IN 1905, while in New York City, I first met Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone. Dr. Bell had learned of our lightweight motors, used with success on the Baldwin dirigibles, and wanted to secure one for use in his experiments with kites. We had a very interesting talk on these experiments, and he asked me to visit him at Bienn Bhreagh, his summer home near Baddeck, Nova Scotia. Dr. Bell had developed some wonderfully light and strong tetrahedral kites which possessed great inherent stability, and he wanted a motor to install in one of them for purposes of experimentation. This kite was a very large one. The Doctor called it an "aerodrome." The surfaces not being planes, it could not properly be described as an aeroplane. He believed that the time would come when the framework of the aeroplane would have to be so large in proportion to its surface that it would be too heavy to fly. Consequently, he evolved the tetrahedral or cellular form of structure, which would allow of the size being increased indefinitely, while the weight would be increased only in the same ratio.
Dr. Bell had invited two young Canadian engineers, F. W. Baldwin and J. A. D. McCurdy, to assist him, and they were at Baddeck when I first visited there in the summer of 1907. Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, of the United States Army, was also there. Naturally, there was a wide discussion on the subject of aeronautics, and so numerous were the suggestions made and so many theories advanced, that Mrs. Bell suggested the formation of a scientific organisation, to be known as the "Aerial Experiment Association." This met with a prompt and hearty agreement and the association was created very much in the same manner as Dr. Bell had previously formed the "Volta Association" at Washington for developing the phonograph. Mrs. Bell, who was most enthusiastic and helpful, generously offered to furnish the necessary funds for experimental work, and the object of the Association was officially set forth as "to build a practical aeroplane which will carry a man and be driven through the air by its own power."
Dr. Alexander Graham Bell was made chairman; F. W. Baldwin, chief engineer; J. A. D. McCurdy, assistant engineer and treasurer; and Lieut. Thomas Selfridge, secretary; while I was honored with the title of Director of Experiments and Chief Executive Officer. Both Baldwin and McCurdy were fresh from Toronto University, where they had graduated as mechanical engineers, and Baldwin later earned the distinction of making the first public flight in a motor-driven, heavier-than-air machine. This was accomplished at Hammondsport, N. Y., March 12, 1908, over the ice on Lake Keuka. The machine used was Number One, built by the Aerial Experiment Association, designed by Lieutenant Selfridge, and known as "The Red Wing." The experiments carried on at Baddeck during the summer and fall of 1907 covered a wide range. There were trials and tests with Dr. Bell's tetrahedral kites, with motors, and with aerial propellers mounted on boats. Finally, at the suggestion of Lieutenant Selfridge, it was decided to move the scene of further experiments to Hammondsport, N. Y., where my factory is located, and there to build a glider. I had preceded the other members of the Association from Baddeck to Hammondsport in order to prepare for the continuance of our work. A few days after my return I was in my office, talking to Mr. Augustus Post, then the Secretary of the Aero Club of America, when a telegram came from Dr. Bell, saying: "Start building. The boys will be down next week." As no plans had been outlined, and nothing definite settled upon in the way of immediate experiments, I was somewhat undecided as to just what to build. We then discussed the subject of gliders for some time and I finally decided that the thing to do was to build a glider at the factory and to take advantage of the very abrupt and convenient hills at Hammondsport to try it out. We therefore built a double-surface glider of the Chanute type.
As almost every schoolboy knows in this day of advanced information on aviation, a glider is, roughly speaking, an aeroplane without a motor. Usually it has practically the same surfaces as a modern aeroplane, and may be made to support a passenger by launching it from the top of a hill in order to give it sufficient impetus to sustain its own weight and that of a rider. If the hill is steep the glider will descend at a smaller angle than the slope of the hill, and thus glides of a considerable distance may be made with ease and comparative safety.
Our first trials of the glider, which we built on the arrival of the members of the Experiment Association, were made in the dead of winter, when the snow lay deep over the hillsides. This made very hard work for everybody. It was a case of trudging laboriously up the steep hillsides and hauling or carrying the glider to the top by slow stages. It was easy enough going down, but slow work going up; but we continued our trials with varied success until we considered ourselves skillful enough to undertake a motor- driven machine, which we mounted on runners.
