transcript, and Journal. For their entire careers, the reporters never forgot the tripsome remembered the terrorbut all admired Harry Atwood and a few became friends, ready to report anything he would dream up.
Thomas A. Luke, a photographer for the Boston Post, was the first in the relay. "I think I'm lucky after all, to be standing around alive after my trip with Harry Atwood," Luke reported. "I've had some interesting experiences, but none anything like that voyage, and for cool chaps this boy from Lynn takes all the ribbons. Atwood is nothing short of a wonder."
Luke joined Atwood at the Waltham field late in the day, the favored time to fly because it was usually the calmest. Atwood made the photographer leave his camera behind. "If you take that thing it will mean your death as well as my own. If that camera touches one of the warping wires while we are flying in this wind we will both go down to an awful smash," Atwood said. Another aviator and three mechanics standing nearby echoed Atwood's warning, and Luke, after some pleading, surrendered his "self-focussing beauty." He was soon glad that he had both hands free to hang on.
They took off, and Luke had a few moments to enjoy the odd sensations of his first flight"I could see people running about below us, the tops of their heads presenting the funny appearance of a lot of marbles rolling around on the ground"then "things began to happen."
They flew into a strong head wind. At thirty-five hundred feet, the "first bad squall struck us. The machine plunged and dived until I thought it would fall apart.
"'Now, don't you feel glad you left that camera behind?' shrieked Atwood into my ear. I replied with a lookI could not speakand the diving continued.
"The biplane shook and wavered like a piece of tissue paper in a breeze." Atwood was flying in winds much stronger than aviators would have chanced just a few months earlier.
"'Ain't this awful?' Atwood yelled at me. I gasped and lost my breath before I could nod. I was clinging on then with both hands clutched about the uprights of the machine and wondering just when the grand dive would come."
Over the Merrimack river, Atwood yelled "Hold on, now," as the aeroplane dropped "down, down, until the river seemed to be rushing up to meet us. I was firmly convinced we would never be seen again until someone dug us out of the mud of the river bed, but that boy on my left with his face calmly set, thrust the control lever, juggled the warping wire a bit, and we soared out straight again after dropping 1000 feet."
The worst was to come. The wind was forcing them down into the river. "Not all the jockeying of Atwood could rise us an inch." They were only fifteen feet above the water. "He turned his head to say, 'Can you swim?' I nodded in reply ... just as a fierce squall of wind caught the planes of the machine and threw us almost out of our seats."
They flew up until they were over the tree tops and soon were near the landing site, which was marked with big tablecloths. They set down, but Luke was not free yet. "'No landing here,' he yelled. "'If we drop here we will never get out again.' And just as the machine struck the grass with a slight shock, he manipulated the elevator lever and we shot up again at a long angle straight into the tops of some high trees.
"We missed the trees by a horse hair and flashed over them into the sky again. Atwood calmly circled about and with one hand pointed out to the crowd in the field beneath that he was going to land further along." Atwood circled several more times as he studied the terrain, picked out an open farm field, and made a perfect landing. "I stepped out of the machine with a tingling sensation running all through me under my skin. I imagined that my face must have seemed to those who saw me like the face of a man whose execution has been stayed by a last minute pardon.
"I looked at Atwood. He had not turned a hair, and shook hands with me as cordially as if I had been the hero of the flight instead of himself."
As Luke was leaving the field, the next reporter saw him. "The first thing Tommy said was: 'Never again!'" Luke had ridden the Scorpion for thirty-eight minutes and covered twenty-three miles.
The next stages were a little easier. A.J. Philpott of the Boston Globe joined Atwood. They sat on the ground for fifteen minutes while Atwood studied the winds. He would make a run at taking off, but if that failed he might have to leave the reporter behind. They rose two-hundred feet and hit a pocket that dropped them fifty feet, then they were "struck with terrific force by a gust of wind. Atwood applied the full force of the lever on the warping device and righted the machine. We were struck on the other side and he was quick with the lever again." They climbed to fifteen hundred feet. "We both looked at each other a moment and grinned for we were now going along like a sled over the smooth ice."
