A crash of artillery fire reverberated off the skyscrapers that faced Lake Michigan. Startled pigeons rose, beating their wings in the air above the gun smoke. As the tenth and final cannon shot echoed off the lakefront, another sound chattered overhead and thousands of spectators began to cheer. A hundred feet above their heads, a Herring-Curtiss biplane flew toward the water, bucking a 25 mph wind. Sitting in front of the boxy-looking airplane’s laboring motor sat the pilot, native Chicagoan 19-year-old Jimmie Ward (photo above; also spelled "Jimmy"). He represented youth, adventure, and daring to the thousands who cheered him. His appearance also raised the curtain on the largest air show ever held, the 1911 Chicago International Aviation Meet [August 12-20].
In those early days of flight, Chicago also had an aviation champion. Harold F. McCormick, a member of the family that owed their fortunes to Cyrus McCormick, inventor of the mechanical reaper that revolutionized agriculture, was obsessed by anything having to do with flight. [Harold was Cyrus' youngest son] It was his money and personal support that were the driving forcesbehind the event. For nine days, beginning that August 12th, 33 aviators – amateurs and professionals – crowded into Chicago’s Grant Park competing for thousands of dollars in prizes. Among that adventurous group stood a select gathering of “aeroplanists” who flew under the most famous banner in the world – the Wright Exhibition Team. They watched with professional detachment as Jimmy Ward flew his showy figure-eights above the gawking crowd. A nice amateur performance for a kid who had just joined the Curtiss Exhibition Team, but some of the talented independents were the real competition.
And, of course, the boss watched with a critical eye. Orville Wright, who had lawsuits filed against Glenn Curtiss for patent infringement, didn’t like playing second fiddle to a Curtiss-designed airplane. Curtiss flaunted the Wrights’ demands to pay royalties for use of their wing warping control system. Wilbur Wright’s job had mutated from flying demonstrations in Europe to that of zealous patent cop and now seemed to spend more time in court than in the air. The Wrights were confident, however, that their former students had the skills to bring home prize money to pay those pesky lawyers.
Another Wright-equipped pilot observed Jimmy Ward’s curtain raiser with off-hand amusement. Calbraith Perry Rodgers had money, time and a daring spirit. He migrated from auto racing to flying after a quick trip to the Wright School at Simms Station, Ohio. This school had grown from a 100 acre pasture owned by the Huffman family. Often, student pilots had to herd meandering cows and shift cow patties from the paths of landing airplanes. For most pilots, at $25 a lesson, learning to fly took at least a couple of weeks. For Cal Rodgers, the job took 90 minutes.
On the first day of competition, five accidents caused damage. Frank Coffyn, a Wright Team member, landed with a passenger aboard and ran his Flyer into Rene Simon’s Bleriot monoplane. Another pilot whacked a pylon on the race track. A Grahame-White biplane ran up the side of a fence and Arthur Welsh, another Wright Team aeronaut, failed to stop his Model B Flyer and rolled into the field’s drainage lagoon, “…to the delight of the audience,” according to the Chicago Tribune.
After all, this was Chicago, with pretensions to gentility, but still tough around the edges. Gang boss Big Jim Colosimo owned city hall and the police department. He owned a café popular with the upper crust and a string of brothels along the Levee just south of downtown. Chicagoans were used to sweeping up bodies on Sunday mornings before church. When it came to entertainment, they wanted excitement. The crowd at the Aviation Meet was no different. After watching the opening day events featuring as many as 25 planes in the sky going up and down and flying in circles, ladies in their picture hats and gents in straw boaters wanted more action. They were not disappointed.
So, with egos and investments on the line, the International Aviation Meet plunged ahead. Problem was, in 1911 airplanes broke apart with frightening regularity. A gust of wind at the wrong time and the plane flopped onto its back. If all the insect life and grit had not been properly filtered from the stove gasoline bought at a hardware store, the fuel line plugged up. Metal fragments from an exploding engine became lethal shrapnel. Airplanes had no brakes. Six or eight strong men held the plane while its engine revved until the pilot signaled them to let go. Any wind over 20 miles an hour became a threat. Wings folded under stress. Wires poinged loose at inconvenient times. Wheels fell away on takeoff and landing gear collapsed when the plane returned to earth.
