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Battle With the Air

By Don Bedwell
1/26/2018 • Aviation History Magazine

After establishing a new flight record over Lake Erie in 1910, Glenn Curtiss nearly came to grief on his return trip to Cleveland.

Thousands of Clevelanders watched as Glenn Hammond Curtiss paced the Euclid Beach Park pier on the morning of August 31, 1910. Many had skipped work that day in hopes of watching him set out on his planned 65-mile overwater flight to Cedar Point, near Sandusky. Some grew restless as time wore on, recalling that the airman had recently canceled trial flights due to high winds.

Curtiss’ fragile flying machine, dubbed the Hudson Flyer, was powered by a 60-hp engine. It had been shipped around the country to fulfill invitations that poured in after his record-breaking flight down New York State’s Hudson River four months earlier. Shortly after the 32-year-old aviator arrived in Cleve – land, he had announced that his biplane was not ready for a test flight. A second scheduled trial had also been postponed.

Aside from sending a few colorful balloons into the leaden sky, Curtiss evaluated conditions simply by walking the pier and observing his shadow. “My coat is my wind gauge,” he explained to reporters. “When it flaps evenly, I know the wind is steady.” On the morning of August 31, his coat was flapping wildly in the breeze. Knowing a forced landing could turn his wood, fabric and wire aircraft into kindling, he reluctantly postponed his record attempt. “The hardest thing in flying,” he told reporters, “is to correctly assess when it is wise to remain on the ground.”

What Curtiss didn’t say was that it would be especially wise not to jeopardize the lucrative flight to Cedar Point, which he had contracted with the Cleveland Aero Club and Cleveland Press to attempt. He stood to earn as much as $15,000 in prize money by surpassing the 50-mile mark he had set in Atlantic City just two months earlier.

When Curtiss returned to the beach that afternoon for another trial, he was dressed to fly—girdled with inflated inner tubes to keep him afloat if the airplane plunged into the lake. His wife, Lena Pearl, fingered her beaded purse nervously as the Hudson Flyer was rolled out onto the 300-foot plank runway and her husband climbed into his seat.

The engine coughed to life, belching a cloud of dark smoke. Hundreds of boats sounded bells and whistles as Curtiss powered down the plank runway. The crowd held its collective breath as the plane wallowed dangerously, then burst into applause as it began the climb out over the lake for a brief trial flight. Minutes later they greeted his return with cheers.

Curtiss had accepted the invitation to Cleveland following 12 months of exploits that pushed the envelope of aviation and burnished his reputation as one of America’s leading airmen. Just a year earlier, on August 29, 1909, he had been acclaimed the world airspeed king after edging out France’s Louis Blériot to win the first international air race at Reims. He started 1910 with another triumph at America’s first large-scale airshow, held in Los Angeles on January 20, averaging 54.7 mph in another of his own biplanes. Then, on June 30, he offered U.S. Navy officers an early demonstration of the airplane’s military potential, dropping lead pipes on a target configured like a warship. Eighteen of his 20 “bombs” struck the target.

Those achievements built on the celebrity Curtiss had gained in 1908 with the Aerial Experiment Association, organized by Alexander Graham Bell to advance the science of flight. Curtiss was at the controls of the AEA’s June Bug when it flew just under a mile on July 4, 1908, the first official airplane flight of more than a kilometer (see “Into the Air” in the July 2009 Aviation History).

From the public’s standpoint, Curtiss’ star status was clinched by his 150-mile flight down the Hudson from Albany to New York City on May 29, 1910. The man who had first demonstrated his courage as a daredevil motorcycle racer was never one to dodge a challenge. Nor was he inclined to overlook the $10,000 prize that publisher Joseph Pulitzer promised the first “aeronaut” to make the flight. Defying turbulent winds, Curtiss completed the trip in just two hours and 51 minutes, with a single refueling stop.

Within a week, promoters across the country had posted an estimated $200,000 in prize money, hoping to attract Curtiss or other famed aviators. Atlantic City offered $5,000 for a flight over a stretch of ocean, a prize Curtiss claimed after flying laps off the city boardwalk on July 4. The city boasted that the 50-mile flight established an over-water record—one that Cleveland boosters immediately invited Curtiss to break.