Philpott was a veteran of one other flight and told his readers: "You know how a moving picture looks when it is first flashed on the screen? Well, that is about the way you feel. You seem to be part of a moving picture. You feel free and easy and the whole harbor and islands and the big aviation field seem like one of those raised maps over which you are simply floating, not in the least conscious of the fact that you are traveling between 40 and 50 miles an hour."
The crowd waiting in Nashua saw the approaching aeroplane and shouted: "There he is! There he is!" After the mayor greeted the first aeroplane in Nashua, Atwood was off with his next reporter, Joseph P. Toye of the Boston American, to fly the seventeen miles up the river to Manchester. "The wind was fine," reported Toye. "Once in a while we would strike a puff that would slap us broadside. The big biplane would quiver from end to end." Toye also reported a "delightful sensation of floating along in a chair high in the air. The only disturbing element is the terrific coughings and barkings of the unmuffled engine."
Once again as Atwood came in to land, he saw there was no room for his aeroplanepeople really had no idea what was required. They had never seen an aeroplane before. Wherever Atwood flew that summer there were crowds, hanging out of windows, on roofs, in trees, filling the field where he was supposed to land. Town after town would select a courthouse lawn or a baseball diamondno biggerand everyone would crowd in expecting him to "alight," as they said, as if he were in a balloon.
Atwood tried to wave the crowd away, but they thought he was just waving. He "skimmed over the roof of a tenement house" and landed at the edge of the field. "That was the worst and most dangerous landing I ever made," he said. The crowd pressed in and delayed Atwood for an hour. He was running out of daylight. He tried to take off, but had to abandon his run after one hundred yards. The crowd was blocking him. He pleaded for the police and three officers arrived to clear a way.
By the time Atwood and his next passenger arrived in Concord, the streetlights were on and the few stores that were still open "looked like caves of light." It was eight in the evening. He dropped in a spiral dive toward the golden statehouse dome, and circled it twice "within fanning distance," fifty feet away. A group on the top of the dome were too shocked even to wave. Others, seeing an aeroplane dive for the first time, thought he was falling "like a bird with a broken wing."
His passenger, Phillips Ward Page of the Boston Herald, delighted in his first flight. "We could look down between our knees at the factories of the Amoskeag mills skirting the river bank," he said. But he was struck at how unbird-like flying really was. It is surprising, he said, "that motor driven flight is not like flying after all. Perhaps it cannot be called anything better than an exquisite translation through space."
It was too late to finish the last two legs of the flight; the delay in Manchester had cost Atwood the record. He was in Concord for the night and Concord was thrilled with its visitor. "The aviator vainly begged his admirers to keep at least three feet away from the aeroplane. Everyone wanted to touch it, as if there were no other way of being convinced that the thing was real," said the Concord Monitor.
The Wright Model B in its Burgess edition were glorious machines, silver ghosts. All the woodwork, the struts, and supports, were painted using an old sign painter's technique. They were dusted with aluminum powder over a wet varnish giving a slick silver look. The wings were a light gray cotton muslin fabric. The brass radiator gleamed. There were wires and nickel-plated fittings seemingly everywhereyou had to climb between some of the support wires to get into the two seats up front on the lower wing. And just behind the wings were twin five-foot tall propellers. No one had ever seen anything like it and people fumbled for descriptions. It's like a noisy reaper in the sky, one observer said. But it was like no machinery on the farm, like nothing in the mills. It was the greatest thing since the train and the automobile, maybe, but that didn't describe it either. So they stood and stared. People came by to be with the aeroplane until two thirty in the morning.
The next morning, Atwood and his new passenger tried to slip away two hours early to avoid the crowds. Even so, two hundred people caught word of the flight. After one false start when the motor quit, Atwood flew to Tilton in rough winds. There he took on his last passenger and headed north toward Laconia in a thirty-mile-an-hour gale. The winds were so strong he could not make headway and had to turn with the wind, blown along on a wild ride. "We are going up, old man, and only God knows how we will get down. We are rising because I can't help it," he told his passenger. The wind forced him first west, then back east.
"Five times on the trip I tried to make a landing, despairing of getting back to Concord," said Atwood. For miles the land was rocky or wooded, offering no chance to land. "I failed every time 'till I got to Pittsfield. Then when I tipped my machine and began to descend, the air currents caught me and forced me into the air again." The wind caught him at fifty feet and forced him up one thousand feet.