A list of equipment worth over $80,000, required by the Moisant Team for their seven pilots included:
· Eight Moisant monoplanes
· Two biplanes
· Eight extra frames and parts
· 14 extra wings
· 5 extra tails
· 10 pair of landing wheels
· 20 propellers
In addition, the teams had to pay their pilots. According to pilot Frank Coffyn, Orville and Wilbur kept a tight hand on the purse strings. The Wright Exhibition Team was the poorest paid group on the field. Each pilot received a weekly salary of $20. When he performed in an exhibition, he got $50 a day. Every independent pilot who flew a Wright plane during an exhibition paid $100 a day royalty to the Wright Company and often event organizers paid a portion of the total purse to the Wrights just for showing up. All prize money went to the Wright Company. Glenn Curtiss split the prize money with his pilots and, of course, the independent fliers pocketed the whole check.
Coffyn was content with flying for the Wrights, but Walter Brookins, one of the Wrights’ first students, quit the team in Chicago and went “free-lance.”
Brookins had won a $10,000 prize at their last meet in July and got the usual $50 a day for his trouble. Now, he had a chance at some serious cash and wanted a bigger slice. He shifted his ride to a Wright Flyer owned by Andrew Drew.
Unfortunately, Brookins only pocketed $816 in prize money without the Wright organization behind him. Following the Chicago meet, he applied to fly with the Pioneer Aeroplane and Exhibition Company of St. Louis. When the Wrights heard this they made their position clear, sending a note to his prospective employer:
“We call your attention to the fact that Mr. Brookins is bound to fly for The Wright Company if he flies at all, and that if he attempts to fly for others, without first obtaining our consent, we will have him enjoined.”
Wilbur and Orville had definite ideas about “stunting” for the crowd. Wilbur wrote in a letter to the team before a show on September 10, 1910,
“I am very much in earnest when I say that I want no stunts and spectacular frills put on the flights there. If each of you can make a plain flight of ten or fifteen minutes each day keeping always within the inner fence wall away from the grandstand and never more than three hundred feet high it will be just what we want. Under no circumstances make more than one flight each day apiece. Anything beyond plain flying will be chalked up as a fault and not a credit.”
Wright pilots were also forbidden to fly on the Sabbath and no women were permitted in Wright Team “aeroplanes.”
However, it wasn’t long before the crowds’ demands had pilots stunting all over the sky. Planes banked sharply around the pylons, dipped up and down along the race track, zoomed, stalled and “volplaned” (glided) down to dead stick landings. Right away, two men died. William Badger, flying a Baldwin biplane, attempted to pull out of a dive too close to the ground and the wings collapsed. His body was smashed under the plane’s engine. St. Croix Johnstone, a local lad, whizzed out over the lake in his Moisant monoplane, the engine blew and when he hit the water the wreckage pinned him into the cockpit where he drowned in forty feet of water. Rene Simon – who had been rammed by a Wright plane earlier – blew his engine over the lake and crashed. Into the air flew a Curtiss “Hydroaeroplane” and landed near him. Simon clung to the plane’s pontoon until a boat from the Coast Guard Cutter Tuscarora came along side. That, very likely, was the world’s first air-sea rescue.
These unfortunate accidents didn’t slow the meet down one bit. The Aviation Committee decided the crashes were the result of “pilot error.” After they towed the wreckage away, the show went on. Lincoln Beachey, the country’s foremost stunt flyer, took a spin down Michigan Avenue in his Curtiss biplane, tapping automobile roofs with his wheels.
The committee did take umbrage to another flier. Harry Atwood, a Wright pilot from the Simms Station School, had begun a distance run from St. Louis to New York City and offered to stop at Chicago during the meet. He wanted to breeze in, do some figure-eights over the city, circle a few skyscrapers and then land to great applause. The Chicago Aviation Association was aghast. Carving up the sky over Grant Park or the lake was one thing, but letting one of those rickety kites stunt above downtown commerce was forbidden. Grousing, Atwood agreed to come in, land to a great tumult of approbation, and then leave the next day, circle the field four times trailing American flags, and head for his next stop on the way to New York City – all for only $1,000. They agreed, he arrived, and got his tumult.
The next day, an overzealous official gave Atwood an ultimatum that he leave town before 3:30 PM or stay the night. Atwood went livid. He only had $500 – the amount every pilot received as appearance money – of his thousand and this flunky was giving him a hard time. Atwood demanded the rest of the money and then sulked in his cockpit until the check had been certified. He circled the field once, not four times, and sped east toward Toledo. The next day, after the two men were killed and the meet continued, he sent a telegram to the association calling them a bunch of savages.
