Ladies and Gentlemen, The Aeroplane!
In 1910, showmen flew death-defying stunts in Wright airplanes. Sometimes, death won.
It's a rare film, and we're lucky to have it. The cameraman must have had nerves of steel. Standing in the middle of a St. Louis, Missouri field in October 1910, he cranked his camera as the big Wright biplane took off and flew straight at him. It approached quickly, climbing, then suddenly pitched forward and dove for the ground. Closing fast, it pulled out, dashed its wheels on the ground with a cloud of dust, and rose—right over the photographer's head.
The pilot might have laughed, or maybe he was sweating. Fans, promoters, reporters, his boss, and fellow pilots were all watching him do his best to show off a new technology. It was another typical day for the Wright exhibition team.
For 16 months, from June 1910 to November 1911, the team members performed at air meets across the country, uncrating their aircraft from rail cars, thrilling crowds, haggling with promoters, perplexing their bosses, falling in love, getting divorced, counting gate receipts, and setting aerial records. With their American and European rivals, the Wright exhibition pilots introduced the airplane in dozens of towns across the United States. "All you have to do is look at some of the newspaper reports to see just how stunning the exhibition flights really were," says Tom Crouch, author of the Wright brothers biography The Bishop's Boys and a National Air and Space Museum curator. "People were fainting. People were absolutely dumbfounded to see this thing in the air. It's clear that the exhibition teams had an extraordinary psychological impact."
A year before, the Wright team members were scattered around the country, unaware of one another. Arch Hoxsey, soft-spoken and always impeccably dressed, lived with his widowed mother in Pasadena, California. When he wasn't chauffeuring his wealthy employer, he was earning a reputation as a gifted mechanic. Ralph Johnstone had left Kansas City, Missouri, far behind to perform a bicycle stunt act on the vaudeville circuit. Strapping and jovial, he could hop the bicycle up a flight of stairs, and, as a grand finale, flip it in a mid-air forward somersault. At 31, Frank Coffyn was the oldest of the group and probably the wealthiest. He was growing bored with his desk job in the well-heeled New York City business world. Philip Parmelee was testing automobiles for Buick and living with his parents in St. Johns, Michigan. Al Welsh had come the farthest. Born in Russia, he grew up as Liebel Wellcher in the Jewish neighborhoods of Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. He changed his name when he joined the Navy, and later took a job as bookkeeper at a Washington, D.C. gas company.
Three of the Wright team members were, like the Wrights themselves, from Dayton. Spencer Crane was a mechanic, as was Clifford Turpin, an engineering graduate from Purdue University who had returned to the city to start a motorcycle business with his father. Then there was Walter Brookins. A fixture at the Wright bicycle shop, he had known the brothers since he was four. Orville and Wilbur's schoolteacher sister Katharine had taught him in high school. The Wrights called him by his nickname, Brooky.
The Wrights had decided to form a team at the urging of others. The brothers deliberated for a long period over the decision. They had publicly demonstrated their airplane for the first time in 1908. Although powered flights had been made in Europe and the United States before then, other pilots could not control their machines as completely as the Wrights controlled their Flyer, and their rivals were stunned by the demonstration. But in Reims, France, in August 1909, at the first international air meet, the Wrights' arch-rival Glenn Curtiss won the signature event: the Gordon Bennett speed competition. If the Wright brothers were to hold onto the reputation their early demonstrations had won, they'd have to compete.
As the Wrights set about organizing their corporation in 1909, they were hounded by a genial but persistent Toledo, Ohio resident named Roy Knabenshue. He warned the Wrights that they should be represented at air meets, and, having toured the country since 1904 demonstrating dirigibles, he offered to be their road manager. In January 1910, as French pilot Louis Paulhan dominated the first U.S. meet, in Los Angeles, Knabenshue finally got a telegram from Wilbur: "Company ready discuss exhibition business seriously. When can you come Dayton."
In truth, Orville and Wilbur found the carnival-like atmosphere of the air meets distasteful. "They reluctantly got into the exhibition business," says Peter Jakab, a National Air and Space Museum curator of early flight. "They didn't really care for what they referred to as ‘fancy flying'—the daredevil aspect of it. But they saw it as the viable way to make money with airplanes, and they wanted a chance to show what their technology could do. This was a way to put Wright aircraft on view."