On the ground, people dropped their work and came running, looking up to the see the aeroplane. "Chickens fled as if before a monster hawk, while some horses in the field exhibited the wildest fright."
The aeroplane came down hard, just skimmed past a stone wall, and bounced thirty feet back into the air, slammed down again, bounced up and slammed down again and again, until it rolled several hundred feet through wheat eighteen inches tall, spun sideways, and came to rest, undamaged. They had covered forty-two miles in only thirty minutes, at a rate of eighty-four miles an hour, nearly double the trip's average speed of forty-five miles an hour.
Atwood called it "the roughest [time] I ever had in the air." They were lucky to escape without injury, he told his passenger, O. G. Draper, a reporter for the Boston Journal. Draper was thrilled, if maybe a little addled. His feelings on landing, he said, were a sort of "mental salad combining some trepidation, with more awe and still more exhilaration." His confidence in Atwood never wavered, he said.
Atwood immediately caught a train for Boston. He had to compete that afternoon in an aero meet. He would return for his aeroplane. Atwood had set a New England record for cross-country flying and an American record for relay flights. Over the next few days, Atwood took the aero meet by storm, winning the ten-thousand-dollar first prize, outdistancing the others in cross-country flying. On one flight he carried his father. "Let it suffice to remark," reported Aero, America's Aviation Weekly, "that Atwood in his Burgess-Wright biplane surpassed both in skill and daring the work of Brookins or Johnstone at the Harvard-Boston meet of 1910," when Atwood was a spectator longing to join the flying.
Back in New Hampshire, the editorial writers at the Concord Monitor pronounced the cross-country flight a "herald of a new epoch, the era of man's dominion of the air.
"Among those who witnessed our first aviator's arrival were a few who saw the first locomotive come puffing into town in September of 1848; there were many in the crowd who remembered the first bicycle and the first trolley car; while the first automobile was within the experience of all save the youngest."
Editorials in other papers assessed this new invention and the people crowded in for a look, but no one said it as well as a farmer in Pittsfield. He looked up from where he was hoeing a field and saw Atwood landing. "For God's sake," he exclaimed, "I've hearn' tell of 'em, but I never expected to see one."
What was it like to fly in 1911? We want to be told it was like the birdsthe "man-birds" as they saidlike the eagle and the skylark. We want to hear talk of air ruffling feathers, of floating along dreamily among the clouds. We want poetry. But flying was something altogether different. It was struts and wires, engines and oil, wind in the face, and crowds that rushed an aeroplane eager to sign their names on it or tear it apart.
For centuries people had looked at birds and dreamt of flight. That is the line in all the aviation histories. But to take flight at last, people had to leave behind the birds. Serious papers of bird studies were presented, ornithopters were built, but no amount of flapping would get anyone up in the air.
All the bird poetry and metaphor exist for the earthbound. Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley kited their aspirations on the wings of the lark. They remained on the ground. Flying was so unbird-like, one of Atwood's passenger's had said. Once airborne, the pilot is not the "man-bird" of early aeronautics, no more than a man in the woods is a "man-deer" or a "man-fox." He is a man in his machine in the air. His poems and stories are about his machinehis ingenuityand all that presses in on it: the night, the weather, the things that go wrong. He has "conquered" the air.
And for all that, flying was wonderful. It wasn't poetry as the world knew it, delivered from the English Lake District to the parlor sitting room. It was something at once joyous and terrifying, something that in 1911 was part circus, part science, and a hint of things to come.
"I assure you, learning aviation lacks poetry," said Lt. J. Conneau, a Frenchman who had won three big European cross-country races in 1911. "Before a pilot flies, he must needs lay up a store of physical endurance; his nerves must be perfectly steady." In winning his three racescircuits of Britain and Europe and a race from Paris to RomeConneau flew against great winds, through hot sun and the chill of storms, arriving at each stage exhausted and muscle-sore, desiring only a warm meal, a bath, and sleep. The uncertainty itself was tiring: the difficulty of judging the weather aloft while on the ground, the danger of getting lost or being turned around in the clouds, the unpredictability of the motor, the worry of running out of fuel and having to find quickly a field for landing. Three aviators had been killed and two others injured at the start of the European circuit.
