Pages 9 & 10
Keuka Lake was a beautiful sight nestled between high, vineyard covered hills bordering its three branches. As we sighted Gibson's Landing I was carried back to the days when, as a boy, I had sailed its blue waters. Those waters I knew so well were about to serve me another way and I was Thrilled as we drove into that picturesque home of the Curtiss Company, Hammondsport.
That proved to be an eventful summer in aviation history as well as world affairs. The opportunity was afforded me to play a small part on the aviation stage of Curtiss activities and to meet many key figures playing their important parts.
"Doc" Wildman, recognized as the leading flying boat instructor, gave me mosts of my instruction along with nine other students including "Fish" Hassel, another Early Bird. I must leave it to your imagination to sense the thrill and excitement of learning to fly under the conditions of those early aviation days. Knowledge of the action of wind and water on a sail boat along with that of the lake and terrain proved most helpful to me. When not otherwise occupied, I assisted in various Curtiss activities such as launching and beaching the Wanamaker flying boat, America, built to fly the Atlantic with an English pilot, Lt. Porte, and mechanic George Halleck. World War I brought that testing to an end, but did not end the rebuilding and testing of the controversial Langley machine which had been hurriedly shipped to Curtiss from the Smithsonian in the hope it could be flown in spite of the two failures on the Potomac River during the late 1890's. Successful flight would have important bearing on patent litigations between Curtiss and the Wright brothers. I witnessed its first historic flight by Curtiss, but only after the installation of a Curtiss OX motor, not with the original Manley motor.
One evening we drove to the hangar and after parking the car near the Langley where a crowd generally gathered I noticed the car radiator was boiling over. Walked to the hangar, picked up a half filled bucket and proceeded to fill the radiator. When I held a lighted match and leaned over to see the water level it burst into flame, partially blinding me, but I rushed to the beach, gathered some sand which I poured into the radiator extinguishing the fire and then stamped out the grass fire spreading toward the Langley. There was considerable excitement as reported in the New York Times. Someone had carelessly left cleaning gasoline in the pail which I failed to smell. My eyebrows finally grew back to normal.
The longed for day finally arrived when "Doc" stated I was ready to solo. To use a company "boat" required furnishing a bond protecting the company against loss so decided to wait a few days until my "Boat" was delivered. Had I been better informed I'd have insisted that she be test flown first.
Christenings being the vogue, we had one, quite a one. Through my friend aviator Elwood Doherty ("Gink") I was on good terms with officials of the Gold Seal Champagne Co., of that area and they were kind enough to send me a dozen bottles of the best with their compliments. Charlotte prepared a large bowl of punch, served to our guests, but retained one bottle with which she christened the flying boat BETTY V for our daughter.
The next day was quite windy and G.H. (which we all called Curtiss) advised waiting for more favorable weather and also having an experienced pilot first fly the Betty V with me along as observer. "Doc" was unavailable, so with my reluctant agreement, G.H. asked his friend Lieutenant John H. Towers, U.S. Navy, considered one of the best Navy pilots, to act for me. Towers was there observing Wanamaker boat trials and the Langley efforts. To shorten a long and unfortunate story: Towers did about everything I'd been taught not to do, ended up attempting a downwind turn to avoid the town at low altitude - and that with an overheated motor - resulting in our dropping with a terrific thump about 30 feet, with water pouring in through cracks in the boat bottom. We made the ramp with water up to our feet.
All that Towers said was "I'm sorry, Mr. Vernon", but G.H. was much disturbed and after inspecting the boat hull assured me the factory would make complete repairs without any charge to me. Later on I had reason to suspect the motor had also been damaged. That experience made me suspicious of "expert" aviators and therafter, I decided, if any damage was to be done the Betty V I'd do it or make very sure whom I trusted. "Gink" Doherty was the only one to ever fly her without me on the right hand side although I taught many students in that position.
My first solo that next week, after repairs were completed, ended almost disastrously. When approaching the ramp, preparing to land, I judged the distance too closely, and when taking my foot off the accelerator preparatory to glding to a landing the motor kep right on moting. Realizing there was insufficient altitude to turn (or afraid to) I instinctively cut the ignition switch, glided to the water with a dead stick, levelled off, touched lightly, bounced a little from the water and landed, but before settling down from the "step", ran up onto the sand beach leaving Betty V high and dry. The only damage was to my nervous system, while "Doc" and some of the students watching had near heart attacks. All said they'd never seen anything like it which I was willing to believe. "Doc" said that had I waited another second ot two to cut the switch I would have wrecked the "Boat" and myself, too, which I did not doubt. Mechanics found accelerator cable had run off a pulley and become jammed.