One of the greatest early aerobatic pilots, Bert Acosta couldn’t overcome his inner demons.
Early on the misty morning of June 29, 1927, the Fokker C.2 America sat idling at Roosevelt Field as the crew prepared for their transatlantic attempt.Overloaded with extra gasoline, the trimotor was little more than a flying fuel tank. To achieve maximum speed on takeoff, it had been pulled back onto a 15-foot inclined wooden ramp (estimated as equivalent to 500 extra feet of runway) and held in place by a rope attached to the tailskid. At a signal from the pilot when the engines reached maximum rpm, a mechanic would sever the rope.
Inside the cockpit the tension was palpable. The pilot was concentrating on his final engine checks, while beside him sat the nervous crewman charged with operating the fuel dump valve in an emergency. Outside in the saturating drizzle, the mechanic waited for the signal to cut the rope. It never came.
Suddenly the rope snapped and the Fokker lunged forward. Caught off guard, the pilot had to instantly decide whether to abandon the takeoff or press on in the hope of achieving takeoff speed before the end of the 5,000- foot field. He slammed open the throttles.
Engines bellowing like a primeval beast, the unwieldy trimotor lumbered down the muddy runway toward the critical halfway point, slowly at first but rapidly gaining momentum. Then faster still, until the pilot recognized the first telltale sensations of flight and gently eased back the wheel. A slight lurch and they were airborne. Seconds later, to an exultant whoop from a crewman in the rear, the airplane began a slow climb. Ahead lay Newfoundland, the vast emptiness of the Atlantic and, with luck, Europe.
For the pilot, Bertram Blanchard Acosta, it may well have been the crowning moment of a spectacularly checkered flying career. A flamboyant giant of a man, Acosta was blessed, or maybe cursed, with matinee idol looks and appetites to match. He was a flying legend whose star shone brightly during the formative years of American aviation and then gradually dimmed.
Born in San Diego on New Year’s Day 1895, the young Acosta soon demonstrated the independence of spirit that would mark his entire life. He rode fast ponies, spent nights in the mountains and was expelled from school for chewing tobacco in class. Yet, inspired by the Wright brothers, he determined to carve a niche for himself in the emergent field of aviation.
In his early teens Acosta reportedly piloted a glider built mainly from scrap, before moving on to construct and fly a patchwork airplane with a two-stroke Elbridge engine. Around this time he became associated with Glenn H. Curtiss, America’s first licensed aircraft manufacturer, who set up a base at North Island, San Diego, in 1910-11. Curtiss took Acosta on as some sort of apprentice or mechanic’s assistant for the company’s work on “hydro-airplanes.” After he was given formal flying instruction, the youngster showed precocious ability.
Impressed by Acosta’s aptitude and enthusiasm, Curtiss persuaded him to make up for his deficient education by enrolling at Throop Polytechnic Institute.At the same time,Acosta continued to assist in the development of Curtiss land- and seaplanes, becoming such a competent pilot that he was made an instructor at the flying school Curtiss opened on North Island in February 1911.
In the spring of 1915, Curtiss and John McCurdy (who, in 1909, had become the first man to fly in Canada) formed the Canadian Curtiss Company and established a flying school near Toronto to train pilots for the embattled British Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service. Acosta was among the instructors assigned there. He taught many Canadians headed for the Western Front, spending his off-duty hours charming the local ladies. When the Toronto flying school closed for the winter, Acosta moved on to teach at a new facility in Newport, Va., under Captain Tom Baldwin. Meanwhile he continued his experimental work on new Curtiss planes, in March 1916 demonstrating the new Curtiss “R” general-purpose biplane to Russian government representatives.
Shortly before the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, Acosta applied for a military commission, hoping to see combat in Europe. Considered too valuable at home, he was appointed a senior civilian instructor to the U.S. Army at Hazelhurst Field in Mineola, on Long Island, where his duties later included flight-testing. On March 27, 1917, he flew on the first American antisubmarine patrol with the Mineola-based Aerial Reserve Squadron in its unsuccessful search for the German sub U-53. The following December saw him reassigned as an instructor at Ellington Field in Houston, Texas, for the winter.
