The Intrepid Mr. Curtiss

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While stubbornness and personal pride prevented the issues from being settled out of court, the root of the problem was the administration of the patent laws of the day. The Wrights unquestionably deserved financial reward for their lonely and dedicated pioneering, but monopoly was something else. Aviation progress stagnated, particularly in the United States, birthplace of the airplane. Bonds had to be posted before exhibitions or air shows could take place. The threat of further suits and of monopoly frightened off prospective purchasers and dried up investment capital, squelching the competition that stimulates technological advances. Even the principals in the suit were affected. Wright aircraft, hampered by the stubborn adherence to wing warping, reflected few real advances in these years. Curtiss remained innovative, but mostly in the area of broadening the airplane’s usefulness; the standard Curtiss craft of 1913 or 1914 was simply a refinement of 1909 models.

 

But all this was in the future when Curtiss returned from Europe with his Rheims laurels in September, 1909. Fully expecting the Wright suit to be thrown out of court, he set about turning his new fame into more substantial rewards.

Herring-Curtiss was awash in requests for exhibition flights and air-meet appearances and purchase orders. While the plant labored to fill the orders Curtiss began training pilots to help him with exhibition dates. He performed well in these events, and by all odds it should have been an invigorating, profitable time. Instead it was a period of pure frustration. In part this was due to the Wright suit’s threat to profits from sales and exhibitions, but the more immediate problem was Augustus Herring.

Herring had revealed his true colors, and they were not pretty. While single-mindedly trying to cash in on his partner’s fame he evaded every demand to produce the sheaf of patents that comprised his share of the partnership. Finally it became clear that the patents simply did not exist and that Curtiss had been hoodwinked. The antagonism degenerated into a battle for corporate control, and in the spring of 1910 the Herring-Curtiss Company was declared bankrupt. Eventually Herring was forced out and Curtiss was able to organize a new company, but it was a painful disillusionment.

His solace from business and financial troubles was tinkering, and this time he produced a plane destined to carry him on his most spectacular flight. The craft was named the Hudson Flyer and his goal was the longest and most dangerous cross-country flight yet attempted in the United States.

Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World had put up a tenthousand-dollar prize for the first aviator to follow the course of the Hudson River between New York and Albany —152 miles—“in a mechanically propelled airship either lighter or heavier than air.” The flight was to be completed within twenty-four hours, and two refuelling stops were permitted. This was intended as the capstone to the Hudson-Fulton Celebration commemorating (by stretching dates a bit) Henry Hudson’s discovery of the river three hundred years before and Robert Fulton’s famous voyage upriver in the steamboat Clermont in 1807.

As Curtiss discovered when he surveyed the route, the risk factor was high indeed. Strong winds and violent turbulence were common in the air space over the river, and the rugged terrain along the banks offered few places for an emergency landing. He decided to start at Albany to take advantage of the prevailing winds. His first refuelling stop, he calculated, should be near Poughkeepsie. The grounds of a state mental hospital looked promising, and the superintendent was glad to oblige. “Why, certainly, Mr. Curtiss, come right in here,” he exclaimed. “Here’s where all the flying machine inventors land.” Curtiss chose a spot on the other side of town.

The Hudson Flyer was equipped with a pair of airtight metal canisters under the wings and several air bags on a plank rigged to the landing gear; if forced down on the river it might float—and it might not. Curtiss prudently donned a pair of fisherman’s waders and a cork lifepreserver and early on the morning of May 29, 1910, took off on the great adventure.

Early in the flight the air was blessedly calm. “I felt an immense sense of relief,” he said later. “The motor sounded like music.” Keeping pace was a special train chartered by the New York Times , the passengers (including Mrs. Curtiss) waving handkerchiefs and craning out the windows for a glimpse at what reporters described as the “intrepid birdman.” A hitch developed at the Poughkeepsie fuelling stop when the promised gasoline was not there, but two passing motorists obligingly filled the plane’s tank from their spare fuel cans, and Curtiss was off again within an hour.