Wilbur headed south to search for a winter training field far from the Ohio cold. He settled on a site just outside Montgomery, Alabama. In March, Orville arrived with Brooky, Hoxsey, Welsh, Crane, and a mechanic named James Davis to begin training. Time was running short (their first performance would be in June). By today's standards, Orville's goal was audacious: Train a group of complete novices to fly and compete as professionals in less than four months.
Brooky, 21, was the first to be trained. Beginning as Orville's passenger, he soon mastered stalls, takeoffs, and landings. Orville was impressed, writing to Wilbur: "Brookins is a first class man. You can give him a job and it is attended to…." The feeling was mutual. Brooky said Orville's training "was so thoroughly explained and demonstrated that you never forgot it." He immediately became an instructor. Orville then returned with Welsh to Dayton, trusting Brooky to continue training Crane and Hoxsey.
Essentially free to do as he pleased, Brooky experimented with flying techniques and taught himself stunts. Under a full Alabama moon, he and Hoxsey made the first recorded night flights, circling the field for hours. Later, Brooky took Crane up for a training flight, taking off toward the edge of the field, which was bordered by a road and telephone lines. They rose slowly, and when Brooky realized he would not clear the wires, he calmly pushed the nose down, flying under them and between the poles. Completely unnerved, Crane was on the train home to Dayton that night, preceding his arrival with a telegram to Orville: "This and other things force me to decline to ride again here…. With me it is a matter of needless risk. If you feel this is a lack of nerve my resignation is in your hand. Without hesitation I advise closing camp at once."
By the end of May it was warm enough for Orville to move the training camp to Dayton. The team had just three weeks to practice before heading to the brand-new Indianapolis Motor Speedway for their first performance.
The night before the meet, the pilots were handed contracts, offering $20 per week and $50 per day of flying. They were responsible for seeing to their own injuries. And in keeping with the Wrights' own practice, the pilots were asked to refrain from flying on Sundays, drinking, and gambling. The Wright Company would keep any prize money. Brooky balked, and almost all the others joined him. Coffyn, however, urged them to accept, and in the end all of the pilots signed.
Brooky quickly established himself as the star. On the first day of performance in Indianapolis, he broke the world's altitude record, rising to 4,939 feet. On June 16, his secret practice in Montgomery paid off. He rose several hundred feet, dove, and rolled into a 90-degree bank. Hauling back on the elevator, he spiraled the airplane through 360 degrees. Wilbur was astonished: "It was the most hairlifting performance I have seen. The circle was not over a hundred feet in diameter…. It was a beautifully executed feat, but the strains are too great to make such things safe for everyday work."
Over the next four months, the team traveled to 25 cities, from New Hampshire to North Dakota to Alabama, shipping themselves and their airplanes by rail and showing up at Fourth of July celebrations, state fairs, and tournaments. They garnered plenty of headlines:
"Goes Up 6,175 Feet in Wright Biplane; Walter Brookins Beats His Own World's Record in a Flight at Atlantic City."
"Airmen Play Tag With Moonbeams; Hoxsey and Johnstone Unexpectedly Make Two Night Flights at Asbury Park."
"Aviator Drops 800 Feet But Lives."
"Hoxsey and Johnstone Set Crowd Wild in Plane Tilting and Short Whirls."
There were some minor accidents and organizational hitches, but the experiment seemed to be working. By mid-1910, five pilots were on the road, and Knabenshue could have the team spread across five states at once. Better still, the receipts were good. At the end of August, Wilbur reported to Wright company board member Russell Alger that the team had earned $186,000 in exhibition receipts, outstanding contracts, and guarantees for upcoming meets in St. Louis and New York. Alger was delighted: "I had no idea we would have any such brilliant year. I have paid my way toward the Aviation Meet and I naturally hope we will do as well as you predict and I see no reason why we should not." Alger, like everyone else, was waiting for Belmont.
