Richmond Air Show of 1909
By Woolner Calisch
"Watch, now, he's getting ready! There he goes! Gee whizz! Wasn't that swell?"
With brief pauses, the above ejaculations could easily have spanned the duration of the first flight of an airplane at Richmond. I could not very well say "over Richmond," as the maximum altitude is reported to have been 12 feet.
This epochal event took place on October 4, 1909, at the State Fairgrounds, when a Curtiss "Golden Flyer" biplane was piloted by Foster Willard,, (Clarence F. Willard), a personal representative of the great aviator and inventor, Glenn H. Curtiss.
The flight had been heralded in newspaper advertisements as "the first ascent with an aeroplane ever seen south of Washington."
At 5:30 P.M. on that historic day, the intrepid birdman gave the signal to his ground crew to "let go,"
and "the blades whipped up a cloud of dust and trash, and the aeroplane glided gently down the field, increasing its speed until, at the
end of a hundred yards, it arose as gracefully as a bird and sailed along at an elevation of 12 feet. Then, swooping down at the far end
of the field, the aeroplane came to earth and rested."
The flight had lasted perhaps 30 seconds: the distance covered had been about 200 yards. The newspaper account of this daring feat, a column and a half in length, makes most interesting reading, especially to those who like myself were fortunate to have been numbered among the spectators. I remember my excitement on seeing my first aeroplane, but I felt vaguely cheated later when I read that Mr. Willard had made three flights on the next day, attained an altitude of 40 feet on the last one, and, to the great satisfaction of the thrill-seeking audience, had overshot the field in landing and had badly damaged the machine's rudder.
Repairs were made overnight, and on the following day, Richmond Day, four trips were completed, each being the length of the race track inclosure, and consuming from three-quarters of a minute to a full minute each. After the fourth flight, the management dissuaded the aviator from continuing, on the plea that another accident might incapacitate the plane from performing the remaining days of the fair.
During one of these flights, Mr. Willard had made a quarter circle before landing. He later explained that he did not make a complete turn, as that would have required three-eighths of a mile. Such a feat would have necessitated his leaving the Fairgrounds inclosure, and he would have had no place to land in case of such an emergency.
|And now pause for a moment and consider the advancement of flying. Less than 30 years ago, a highly successful flight was one of less than a minute's duration, flown at an altitude of 40 feet, and covering a straightaway distance of less than 200 yards. Just 10 years later, in 1919, John Alcock and A. W. Brown spanned the Atlantic Ocean in a non-stop flight from Newfoundland to Ireland and that same year the United States Navy seaplane NC-4 flew from Newfoundland to Portugal via the Azores. And now transcontinental and transoceanic nonstop flights, excursions into the stratosphere and jaunts around the world have been common for years.|
But, back in 1909, just before Richmonders witness their first "hop," Hubert Fathom, then one of
the world's premier flyers, had established the world's altitude record of 580 feet, and Wilder Wright made a record-breaking round trip up
the Hudson River from Governor's Island to Grant's tomb and return.
The next year, 1910, local aviation enthusiasts had an opportunity to view a different make of aeroplane, one built by the Wright brothers. A great controversy was raging between Messrs. Wright and Curtiss over the question of patent infringements, the Wrights having patent rights to the wing-warping method of providing lateral stability and Mr. Curtiss maintaining that his method of placing a movable eareolon between the wings did not encroach on their rights. The reporter for the Times-Dispatch seems to have sided with the Wrights, for his stories covering the flights at the 1910 Fair certainly contain some unkind comparisons, favoring the Wright brothers model.
The aviator in 1910 was the well-known Ralph Johnstone, who had contracted "to fly for at least 10 minutes every day" during the fair week. Mr. Johnstone's publicity man is quoted as having said that the flyer would do more than his contract required and "will probably cut figure eights, the pigeon wing, and chase the sparrows to their nests. Johnstone must have lived up to his advance notices, although to this day I have never seen any one "cut a pigeon's wing. "Except in an old-fashioned square dance. However, the newspaper account of his flight on the first day declares "people who witnessed the feat came away puzzled whether or not to believe their own eye."
The Wright plane of that day was, indeed, an odd-looking affair, compared to later ones. It had no inclosed body; the tail surfaces were supported by bamboo stringers which extended back from the wings. The two propellors turned in opposite directions, and were operated by one motor. There was no cockpit; the aviator simply sat in a bucket seat placed in front of the engine. All manipulating was done by hand; the foot control for the rudder had not yet been adopted. The elevator was in front of the place and instead of landing wheels, there were skids. The takeoff was made from a monorail placed along the ground. But the plane flew, and Johnstone's exhibition was a thing of joy. "Johnstone was absolutely careless of the laws of gravitation. He sprang upward and swooped downward. He rose to the dizzy height of a thousand feet..." and on and on.
Among Johnstone's many admirers was Richmond's foremost air-minded citizen, the Hon. Dave Richardson, then Mayor and later judge. Mayor Richardson declared, after watching Johnstone in flight, that he would like to go up with him, and after Tuesday's exhibition, concluded arrangements to fly with Johnstone the next afternoon, which even 30 and more years ago was Richmond Day. The Mayor was very much worried that his weight would bar him, as he was 30 pounds over the accepted limit. However, Mr. Johnstone agreed to take him up, and after the contract flight on Wednesday afternoon, the plane was again placed on the monorail for the first passenger flight in Richmond's aerial history.