"The conditions of a flight are seldomone might say nevernormal. The easiest aerial trips are accompanied by the most extraordinary surprises," said Conneau. "In fact, is not aviation a mere succession of unforeseen incidents?" This could serve as a definition of early flight. As one of Atwood's Dayton classmates, Thomas Milling, said, "Everybody expected to be killed."
There were collapsed wings, jammed controls, broken support wires, collisions with trees while taxying on the ground, hard landings that threw the pilot, killing him, or threw the motor on the pilot, crushing him. Motors quit, caught fire, misfired, lost compression, choked on bad gas, bad oil, dirt, and faulty spark plugs.
Aviators had little knowledge of turbulent winds, dives, and stalls. Aeroplanes folded up in the sky, they stalled, they pitched over on the ground. A steep bank or a steep dive might be too much. Things happened in the air that no one had the words foran entire vocabulary was lacking. In a stall or a dive or a tail spin, aviators would instinctively try to fight the aeroplane, often hastening the plane's break-up and collapse. Most accidents occurred at low altitudes, two hundred to fifteen hundred feet. There was little room to recover, even if the aviator had known what to do. In one accident, a spectator counted seven seconds as a plane dived to a crash. The aviator, at a loss in his last moments, stood up as if pulling back on the reins of a horse.
Almost anything taken for granted today was lacking. There were only a few rough airfields, sketchy weather forecasts, few flying instruments (the Wright-trained pilots had a piece of yarn tied to a strutit was a turn and stall indicator), no standard octane ratings for gasoline, no maintenance procedures to prevent failure from fatigued and stressed materials, no brakes for landing, and only recently wheels. Construction varied widely, from flimsy planes of bamboo and linen that could barely support their own weight at rest on the ground to the careful work of the yacht-builder Burgess.
The biplane Harry Atwood flew was underpowered and had no inherent stability. The pilot was always working to keep the plane in trim and only a few miles an hour separated the top speed from stall speed.
Earle Ovington, who flew a Bleriot monoplane in 1911, faced similar problems: "If a plane is left for a second to its own devices it tips and begins to shoot sideways instead of going forward. Then you get into the deadly side-slip. To keep the machine from tipping, that is to preserve its lateral stability, you must move this same lever to the left or the right, which warps the wings and keeps the machine on a horizontal keel. It isn't as easy as it sounds, and requires a lot of agility on the part of the driverboth mental and physical. If I should move the lever a bit to the right when it should go to the left, it would mean a sideslip or a side somersault. In either case it might easily be the end of me."
A pilot's license was optional. A pilot needed a license to compete and to have records recognized, but not to fly. There were only a few aviation schools. To some, flying was a backyard outing: they would acquire an aeroplane and learn by trial and error.
The first known flight manual was issued in 1911 with one of Glenn Curtiss's biplanes; it was six paragraphs long. After instructions for starting the motor and facing into the wind, came step four: "When sufficient speed has been attained the device will leave the ground and assume the position of aeronautical ascent." Landing, "should the aeronaut decide to return to terra firma," was covered in the last two paragraphs, with instructions to glide in, "causing the mechanism to alight more or less gently."
Hangar flying was marked by talk of the unknown. Aviators kept flying into "holes in the air." One minute they would be on a level flight and the next drop down suddenly as if they'd hit a "boulder." The air was "cheesy," they said, trying to explain, like "Swiss cheese." The word for "tailspin" didn't exist. The first time Frank Coffyn went into a tailspin, he "didn't know what in thunder to do. I just fiddled around with the controls and finally, within about fifty feet of the water, I got it out of the tailspin and landed it on the ocean." He drifted in shark-infested waters for six hours before he was rescued. "I didn't know what the hell it was till a year or two laterthat you could get into a tailspin." As Hap Arnold had said, "Things happened, that was all. The air was a tricky place."