In 1918 Acosta was commissioned a captain in the Army Air Service Reserve and appointed testing and engineering assistant to Colonel E.J. Hall of the Bureau of Aircraft Production in Washington, D.C. Belatedly he also found time to take the test for his official pilot’s license, which was issued on December 5, 1919. He continued test-flying for Curtiss and other manufacturers, piloting a variety of planes that included the unconventional Curtiss Eagle trimotor, described as “a notorious craft for its day.”
After helping to survey the nation’s first prospective airmail routes, Acosta became associated in 1920 with the Junkers Larsen Corporation, headed by former Curtiss employee and entrepreneur John M. Larsen, to promote the German Junkers F13 all-metal four-passenger monoplane in the U.S. as the JL-6. In May 1920, Acosta flew a series of passenger-carrying demonstration flights in a JL-6 at the Pan-American Aeronautical Congress in Atlantic City, N.J., and in June he took a JL-6 to 20,600 feet over New York. He followed up that feat by setting a new American nonstop passenger distance record in a JL-6, flying 1,200 miles in 12 hours, 52 minutes, from Omaha, Neb., to Lancaster, Pa. On July 29, Acosta and Larsen, joined by Eddie Rickenbacker, led three JL-6s from New York to the West Coast with 100 letters aboard, to demonstrate the feasibility of transcontinental airmail routes. Acosta’s dalliances with women along their route raised a few censorious eyebrows but added to his legend as the Casanova of the air (he had married in 1918, fathered two daughters and divorced in 1920).
The U.S. Post Office subsequently purchased six JL-6s, but hastily abandoned the type after two were lost to midair fires, apparently caused by faulty fuel systems. The other four were sold at a significant loss.
November 27, 1920, found Acosta flying a modified Italian Ansalado A.1 Ballila biplane in the first Pulitzer Trophy Race, starting from Mitchell Field and extending over four 29- mile laps of a triangular course. At an average speed of 135 mph, Acosta came in third behind Captain Corliss Moseley in a Verville Packard VCP-R and Harold Hartney in a Thomas Morse MB-3.
For the Pulitzer race of November 5, 1921, held at Omaha, Acosta was at the controls of a rakish Curtiss CR-1, powered by a 405-hp Curtiss CD-12 engine. The CR-1 had been built for the U.S. Navy, which decided at the last moment not to participate. Starting first, Acosta ripped over the course at minimum altitude, with a pack of snarling racers in hot pursuit. Under the strain, two of the CR-1’s flying wires snapped during the first turn, causing the wings to vibrate and buzz alarmingly. A more cautious pilot might have abandoned the race, but Acosta recklessly pressed on with throttle wide open, coming in first at an average speed of 176.75 mph, a closed-course world speed record. The grueling race had taken its toll on him, however; Acosta had to be helped from the cockpit after landing. In second place was the Curtiss-Cox Cactus Kitten triplane flown by Clarence Coombs and owned by Texas oil millionaire S.E.J. Cox. Acosta had tested the Kitten in October and thoroughly disliked its eccentric handling and limited cockpit view.
On November 22, Acosta made eight officially timed passes over Curtiss Field’s measured kilometer in the CR-1 at an average speed of 197.8 mph, an American record just short of the world record of 211.91 mph established on September 21 by Frenchman Joseph Sadi-Lecointe in a Nieuport-Delage.
In 1921, at 26, Acosta was riding high on fame and fortune, including his $3,000 Pulitzer purse.With over 7,000 flying hours, he may well have flown more airplane types than any other pilot in the world at that time. As one of America’s preeminent test pilots, he should have been set for a leading role in the country’s expanding aviation industry. Unfortunately for Acosta, his “bad boy of the air” persona was never far below the surface, waiting to transform the consummate professional into a caricature of the reckless barnstormer.
