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Eyewitness to Octave Chanute’s Aviation Experiments

6/12/2006 • Aviation History

Before he died in 1949, Henry S. Bunting wrote a collection of reminiscences dealing with his days as a young reporter. Several of his memoirs, including the one printed here that he called ‘Primitive Bird Man, were recently discovered among his papers by his daughter, Elisabeth Bunting Crouse, who made Primitive Bird Man available for publication in Aviation History.

My city editor leaned over my shoulder at 4 o’clock on a September day in 1896 just as I finished typing my afternoon assignment. I want you to catch the Chicago & Eastern Indiana train in 45 minutes, he said-It’s the only train that stops at Dune Park between East Chicago and Michigan City. Here’s a requisition for expense. A man named Chanute is hidden down there in the dunes with a flying machine he invented. Find him-stay with him-get a story.

That was the way I came to be identified with the first aeronautical experimental expedition in history and saw the collection of scientific data that laid the foundation for what became the science and art of flying.

Is the story exclusive? I asked.

I suppose so-I don’t know, the city editor replied. It’s covered with secrecy. One of Chanute’s men came to town to visit his girl Sunday and told her about it. She’s chummy with our maid and in turn told her about it-in strict confidence, of course; so she told my wife. Stay with it till you get the story.

There was not time to go by my room for a light overcoat, and at about 6 o’clock I got off at Dune Park, Ind., a solitary way station and switch track loaded with sand cars. Behind the one-room telegrapher’s station, a high ridge of sand stretched east and west like a miniature mountain range, with Lake Michigan somewhere beyond it. I asked directions of the operator. He was noncommittal. I explained I was on my way to the Chanute camp and would be grateful for directions. He knew nothing about it.

Can I get a livery rig or farm wagon for a little journey?

The fellow laughed outright, jibing, Man alive, do you take this for a town? Even a farm country? That hut a mile away is my only neighbor, with no road to it through the swamp.

How far is it to Lake Michigan?

Two miles, air line-when you walk it, seems 10.

I asked him to be a good fellow and tell me how to reach the beach. It would be easy to keep a north direction by the sun, he said, and if I went straight without getting lost I ought to make it before dark. I set out to scale the sand ridge with feet sinking to over shoe tops in the soft, sliding sand. It was like going uphill in heavy snow, and I stopped to rest halfway up. A whistle from the station called me, and the operator was waving to return, so I was back in short time.

Reporter man, he said in a kind way, I haven’t the heart to let you get lost in the dunes all night, and that’s what you’re heading for. It’ll be getting dark in two hours and you’ll be nowhere-lost, cold and hungry. I’m under promise not to give out information and I won’t give any; but I’ll talk about you-you’re starting off in the wrong direction if you intend to eat supper tonight.

With that hint I again started my climb of the dune, but in the opposite direction, elated by the feeling I now had some idea where I was going.

At the top, a desert panorama spread out-north, east, west as far as the eye reached. Lake Michigan was nowhere in sight. The undulating sea of sand with its high swells and deep swales resembled the Atlantic tossed by a hurricane. There was a monotonous alternation of hills and canyons, with some mountainous cones of sand in the distance.

Looking down from the height, the flat Indiana prairie stretched away to the southern horizon, lush green, swampish. Nature was staging another exciting battle here between life and death as in the Ice Age, with a sand invasion instead of ice. This great, yellowish sand monster that seemed to cover half the visible earth evidently had climbed up out of Lake Michigan and was conquering the marsh inch by inch as it moved inward, burying the marsh grasses and flowers. And this marvelous geological transformation was taking place within 50 miles of Chicago’s crowded Loop.

The fatigue of crossing rough terrain increased my concern about locating the camp, and still Lake Michigan was not in view when the sun reached setting. There was lurid beauty in the desert sunset, with an afterglow of delicate coloring quite enchanting, and dark seemed to come on very suddenly. A ghostly thing appeared ahead in the twilight, which proved to be a glider with white wings, tied to stakes to prevent it from blowing away. The discovery was exulting, for camp could not be very distant. While I was examining the glider, the sharp bark of a dog nearby broke the silence. Then the forms of a man and dog came out of the dusk, approaching the glider.