IT was my desire to build a machine and install a motor at once, and thus take advantage of the opportunity furnished by the thick, smooth ice over Lake Keuka at that season of the year. But Lieutenant Selfridge, who had read a great deal about gliders and who had studied them from every angle, believed we should continue experimenting with the glider. However, we decided to build a machine which we believed would fly, and in due time a motor was installed and it was taken down on Lake Keuka to be tried out. We called it the "Red Wing," and to Lieutenant Selfridge belongs the honour of designing it, though all the members of the Aerial Experiment Association had some hand in its construction. We all had our own ideas about the design of this first machine, but to Lieutenant Selfridge was left the privilege of accepting or rejecting the many suggestions made from time to time, in order that greater progress might be made. A number of our suggestions were accepted, and while the machine as completed cannot properly be described as the result of one man's ideas, the honour of being the final arbiter of all the problems of its design certainly belongs to Lieutenant Selfridge.
Now that the machine was completed and the motor installed, we waited for favourable weather to make the first trial. Winter weather around Lake Keuka is a very uncertain element, and we had a long, tiresome wait until the wintry gales that blew out of the north gave way to an intensely cold spell. Our opportunity came on March 12, 1908. There was scarcely a bit of wind, but it was bitterly cold. Unfortunately, Lieutenant Selfridge was absent, having left Hammondsport on business, and "Casey" Baldwin was selected to make the first trial. We were all on edge with eagerness to see what the machine would do. Some of us were confident, others sceptical.
Baldwin climbed into the seat, took the control in hand, and we cranked the motor. When we released our hold of the machine, it sped over the ice like a scared rabbit for two or three hundred feet, and then, much to our joy, it jumped into the air. This was what we had worked for through many long months, and naturally we watched the brief and uncertain course of Baldwin with a good deal of emotion. Rising to a height of six or eight feet, Baldwin flew the unheard-of distance of three hundred and eighteen feet, eleven inches! Then he came down ingloriously on one wing. As we learned afterward, the frail framework of the tail had bent and the machine had flopped over on its side and dropped on the wing, which gave way and caused the machine to turn completely around.
But it had been a successful flightand we took no toll of the damage to the machine or the cost. We had succeeded! that was the main thing. We had actually flown the "Red Wing" three hundred and eighteen feet and eleven inches! We knew now we could build a machine that would fly longer and come down at the direction of the operator with safety to both.
It had taken just seven weeks to build the machine and to get it ready for the trial; it had taken just about twenty seconds to smash it.
But a great thing had been accomplished. We had achieved the first public flight of a heavier-than-air machine in America!
As our original plans provided for the building of one machine designed by each member of the Association, with the assistance of all the others, the building of the next one fell to Mr. Baldwin, and it was called the "White Wing." The design of the "Red Wing" was followed in many details, but several things were added which we believed would give increased stability and greater flying power. The construction of the "White Wing" was begun at once, but before we could complete it the ice on the lake had yielded to the spring winds and we were therefore obliged to transfer our future trials to land. This required wheels for starting and alighting in the place of the ice runners used on the "Red Wing." An old half-mile race track a short distance up the valley from the Lake was rented and put in shape for flights. The place was called "Stony Brook Farm," and it was for a long time afterward the scene of our flying exploits at Hammondsport.
It would be tiresome to the reader to be told of all the discouragements we met with; of the disheartening smashes we suffered; how almost every time we managed to get the new machine off the ground for brief but encouraging flights, it would come down so hard that something would give way and we would have to set about the task of building it up again. We soon learned that it was comparatively easy to get the machine up in the air, but it was most difficult to get it back to earth without smashing something. The fact was, we had not learned the art of landing an aeroplane with ease and safetyan absolutely necessary art for every successful aviator to know. It seemed one day that the limit of hard luck had been reached, when, after a brief flight and a somewhat rough landing, the machine folded up and sank down on its side, like a wounded bird, just as we were feeling pretty good over a successful landing without breakage.
