The Birdmen At Belmont Park

PrintPrintEmailEmail

The first major international aviation meet in the United States opened at belmont Park, a race track near New York City, in October, 1910, on a surge of sensational aeronautic news. Early in the month, newspapers told of leading fliers flexing their wings at Hawthorne race track, near Chicago, for a race of a thousand miles, Chicago to New York, for a price of $25,000 offered by the New York Times and the Chicago Post . As the aviators made their practice flights at Hawthorne, spectators could sec for the first time in Chicago’s history as many as three planes in the air at once.

At Atlantic City, New Jersey, Walter Wellman, a newspaperman and aeronaut whose attempt to reach the North Pole by dirigible had made world headlines the year before, was readying his airship, the America , to attempt a still greater feat, the world’s first powered flight across the Atlantic Ocean. At St. Louis, Missouri, ten balloons of flour nations awaited the start of the fifth annual contest for the Gordon Bennett CAP, the world’s greatest international distance competition for free balloons.

New feats were being essayed, new records set almost everywhere and almost every day. The Belmont meet promised to be no laggard, for it was to feature the international 100-kilometer speed race lor the Gordon Bennett Trophy, run for the first time at Rheims, France, the year before but already an aeronautic competition of the first magnitude.

Headline crowded upon headline as the month went on. The Chicago-New York race, unhappily, proved disappointing. Only three lliers actually started, two of them made no serious effort to win, and the third, Eugene Ely, gave up the flight at the end of three days, having covered a total distance of only 32 miles.

Meanwhile, however, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt took his first ride in an airplane. He was “driven” by Arch Hoxsey, a Wright Hier who had set an American cross-country record by flying nonstop from Springfield, Illinois, to St. Louis the week before. Colonel Roosevelt was up tor four minutes. “By George, it was fine,” he said, when he came down. “I wish I could have stayed up an hour.”

In Tarrytown, New York, a man named Clinton Hadley took an airplane off the ground at a speed of fifteen miles an hour with three persons aboard besides himself, equaling the American record for airborne passenger-carrying, on a numerical basis. In the middle of the month Wellman took off for Europe, with a crew of five men and a cat, confounding skeptics who had been deriding his prior announcements as arrant publicity-seeking. Majestically his airship disappeared out to sea, the red-hot exhausts of its 80horsepower engines sparking impressively beneath the big bag filled with hydrogen.

He was reported one-fourth of the way across, and the odds in London on his making it were at even money, when the ten balloons leaped from the ground at St. Louis and sailed away northward to vie lor the Gordon Bennett Cup. Seven of them were still aloft three days later when Wellman, his crew and the cat abandoned their collapsing dirigible 400 miles off Cape Hatteras and were taken aboard a passing steamship. Three of the international race balloons were still up when Wellman arrived back in New York. And one, the America II , manned by Augustus Post and Allan R. Hawley, had been unreported for more than a hundred hours, and search parties were preparing to go into the wilds of Canada from the Great Lakes to the Arctic Circle, as the meet at Belmont Park began.

For some days fliers had been arriving at Belmont from England, France and various parts of the United States, getting their planes uncrated and assembled, making practice flights around the two-and-one-halfkilometer course inside the park and the five-kilometer Gordon Bermett course, which lay partly outside it.

John B. Moisant, a wiry, coppery-skinned American who had made the first flight from Paris to London earlier in the year, impressed watchers by flying his Bleriot several times around the short course at a speed of more than 45 miles an hour. Moisant, however, had a distressing experience. He had flown three circuits of the course at high speed when an errant wind caught his rudder, his oil feed failed, and his plane plummeted to earth from a height of 100 feet. Moisant was only bruised, but his plane was so seriously damaged that it would take three days to repair it.

Not all the fliers confined themselves to Belmont. Alfred LeBlanc, captain of the French team, was hardly there at all, for he was a contestant in the St. Louis balloon race also. Claude Grahame-White, the handsome, debonair star of the English team, went south to take part in Washington’s first aviation meet, which was being held at Banning race track six miles outside the capital.