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The Birdmen At Belmont Park

May 2024
12min read

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.

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.

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.

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.

Grahame-White made a masterly flight, touching down back at Belmont well before 3:30 P.M. , with a time for the 33-mile course of 35 minutes, 21.3 seconds. LeBlanc’s time, in his lower-powered plane, was far slower. By four o’clock Grahame-White was in the sideline boxes, chatting with friends and accepting congratulations. When Moisant took off a few minutes later in his newly acquired plane, hardly anyone paid much attention. When Moisant’s plane came in sight again a little after 4:30, most spectators assumed he had turned back without completing the course. But he had completed it. He touched down, his time was taken. He had beaten Grahame-White by just under 43 seconds.

Almost as soon as the announcement was made, Grahame-White let out a roar like a stabbed tiger. He demanded that the race be run over again. The Aero Club officials said he could run it over again for the record if he wanted to, but Moisant had won the prize. Grahame-White challenged Moisant to race him over the course again for a $10,000 bet. Moisant declined to do it in a 5o-horsepower plane.

J. Armstrong Drexel promptly jumped into the uproar on Grahame-White’s side, declaring that the Aero Club and its meet managers had gone out of their way to give the glory and the prize to an American. There was, it is true, some question about the starting time. This had originally been specified to be not later than 3:45, but the limit apparently was not restated when the race was postponed, and the question was whether it still applied. Drexel, however, soared far above mere quibbling. He denounced the meet managers for general inefficiency; he intemperately accused them of trying to commercialize aviation. This charge they indignantly denied, but Drexel would not be mollified.

Amid the turmoil Ralph Johnstone’s setting of a new world’s altitude record of 9,714 feet on October 31, the final day of the meet, went almost unnoticed. That night the Aero Club had scheduled a dinner at the Plaza Hotel, to which all contestants were invited, for announcements and awards. Drexel not only refused to go but announced a dinner of his own, to which all contestants were also invited, at Sherry’s the same evening. About half the fliers went to Drexel’s dinner, for whether they agreed with him about Grahame-White or not, many of them were disgruntled with the Aero Club.

Grahame-White went to Drexel’s dinner. He left early, however, in time to go to the Aero Club affair and accept the Gordon Bennett Trophy and prize money totaling $13,600. The money may have come in handy, for his plane had just been attached to secure a judgment against him. Moisant won $13,500, including $10,000 for the Statue of Liberty race. The Aero Club declared the meet officially over. Drexel wrote an angry letter to the newspapers and resigned from the club.

But while dissension split the Aero Club, calmer observers took considerable satisfaction in the news of those nine days. Not all the gratifying headlines came from Belmont. Far to the north, in the wilds above Quebec, Augustus Post and Allan Hawley had turned up alive and well, guided to civilization by a party of trappers. Moreover, they had won the Gordon Bennett Cup for balloons with a nonstop distance in their America II officially determined at 1,355 miles.

And at Belmont itself, for all the records broken and the glory won, the best news was that in the entire meet there had been not a single fatality, and few injuries to amount to anything. This was in welcome contrast to many other trials of speed and daring—such as, for instance, the Vanderbilt Cup automobile race that had been held on Long Island earlier in the month. In the course of that race four people had been killed and twenty more or less seriously injured. But it was, perhaps, not quite fair to compare the two. The longest race at Belmont was the Gordon Bennett; the Vanderbilt Cup had been more than four times as long as that, and its winning speed almost five miles an hour faster.

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