Changes in the details of the machine were many and frequent, and after each change there was a flight or an attempted flight. Sometimes we managed to make quite a flight, and othersand more numerousmerely short "jumps" that would land the machine in a potato patch or a cornfield, where, in the yielding ground, the wheels would crumple up and let the whole thing down. Up to this time we had always used silk to cover the planes, but this proved very expensive and we decided to try a substitute. An entirely new set of planes were made and the new covering put on them. They looked very pretty and white as we took the rebuilt machine out with every expectation that it would fly. Great was our surprise, however, when it refused absolutely to make even an encouraging jump. For a time we were at a loss to understand it. Then the reason became as plain as day ; we had used cotton to cover the planes, and, being porous, it would not furnish the sustaining power in flight. This was quickly remedied by coating the cotton covering with varnish, rendering it impervious to the air. After that it Hew all right. I believe this was the first instance of the use of a liquid filler to coat the surface cloth. It is now used widely, both in this country and in Europe.
We had a great many minor misfortunes with the "White Wing," but each one taught us a lesson. We gradually learned where the stresses and strains lay, and overcame them. Thus, little by little, the machine was reduced in weight, simplified in detail, and finally took on some semblance to the standard Curtiss aeroplane of today.
All the members of the Aerial Experiment As sociation were in Hammondsport at this time, in eluding Dr. Alexander Graham Bell. We had established an office in the annex which had been built on the Curtiss homestead, and here took place nightly discussions on the work of the day pas and the plans for the day to follow. Some of the boys named the office the "thinkorium." Every night the minutes of the previous meeting would be read and discussed. These minutes, by the way, were religiously kept by Lieutenant Selfridge and later published in the form of a bulletin and sent to each member. Marvellous in range were the subjects brought up and talked over a these meetings! Dr. Bell was the source of the most unusual suggestions for discussion. Usually these were things he had given a great deal of thought and time to, and, therefore, his opinion on any of his hobbies were most interesting. For instance, he had collected a great deal of information on the genealogy of the Hyde family, comprising some seven thousand individuals. These he had arranged in his card index system, in order to determine the proportion of male and female individuals, their relative length of life, and other characteristics. Or, perhaps, the Doctor would talk about his scheme to influence the sex of sheep by a certain method of feeding; his early experiences with the telephone, the phonograph, the harmonic telegraph, and multiple telegraphy. At other times we would do a jig-saw puzzle with pictures of aeroplanes, or listen to lectures on physical culture by Dr. Alden, of the village. Then, for a change, we would discuss, with great interest and sincerity, the various methods of making sounds to accompany the action of a picture, behind the curtain of the moving-picture show, which we all had attended. Motorcycle construction and operation were studied at the factory and on the roads around Hammondsport. McCurdy used to give us daily demonstrations of how to fall off a motorcycle scientifically. He fell off so often, in fact, that we feared he would never make an aviator. In this opinion, of course, we were very much in error, as he became one of the first, and also one of the best aviators in the country. Atmospheric pressure, the vacuum motor, Dr. Bell's tetrahedral construction, and even astronomical subjectsall found a place in the nightly discussions at the "thinkorium."
Of course there were many important things that took up our attention, but we could not always be grave and dignified. I recall one evening somebody started a discussion on the idea of elevating Trinity Church, in New York City, on the top of a skyscraper, and using the revenue from the ground rental to convert the heathen. This gave a decided shock to a ministerial visitor who happened to be present.
When summer came on there were frequent motorcycle trips when the weather did not permit of flying, or when the shop was at work repairing one of our frequent smashes. "Casey" Baldwin and McCurdy furnished a surprise one day by a rather unusual long distance trip on motorcycles "Let's go up to Hamilton, Ontario," said Baldwin, probably choosing Hamilton as the destination because he was charged with having a sweet heart there.
"All right," answered McCurdy.
Without a moment's hesitation the two mounted their wheels, not even stopping to get their caps, and rode through to Hamilton, a hundred and fifty miles distant, buying everything they required along the way. They were gone a week and came back by the same route. ---------------------
A favourite subject of talk at the "thinkorium," at least between McCurdy and Selfridge, was on some of the effects of the "torque" of a propeller and whenever this arose we would expect the argument to keep up until one or the other would fall asleep.