While aeroplanes were digging up Grant Park and being towed from the lake, world records fell every day. On the second day, while as many as eleven “sky craft” at a time cluttered the sky down low, a tiny speck high above the city mesmerized the spectators. Wright pilot Oscar Brindley hung for hours at an altitude that reached 4,442 feet. As dusk settled over the city, officials touched off a cannon, signaling him to come down. He was too high to hear it. Five “power torches” were lit and down he came in sweeping spirals, arriving at 7:30 PM after a chilly two-hour flight.
Every day, the pilots climbed into their machines and every day, the crowds came, finally totaling three million spectators. The two hot pilots, Cal Rodgers and Lincoln Beachey, competed for the two largest money prizes: duration and altitude. Rodgers piloted his Wright Model B, accumulating more and more air time with every takeoff. And each day, Lincoln Beachey climbed higher until he reached the freezing heights where no man had gone before. He deliberately piloted his plane to a world record 11,642 feet above Lake Michigan, climbing until his gas ran out. With fingers and feet numb with cold, Beachey nosed over and glided down, swooping, spiraling, floating down on the Curtiss biplane’s huge wings. He won more than a dollar for every foot of altitude, a total of $11,667.
Cal Rodgers had to wait until the last day of the meet to collect his prize. Rodgers had logged a total of 27 hours flying time during the nine days and pocketed $11, 285, a terrific advertisement for the Wright Company even if he hadn’t been a part of their team. Later, flying a Wright Flyer EX -- named the Vin Fiz -- he became the first pilot to fly across the country from New York to California. He crashed so often, he completed the run with crutches strapped to the fuselage.
When the 1911 Chicago International Aviation Meet began, virtually every major world record belonged to a European. When it ended, those records were held by Americans. Testing the limits of flight had become expensive. Worldwide, almost 100 pilots had died by the end of August, 1911. The Wright Team brought $16,000 in prize money back to Dayton, but two months later Wilbur and Orville quit the exhibition business and disbanded the team to concentrate on aircraft development. They’d had enough excitement.
Of the Wright team members who flew that August, Phil Parmelee, Arthur Welsh, Clifford Turpin, and Howard Gill had crashed to their deaths by the end of 1913. Cal Rodgers struck a seagull in April, 1912 and crashed for the last time. Lincoln Beachey, having taken one chance too many, crashed and drowned in 1915.
Remember Jimmy Ward, the precocious pride of Chicago? Three days after he landed his plane, the cops frog marched him off to the Harrison Street Police Station, charged with abandonment by his first wife who had read his name in the newspaper.
The Chicago International Aviation Meet ended the big air shows.(see souvenirs of the event here) Despite the huge crowds, it lost money. Wright pilots Frank Coffyn and Walter Brookins lived to old age, remembering the battles to stay in the air flying those big, unstable kites, and pushing aviation ahead every time they left the ground.
The authors , Gerry and Janet Souter’s background includes over 30 years involvement with aviation, having flown in every type of aircraft from balloons to jet fighters. He has written articles on general aviation, third level airlines, Canadian bush pilots, servicing oilrigs in the Gulf of Mexico, and has spent many years flying over parts of the world as a corporate aerial photographer and photojournalist. Janet has shared his love of flight and accompanied him on many high-flying assignments in helicopters and World War II combat aircraft. Their mutual pursuit of flight stories had included all eras of aircraft development history.Their latest book, The Chicago Air & Water Show: A History of Wings Above the Waves (History Press) is due out this week.
Sources and Recommended reading:
Chicago Tribune, microfilm files, August 12 – 20, 1911, Arlington Heights Memorial Library, Arlington Heights, IL
Wilbur and Orville, Fred Howard, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1987
Glenn Curtiss: Pioneer of Flight, C. R. Roseberry, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, NY, 1972
Fill the Heavens With Commerce – Chicago Aviation 1855-1926, David Young and Neal Calahan, Chicago Review Press, 1981
Skylark – The Life, Lies and Inventions of Harry Atwood, Howard Mansfield, University Press of New England, Hanover and London, 1999
The Early Birds of Aviation (Web site)
Photographs of the Chicago Daily News – 1902-1933, Chicago Historical Society, Clark Street at North Avenue Chicago, Illinois 60614-6071
Aerofiles (Web site)
Caroll Gray Collection,
1911 Chicago International Aviation Meet (Web site)
Photo Credits: Library of Congress (see more photos of the Exhibition)
Renee Simon's Plane in Lake: DN-0009304, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.