Moments and Milestones: Mile-High Man

Moments and Milestones: Mile-High Man

letter from Brookins to Orville Wright
Sometimes training was a hair-raising proposition, as this May 23, 1910 letter from Brookins to Orville Wright Image courtesy NASM

When the Wright brothers were first experimenting with powered flight, Walter Brookins was just a teenage kid hanging around their Dayton, Ohio home. He must have ingratiated himself with the family, whom he had known since he was four, because the Wrights, who called him Brooky, promised to build him an airplane one day. He ended up working for the brothers, and even setting a flying record as their employee, but after a quarrelsome split, he left the Wright organization, obscuring his accomplishments.

Brookins was born in Dayton in July 1889. At one time he was a student of Katharine Wright, Orville and Wilbur’s sister and an Oberlin College-educated schoolteacher. Orville in particular took a liking to young Brookins and selected him to be the first person he would train to fly. By 1909, six years after the Wrights’ first flights, the airplane was attracting crowds at air meets and exhibitions. Katharine and the brothers had deep misgivings about the daredevil nature of exhibition flying, but Orville and Wilbur finally formed a team of fliers in 1910 (see “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Aeroplane!” Apr./May 2008).

According to accounts of the period around 1910, Brookins was the team’s most daring and accomplished member. He reportedly flew solo after only two and a half hours of Orville’s tutelage, and then trained two other members of the team in Orville’s absence.

Photographs of Brookins reveal a clean-shaven, youthful fellow who could be played by Ben Affleck in a high-collar shirt, cravat, and a newsboy cap. One newspaper account describes him as “slight,” which would have been to his advantage in one of his more demanding stunts, during which he’d rack the wispy airplane over onto one wingtip in a 90-degree bank and fly a tight circle that would have pulled more than two Gs.

It was in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on July 9, 1910—exactly 100 years ago—that Brookins became the first flier to take an airplane more than a mile up. A mile! (Actually, Brookins went nearly 900 feet higher, but “one mile” made for sensational headlines.) The feat won the Wrights $5,000, but for Brookins himself, the contract salary was $20 a week plus $50 per day of flying; all prize money went to the team.

Possibly disgruntled at the contract pay and at not getting a share of the prize money, Brookins began negotiating for a job with the Pioneer Aeroplane and Exhibition Company of St. Louis. The Wright brothers, who took to litigation as if they had been born in a courtroom, immediately threatened to seek an injunction to ground him. The threat marked the end of the professional relationship between the Wrights and Brookins, who had read enough newspaper stories about himself to decide to go it alone. During his solo career, Brookins set one long-distance record after another. An item in the February 6, 1911 Washington Post summarizes succinctly the effect of these accomplishments: His wife, Grace, suing him for divorce, charged him with desertion.

Brookins worked for a time in Milwaukee as a chauffeur for a retired industrialist, and later became a partner in a Hollywood, California company called the Davis-Brookins Aircraft Corporation, which had been formed as the patent holder for the Davis airfoil. That airfoil was famously used on the Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber of World War II. Brookins died at home in Hollywood in 1953 after a four-month illness and was buried in the Portal of the Folded Wings, a shrine for pilots.

Celebrating the centennial of the first flight to exceed one mile in altitude is an idea that is unlikely to catch on in an era when light airplanes routinely fly at more than 5,000 feet and tourists are reserving seats for rides to the edge of space. But if you’re on a quiz show and they ask who was the first man to fly a mile high, remember ol’ Walter.

Sometimes training was a hair-raising proposition, as this May 23, 1910 letter from Brookins (second from right) to Orville Wright (third from right) shows: “We have averaged eight ten minute instructive flights a day being divided between Hoxsey and Crane until today, when Mr. Crane said he would not fly in Montgomery any more…. We started from the far end of the rail with the wind coming from the west…. I saw that I was past the garden patch and would have to go over the houses in order to make the turn. Weather conditions being fine I started to climb thinking I could obtain a safe height to cross the wires but upon nearing them thought in case any thing should happen that I might not clear them. My being [too] close to the road to land and every thing being clear…I swooped down with perfect control and went under the wires coming up the other side in fine shape for climbing, which I did and crossed over on our grounds where Crane wanted to come down but I gave him his usual instruction before landing.” Image courtesy NASM
While Walter Brookins severed his professional connection to the Wrights in 1911, by the 1920s they had repaired their personal relationship (here Brookins, far right, chats with Wilbur, left, and Orville in June 1910). An excerpt from a May 1911 left from Orville to Wilbur, however, shows the extent of their earlier estrangement: “Russell and Knabenshue have been having a great deal of trouble with Brookins and Parmelee. The trouble with Parmelee comes from his associating with Brookins. We would be better off if [we] were rid of Brookins. I have never in my life seen such a swelled head as he had developed. As a matter of fact, I think something is wrong with the machinery inside of it; his whole manner is so entirely changed from what it was a year ago. He spends his whole time talking of his superiority, and the small amount he is paid for his services.” Image courtesy NASM
Arch Hoxsey (at far right), one of the members of the Wright Exhibition Team was killed in a crash on December 31, 1910, while attempting to set a new altitude record. In a letter from Walter Brookins to Orville Wright, Brookins (third from right) relates the tragedy: “I received your letter and in reply would say I do not know what caused Hoxsey’s accident. He was descending from his altitude flight of the afternoon at a reasonable angle when I saw the propellers revolving at a higher speed which showed he had turned on his engine…. It seems as though some figured he was straightening out when he hit but I did not examine the machine or Hoxsey that day or at all as I had seen enough of the horrible.” Image courtesy NASM
In Orville Wright’s absence, Walter Brookins gave flying lessons (a Wright Company Type A Transitional, shown here) to two other members of the Wright Exhibition Team. In a letter dated May 19, 1910, Brookins wrote to Orville: “I noticed in Mr. Russell’s letter of the 16th that he speaks of our breaking camp in case of another breakdown. The work has taken on an entirely different aspect. The machine is running as it never has before not giving us a moment’s trouble. The boys are rounding rapidly into shape with a high average of daily flights. In addition to this the weather is ideal and we all feel as if a transfer to Dayton (even Crane) would be a distinct setback to our mutual interests.” Image courtesy NASM
As Walter Brookins set an altitude record over the Atlantic City pier, Glenn Curtiss followed in the chase plane. Courtesy Empire State Aerosciences Museum/The Frank Coffyn Collection