© Wonders of World Aviation 2015-23  |  Contents  |  Site map  | Contact us at info@wondersofworldaviation.com

Wonders of World Aviation

Mobile Site

The first flights from water and from a ship were made by aviators in North America

A SEAPLANE GLIDER which weighed only 150 lb

A SEAPLANE GLIDER which weighed only 150 lb. Glen H. Curtiss, who is shown seated in the glider, made a number of experiments with it at Port Washington, Long Island, USA. Before taking an active part in aircraft construction Curtiss had become known for the engines he built. He supplied engines for use by Captain T. S. Baldwin in airships, and later Baldwin and Curtiss together built airships.

THE honour of the first controlled flight in a power-driven aeroplane belongs to Orville Wright. On December 17, 1903, he and his brother Wilbur brought years of hard work to a successful culmination among the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina (see the chapter “Romance of the Wright Brothers”).

Such a significant event might well have aroused the interest of the whole world; but it did not. The world disbelieved what was called a ridiculous rumour, and even in America few people attached any importance to the story of the Wright brothers’ success. Some years were to pass before the achievement was generally acknowledged.

The next important news of flight came from France, in 1906, when Alberto Santos-Dumont startled Paris with a short flight of 25 metres (27¼ yards) in his box-kite type of aeroplane (see the chapter “Originator of Light Aircraft”). From then on it was France, not America, that was in the news. From France came tidings almost every month of some new aviator’s exploits. During 1907 and 1908 at least half a dozen new types of flying machines were evolved in France, and by 1909 that country was ahead of the rest of the world, in initiative, achievement and machines. The United States, birthplace of the Wright aeroplane, had appeared to have lost interest in flying. In Great Britain aviation was not yet developed.

America had not, however, lost interest in the science. The reason for the lack of attention paid to aviation in that country was that the light of publicity shone so brightly on the Continent as to obscure achievements elsewhere. There were numerous pioneers in the United States and Canada, but only a few of them were successful. Of those that did succeed far too little is known. The object of this chapter is to show that some of these men deserve to be ranked with such famous European pioneers as Bleriot, Farman and the Voisins.

In 1907 there was formed at Halifax, Nova Scotia, the Aerial Experiment Association. The association consisted of five men. They were Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, the Canadians F. W. Baldwin and J. A. D. McCurdy, and the Americans Glenn H. Curtiss and Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge. The object of the association was to build a practical aeroplane which would carry a man and be driven through the air by its own power.

The Aerial Experiment Association was not formed for business purposes; it was rather a friendly pool of knowledge and enthusiasm for the furtherance of aviation. It owed its origin to an informal talk and to the encouragement of Mrs. Bell, the wife of its senior member. Its success was due to the spirit which had brought it into being.

Glenn Curtiss, born in May 1878, was always of an inventive turn of mind; he was never more happy than when at work with machinery. He was still young when the bicycle came into fashion, and he worked and saved until he was able to own a bicycle. When about eighteen years of age he obtained a post in a cycle repair shop, and he soon made a name for himself by winning a spectacular race. At twenty-two he owned his own shop.

Engines and Kites

It was for Curtiss but a step from a bicycle to a motor bicycle. Though everyone laughed at him for his idea, especially when he began to put his theories into practice, Curtiss sent away for a set of castings, built a small petrol engine and connected it up to the wheel of his machine. The engine worked.

A larger engine was built and Curtiss startled the sceptics by riding his machine at what was then the incredible speed of thirty miles an hour. He built a still more powerful engine, entered his machine for races, won them easily and then began to make motor bicycles for other people. By 1903 he was the “fastest person on wheels” in America and his engines were already well known. Then came an unexpected order for an eight-cylinder motor for use in a flying machine. It was to deliver 40 horse-power.

Curtiss completed the engine and built a special motor cycle to test it. He delivered the motor, which was superior to anything else of its class, and in so doing brought himself to the next stage of his exciting career.

About this time Captain T. S. Baldwin was interested in airships and he heard of Glenn Curtiss’s engines. Baldwin  travelled to Hammondsport, New York State, where the engines were built, and the two men met. Baldwin ordered an engine without delay. It was a success, and he ordered more. In 1904 his airship, the California Arrow, proved to be the best airship in America. After this success the two men worked even more closely together. They built other airships and finally obtained an important order from the United States Government in 1905.

The names of Curtiss and Baldwin became prominent, and it was not long before another interesting inquiry came to the Hammondsport factory. Dr. Alexander Graham Bell was experimenting with large “tetrahedral” kites - strong kites of unusual design, resembling a slice of honeycomb. Graham Bell was satisfied with his kites, but he wanted to develop them still further. He wished to see whether he could make them fly under their own power. A Curtiss engine seemed the right type of power plant; so Graham Bell invited the young inventor to call and see him.