It resurfaced, for example, when senior U.S. Navy officers gathered at Curtiss Field for the CR-1’s official demonstration. No sooner had the airplane left the ground than Acosta went into a loop, followed by a dizzying series of rolls and whipstalls before rocketing up to 7,000 feet. He then entered a near-vertical power dive, hurtling the CR-1 to within a few feet of the ground and rounding off the display by flying the racer inverted just 30 feet over the heads of the stunned officials. Although there could have been no more convincing demonstration of the CR-1’s capabilities, he was severely criticized for potentially endangering Long Island communities.
Unrepentant, on April 30, 1922, Acosta treated the crowd at the National Flying Meet at Curtiss Field to a daredevil display in the Cactus Kitten (a plane he had vowed never to fly again) that to some must have seemed almost suicidal. He blasted the crimson triplane over the hangars at rooftop height before returning to make a series of low-level, high-speed passes over 20,000 stunned spectators, clocking 208 mph at one point.
The reckoning came on June 28, when Acosta was testing the new Sperry Messenger at Mitchell Field. Putting the little biplane into a near-vertical dive, he dropped below the airfield’s hedgerow boundary and started to roll. When the biplane was inverted no more than 50 feet up, the gravity-fed engine misfired and stopped running. Although Acosta completed the roll, the engine failed to restart, and the Messenger gouged a deep furrow in the field. It took some time for rescuers to pry the unconscious pilot free, as the Messenger’s engine had been shunted back to just above his feet, and the cowl was dented where Acosta’s head had rammed into it. Although no bones were broken, Acosta spent six weeks in the hospital, drifting in and out of delirium—nursed part of the time by a female admirer.
Some believe the crash was a pivotal turning point in Acosta’s life and that, having sensed his own mortality but lacking perspective, he was never quite the same again. While he clearly relished the hero worship and adrenalin rush derived from flying, he was sadly lacking in the maturity and pragmatism that enabled many of his contemporaries to transform aviation from a thrilling game into a major industry. In more ways than not, Acosta was on a downhill slope after the crash.
Acosta was at the 1922 Pulitzer Race in Detroit on October 14. Although slated to fly the Navy’s Bee-Line BR-1 Racer, he didn’t actually participate in the event. Earlier he had carried out speed trials in the innovative low-wing monoplane Racer with retractable undercarriage, clocking 218 mph. Two weeks before, at Selfridge Field, when the Racer’s undercarriage malfunctioned, he had become one of the first pilots to carry out a wheels-up landing.
From this time on, Acosta’s conduct became increasingly bizarre. Frequently depressed, he was often to be found, as one correspondent unsympathetically recounted, “having a wrestling bout with a bottle of Scotch in a speakeasy.” Other times he apparently sought relief in the air from his dejection, flying under the Brooklyn, Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges over New York’s East River and nearly colliding with the Queensboro Bridge. During another flight, when Acosta’s passenger casually asked him the time, by way of an answer he took him roaring along Madison Avenue until the plane’s wingtips almost brushed the hands of the huge clock on the Metropolitan Life Tower. He was also said to be able to roll an undercarriage wheel on the topmost domes of Manhattan’s skyscrapers.
In the spring of 1923, Acosta tested the new Remington-Burnelli airliner at Curtiss Field, and in September of that year he flew a Fokker monoplane from Chicago to New York nonstop, carrying film of a title fight. But these glimmers of normality were erased when, on October 7, The New York Times reported, “Aviator Sent to Jail: Judge Gives Bert Acosta Five Days for Driving Auto While Drunk.” That incident set the pattern for the next few years. After Acosta was grounded, he and Glenn Curtiss finally parted company. Acosta became a melancholy shadow of his former self, attempting to drown his inner demons in alcohol and finding little consolation in a second marriage.