Hello! the man exclaimed, startled at seeing me. Who are you?

I’m looking for Mr. Chanute-can you show me the way to his camp?

Well, who are you?

Chicago Tribune.

How on earth did you get here?

It was a hard journey.

Gosh, will the chief be hurt, he muttered, discovered-after all the trouble he went to. He paused a moment, I can’t help taking you to camp-you would follow me if I didn’t. Will you tell Mr. Chanute I didn’t bring you here-never saw you before? Will you do that?

I assured him I would, and we introduced ourselves. My guide was Walter Herring, later well-known in glider flying. We walked down the canyon to a break that opened out on the shore. Five minutes down the beach, Herring turned round a dune, and four tents came to view, hidden completely from the sight of the beach. A campfire spoke welcome, a steaming coffee pot said supper.

Herring took me to the central tent where the boss was making ready for supper. He led me to his chief with embarrassment and introduced me as a newspaperman who had straggled into camp. Surprised, shocked, hurt, Octave Chanute took the disclosure with dignity and bade me welcome. I explained who I was, how I got there. After regaining composure, Mr. Chanute softened the stiffness of the intrusion with the easy manner of a gentleman.

Well, sir, I make no concealment of my surprise and regret that you are here, he said rather sadly. I thought I had taken every precaution to ensure that our coming here would remain unknown; but it appears the press is omniscient, ubiquitous. Here you are, willy-nilly, and I cannot send you away. Then let us make a virtue out of necessity-please be welcome, and consider yourself my guest while you remain. He looked across the tent, adding with affability, That, sir, will be your cot, pointing to a bunk beside his bed, and join us at supper, which is being served.

Then this gallant reincarnation from the courts of the Louis handed me his own supper plate and insisted I take the seat he had been about to occupy. My protestations were in vain; he would not let me shift for myself and came presently with another supper and sat beside me. Knowing how much cut up he felt over being discovered, appalled at the thought of publicity, I marveled that such a perfect gentleman still existed outside storybooks. He introduced the members of his crew, and supper passed pleasantly with talk and getting acquainted.

Why do you object to the public knowing about your flying? I asked.

I do not fly, and never expect to, he said. I don’t like my daughter to overhear someone at the grocer’s say, ‘That’s the daughter of that old fool who thinks he can fly.’ Our experiments here are with air gliders only. Someday, I believe, men will fly like birds, but not until we know what type of gliders soar best-not until the laws of nature basic to flight are well understood. Then it may be possible that a motor will be added to overcome gravity and permit steering. I am merely trying to lay stepping stones for the future science and art of flying by accumulating scientific data and reducing them to tables for the use of others.

Talk over pipes that evening disclosed what great precautions this modest father of aviation had taken to keep his expedition secret. The tug chartered to carry equipment, supplies and men had turned north after leaving the Chicago river and went nearly to the Wisconsin line before veering out into the lake and returning past the city far out of sight. This was to throw anyone off the track who might be snooping. The expedition beached at the south end of Lake Michigan on the lonely Indiana shore between East Chicago and Michigan City. The spot was several miles east of the site where the future steel town of Gary some years later was to spring up overnight. All material was lugged behind a sand dune, where camp was set up out of sight from lake and beach.

I became interested in drawing out some facts about my host. What he was reticent about disclosing was afterward learned from his helpers. Octave Chanute was a distinguished inventor and mechanical engineer. He served the Illinois Society of Engineers as president and as chairman of its reception committee the year of the first world’s fair and had entertained visiting engineers from all over the world. City elevated rapid transit was really his invention, although he was not connected with that business. The so-called Brooklyn Elevated was built as the result of a paper with plans that he presented to an engineering society, proposing to put streetcars up in the air out of the way of traffic. The new method of creosoting timbers and railroad ties under heavy pressure to prevent wood rot was his invention. He operated such a plant in Chicago, which gave him ample means to experiment with flying. At Mr. Chanute’s North Side home, a glider laboratory was kept under lock and key in the backyard, and his staff tried to keep his secrets.