Thus in 1907 Glenn Curtiss went to Baddeck, in Nova Scotia, to see the famous scientist. There he met the two Canadians F. W. Baldwin and J. A. D. McCurdy, who were assisting with the experiments. Another visitor was Lieutenant Selfridge, of the U.S. Army. Unknown to them all, the great moment had arrived. They were all keen enthusiasts, and it needed but a suggestion to bring them all together to work on that one idea. Mrs. Graham Bell supplied the suggestion. She did more; she financed it.

One of the earlier experiments of the association was the building of a glider, but soon it was decided to attempt something more revolutionary. It was agreed among the members of the association that each of them should design a flying machine, or “aerodrome”, as they called it, and that the others should assist in the task of building it. Lieutenant Selfridge supplied the first idea.

The machine was built, and by the winter of 1907 they were ready to test it. They chose for their “landing ground” the icy surface of Lake Keuta, near Hammondsport, and there they waited impatiently for the weather to calm sufficiently for a flight to be attempted. They had to wait until March 1908. Then one day the wind dropped, and the machine was dragged from her shed. They had named her Red Wing. Glenn Curtiss has recorded his own impressions of that exciting morning.

THE FIRST FLIGHT of this aeroplane, Red Wing, was made in March 1903, from the frozen surface of Lake Keuta, near Hammondsport, New York State. The Red Wing was designed by Lieutenant Selfridge, who was killed in July 1908, when flying as a passenger with Orville Wright. A Canadian, F. W. Baldwin, made the first flight in the Red Wing. He flew over three hundred feet at a height of six to eight feet.

“Our opportunity came on March 12, 1908. There was scarcely a bit of wind, but it was bitterly cold. ‘Casey’ Baldwin was selected to make the first trial. We were all on edge with eagerness to see what the machine would do. . . . Baldwin climbed into the seat, took the control in hand, and we cranked the motor. When we released our hold of the machine it sped over the ice like a scared rabbit for two or three hundred feet, and then, much to our joy, it jumped into the air. ... Rising to a height of six or eight feet, Baldwin flew the unheard-of distance of three hundred and eighteen feet, eleven inches! Then he came down ingloriously on one wing. As we learned afterwards, the frail framework of the tail had bent and the machine had flopped over on its side and dropped on the wing, which gave way and caused the machine to turn completely round. . . . But a great thing had been accomplished. We had achieved the first public flight of a heavier-than-air machine in America!”

After this success the association began work on another machine; this time it was Baldwin who supplied the idea. The experimenters soon completed the second aircraft, which they named White Wing. The new machine differed from the Red Wing in many details, but the main construction was the same, save that wheels were fitted to enable the pilot to take off and alight on grass instead of on the frozen lake.

The White Wing flew, and flew well, but she frequently crashed on landing. Each crash taught her designer a lesson, and each reconstruction brought better results. Finally, on May 22, 1908, she fully justified expectations. Glenn Curtiss took her out and flew 1,017 feet in 19 seconds.

Gordon-Bennett Cup Winner

The next machine built by the little group of men was designed by Glenn Curtiss and was christened June Bug; this was an amazingly efficient aeroplane. On July 4, 1908, she won a trophy offered by an American scientific journal for the first heavier-than-air machine to fly one kilometre (five-eighths of a mile). The flight was seen and cheered by hundreds of eager spectators.

Lieutenant Selfridge was unfortunately killed a few days later. He was flying as passenger with Orville Wright, in a Wright biplane, when part of the machine broke. The aeroplane dived to the ground. This tragedy was a great blow to the little band of pioneers and to aviation, but Selfridge’s colleagues persevered with their task and soon produced another successful heavier-than-air-machine.

The Silver Dart, designed by J. A. D. McCurdy, was ready for the air towards the end of 1908, and she made a promising first flight. Meanwhile the June Bug made history in another way. She was fitted with floats, renamed Loon, and taken on to the lake. The first attempt to take off from water, on November 5, 1908, was unsuccessful, but the Loon’s performance on the water was sufficiently promising to make the pioneers persevere. Before long Glenn Curtiss designed another machine, which was to win for him in 1911 the honour of being the first aviator to take off from water.

On June 26, 1909, the Morris Park Meeting was opened in New York City and, though it was the hottest day of the year, some 2,000 people paid to obtain their first glimpse of the new sport. The show was announced as an exhibition rather than a flying meeting, and Glenn Curtiss was the only aviator to carry out a flight of any duration. Curtiss’s flight lasted for 1 hour 7½ minutes. There were, however, many aeroplanes on view, most of them half completed, and two parachute descents were made from hot-air balloons. A car-towed glider unfortunately crashed.

From his triumph at Morris Park, Glenn Curtiss returned to Hammondsport, where he worked on a new engine. He then travelled to Europe, where he won the Gordon-Bennett Cup at the Rheims Meeting (see the chapter “The First Air Meeting at Rheims”). When he returned to Hammondsport, he brought with him sufficient orders to keep his factory in full production for at least a year. He was determined to embody in his new designs all the useful experience that he had gained with past machines.

