- Historic Sites
The Birdmen At Belmont Park
It was quite an air meet. In 1910 it was sensational to see 14 planes aloft at one time, and the spectators seemed to feel the airplane was here to stay.
April 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 3
On one memorable day freakish weather contributed not only to still another record, but to one of the most extraordinary sights of the meet. Johnstone and Hoxsey, daring a wind that kept most other fliers on the ground, went up to try for altitude. At 3,000 feet they ran into a gale, estimated later at more than 70 miles an hour. This was faster than their planes could go, and ,spectators watched in thrilled amazement as the two craft, high in the sky, began slowly and then more swiftly to proceed through the air, tails first. To a chorus of excited gasps the two planes moved backward more and more rapidly until they disappeared entirely, out over Long Island. Hoxsey was blown 25 miles before he could get down. Johnstone didn’t come down for 55 miles, and set a new American altitude record of 8,471 feet on the way.
In much of this the French fliers took little part, for most of them, including Team Captain LeBlanc, were boycotting everything in protest over the course laid out for the Gordon Bennett race. The portion of it that extended outside the park, they maintained, exposed fliers to grave dangers from nearby houses, trees and telegraph poles. All of these constituted crash risks, and the trees especially could cause perilous air currents. The Aero Club of America, sponsors of the meet, arranged for the course to be inspected as soon as possible by an official of the Aero Club of France, but meanwhile the French team sat things out.
A few members of it, however, did take part in some events. One of them competed in a one-hour distance contest and later the same afternoon made a try for altitude. In between, unfortunately, he forgot to refill his gas tank, an omission he discovered when his engine stopped at a height of 2,772 feet. He managed to land in a potato patch.
The first of the two great feature events of the meet to take place, as it turned out, was the Gordon Bennett. Thursday was windy—that was the day, in fact, when Hoxsey and Johnstone were blown out over Long Island—so the Statue of Liberty race was rescheduled for Sunday. Saturday, the day of the Gordon Bennett, was fine, with not much wind except for occasional gusts. The dispute with the French team over the course had been settled.
The greatest crowd yet, 25,000 people, was in the stands to see the historic contest. Society was out in force, the boxes filled with Whitneys, Goulds, Tailers, Vanderbilts, Harry Lehr, and other persons of distinction. This was to be a classic, for the international glory of the Gordon Bennett Trophy and cash prizes of $10,000, and it was certain to be hard fought. The specified distance was twenty laps over the long course.
The fliers took off individually, at intervals, but from the moment LeBlanc left the ground it was clear that he was the man to watch. He flew like a madman, as if to make up in one contest for all those days he had spent on the ground. In his ioo-horsepower BIeriot he roared around the course, going sometimes as fast as 70 miles an hour, plainly determined not merely to win the race but to smash the world’s speed mark as well. Straining bravely along, but straggling all the same, was Grahame-White, also in a ioo-horsepower Bleriot. Early in the race Walter Brookins lost altitude on a turn, slipped off from his height of 75 feet and crashed to the ground. Luckily he was not killed. Black-eyed, intense Moisant lost some time by landing to refuel, but by his fifteenth or sixteenth lap had fought his way back into the running.
LeBlanc’s final lap was the heartbreaker. The Frenchman entered it far ahead of any conceivable competition, going, if anything, even faster than before. And then, as he came to the part of the course that ran outside the park, his plane abruptly lost power. The propeller slowed, the Bleriot began gliding downward, and the next instant a puff of cross wind seized it and slammed it against a telegraph pole. The plane tumbled to the ground, a wreck. GrahameWhite was the winner of the Gordon Bennett.
Grahame-White’s time was remarkable enough—100 kilometers in one hour, one minute, four and threequarters seconds, for an average speed of more than a mile a minute. LeBlanc’s would have been nearly incredible. Happily the Frenchman had suffered only a few minor cuts, but he was bitter and fired a mechanic on the spot. With triumph almost in his hands and his plane performing perfectly, he had run out of gas.
Still more drama was to come. Next day again the weather was fine, and once more an eager crowd of 25,000 came to Belmont to watch at least the beginning and the end of the Statue of Liberty race. In Manhattan 15,000 more thronged the Battery, at the lower end of the island, and uncounted thousands of others darkened the roofs of Brooklyn.
The contest was on an elapsed-time basis, with the fliers free to take off individually, as they pleased. Grahame-White was first up in his ioo-horsepower Bleriot, and disappeared swiftly, flying at more than 2,000 feet for safety. A little later LeBlanc took off in a 50-horsepower Bleriot, his larger plane being still useless. Down on the field Moisant worked on another 5o-horsepower Bleriot, tuning it up. Moisant had smashed up his regular plane in a practice flight that morning, and had bought this one from LeBlanc early in the afternoon.