Then in 1927 came “transatlantic fever” and the scramble to win the $25,000 Orteig Prize for the first nonstop flight between New York and Paris. Acosta’s temporary salvation appeared in the unlikely person of the brash millionaire New York scrap dealer Charles Levine. Aside from his ruthless business acumen, Levine was an aviation enthusiast who in 1927 had formed the Columbia Aircraft Corporation (CAC) with aircraft designer Guiseppe Bellanca and purchased the highly innovative Wright-Bellanca WB-2. Levine approached Acosta with an offer to copilot the WB-2 with Clarence Chamberlin on an endurance flight to test the airplane’s long distance capability with its fuel capacity expanded to 375 gallons.
The strapping extrovert Acosta and the slender teetotaler Chamberlin were the chalk and cheese of the piloting world. Yet they coexisted peaceably in the Bellanca’s cramped cockpit between April 12 and 14, cruising back and forth from Roosevelt Field to establish a world endurance record of 51 hours and 11 minutes over a track of 4,100 miles, 500 more than the air distance to Paris. Only when the engine stopped on the last drop of gas did they return to earth in a long glide.
As Chamberlin recorded, however, “Bert and I had won a record, but we had not won the right to fly the Bellanca to Paris.” The publicity-conscious Levine instead recruited former airmail pilot Lloyd W. Bertaud and made it unflatteringly clear to Chamberlin that he’d been eliminated from the running because he was less photogenic than Acosta or Bertaud. Levine, however, had not counted on the intransigence of Guiseppe Bellanca, who threatened to quit the CAC unless Chamberlin was allowed to fly the WB-2.
Disillusioned with Levine, Acosta left the CAC to join Commander Richard Byrd as first pilot of a competitor, the Fokker trimotor America. That opportunity arose after Byrd’s usual pilot, Floyd Bennett, was badly injured during a test flight of the America with designer Anthony Fokker at the controls.
Norwegian Bernt Balchen, then Fokker’s chief test pilot, reflected what many fliers still felt about one of their slightly tarnished idols when he wrote: “Bert Acosta is a fabulous figure in aviation, one of the top pilots in America if not the whole world. He was a noted Army flight instructor during the First World War. After 1918 his sensational stunts were the talk of us all in Norway. Acosta is one of the finest aerobatic pilots ever seen. A flier with a marvelous sense of coordination, he is an expert at such stunts as upside down flying at low altitude, picking a handkerchief off the ground with one wing tip….It is the romantic rather than the scientific kind of flying that he stands for.”
Doubts about Acosta’s transatlantic potential surfaced during a test flight he made in the America with Balchen and Anthony Fokker. They were flying through a solid cloud bank with Acosta at the controls when, as Balchen related, “I suddenly feel myself getting very heavy in the seat, and see that the turn-indicator needle is all over on one side. I quickly reach for the wheel and Acosta lets his hands drop from the controls in relief.” Acosta ruefully admitted, “I’m strictly a fair weather boy. If there’s any thick stuff, I stay on the ground.”
Concerned about his company’s reputation should the America fail to complete the transatlantic flight, Fokker urged Balchen to accompany Acosta to handle the instrument flying. But the America’s backer, Rodman Wanamaker, insisted on an all-American crew, so Balchen promptly obtained U.S. citizenship. Lieutenant George O. Noville was to serve as radio operator, while Byrd navigated. Meanwhile the flight suffered successive delays, for which some blamed Byrd and others Wanamaker. Whatever the case, by the time the America finally turned its blunt snout toward the Atlantic on June 29, Charles Lindbergh had flown the Spirit of St. Louis to Paris on May 20-21 to claim the Orteig Prize, and Chamberlin had piloted the WB-2 Columbia almost to Berlin, with Levine as his passenger-copilot, on June 4-6.