Mayor Richardson took his seat beside the pilot, was strapped in tightly around the waist and shoulders, and warned not to touch any part of the machine. With a roar and a cloud of dust, they were off down the rail. After a run of about 200 feet, Johnstone lifted the plane into the air. The Mayor could be seen smiling broadly. The 60,000 people assembled broke into a great cheer. The Mayor waved his hand in response. In doing so, he accidentally struck the cord which disconnected the ignition. The motor immediately went dead at an altitude of 50 feet!
The plane had sufficient momentum to continue forward a bit before it began gliding to earth, and about 10 feet off the ground lost all momentum and fell like a stone. Very fortunately, neither the Mayor nor Mr. Johnstone were injured, but the plane was quite badly wrecked, and was not repaired in time to make a flight on Thursday, despite the heroic efforts of Mr. Johnstone and his crew and several local carpenters. Although it was ready on Friday, no flight was made because of rain.
On Saturday, the plane, with Mr. Johnstone at the controls, was scheduled to race an automobile for five miles, but the rain continued and the race was called off. However, on that day Johnstone made his farewell flight, in the rain, and this was terminated suddenly when the same cord which had caused the Mayor's mishap shrunk from the wetness to such an extent that the motor was again stopped in midflight.
The next year, 1911, 17-year-old Howard Levan, with a Curtiss plane, was the attraction, but his performances were not up to Johnstone's standards. He, too, suffered from an accident on Richmond Day, when the propellor on his machine was broken, but he secured another one from Washington and flew again on Friday. No flight was made on Saturday, because "there was too much wind." Mr. Levan's flights were in opposition to those in a dirigible operated by Professor Hutcheson, from which parachute jumps were made by George Sewell. Sewell stole the whole air exhibit, using as many as six chutes in his multiple jumps.
In 1912 and 1914, there were no heavier-than-air planes at the fair, Professor Hutcheson and his jumpers having the air to themselves. In 1913, an Italian flyer named Peola gave exhibitions with a Curtiss biplane, but the newspaper accounts of these flights were not at all glowing or extensive.
In 1915, however, Richmonders were given their final initiation into the art of flying through the exhibitions of a young daredevil by the name of Art Smith. Aviator Smith was Richmond's first stunt pilot, and, although he received a terrific buildup, he warranted it and pleased his public no end. The reporter for the Times-Dispatch went overboard for him, based on the following excepts from his stories:
"The first real sensation came when Art Smith, aviator, soaring in his aeroplane at a height of about 1,000 feet over the northwestern section of the race track, seemingly lost control of his machine. The aeroplane, which in the preceding quarter of an hour had skimmed and curved its way as easily and gracefully as a humming bird on the wing, suddenly halted abruptly in the air and threw a somersault. Hundreds of those among the spectators a thousand feet below joined in a gasp of horror. Another gasp went up a minute later when it was seen the plane was righting itself and the daring aviator was in his seat. This time, it was a gasp of relief. The next minute, Smith was steering far another loop, and it became apparent to the bewildered throng below that the first quick loop was not accidental. Amazement grew in the succeeding five minutes, which the daredevil airman devoted to putting his craft through a series of somersaults. He described in the air the orbit known as the loop nine consecutive times without entirely righting his machine." And that night, Art Smith made more aviation history for Richmond when he gave the first after-dark exhibition.
Let the Times-Dispatch reporter of that day again tell you about it. "With bated breath and tense with excitement, thousands of fairgoers last night witnessed the most daring aerial flight ever seen in Richmond, when Art Smith, daredevil aviator, shot, meteorlike, through the air and executed the thrilling evolutions that have made him famous as a birdman the world over. Rising slowly from the far end of the race track to the south of the grand stand, the aeroplane glided easily and gracefully into space, starting on its flight northward after sailing several hundred feet into the air. Intermittent streams of fire blazed out from the rear of the machine as it sped along its course. After circling the race track twice, the flames became continuous, and, comet-like, the machine blazed its way into space. Then the thrilling evolutions began. First swooping downward, as if to come to earth, the daring aviator regained his equilibrium and proceeded to 'loop the loop.' Following up this sensational flight, Art Smith executed the 'side roll,' flew upside down and did all kinds of stunts that made the man in the grand stand hold his breath and wonder what was coming next.
Smith made flights and performed stunts on the next two days and nights of the fair, and the reported story includes the following:
"Among the feats he performed were flying his plane wing over wing, executing the side roll, flying the plane tail first, throwing the back flop, looping the loop, and, finally, describing in a vertical descent an almost perfect spiral."
Smith was followed for the last three days of that year's fair by Baxter Adams. This flyer staged a five-mile race between plane and motorcycle which was won by the latter because of the time and distance the plane required to make its turns.
Three years later, I myself was thoroughly trained in aerial acrobatics by United States Army instructors, and I have been flying intermittently for the past 20 years. Now, while I would not dim the glory of pioneer Art Smith, nor question the integrity of a Times-Dispatch reporter, nevertheless, I must admit I cannot understand the maneuver called the back flop, and I have never seen any one fly a plane tail first. Perhaps the reporter, in crediting Smith with flying backwards, had a 23-year advance knowledge of the feat which made Corrigan famous.
Within another year, aviation had taken such strides that Richmond no longer had to wait for the fair in order to enjoy air thrills. Between the war in Europe and the naturally rapid advancement of aeronautics. Richmond's papers were full of air new, and Richmond's skies were full of planes. The proximity of Langley Field and later the establishment of two local airports have kept the city in close touch with every step in the forward march of the men with wings.
But, when the last super-super in airplane construction has been built, Richmonders can look back to 1909 and rightfully say, "Well, this new plane is some machine, but I can remember back yonder when--"
Email: A. C. Griffith