1910 Air Meets and Exhibition Flyers Prove Man Can Fly
This article is presented to go with the theme for the 2010 AAA National Fly-In, Iowa's Centenary of Flight. There's also more information on the actual first flight in Iowa and controversy about who was first.
In 1910 most Americans had heard vague stories about airplanes flying, but they didn't really believe it. They had never seen one. "Everyone knows man can't fly!" But by the time 1910 was over, millions of Americans had changed their mind. They had seen an airplane in flight at an Air Meet .. the grandfather of modern air shows.
It actually started in August of 1909 at the Reims Air Meet in France, the world's first aviation contest. The best aviators in the world (all of them low time pilots by any modern standards) gathered at Reims to vie for the title of World.s Greatest Aviator. One notable absence was the Wright brothers, who were in fact busy in court trying to keep the others from flying. The Wrights had unlocked the mystery of manned flight and felt that the others were stealing from them. It would take several years for those issues to be resolved in court, but in the meantime the Wright's success had unleashed a tidal wave of aviation activity that couldn't be stopped. Adventurous and ingenious pioneers on both sides of the Atlantic quickly took flight after the Wrights had showed them the way. Development of the aeroplane was so rapid that the Wright Brothers own company struggled to keep up. Ironically another American flyer, Glenn Curtiss, won the biggest event at Reims, the Gordon Bennett Cup Race.
Following the Reims Meet, Albert Bond Lambert, a leading St. Louis industrialist and aviation enthusiast, offered Glenn Curtiss a guarantee of $5,000 to fly his Gordon Bennett winner, the "Golden Flyer," at St. Louis in October 1909. Thousands of St. Louis citizens turned out to watch Glenn Curtiss. The public's interest in his flights inspired a group of aviators present at St. Louis, including Curtiss, to get together to discuss how they could capitalize on the growing interest in aviation. They decided to hold a world class air meet of their own, in the style of Reims, in the United States as soon as possible. It would be "international", featuring the best aviators from around the world. With winter on the horizon, Los Angeles was their choice of location.
Thus the first major U.S. international air meet took place from January 10-20, 1910 at Dominguez Field, just south of Los Angeles. It was a huge success! Spectator turnout numbered approximately 254,000 over 11 days of ticket sales, with gate receipts of roughly $137,500 (about $3,217,500 in 2010 dollars!). The Los Angeles Times called it "One of the greatest public events in the history of the West".
The aviators competed for the $75,000 in prize money (2010 = $1,755,000). French aviator Louis Paulhan ruled the skies over Los Angeles, winning $19,000 (2010 = $444,600). American Glenn Curtiss set a new air speed record of 55 miles per hour and took home several prizes, including approximately $6,500 in prize money (2010 = $152,100). The excitement and staggering sums of prize money motivated several of the more adventurous types in the crowd to take up aviation. Notable among those were dirigible pilots Lincoln Beachey and Thomas Baldwin, who quickly decided that "aeroplanes" were much more profitable than balloons. Other faces in the crowd were Eugene Ely, William Boeing, Glenn L. Martin, Donald Douglas, Lawrence Bell, and James "Dutch" Kindelberger, all of whom became key figures in the future of aviation.
The Los Angeles meet sparked the idea of hosting similar events in other cities throughout the United States. The Wright and Curtiss companies created exhibition teams which traveled the country non-stop, competing for fantastic prize money and fame, while introducing the American public to aeroplanes. At the opening of nearly every meet the majority of the crowd were skeptical that these machines could really leave the ground. Often times the skeptical crowd grew impatient, and occasionally unruly, if the flyers were not able to go up due to high winds or mechanical problems.
Orville Wright recalled in later years; "Flight was generally looked upon at an impossibility, and scarcely anyone believed in it until he had actually seen it with his own eyes."
Curtiss pilot Beckwith Havens said; "There wasn't anybody there who believed an airplane would really fly. In fact, they gave odds. But when you flew, oh my, they would carry you off the field."
Many times these Air Meets were the first time an aeroplane had flown in that particular state:
The demand for seeing aeroplanes in flight was high, and fantastic sums were paid for even marginal demonstrations. Wilbur Wright reported to his company's board of directors that between March and August 1910 the Wright exhibition team earned $186,000 (equivalent to $4.35 million in 2010 dollars).
Often the Wright and Curtiss teams, plus other aerial exhibition teams were flying at the same air meet. The crowds loved the competition between the teams, which included a very real element of mortal danger. These were courageous individuals who experimented with the limits of aeroplane design at a time when designers were still struggling to understand load limits and other aeronautical engineering problems. Inevitably, accidents occurred as the flyers vied to see who could fly the fastest, farthest, and highest.
In France, Louis Bleriot was making a fortune manufacturing and selling copies of his 1909 English Channel crossing monoplane, the Bleriot XI. Hundreds were sold in Europe and the United States and showed up at the 1910 Air Meets. The French army adopted the Bleriot for pilot training. On the exhibition circuit, the "need for speed" lead many daring pilots to put more powerful engines in their Bleriots, leading to numerous fatalities from in-flight wing failure.
Bleriots weren't the only airplanes coming apart under the stress of exhibition flying. Six of the nine members of the Wright exhibition team died in crashes in 1910 and 1911, as did many others.
Aeroplane fatalities by year
1908 - 1 1909 - 4 1910 - 28 1911 - 61
In spite of the alarming and often gruesome fatalities (with the pilots sitting right out in the open, their last horrid seconds were witnessed by thousands) the air meets kept on going strong through 1910 and 1911. In November 1911 the Wright Brothers disbanded their exhibition team, after the fatal crashes of their two most popular pilots, Ralph Johnston and Arch Hoxsey.
Curtiss trained pilot Lincoln Beachey continued on to become most accomplished and popular of all of the exhibition aviators - but he too paid the ultimate price in March 1915 when his aircraft's wings unexpectedly snapped off and he crashed into San Francisco Bay.
But in 1910 an Air Meet was the most exciting show in town! From coast to coast Americans flocked to these aerial carnivals to get their first glimpse of a "flying machine". Thus the general public, who had doubted the validity of human flight, was largely converted to believers and began to contemplate the wondrous possibilities of flight.