GLENN H. CURTISS, a prominent member of the Aerial Experiment Association

GLENN H. CURTISS, a prominent member of the Aerial Experiment Association, which was formed by five men in 1907 at Halifax, Nova Scotia. The object of the association was to build a practical aeroplane which would carry a man and be driven through the air by its own power. Curtiss is shown in this photograph at the controls of an aeroplane in 1910.

So, from what was little more than a fortunate meeting of a few enthusiastic men, a large and growing business was founded. The members of the Aerial Experiment Association built four aeroplanes in less than a year; each machine flew on its first trial, and each showed a great advance upon its predecessor. The experience thus acquired enabled Glenn Curtiss to represent his country in the air abroad, and then to build aircraft for others. By this time the name of Curtiss was well known all over America; but the Wright brothers had flown more than four years before Curtiss, and the names of Orville and Wilbur were also well known by then. There was a great difference between the methods of the Wrights and those of the members of the Aerial Experiment Association. The Wrights kept their experiments as dark as possible; members of the association were only too pleased to explain their activities to visitors.

When the Wrights built and flew their first machine no one believed them; their policy of secrecy did not help to clear the atmosphere of disbelief. By the time that Curtiss was making a name for himself the Wrights had made great progress with their invention, and they no longer sought to cover up the fact.

Here, then, were two rival camps, and public opinion was soon divided as well. There were some who were in favour of giving the Wrights all the credit for the invention of the flying machine; others took another view. Glenn Curtiss was never above praising a fine flight by the Wrights, and, presumably, the Wrights praised the exploits of Curtiss. But when it came to the building and selling of aeroplanes, progress was, for a time, interrupted by legal difficulties.

Americans made great advances in spite of all their difficulties and with far less inducement than their contemporaries in Europe. It was a general complaint in the United States that little or no prize money was available; for every fifty dollars (£10) offered in the United States, the equivalent of at least 1,000 dollars (£200) could be won in Europe. Yet dozens of new recruits were attracted by aviation, and by 1910 the country was ready to defend the Gordon-Bennett Cup against foreign competition.

If money was scarce, enthusiasm was not lacking. Eventually the aviators attracted so much attention that the big business men became interested. At the Los Angeles (California) Aeronautical Tournament, held in 1910, prize money totalled some $80,000 (£16,000).

Great Britain's Victory

The Los Angeles Meeting was as important to America as the Rheims Meeting had been to France. Spectators appeared in their thousands. Famous aviators struggled for supremacy. Paulhan, who had made a name for himself at Rheims, reached a height of 4,165 feet; he also won the prizes for endurance and passenger-carrying. Curtiss again won the speed event.

A few months later, after Paulhan had returned to Great Britain to win a £10,000 prize for the first London-Manchester flight (see pages 361-364), Glenn Curtiss made history in America with a splendid flight from Albany, New York State, to New York. Interest in aviation became suddenly intensified. Meetings were arranged all over the country and large fees were paid to aviators even for short flights.

November 1910 saw the flight for the Gordon-Bennett Cup at New York,

and this time it was left to McCurdy and some new pioneers—Mars, Willard, and Ely—to take part in the flying. Glenn Curtiss had retired, and was devoting all his time to the important work waiting to be done in the factory. The Americans lost the Cup to Great Britain,, but a few days later they were engaged in one of the most daring experiments of all. A Curtiss biplane, flown by McCurdy, was taken out to sea on board a liner fitted with a runway. For the first time in the short history of flying, McCurdy attempted to take off from a ship.

The experiment failed on that occasion, because of a slight mishap with the engine. Another pilot attempted the same feat on board the U.S. cruiser Birmingham, and took off with the greatest ease. Ho landed some minutes later on the shore. This successful experiment was the prelude to the cooperation between warships and aircraft which is a feature of all modern navies and which has been intensified by the use of the catapult (see the chapter “The London-Manchester Race”).

From 1910 onwards, progress in America was nearly as rapid as progress in Europe, and in many ways the American pioneers showed themselves equal to, if not more ingenious than, their foreign rivals. American names may not be so well remembered as those of the French and British pioneers, but it is to America that we owe a great deal of aviation development - apart from the first flight of all. It was an American who made the first flight from water, and another American who made the first flight from a ship.

Originally called the June Bug, the aeroplane was renamed Loon when the floats were fitted

AN ATTEMPT WAS MADE with this aeroplane on November 5, 1908, on take off from water. The attempt, although promising, was not successful. As a landplane the aircraft was particularly successful. Originally called the June Bug, she was renamed Loon when the floats were fitted. The Loon was the first aeroplane to be placed on floats.

You can read more on “The First Air Meeting at Rheims”, “Originator of Light Aircraft” and “Romance of the Wright Brothers” on this website.

American and Canadian Pioneers