August 31 had dawned clear, and when the airman came out early to check the weather he was wearing what might have passed for business casual in those days. Still, he donned a flier’s cap and goggles, since the test flight showed him that he needed to protect his eyes from sand whipped up by the prop.

Curtiss rattled down the plank runway at 1:06 that afternoon. With the wind at his back, he lifted off just moments before he would have crashed into the surf and a concrete piling. As one reporter described it, “Curtiss missed disaster and probable death by a hair’s breadth.” The airman coaxed his plane out over the lake before banking westward and easing up to 300 feet. His foot on the gas feed, he bent over the steering wheel and tracked elapsed time with a watch clamped to the control column.

Seven minutes after takeoff, the flier passed within view of Cleveland Harbor, where an estimated crowd of 100,000 waved him on. Soon a flock of curious seagulls was cruising alongside him. Minutes later he could make out the slender peninsula that was Cedar Point.

Out on the point, thousands followed re – ports of his progress, relayed via telephone and telegraph. A man with a megaphone announced his approach, and soon someone pointed and shouted, “It’s Curtiss!” As he got closer, “men and women seemed to lose their senses,” according to the Sandusky Daily Register. “For a moment they stood and gazed in open-eyed wonderment,” then rushed forward. “Moans, shrieks and sobs all added to the confusion prevailing.” Police – men held back the crowd as the Hudson Flyer bounced along the beach for about 100 feet before coming to a stop. Now the crowd rushed toward Curtiss, some trying to hoist him up onto their shoulders. But Curtiss wasn’t having it. “I must telephone my wife,” he protested.

The airman frustrated reporters by insisting there had been nothing particularly remarkable about the record-breaking flight. From his perspective, he was simply a businessman doing his job. He had covered the 60½ miles to Cedar Point in one hour and 18 minutes, an average of 46.1 mph—“the speed of a rocket,” according to one breathless report. Curtiss, who had sped to a world record 136 mph on a motorcycle three years before, must have rolled his eyes at such hyperbole. But he would gladly pocket his prize money for completing the first half of the round trip.

A downpour changed his plans of flying back to Cleveland right after his aircraft was serviced. Instead he accepted the offer of Cedar Point proprietor George Boeckling to stay overnight and attend a banquet in his honor. Although he despised such affairs, Curtiss recognized the need to cooperate with his sponsors. Before his return trip, he told Boeckling (and eavesdropping reporters), “This will be the most remarkable flight ever made, and this is the most ideal and most beautiful place for such events.”

The following morning brought more wind, and another delay. When the winds subsided, he made a demonstration flight, then took off at 2:47 p.m. for Cleveland. Lifting off into a clear sky, he had no reason to suspect that he would soon be fighting for his life. He quickly encountered what he de – scribed as “a veritable whirlpool of air” that kept him struggling to stay aloft. “Even a small puff of wind striking the machine hit with terrible force,” he recalled. “The ma – chine quivered and shook.”

Flying at 500 feet into what he described as “the teeth of a 20-mile gale,” Curtiss plummeted 100 feet after hitting a downdraft. Throttling back, he regained control, but his hands grew numb from the cold, and his back ached from rocking back and forth to help maintain level flight. He hastily pulled down his goggles when rain began pelting his face.

By the time he touched down, he was too exhausted to acknowledge the welcoming throng. “It was a battle with the air every mile of the way from Cedar Point,” the weary flier told reporters. “Several times I feared I would be dashed into the lake.”

Local newspapers blitzed readers with the story of the first flight over the Great Lakes. But Curtiss’ accomplishment drew only brief national attention. The over-water record itself would stand for just five months before another pilot, John McCurdy, broke it with a 90-mile flight from Key West to Havana. McCurdy was a member of a new exhibition team that Curtiss incorporated one day after his Cedar Point flight, a move that signaled the New York aviator’s intention to concentrate on aircraft development and manufacturing.

After Glenn Curtiss’ death in 1930, Cleveland newspapers recalled his Lake Erie flight, eulogizing the former motorcycle racer as a man whose contributions to flying matched those of the Wright brothers. “In skill, courage, resourcefulness and enthusiasm, he was surpassed by few in the history of aviation,” the Cleveland Press editorialized. “He was one of the great.”

 

Originally published in the July 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here

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