An early start the next morning included a breakfast of coffee, ham and eggs that gave a heartening feeling for the day ahead. On trudging up the dune that sheltered the camp there appeared three gliders anchored behind the ridge. These were box-kite affairs, with parallel shelves of muslin for wings, placed one above another, like shelves in a bookcase. Their slender wood frames were guyed and strengthened with wire struts in every direction. The wings glistened with coatings of varnish. Three feet under the glider hung parallel bars, at right angles to the wings, which gave the operator something to hold onto and to use to make a rude attempt at steering. The wings had an expanse of 8 by 3 feet. One glider was built with three superimposed wings; two models had but two. Such was the simple device with which man began to study the ABCs of aviation.

A glider was brought up onto the crest of the dune facing the lake. The crew raised it off the ground while Bill Avery, chief operator, got under it, placed his elbows over handlebars to support his weight and gripped them to hold up the structure, which was not heavy. Balancing the craft above him, he called Gangway! as the crew stepped aside. The bold birdman then ran to the edge of the dune and jumped off into space, the shiny white thing coursing down toward the beach with the man dangling under it. This first try of the day covered more than 200 feet, ending in a bit of a spill but without the operator sustaining bruises.

Succeeding flights followed the same pattern, with operators sometimes landing just right on their feet and being able to run along to orderly stops. It was a sporting proposition to see who could travel farthest, and each tried vainly to reach the water. Operators took turns gliding so as always to be at their best. The day was divided into shifts, with two hours of rest at noon. Occasionally, an operator would move his weight a little too forward or backward in flight and get into a nose dive or a backward spill that inflicted sprains or bruises. The boys acquired skill at avoiding this, but sometimes produced an upset in the effort to prolong a flight.

As soon as a jump was made, the real business began. Chanute and his son, who was his chief assistant, armed with tapeline and scientific instruments, began to measure and record all pertinent data. These included date, time of day, temperature, barometric reading, humidity, wind direction and velocity, weights of glider and operator, elevation at start and length of the flight, from which trajectory was computed. The scientists worked slowly, almost painfully, with laboratory precision. Records kept in a little book were destined one day to be held as precious by the Wright brothers and other experimenters.

We were startled on the third afternoon to see a man coming toward us over the dunes-in view on the ridges, disappearing while crossing valleys. He stopped so often he seemed very tired. Covering him with binoculars, we saw he was not a tramp or beachcomber. I began to have forebodings. When he got near enough for a good look, I recognized in the sand voyager the face of Harry Macbeth of the Times-Herald. The jig was up. We were discovered! I knew then my story would scarcely be exclusive. I went out to greet Harry, and after he got his wind, I presented him to our chief.

Mr. Chanute, I regret to have to report that we have been discovered by the Chicago press. This is all that is left of my buddy, Mr. Macbeth of the Times-Herald-shall we invite him to stay, or throw him out?

The old scientist had gotten mellow toward visitors.

With such pleasure as is possible to me, under the circumstances, Mr. Macbeth, I give you welcome. Please make yourself at home and while you are with us regard yourself as my guest.

Macbeth was all tuckered out. The station man had not given him directions. As there was plenty of daylight, he probably figured he could find his way before dark. Macbeth vowed he had walked at least 25 miles covering that two-mile stretch of sand. That night Mr. Chanute assigned him to a cot beside mine.

The next day brought another surprise-the world seemed to be getting too crowded. A man on horseback was seen coming down the beach from Michigan City, 12 miles east. Beachcombers don’t ride horses, said Avery. I’ll bet a drink it’s a New York City reporter. He proved right-all but the location of the paper. The rider turned out to be Frank Hemingway of the Chicago Chronicle. He was too smart to walk and had hired a horse and brought along oats to keep his mount sturdy while he explored the beach, figuring that if he located the fliers he could get food, but his horse could not eat sand. Frank was duly presented to Mr. Chanute. Another cot was assigned. Our main tent was filling up.

The boys of the press took naturally to camp life and gliding, with some usefulness to the boss. They became quite a help lugging around material, and some were bold enough to take a try at gliding. The third evening around the campfire took on the banter and jollity of a Press Club stag night.