When aviators were killed in dives, medical experts theorized a collapse of the heart from such great, swift descent (altitudes from one thousand feet to as much as seven thousand feet or so). Other experts said aviators were falling victim to "Aerial Drowsiness." "There is a spirit of daring, not to say of recklessness, consequent upon high flight which our medical contemporary ascribes to the fatally tonic influence of the upper atmosphere," reported Current Literature.
"After one is accustomed to being up high he in large measure loses his fear of gravity," said Atwood. At "a thousand feet or more he feels comparatively safe when he is as low as two or three hundred feet, as if he could step into the air at that height without experiencing so much as a jar when he hits the ground. This forgetfulness of gravity, I think, accounts for some of the fatal jinks which some aviators attempt."
Few of the most active early-bird aviators died a natural death. In 1911 the hundredth person was killed flying; the first had been killed in 1908. There were "bad accidents almost daily," said Scientific American. "We are a fearless generation," said Henri Lavedan, a French playwright. "Aviation intoxicates us. It has already advanced so quickly that it lures us on, perhaps more rapidly than it ought."
Aviation, said the New York Times, was "a business that requires a constant tempting of death" and "a certain degree of recklessness." This was a favorable view. Other newspapers and public leaders called for an end to flying. One study of the "martyrs of aviation" said flying was actually getting safer. There were many more aviators. You had to look at the ratio of accidents compared to the number of people flying. In 1909 there were fifty aviators and three were killed; in 1910, five hundred and twenty-nine died. In 1911, the number of flyers in the world had tripled to one thousand five hundred, and seventy-eight were killed. If you looked at how many miles were being flown, things looked even better. Consider deaths per mile:
1909 one killed for 14,000 miles of flight
1910 one killed for 32,000 miles of flight
1911 one killed for 40,000 miles of flight
By 1912, deaths per mile had decreased three-fold (one for 120,000 miles). "At this rate," the study concluded, "aviation will soon be less dangerous than automobiling." (If the 1912 rate prevailed today, 833 airline passengers would be killed for each l00 million miles flown. The 1993 rate was .01 deaths. On average, you would have to fly twenty-one thousand years before dying in a crash.) Flying was already safer than automobiling had been in its early days. There were 33 fatalities for every ten thousand registered vehicles; a total of 3,100 fatalities in 1912. And Claude Grahame-White, the English aviator, said that in 1910 mountaineering had claimed 90 lives, three times the toll from flying. At the same time, the Interstate Commerce Commission was studying railroad deaths. More than 165,000 had been killed and more than 1.3 million injured in the twenty-four years since 1887.
But the public wasn't convinced, and that was partly what kept them coming to see the exhibitions. "The crowds gaped at the wonders," said Hap Arnold, "secure in the knowledge that nowhere on earth, between now and suppertime, was there such a good chance of seeing somebody break his neck."
The Boston Globe's daily puzzle for July 10, 1911, had this caption:
Let us, then, be up and flying,
With a heart for any fate;
Still a-flying, though we're dying ...
In the puzzle, a drawing, the reader was supposed to find the hidden aviator, a face in the clouds, ready to blow down the aeroplane.
Flying was a circus show (even Houdini had taken it up), and the promoters demanded that the show go on, no matter the wind or the condition of the field. The crowd had paid and would not accept excuses. Many did not believe till they saw it. Flyers had been forced to fly in blizzards to satisfy crowds.
At Ontario Beach, near Rochester, New York, Beckwith Havens' flying was part of a show with ten polar bears, a clown, and fireworks. Farnum Fish, the eighteen-year-old "boy flyer," would elaborately hook a fishing line to his aeroplane, take off, fly out of sight and return with a big fish dangling down. (No wonder a Sandusky, Ohio, newspaper mistakenly called Glenn Curtiss's aviation business "The Curtiss Amusement Company.")
Lincoln Beachey was the greatest showman. He would dress up as a woman, emerge out of a crowd, and "steal" his own aeroplane. He would fly in an upside down dive to thrill the crowds. (They couldn't fly upside-down level thenthis was a controlled upside-down dive.) Beachey flew over Niagara falls, pit his biplane against a car in a race around a track, and in 1913 he mastered the loop-the-loop. Twenty-one pilots died trying to imitate his tricks, and Beachey quit for a time. He returned and was killed in a crash.