After the nightly formal sessions of the members of the Association the courtesy of the floor was extended to any one who might be present for the discussion of anything he might see fit to bring up. Later we would adjourn to Dr. Bell's room, where he would put himself into a comfortable position, light his inevitable pipe, and produce his note books. In these note books Dr. Bell would write down everythinghis thoughts on every subject imaginable, his ideas about many things, sketches, computations. All these he would sign, date, and have witnessed. It was Dr. Bell's custom to work at night when there were no distracting noises, though there were few of these at Hammondsport even during the daylight hours; at night it is quiet enough for the most exacting victim of insomnia. Dr. Bell often sat up until long after midnight, but he made up for the lost time by sleeping until noon. No one was allowed to wake him for any reason. The rest of us were up early in order to take advantage of the favourable flying conditions during the early morning hours. Dr. Bell had a strong aversion to the ringing of the telephone bellthe great invention for which he is responsible. I occasionally went into his room and found the bell stuffed with paper, or wound around with towels.
"Little did I think when I invented this thing," said Dr. Bell, one day when he had been awakened by the jingling of the bell, "that it would rise up to mock and annoy me."
While the Doctor enjoyed his morning sleep we were out on "Stony Brook Farm" trying to fly We had put up a tent against the side of an old sheep barn, and out of this we would haul the machine while the grass was still wet with dew. One never knew what to expect of it. Sometimes a short flight would be made; at others, something would break. Or, maybe, the wind would come up and this would force us to abandon further trials for the day. Then it was back the shop to work on some new device, or to repair damages until the wind died out with the setting of the sun. Early in the morning and late the evening were the best periods of the day in our experimental work because of the absence of wind.
On May 22, 1908, our second machine, the "White Wing," was brought to such a state of perfection that I flew it a distance of one thousand and seventeen feet in nineteen seconds, and lance without damage in a ploughed field outside the old race track. It was regarded as a remarkable flight at that time, and naturally, I felt very much elated.
FOLLOWING the success of the "White Wing," we started in to build another machine, embodying all that we had learned from our experience with the two previous ones. Following our custom of giving each machine a name to distinguish it from the preceding one, we called this third aeroplane the "June Bug." The name was aptly chosen, for it was a success from the very beginning. Indeed, it flew so well that we soon decided it was good enough to win the trophy which had been offered by The Scientific American for the first public flight of one kilometer, or five-eights of a mile, straightaway. This trophy, by the way, was the first to be offered in this country for an aeroplane flight, and the conditions specified that it should become the property of the person winning it three years in succession. The "June Bug" was given a thorough try-out before we made arrangements to fly for the trophy, and we were confident it would fulfill the requirements.
The Fourth of July, 1908, was the day set for the trial. A large delegation of aero-club members came on from New York and Washington, among whom were Stanley Y. Beach, Allan R. Hawley, Augustus Post, David Fairchild, Chas. M. Manley, Christopher J. Lake, A. M. Herring, George H. Guy, E. L. Jones, Wilbur R. Kimball, Captain Thomas S. Baldwin and many other personal friends. The excitement among the citizens of Hammondsport in general was little less than that existing among the members of the Aerial Experiment Association, and seldom had the; Fourth of July been awaited with greater impatience.
When Independence Day finally dawned it did not look auspicious for the first official aeroplane Might for a trophy. Clouds boded rain and there was some wind. This did not deter the entire population of Hammondsport from gathering on the heights around the flying field, under the trees in the valley and, in fact, at every point of vantage. Some were on the scene as early as five o'clock in the morning, and many brought along baskets of food and made a picnic of it. The rain came along toward noon, but the crowd hoisted its umbrellas or sought shelter under the trees and stayed on. Late in the afternoon the sky cleared and it began to look as if we were to have the chance to fly after all. The "June Bug" was brought out of its tent and the motor given a try-out. It worked all right. The course was measured and a flag put up to mark the end. Every thing was ready and about seven o'clock in the evening the motor was started and I climbed into the seat. When I gave the word to "let go" the " dune Bug" skimmed along over the old race track for perhaps two hundred feet and then rose gracefully into the air. The crowd set up a hearty cheer, as I was told laterfor I could hear nothing but the roar of the motor and I saw nothing except the course and the flag marking a distance of one kilometer. The flag was quickly reached and passed and still I kept the aeroplane up, flying as far as the open fields would permit, and finally coming down safely in a meadow, fully a mile from the starting place. I had thus exceeded the requirements and had won the Scientific American Trophy for the first time. I might have gone a great deal farther, as the motor was working beautifully and I had the machine under perfect control, but to have prolonged the flight would have meant a turn in the air or passing over a number of large trees. The speed of this first official flight was closely computed at thirty-nine miles an hour.