Wonders never ceased. The next day we saw a light rig coming toward us on the firm, wet beach from East Chicago way, a journey of 18 miles. Beachcombers don’t use buggies, and it must be more press, observed Avery. Again he was right. The rig brought us Bob Armstrong of the Morning Record. Bob had bribed a livery stable man to drive him along the beach as far as Michigan City.

I wonder at the resourcefulness of the press, mused Mr. Chanute. I expect the next gentleman of the press to arrive will charter a tug and come as a skipper.

Our courtly host had gotten over his first feeling of isolation toward reporters and, being sure they would not abuse hospitality by reporting sensationally, he entered into their banter with good humor and enjoyment. Armstrong was formally presented to our host and was made as welcome as the rest of us.

Have you given any thought to the fact that we shall be needing more beds if the rest of the Chicago reporters come to visit us? Macbeth asked the birdman.

My plan about that, said our host, is the press will sleep in shifts, the overflow sleeping in the daytime.

That will be hard on the afternoon papers, rejoined Macbeth.

All four reporters were soon well broken in on the routine of camp life and kept as busy as hired men. All helped tug gliders back up the slope, run errands to camp for tools and equipment and measure the distance of flights. We really paid for our keep. Stories of the expedition were now running in the papers, conservatively written, telling the facts of the experiments free from romance, so they did not get much space or position.

Almost every day one of the press boys returned to town to connect with his office, deliver copy for the others to their respective papers and bring back supplies. It did not look like anything very sensational was going to happen unless an aviator broke his neck. Operators were at liberty to spend Sunday in the city, and the reporters went also. I was the only one who stayed to keep the Chanutes company.

I had begun to feel that I occupied a privileged position in camp by right of prior discovery and that I really belonged there. Sometimes I wondered if the rest of the press were not overstraining hospitality a little by staying on with us so permanently, but the host’s unruffled urbanity made it appear that no such idea was troubling him. It was agreed by the press that we had never known such a perfect gentleman. We had observed that, in offering a cigar, our host always took pains to present two cigars so the recipient might take his choice. He was so given to formal etiquette that we believed he probably would refrain from giving a cigar if he could not offer two. New reporters from the afternoon papers had been coming as daylight visitors ever since the morning papers broke the first flying news.

On Monday of the second week, a mild sensation broke that had the smell of mystery. A considerable pile of gliders or something at camp, entirely covered under a tarpaulin, had escaped our curiosity and came up for explanation.

Now I can rely on your discretion, explained Mr. Chanute, I can give you my full confidence. That is supposed to be a flying machine, but not mine-it belongs to our Mr. Paul, and he calls it his Albatross. While I do not believe it will fly, I have agreed to make it possible for him to give it a trial flight if we get the right wind conditions. Boys, please keep this little confidence under your hats till the trial has been made.

Paul was a quiet man we had taken for a hired worker, who kept busy helping others and did little talking.

This man says he is a sailor and got the idea of his flying machine while lying in his hammock under the bowsprit of a slow-sailing schooner, watching the flight of seagulls. He figured out, he says, that a flying boat ought to be shaped like a seagull. That same thought has suggested itself to many. Paul is ignorant, has no knowledge of mathematics, and I, of course, cannot believe him when he says he once built such a boat and that its trial flight was successful.

He says he tried it out in a lonely valley near Mammoth Cave, launching his ship off a cliff for a cruise of two miles and returning safely, and that he then destroyed his model to keep anyone from stealing his invention. It seems preposterous, of course, fantastic; but one fact keeps me from branding the sailor a fraud. He gave me a rough drawing of his craft with the position marked where he says he stood to steer, and I found by calculation that it was at the exact center of gravity of the structure. It seems scarcely likely an ignorant fellow could hit on that fact by guesswork.

This gives him the benefit of a slight doubt. The man seems sincere and honest, and sticks to such a straight story that I decided at length to let him try out his idea under my auspices, skeptical as I was, and still am. My opinion is that he suffers from an illusion which he has come to believe to be the truth.