Eugene Ely was known for his "Ely Glide." He died the death of an exhibition flyer. Ely was a skilled aviator, who had made the first landing and take-off from an aircraft carrier. But he knew what some in the crowd wanted. "I see the crowd below me looking upward, and I know every man who watches me start downward half expects to see me killed. I suppose they all figure how they'll help pick up my bones some day," he said. Later that day he crashed and was taken to the hospital unconscious. He survived.
At the Georgia State Fair, a month later, twenty-thousand people watched him die. "Before making his ascent this afternoon, Ely told his attendants that he feared something would happen and asked them to notify his wife immediately if it did," reported the New York Herald.
Ely circled the track at three hundred feet and began "a spectacular dip" down to about seventy-five feet. Then the crowd saw him try to rise in his seat and jump from his aircraft as it turned upside down.
"He and the aeroplane struck the ground at the same time, and he rolled probably 30 feet, so terrific was the impact. The machine was demolished, bits of timber and metal flying many yards. The crowd rushed over the track and into the field, and when they reached Mr. Ely's side they saw he was dying. His body was literally broken to pieces, and the physicians were astonished that he had lived as long as he did.
"He died 11 minutes after the fatal fall, regaining consciousness, just before the end, long enough to murmur, so low that his words could hardly be heard: 'I lost control; I'm going to die.'"
Thousands swarmed the aeroplane, overwhelming the few police. "Many fought for souvenirs, and soon the littered field was cleared of the fragments of the machine. One man even unbuttoned the dying man's collar and pocketed it. The aviator's gloves, tie, and cap similarly disappeared. Ambulances soon reached the scene, but not until the spark of life had gone out."
The spirit of the Roman Coliseum pervaded these aero meets, said the Scientific American. With the public demanding dives and spirals "and other aerial gymnastics that are performed at imminent peril to life and limb" and promoters threatening aviators, "the death of an aviator under such conditions comes very near to being homicide of the most atrocious character."
Newspapers ran editorial cartoons with variations of the grim reaper beckoning: in the Boston Herald, the angel of death waits below aeroplanes with a large net marked by a dollar sign; in the New York Herald, the grim reaper stood wearing a sandwich board advertising "sensational acrobatic aerial performances for the amusement of the public." It was a universal sentiment. A German publication showed death sitting at a table as aeroplanes were drawn into a sticky fly trap.
"A disconcerting feature of last year's death roll is that it includes so many of the most skilled among the airmen," the Scientific American said in January 1911. "This fact might seem to suggest that we have not advanced as far as was supposed in our understanding of the conditions that govern the flight of heavier-than-air machines. On the other hand, it should be remembered that many if not most of the accidents have occurred when the airmen were attempting spectacular performances for the entertainment of the race-going public or winning large prizes."
This was not the way to advance aviation. The Wright brothers got out of the exhibition business. Their team had flown for a year and a half. Five of the nine team members were dead.
In the nation that was home to the invention, flying was a plaything, a circus trick. America trailed Europe in serious aviation. By 1911, no American held an important record. "What's the matter with America?" asked Aeronautics magazine in 1911. "Americans returning from abroad have expressed themselves as astounded at the progress and activity there ... we have changed places from the head to the foot of the procession." The Europeans were doing some real flying, cross country, city to city.
Harry Atwood disdained the exhibition circuit. "I do not intend to die entertaining a crowd," he said. He would not join in any attempt to try to be the first aviator to loop-the-loop. "The only place for a loop-the-loop is over a graveyard," he said.
Atwood would fly his own way.
In the summer of 1911, American aviation had birdmen and stuntmen and daredevils and native geniuses. It took one twenty-seven-year-old flying in a straight line to make headlines.
Table of Contents
|Introduction: Always in Flight||1|
|The Lark Ascending||7|
|A Summer's Hero||27|
|The Biplane Dance||49|
|The Uncrossed Ocean||65|
|Father, Hero, Liar||79|
|The Art of Navigating the Air||80|
|It Had to Be You||103|
|Reinventing the Wheel||104|
|A Swinger of Birches||131|
|The Miracle Hour||156|
|Life with Father||170|
|The Purest Airplane||193|