- Historic Sites
The Intrepid Mr. Curtiss
The fastest man in the air competed with the Wrights for ten years, became rich, and awakened America to the air age.
April 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 3
The craft was christened Red Wing . On March 12, 1908, with Casey Baldwin at the controls, the engine was fired up, and Red Wing bounded across frozen Keuka Lake and into the air. Its flight was erratic, ending with a sideways lurch into the ice. Baldwin crawled out unhurt to the cheers of townspeople lining the shore. The flight measured 319 feet. Repairs were made and Baldwin essayed a second flight a few days later. This time the wind was gusty and the lack of any real control system quickly reduced Red Wing to a heap of spars and torn silk. It is claimed that Red Wing made the first announced public flight in America, which is true enough but of no real consequence. It was an uncontrollable aircraft, as the AEA members were quick to appreciate, and its real significance was that it got them into the air and invigorated their hopes.
The second AEA plane, White Wing , so named for its white muslin wing fabric, had the same six-day lifespan as Red Wing , but it was a major step forward because it was controllable. One of the Wrights’ strokes of genius, and the heart of their patent, was their control system: the combination of horizontal elevators for up-and-down control and wing warping and rudders for lateral control and turning. Simply stated, wing warping changed the angle or pitch of the wings by means of a system of cables. If a gust of wind tipped the plane over to the right, for example, lateral stability was restored by moving the warping-control lever to the left. This flexed the trailing edges of the left wings upward (causing the airflow over them to exert a downward force) and flexed the trailing edges of the right wings downward (causing the airflow to lift them). Carrying this an important step further, the Wrights coordinated the warping and rudder controls to make smooth banked turns.
All this was in their patent, and Bell in particular, having endured endless litigation to protect his telephone patents from infringement, had no desire to repeat the experience, on either side of the question. In addition the AEA members felt that making the wings flexible for warping purposes weakened them structurally. It was Bell who suggested a solution to the dilemma. He proposed achieving lateral stability by mounting hinged, controllable panels at the wing tips of White Wing —in other words, ailerons.
On May 18, 1908, at Hammondsport’s trotting track, Baldwin made a short hop, and the next day Selfridge flew for the first time. Both flights were brief because of minor mishaps, but on May 21, his thirtieth birthday, Curtiss made his piloting debut and demonstrated that in White Wing the AEA had a real airplane. His maiden effort covered 1,017 feet and included a gentle s-turn to test the controls. White Wing ’s career ended abruptly two days later when McCurdy overcontrolled on his initial flight but walked away from the wreck.
The third aerodrome was Curtiss’, and when he set to work, he had a goal—the trophy offered by Scientific American for the hrst officially sanctioned flight of one kilometer (3,281 feet) in the United States. The craft was a considerably improved version of White Wing . When Bell watched its first flight, he christened it June Bug for the flying beetles buzzing about at that time of the year. In further lest flights Curtiss tuned his machine and sharpened his flying skills—and whetted public interest; unlike the Wrights, he was revealing an awareness of the power of publicity. It was announced that on July 4, 1908, in Hammondsport, before officials of the Aero Club of America, Glenn Curtiss would go after the Scientific American Trophy.
On the appointed day nearly everyone from Hammondsport and the surrounding countryside turned up with picnic lunches and high hopes of seeing the local boy make good. Not even a brisk wind and thundershowers dampened their enthusiasm. The Pleasant Valley Wine Company added to the festivities with samples of its product. The wind died down by evening, and June Bug was rolled out of its tent. The first flight was aborted because of a misaligned tail assembly, but that was soon set right and Curtiss took off again. This time everything worked perfectly. On and on June Bug soared, over the yelling spectators, over vineyards and fences, over the red flag marking the end of the measured course and well beyond before finally landing. Daisy Bell Fairchild, the inventor’s daughter, recalled how “we all lost our heads and David [her husband] shouted, and I cried, and everyone cheered and clapped, and engines tooted.” Her husband added, “What a moment for the vivid imagination. The thing is done. Man flies!”
That was exactly the reaction of many Americans when they opened their newspapers and read of the Independence Day doings in Hammondsport. Most had never heard of the Wright brothers and assumed that Glenn Curtiss was the first American to fly an airplane. The more knowledgeable hoped that now the Wrights would come forward to prove their claims.