The man’s idea about steering his craft is ingenious, and seems a bit reasonable. He says that standing at this post, with his hands on the handlebars, a slight backward shift of his weight elevates his prow and makes his boat soar upward; reversing it turns the course downward. This seems like what ought to result if the boat were actually going. In the same way, tilting the craft sideways might be expected to turn its course to right or left, which Paul assures me is the fact. So we built his boat for him under his directions, and brought it along to see if there is anything to his weird story.

When will the trial flight be made?

At the first straight, north wind. We have been waiting for that impatiently, but it’s long past due. You may have noticed that the timber runway on the jumping dune faces exactly north-well, that’s the launching device for the Albatross, not an abandoned scheme for launching gliders, as you were told. A kite rises straight up against a brisk breeze. We intend to give the Albatross every chance by launching it straight into the teeth of a north wind having velocity to sustain it.

The secret out and the north wind due at any time, Mr. Chanute decided to move the mysterious air bird up onto the starting platform and get everything ready for the test. It was heavy work, dragging the queer structure up the sandy slope. In general outline it resembled a bird with wings outspread. The wooden crate of light construction forming the cabin was shaped somewhat like a bird’s body. This frame was strengthened by wire struts in every direction. It was about 12 feet long. Two wings of 10 feet length reached out of the middle of the cabin. The wings were surfaced with muslin, varnished.

Never before had reporters been so interested in meteorological conditions. The instrument that showed wind direction and velocity was watched constantly. As all winds from the north had been quartering for weeks, the problem was, when will a straight-down north wind blow? Day after day, we waited wistfully, but it did not come. At length we relaxed, excitement gradually waned, and we stopped watching the aerometer. The press boys were going back to town more often and staying longer, keeping contact with the weatherman in Auditorium Tower, who promised he would notify their offices when the right wind came.

The third Saturday morning, when novelty had worn off, the Albatross and the press agreed that the north wind could go to hell, the reporters except myself went home for Sunday. Operators were expecting to go, too, but before they got away in the afternoon there was some change in conditions, and Mr. Chanute canceled leaves of absence. On going away that morning, Hemingway called back to me, If the wind gets just right, we’ll be down at the station to meet you when the evening train comes in, and get the story. This was his idea, not mine, and I made no reply. My hunch was that if anything good really happened, the Tribune might get a scoop. Working personnel were reduced by the press leaving, but Mr. Chanute still had his regular staff with one extra.

Sunday morning the unexpected happened. A brisk, steady wind sprang up from due north, giving just the conditions that had been waited for. At breakfast coffee, Mr. Chanute said the bird ship would be launched just as soon as we could make ready. He wanted to take advantage of the wind before it shifted. Everybody but Skipper Paul seemed tense and excited. The ways were greased to make the ship’s slide-off easy; guy ropes reached down from the machine to stakes driven in the beach to keep the ship from flying away prematurely; and all took assigned stations. Mine was at a stake on the beach. If Mr. Chanute called out Hold it! I was to take a hitch with my rope around the stake and bring the ship down in shallow water.

It seemed to be feared that if the boat soared out to sea and crashed in deep water, Skipper Paul would be drowned; but if the drop occurred in shallow water, we could jump in and pull him out of his trap. So, despite all skepticism, the work was laid out on the assumption that the boat might fly.

Mr. Chanute took his position forward of the boat. Bill Avery, with hatchet, stood at the stern to chop the release rope. Paul, smiling and looking victorious, clearly very happy, climbed into his boat and took his position, as proud as a captain on his bridge. He gripped the parallel bars and was ready for his journey.

Are you ready? cried the boss.

Ready, answered Paul.

A pause, agonizingly long, ensued as we waited for the order, Let her go! But the order did not come.

Wait a minute, said Chanute quietly, coming up close to the boat. I am not willing to take the chance of causing this man’s death, he said solemnly. It’s on my conscience that this may be a very foolhardy thing we’re about to do. Paul, I ask you again in the presence of these men, your friends, tell me the truth-have you once before flown such a boat? Standing as possibly you do at the very gate of eternity, do you say you know you are taking no risk?

The resolute sailor solemnly reaffirmed that once before he had flown such a boat without mishap, and he knew he was taking no risk.

Very well, then-back to stations! ordered the boss.

