The Birdmen At Belmont Park


Grahame-White had a prima donna’s flair for the spotlight. From Banning he made a triumphant flight across the Potomac, around the Washington Monument, and landed on West Executive Avenue, between the White House and the State, War, and Navy Building. President Taft was not at home, but Admiral Dewey shook hands with the lordly aeronaut, who then went into the State Department restaurant for lunch, leaving his plane in the street to the admiration of a large crowd.

On opening day, Saturday, October 22, more than thirty fliers were gathered at Belmont, and the infield was alive with stars of the aviation world. Eugene Ely was there, having come from Chicago by train, and Arch Hoxsey and Ralph Johnstone. Johnstone, like Hoxsey, was a Wright flier, and he and Hoxsey were popularly known as the Heavenly Twins. Walter Brookins was there, holder of the American altitude record of 6,175 feet; and J. Armstrong Drexel, daring sportsman flier and member of the famous Philadelphia family.

Glenn Curtiss was there, winner of the world’s first Gordon Bennett Trophy race, as quiet in manner as a minister. Curtiss was not there to fly but to supervise planes of his which were to take part in the contests. Wilbur and Orville Wright were there—like Curtiss, not to fly in the competitions but to supervise their planes.

Most of the American fliers favored Wrights or Curtisses—all, of course, biplanes, with engine just behind the pilot’s seat and propeller in the rear. The two makes were easy enough to tell apart, for it was well known that Curtiss insisted on bamboo for the outriggers that held the tail assembly and also the ones that held the control wing in front, while the Wrights did not use bamboo at all. Most of the Europeans, on the other hand—and Moisant—favored the Bleriot, a monoplane, a preference that struck the Americans as peculiar because it was so obviously disconcerting to have the propeller in front. As fliers and mechanics worked on the planes the roar of mighty engines, some of them as much as 100 horsepower, filled the air.

By opening day, too, a second major feature had been added to the meet schedule, a feature even more spectacular, if possible, than the Gordon Bennett race itself. Less than two weeks before, Thomas Fortune Ryan had offered $10,000 as first prize for a race from Belmont Park to the Statue of Liberty and back.

The Statue of Liberty race was scheduled for Thursday, October 27; the Gordon Bennett for Saturday the twenty-ninth. Meanwhile there would be daily onehour distance races, altitude contests and round-trip cross-country flights—action enough to thrill the most blasé.

Grahame-White was the first flier up. He got enthusiastic applause, which he grandly acknowledged by doffing his cap, waving and smiling as he flew past the grandstand. The weather, unfortunately, was poor—heavily overcast, with occasional rain. Only seven fliers went up that day. Grahame-White won the first onehour distance contest by making twenty laps around the short course in just under 58 minutes, an average of better than 30 miles an hour, which was considered very creditable under the conditions. Arch Hoxsey won the altitude contest with a height of 742 feet—nowhere near a record, of course, but awesome all the same, for he vanished upward into the clouds for a time.

Moisant was the only one to attempt the cross-country flight. He completed a ao-mile run to Hempstead Plains and back in 39 minutes. He was able to find his way through the fog, he explained later, because, as on his Paris-London flight, he had had the forethought to take along a compass.

But the first-day performances were nothing at all compared to the ones that followed as the meet went on—or at least, to the ones that followed after the second day. For that day was a complete failure. All the Wright fliers were out of action anyway, because the Wrights would not permit their planes to fly on Sunday; and there was such a brisk breeze that most of the others fliers stayed firmly grounded.

Only two, Moisant and Grahame-White, tried to take off. The official report said the wind velocity was 16 miles an hour, and they thought they could manage. Both their planes got out of control and were damaged, and further investigation disclosed that the wind velocity was at least 25 miles an hour and may have been as much as 30. The meet officials apologetically explained that some grit had got in their wind gauge and stuck it at 16, but the two men were understandably irritated.

From then on, however, the weather was better, except for occasional lapses. Altitude records were broken and broken again, approaching closer and closer to the world mark itself, of more than 9,000 feet. J. Armstrong Drexel was the first to break a record, exceeding Brookins’ American mark by more than a thousand feet with a climb to 7,185. Then Johnstone broke that with 7,313, after another flight earlier in the day which might have been even higher but didn’t count because he forgot to bring along his barograph.