The International Aviation Tournament at Long Island's Belmont Park promised to be the largest meet ever held, bringing top aviators from Europe and the United States. For the Wrights, Belmont was of singular importance. Although it featured prizes for distance, duration, passenger carrying, altitude, and a race to the Statue of Liberty, the most anticipated event was the Gordon Bennett speed competition. Winning the Gordon Bennett would, the Wrights believed, maintain the reputation of their airplanes, which would help keep their order book full, allowing them to invest in further development.
Curtiss had won the prize in 1909, and afterward, Wilbur wrote to Orville with plans for a racer. His calculations had a clear purpose: "I think it would be a mistake to get up a racer with less speed than 70 miles [per hour]. We ought to beat them badly if we go into it at all." The finished airplane was far different from anything they'd done before. It was tiny, with wings half the length of those on their standard machine. A monster V-8 engine replaced the four-cylinder version. The aircraft even had a flashy name: the Baby Grand. The day before the meet, Orville clocked in at a blistering 78 mph.
The Belmont meet began with miserable weather and few spectators, but it quickly gathered momentum. Thousands came to see the competition, the newspapers publishing long lists of society notables in attendance. As many as 10 aircraft could be in the air at once, and there were daily spectacles. Three days into the event, Johnstone and Hoxsey braved fierce winds to duel for altitude records. As they turned into the oncoming gale, their airplanes struggled to make headway, slowed to a hover, and began to fly backward out of sight. Hoxsey came down 25 miles from the racetrack. Johnstone landed even farther away—55 miles—but in the process set an altitude record. An ebullient Katharine wrote her father a postcard: "Yesterday was Wright Day all right. Johnstone holds the American record for height. Orv took our big (or little) racer and made almost seventy miles an hour."
On October 29, the Gordon Bennett race got under way, the teams taking turns in individual timed trials, flying 100 kilometers (62 miles) over a five-kilometer course. The Wrights' chief competition was Claude Grahame-White of Britain, flying a 100-horsepower airplane designed by French inventor Louis Blériot. Brooky, whom Orville had chosen to fly the Baby Grand, took to the field around 10 a.m. He rose quickly to make his first pass, the crowd cheering as he came into view and sped past the grandstand. With Orville, Wilbur, and the entire team fixed on him, Brooky was banking into the turn and coming around to officially begin the timed trial when the engine began making a strange noise. It turned out Brooky had lost four of eight cylinders, and the airplane began to drop.
The crowd could see Brooky struggling to keep the little racer from coming down too fast. It was level when it hit the ground, pitching forward and raising a cloud of dust. As the air cleared, Brooky was seen several feet away, staggering to his feet, clutching his sides, and finally collapsing to the ground. He was rushed to the hospital, severely bruised but otherwise uninjured. The Baby Grand was demolished. Grahame-White easily took the prize from the remaining contestants, flying nearly 10 mph slower than the Baby Grand had flown during Orville's unofficial test run.
The Baby Grand, like the team itself, was an experiment. For the Wrights, a failure was disappointing, but it was an accepted part of the process of innovation. They had a lot of experience with risk, and faced the setback with firm resolve to compete harder than ever. But in the challenge they faced now, they risked more than a lost race or a wrecked aircraft. To keep the team competitive, the Wrights would have to keep up with the advancing technology they'd created. Unfortunately, the brothers had spent so much time filing patent infringement suits against Glenn Curtiss, their technology development had suffered. "After 1910, the Wrights were not building the leading aircraft anymore," says historian Jakab. "They were very much in the middle of the pack in terms of what they were producing. As far as the performance and reliability of their designs, they were starting to lag behind other aircraft, namely those of Curtiss and Blériot."
Still, the Wrights saw the team as a way to make money, and to keep the business profitable, they needed a full calendar and focused pilots. The team aviators, who had been on the road for five months, were young and easily diverted. "Be Careful Girls, In Flirting With the Wright Men," advised the Dayton Herald, printing two lists of team members: married and single. "All the Wright aviators from Cliff Turpin, who is only 21, and Brookins, who has not yet turned 22, up to Parmelee, who stands near 30, are held up as ‘love premiums'…. The Wright septet has been worshipped by women, young and old, all over the land."