Dr. Bell had gone to Nova Scotia, unfortunately, and, therefore, did not witness the Fourth of July flight of the "June Bug." The other members, however, were all present. It was a great day for all of us and we were more confident than ever that we had evolved, out of our long and costly experiments, a machine that would fly successful and with safety to the operator. Lieutenant Selfridge was particularly enthusiastic, and I recall when Mr. Holcomb, special agent for a life insurance company, visited the field one day a heard Selfridge talk about flying.
"You must be careful, Selfridge," said Mr. Holcomb, "or we will need a bed for you in the hospital of which I am a trustee."
"Oh, I am careful, all right," replied Selfridge, but it was only a few days later when he left Hammondsport for Washington, and was killed while flying as a passenger with Orville Wright at Ft. Meyer.
In Selfridge we lost not only one of the bestposted men in the field of aeronautics, a student and a man of practical ideas, but one of our beloved companions and co-workers, as well.
Three machines had thus far been built a flown, first the "Red Wing, " designed by Lieutenant ant Selfridge; next the "White Wing," by Baldwin, and last the "June Bug," by me. It was no McCurdy's turn and he designed a machine which he named the "Silver Dart. " While this was building we decided to take the "June Bug" down to the lake, equip it with a set of pontoons, or boat, and attempt to fly from the water. It was my idea that if we could design a float that would sustain the aeroplane on an even keel and at the same time furnish a minimum of resistance, we would be able to get up enough speed to rise from the water. Besides, the lake would afford an ideal flying place, and, what was more important still, a fall or a bad landing would not be nearly so likely to result in injury to the aviator.
Accordingly, we mounted the "June Bug" on two floats, built something like a catamaran, and re- named it the "Loon." It required some time to construct light and strong floats and it was not until the beginning of November, 1908, that we were ready for the first attempt to fly from the water ever made in this or any other country. The "Loon" was hauled down to the lake from the aerodrome on a two- wheeled cart, there being no wheels for rolling it over the ground. I remember we had to build a platform on the cart and to strengthen the wheels to carry the weight of nearly one thousand pounds which the added equipment had brought the total weight up to.
This first experimental hydroaeroplane was a crude affair as compared with the machine in which I made the first successful flight from and landing upon the water, more than three years later at San Diego, Cal. The cleaner lines, the neat, light-weight boat and the other details of the Curtiss hydroaeroplane offer as striking a contrast to the "Loon" as the modern locomotive offers to the crude, clumsy affairs that now exist only in the museums. So great is the difference that one is inclined to marvel that we had a success whatever with the first design.
We made many attempts to rise from the water in the "Loon," but owing to the great wed' were unable to make any real flights, although the observers on shore were sure that the pontoons were sometimes clear of the water. By the end of November our experiments had convince every one of us that we needed more powera more time than we had at our disposal just the The best motor we had at our command was a to deliver only enough power to drive the "Loon" at twenty-five miles an hour on the water. This was not enough to get the machine into the a unless assisted by a strong head wind, and were not anxious to try flying in a strong wind In the meantime McCurdy's machine, the "Silver Dart," had been completed and mounted wheels. The first flight was made by McCurdy December 12, 1908, over the "Stony Brook" flying field. The "Silver Dart" was practically the same as the "June Bug." Shortly after this was shipped to Dr. Bell's place at Baddeck, Nova Scotia, where McCurdy and "Casey" Baldwin used it all through the winter in practice, making flights from the ice and covering all the country thereabouts. McCurdy estimates that in his some two hundred flights in the "Silver Dart," he covered more than a thousand miles.