Paul took a new grip on his handlebars. Another, longer pause.

I still am not satisfied, Mr. Chanute said, beads of sweat standing on his brow. Paul, I am thinking of your wife, who may become widowed in a moment-of the five little Pauls who may be made fatherless by a fatal error. I think it is only fair to your family, instead of risking your neck at first, to make our trial flight with sand ballast. So you climb out and we will see if the craft will soar.

The sailor got out of his dream boat, dejected, feeling that he had lost the chance of his life. He must have realized his career as a flier was finished. A heavy sack of sand was put in the catwalk at the steering spot. Again all was ready.

Cast off! called Mr. Chanute. Avery cut the rope. More pause-the boat stuck fast to its ways! The men gave it a push down onto the steeply sloping track where it began to slide, getting faster as it went. At the end of the trackage it plunged off into space heavily, went into a nose dive and crashed 100 feet below its starting place. Had Paul been in the structure he probably would have been killed. His myth of a solo flight up and down that lonely valley in Kentucky was exploded.

Thank God that’s over! muttered the chief, fairly wilted by his ordeal. What if we had taken a chance!

The poor sailor stood aside, discredited, crushed, but no one knew if he had become disillusioned. His bright dream was over notwithstanding. All knew him to be prone to fantasy, but understanding the intensity of his hallucination we accorded him sympathy and kindness. All respected a man who believed his dream so fully that he would face death to prove it was true.

I now had my newspaper story, and it would probably be exclusive. I requested Chanute to name the Tribune‘s share of our living expenses. He would not hear of it.

You were my guest, he said, I told you that at your arrival; the simple hospitality I was able to offer gave me pleasure.

This embarrassed me very much as I had been self-invited. I tried to argue the point, saying if I had realized I could not do my part, I would not have had the face to inflict myself on his generosity for a three-week visit.

But you’re overlooking the pleasure I had in your company, he countered.

But the Tribune always insists on paying its own way in everything, I explained, it’s stiff-necked about accepting favors. I will be expected to turn in my expense account for $5 or $10 a day, and anything more would be paid without question.

Be that as it may, replied the host with positiveness, I do not charge for my hospitality, and the Chicago Tribune cannot fix the code of my social demeanor. Please tell your `Uncle Joe Medill,’ as you speak of him, that your agreeable conduct with us made your presence most welcome.

I realized then I was in for a little extra money-and could use it. When I reported to my city editor, he reminded me that Mr. Medill always was adamant about accepting favors, even insisting on his dramatic critics buying tickets to shows so as not to be under obligations. The best thing to do, he advised, was turn in my expense account for a modest $5 per diem and stick it in my pocket.

The late day train took me back to the city after a lovely vacation at double pay. Mindful that my friends on the other papers would be at the station to ask what had happened in the north wind and wishing to have a scoop because I had been sent there for that purpose, I got off at Englewood station and went into town on the elevated. I did feel a little corny at letting the boys down that way. I would have preferred to be a good fellow and share my story, but loyalty to my paper took precedence.

I reached my office without meeting up with a dune mate and wrote my story in a back room, fearing someone might call me by phone or drop into the local office to ask about it. The story of the launching of the skyboat Albatross and the tragic disappointment of its skipper at not being allowed to kill himself to prove it would fly were told at length and made first page.

I did not know then, of course, that my newspaper reports of the Octave Chanute experiments in the Indiana sand dunes reflected anything more than current news and one day would be looked upon as of epochal importance. Seven years later, Orville and Wilbur Wright flew the first glider that was powered with a motor in the Kitty Hawk sand dunes and freely acknowledged that the scientific data obtained from Octave Chanute’s experiments with motorless gliders had been basic and indispensable to their air triumph.

Mr. Chanute became known in scientific circles as the father of aviation. In World War II, the United States government paid a belated, deserved tribute to the first birdman by naming its aeronautical station in Illinois the Chanute Flying Field.

This article originally appeared in the September 1997 issue of Aviation History and was written by Henry S. Bunting, now deceased, who was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune at the turn of the century. Further reading: Progress in Flying Machines, by Octave Chanute.

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