The brothers tried to counter the head-turning publicity and inclination to showmanship. Wilbur had already chided Hoxsey and Johnstone: "I am very much in earnest when I say that I want no stunts and spectacular frills put on the flights there…. Anything beyond plain flying will be chalked up as a fault and not a credit." Hoxsey was scolded with good reason: In Milwaukee he had hit a grandstand and injured a spectator, who sued.
The Wrights also began to have their doubts about Knabenshue, noting that as 1910 was ending, he had scheduled the team for only four events: Macon, Baltimore, Denver, and Los Angeles. They would soon learn that an empty schedule was not the worst problem a team could face.
In mid-November, Hoxsey, Brooky, and Johnstone went to Denver for a two-day meet at Overland Park. Late on the 17th, Brooky had finished flying, but Hoxsey and Johnstone were still in the air. Johnstone started to descend in a steep spiral, when Brooky noticed the airplane's wings oddly distorted. Johnstone was seen struggling with the controls as the airplane slammed into the ground. He was crushed in the wreckage. The newspapers reported a swarm of airshow spectators probing his mangled corpse for souvenirs, yanking a strut out of his body and stealing his gloves. Hoxsey landed and found Brooky at the wreck; together they pulled Johnstone out and drove off past a band playing ragtime.
Wilbur attended Johnstone's funeral in Kansas City, and the Wright Company established a generous annuity to support the pilot's widow. Wilbur tried to piece together from conflicting reports what had happened, and he wrote Orville detailed theories, but the brothers could arrive at no certainties except one: There would be no more taking chances. Wilbur sent Parmelee to Los Angeles with a special high-altitude Flyer—and instructions. The only one who would fly it was Parmelee, who had been trained by Wilbur personally. Brooky angrily objected. Wilbur fired back through Knabenshue: "After we lost thousands of dollars of prizes at Belmont…it would be crazy foolishness to put the only machine of the kind you have out there in the hands of untrained men…." He added in a telegram: "Do not use unless it will win."
The Los Angeles meet began in triumph. On December 30, Hoxsey climbed to 11,474 feet, a record. But Knabenshue's telegram to Wilbur three days later held no joy: "Meet closed today forty thousand Less the guarenters [sic] will pay us with prize money won. Arch Hoxsey will be cremated tomorrow at two-thirty."
On New Year's Eve, after climbing to 7,000 feet, Hoxsey had started to descend—steeply. Knabenshue reported the details in a letter to Wilbur: "His angle of descent…would figure about 80 degrees from the 1000 foot level, and this angle never changed until he struck…. Firmly believe the poor boy had either been dead in his seat, or in some manner beyond control, for the machine continued to turn, striking head on…. I will not at this instance tell you the condition of his body…."
Brooky could add little. "I did not examine the machine or Hoxsey…as I had seen enough of the horrible."
The Wright Company established an annuity for Hoxsey's mother, who had been receiving $50 a month from her son. Parmelee and Brooky continued on to San Francisco, the only performance scheduled for the coming year. A winter flying school was set up in Augusta, Georgia, which Coffyn was to manage. The calendar was otherwise empty. Hoxsey's death had stunned the team into immobility, and it faced 1911 without a future.
Katharine reported that New Year's Day was "a night-mare for all. I am so sick of this exhibition business. It is so absolutely wrong."
On February 15, Knabenshue submitted his resignation, citing "considerable interference from several members of your organization." At the end of March, the Wrights countered, telling Knabenshue he would report directly to them. In the face of ever-increasing competition, the brothers decided to keep the exhibition experiment alive. Knabenshue accepted their counteroffer, and after three months of inactivity, went out to hustle for jobs.
Although the Dayton flying school was busy, the exhibition season looked bleak. Orville reported, "[Knabenshue] came back completely discouraged. He found that the Curtiss people have been out, while we were fooling around, securing our business…. The Curtiss outfit are taking work at one half to two thirds of our prices…. I told him he must take the work away from Curtiss, whether we made any money on it or not…." The calendar finally started to fill, and eventually the team had even more engagements than it had flown in 1910: from Miami to Walla Walla and Manitoba to Corpus Christi. Turpin's itinerary, for example, had him traveling to 14 cities.