As a result of the winning of the Scientific American Trophy, the Aeronautical Society of New York City placed an order in the winter of 1908-09 for an aeroplane to be demonstrated at Morris Park Track, New York City, in the spring.
Plans were outlined for enlarging the Hammondsport factory and work commenced on the machine ordered by the Aeronautical Society. It was the plan of this Society to purchase the aeroplane and have one or more of its members taught to fly it. The machine was finished in due time, thoroughly tried out at Hammondsport before it was shipped to New York, and finally sent to the old Morris Park Race Track, where the Aeronautical Society had arranged for the first public exhibition ever held in the history of aviation. There, on June 26,1909, I had the honour of making the first aeroplane flights in New York City, in the machine bought by the Aeronautical Society.
The Society intended to make Morris Park the scene of aviation meets and of experiments with gliders, but the grounds proved too small and recommended a change to some other place in vicinity of New York City, where there was plenty of open country and where the danger from unexpected landings would be minimized. I fool over all the suitable places around New York City and finally decided upon Mineola, on Long Island. The Hempstead Plains, a large, level tract lying just outside Mineola, offered an ideal place for flying and the Aeronautical Society machine was brought down there from Morris Park.
There was such a fine field for flying at Mineola that I decided to make another try for the Scientific American trophy, which I had won on the previous Fourth of July at Hammondsport with the "June Bug." I wanted that trophy very much, but in order to become possessed of it I had to win it three years in succession, the conditions being changed from year to year to keep pace with the progress and development of aviation. The second year's conditions required continuous flight of more than twenty-five kilometers (about sixteen miles) in order to have the flight taken into account in awarding the prize, which was to go to the person making the longest official flight during the year.
I believed I could make a fine showing at Hempstead Plains and preparations were made for the attempt. The aeroplane was put together near Peter McLaughlin's hotel and a triangular course of one and a third miles was measured off. After I had made a number of trial flights over the course I sent formal notice to the Aero Club of America that all was ready for the official flight, and the Club sent Mr. Charles M. Manley down as official representative to observe the trial for the Scientific American trophy.
On July 17th, 1909, a little more than a year from the first official flight of the "June Bug" at Hammondsport, we got out on the field at Mineola at sunrise, before the heavy dew was off the grass, and made ready. It was a memorable day for the residents of that particular section of Long Island, who had never seen a flying machine prior to my brief trial flights there a few days before. They turned out in large numbers, even at that early hour, and there was a big delegation of newspapermen from the New York dailies on hand. Flying was such a novelty at that time that nine-tenths of the people who came to watch the preparations were sceptical while others declared that "that thing won't fly, so what's the use of waiting 'round." There was much excitement, therefore, when, at a quarter after five o'clock, on the morning of July 17, I made my first flight. This was for the Cortlandt Field Bishop prize of two hundred and fifty dollars, offered by the Aero Club of America to the first four persons who should fly one kilometer. It took just two and a half minutes to win this prize and immediately afterward I started for the Scientific American trophy.
The weather was perfect and everything worked smoothly. I made twelve circuits of course, which completed the twenty-five kilometers, in thirty-two minutes. The motor was working so nicely and the weather man was favourable, that I decided to keep right on flying until finally I had circled the course nineteen times and covered a distance of twenty- four a seven-tenths miles before landing. The average speed was probably about thirty-five miles hour, although no official record of the speed was made.
Great was the enthusiasm of the crowd when the flight ended. I confess that I, too, was enthusiastic over the way the motor had worked and the ease with which the machine could be handled in flight. Best of all, I had the sense satisfaction that the confidence imposed in me by my friends had been justified.
As the machine built for the Aeronautical Society had thus met every requirement, I agreed teach two members to fly at Hempstead Plains. Mr. Charles F. Willard and Mr. Williams were the two chosen to take up instruction, and the work began at once. Mr. Willard proved an apt pupil and after a few lessons mastered the machine and flew with confidence and success, circling about the country around Mineola.
These flights at Mineola gave that place a start as the headquarters for aviators, and it soon became the popular resort for everyone interested in aviation in and near the city of New York.