Before the America finally left Roosevelt Field for Paris, there was that moment of high drama when the rope snapped on the ramp, testing Acosta’s skills to the limit. Once airborne and heading across the Atlantic, Acosta and Balchen spelled each other until—just past Newfoundland, while flying in fog—Balchen handed over to Acosta to hunt for his sandwiches. During those few moments in Acosta’s hands, the Fokker entered a potentially fatal spiral dive. Seizing the controls, Balchen found that 1,000 feet had been lost and they were plunging toward the ocean at 140 mph. While Acosta slumped in his seat, Balchen deftly coaxed the big trimotor out of its dive and made a 180-degree turn to bring them back on course. It was the old problem again. A chastened Acosta said, “You’d better handle it from now on, as long as we’re fogged in.” Balchen was at the controls for the next seven hours before they emerged into a starlit night and Acosta could take over.
Twenty-five long hours after leaving Newfoundland they reached the coast of France near Brest. Balchen wanted to follow the railway directly to Paris, but Byrd inexplicably ordered Acosta to head for Le Havre to follow the river Seine. Flying through appalling weather, they made two unsuccessful attempts to reach the French capital (some Parisians claimed to have heard them overhead) before the imperturbable Balchen successfully ditched the Fokker off Vierville-sur-Mer. They had been in the air for some 42 hours. After tumultuous acclaim in France, the America’s crew, accompanied by Clarence Chamberlin, returned to New York for a ticker-tape welcome. Acosta’s standing would never be so high again.
In early 1928, Charles Levine recruited Acosta to pilot him and heiress Mabel Boll on an east-west transatlantic flight from Germany to New York. After Levine had acquired a Junkers W33, however, they were denied permission to take off from a German airfield. England’s Croydon aerodrome, their alternate, was rejected by Acosta as too short for the heavily laden aircraft. Le Bourget was under consideration when financial problems forced Levine to abandon the flight. Given Acosta’s inability to fly on instruments and Levine’s lack of flying experience, that decision likely saved their lives.
In 1929 Acosta tried to reinvent himself as an aviation consultant. He even founded the Acosta Aircraft Corporation, to manufacture a multipurpose amphibian, but the enterprise soon collapsed. Ensuing years found him in and out of the courts, charged with drunkenness, nonpayment of alimony and diverse aviation offenses. He was fined $2,000 for buzzing Roosevelt Field, and in late 1929 found himself grounded for five years after a drunken stunting spree with an expired license.
After his license was restored in 1935, Acosta took up instructing again, leading a largely hand-to-mouth existence. Then, in October 1936, he went to Spain to fly for the Republicans against Franco’s Nationalists. Accounts of his short combat career differ widely. He unquestionably saw action against the German Condor Legion, but sensationalist press reports that he’d downed German fighters with his revolver were plainly fictional.
A disillusioned Acosta left Spain on December 20. He returned to the U.S. seemingly revitalized, and there was extravagant talk of record-breaking transcontinental flights. But then he flew under the Connecticut Bridge and was grounded again, this time for good. Surrendering to an alcohol-induced downward spiral, Acosta spent further time in jail and also underwent a period of rehabilitation in a Franciscan monastery. Nothing worked.
A pale shadow of his former self, Bert Acosta finally succumbed to tuberculosis in Spivak, Colo., on September 1, 1954, at age 59. So died the man who had once declared, “Give me a kitchen table with a motor on it and I’ll fly it.” Although overburdened with human frailties, Acosta the aviator had few equals in courage, daring and natural flying ability. He was a pilot of genius who, having contributed so much to the early advances in aviation, was simply unable to adjust to the industry’s startling pace of change. Aviation’s bad boy never quite grew up.
Frequent contributor and RAF veteran Derek O’Connor writes from Amersham, Bucks, UK. For further reading, he recommends: Atlantic Fever, by Edward Jablonski; Skyward, by Richard E. Byrd; and Come North With Me, by Bernt Balchen.
Originally published in the May 2011 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.