Turpin had proved to be a valuable asset: He fulfilled his contracts, didn't crash, and was a favorite with the press. Brooky, on the other hand, was changed. "Brooky is also in the West, but we have lost all interest in him," wrote Katherine. "[H]e is so ridiculously conceited that his days of usefulness are just about over…. Now even Orv can't endure him." Orville confirmed his misgivings in a letter to Wilbur: "I think something is wrong with the machinery inside of [his head]; his whole manner is so entirely changed from what it was a year ago. He spends his whole time talking of his superiority, and of the small amount he is paid for his services." On May 21, Brooky's wife divorced him. Soon after, he quit the team.
In June, Orville assessed the team's finances and reported to Wilbur: "Our receipts to date amount to $22,540. Our expenses, not including the expenses of the New York office nor any expense for wear and depreciation of machines, amounts to $19,400." Wilbur understood: "If it appears that the exhibition business is not really profitable, my idea would be to get out of it as soon as possible. Only big profits and a quick release from worry could compensate for putting up with it at all." The experiment was over.
Though Wilbur and Orville had excelled at aeronautical design, tasks like sales and marketing did not come naturally to them. "The Wrights weren't bad businessmen, but running a business was a whole lot tougher for them than the process of invention," says Wright biographer Crouch. "I think people sometimes have the notion that the Wrights were these guys who were on fire to go out and bore holes in the sky, and they really weren't. The charge that they had always gotten out of it was the whole business of solving difficult challenges that had beaten everybody else. ‘Isn't it wonderful that all these problems have been preserved all these years just so we could solve them,' " is how Orville once put it.
In November, after meets in Chicago and St. Louis, the Wrights quietly released Knabenshue and the team (Welsh stayed on with the Wright Company as a test pilot). Coffyn went to work for the Alger brothers, thrilling enormous crowds by flying a Wright Model B over New York City. Turpin and Parmelee rented two airplanes and a tent from the Wrights and traveled to Venice Beach, California, where they sold rides.
By March 1912, Turpin wrote Orville that the upcoming season would be a busy one, and suggested getting a new Wright model for sale or rent. Orville replied that the airplane, a Model C, was "a dandy," and although they were undecided about an exhibition team for 1912, they thought that if they did go out on the road, they would prefer to use men they knew.
Two months later, any hope of a new team was dashed. Turpin and Parmelee took two airplanes to Washington state, where they got back into the exhibition business. On May 30, Turpin was landing in front of a Seattle grandstand when a photographer ran in front of him. Turpin pulled up and clipped a small pylon, and the impact pivoted him toward the grandstand. Terrified onlookers scrambled as his airplane slammed into the upper tier, instantly killing a spectator. Turpin was dragged unconscious from the wreckage, bruised but otherwise unhurt.
The next day, news broke that Wilbur had died in Dayton, succumbing to a month-long bout with typhoid fever.
The following afternoon, Parmelee took off in Yakima, Washington, and minutes later lost control in a gust, crashed, and was killed. Among his effects was an unopened letter from his father. "Glad to hear you say you were going to quit…be careful, boy and not get hurt. Be one of the boys who gets out of it before it's too late."
Two weeks later, while testing the new Wright Model C at College Park, Maryland, for the U.S. Army, Al Welsh was killed. He had just returned from Wilbur's funeral. Orville and Katharine now came to his, and once again arranged support for a grieving family.
There would never again be another Wright exhibition team.
Orville, Knabenshue, Brooky, Coffyn, and Turpin all lived into old age. Orville sold the Wright Company in 1915, and retired to a quiet life as an elder statesman of aviation. Knabenshue returned to dirigibles but ultimately left flying and went to work for the National Park Service. Brooky returned to and retired from aviation several times, but he was never again a star. Coffyn wound up in the helicopter business. Turpin retired to Cape Cod and never flew again.
In less than two years, the Wright exhibition team had performed 77 times. Despite the tragedies, the pilots had helped introduce the airplane to the public long before the era of barnstormers and the modern airshow. For the Wrights and their competitors, exhibition flying was an opportunity to earn money after years of inventing and investing, and the performances spurred the growth of the aviation industry. For the men on the team, it was a chance to leave an old life and go on an adventure, possibly grab some glory, and play a part in the new world coming. Whether they intended to or not, they delivered a powerful and indelible message: Flight is real.