California's Story of Flight .
. . A Historical Perspective
By Mark J. Denger
California Center for Military
The basic concept of powered flight was
achieved on December 17, 1903, when two brothers, Wilbur and
Orville Wright, became the first men in aviation history to be
able to achieve powered flight.
Since the earliest of time man has dreamt of flight. One of the
World's greatest artist, architect, inventor and philosopher,
Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519), spent nearly twenty years of his
life inventing various contraptions for use by man in the area
of flight. His sketch books are filled with ideas that even include
the earliest design for a parachute and even the helicopter (Helix).
Yet, before man could successfully take to the air, he had to
learn the critical lessons of basic aerodynamics.
Anyone who has observed the prowess of the hawk in flight can
only watch in awe. This magnificent bird-of-prey is able to glide
through the sky on just the air currents alone, then suddenly,
with its wings swept back, is able to dive down and sweep its
prey in just moments. Yet, men would laugh at those who tried
to emulate these magnificent creatures adding "If
god wanted man to fly he would have given him wings."
For centuries man admired the birds of the air. Yet, man was
not able to achieve his dream until the early twentieth century.
The Wright brothers' success was based on the creative genius
of such visionary men as Otto Lilienthal (1848-1896), whose work
with hang gliders in Germany attracted Octave Chanute (1832-1910),
a Frenchman, to experiment with hang gliders in the United States.
However, their experiments were largely based on the work of
Lawrence Hargrave (1850-1915), an Australian, who invented the
Orville and Wilbur Wright had been interested in aviation ever
since childhood. They studied the mechanics of bird flight and
the hang-glider experiments of Lilienthal and in 1899, they built
a kite to experiment with actual flight. They were on the right
path, and in 1900 built a glider themselves.
To study and obtain requisite aeronautical data, the Wright Brothers
in 1901, developed a small wind tunnel. Utilizing all known data,
they began to construct a series of flying models, the first
of which was a biplane kite. They proceeded to build ever larger
and larger gliders from these models which they also flight tested
at Kitty Hawk. The Wright Brothers studied wing surface flat
wing vs. curved wing surfaces shapes, aspect ratio wingspan
vs. wing-width and wing tips (or winglets). In 1902, the
two brothers built and tested their third glider. Fully satisfied
with its results, the basic innovations from this third glider
Modern aviation was finally born at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina,
four miles south of Kitty Hawk, between 10:30 a.m. and noon on
Thursday, December 17, 1903.
Five local residents were present. Wilbur and Orville took turns
piloting their Flyer I in four sustained flights, the first time
in history that a powered machine under human control rose from
the ground, was sustained in flight, and then landed in a place
no lower than that of the take-off.
Orville was the first to take off, at 10:35 a.m., and flew the
Wright Flyer I for 12 seconds, covering a distance of 120 feet,
against a 20-m.p.h. wind. The second and third flights covered
175 and 200 feet respectively. In the fourth and last flight,
Wilbur remained aloft for 59 seconds and flew 852 feet.
Still, these efforts in aviation history did not make the two
brothers instant celebrities. Wilber and Orville were very protective
of their patents, continuing their work on their flying machine
in relative isolation. During the years of 1904 and 1905 they
conducted numerous flights at Huffman's Prairie in Ohio.
Gradually, however, articles about the Wright Brothers success
at Kitty Hawk were published by the various aero clubs in Europe.
The results from the Wright brothers' aeronautical research greatly
influenced the development of flight in such countries as England,
France, Germany, and Russia. In England, Samuel F. Cody (1861-1913),
an American, developed a large kite designed to carry a man for
the British Admiralty as an observation platform. In France,
Gustave Eiffel conducted critical government sponsored aerodynamic
research. In Germany Count Ferdinand Von Zeppelin (1838-1917)
was busy building the first successful Zeppelin airship. And
in Russia, Professor Nicolai I. Zhukovski, the "Father of
Russian Aviation," began teaching aerodynamics at the Higher
Technical School in Moscow.
It wasn't until 1908, five years later, when Wilbur Wright traveled
to France to demonstrate the Wright Flyer III, which was built
three years earlier, that the brothers became celebrities. At
a special exhibition held on August 8 near LeMans, France, Wilbur
Wright so outclassed European flyers that he was instantly made
The Wright Flyer III was considered by most the first practical
aeroplane in history. It could remain aloft for more than 30
minutes, establishing an endurance record on October 5, 1905.
It had larger booms than it's predecessors so as to better support
the forward elevators and rear rudder.
Brother Orville, meanwhile, was busy in the United States trying
to demonstrate to government officials why they needed airplanes.
The following year, the Wright Brothers returned to France to
demonstrate the Wright Flyer III to several European heads of
On June 10, 1909, in a ceremony at the White House, President
William Howard Taft presented the Wright Brothers with gold medals
of the Aero Club of America.
Modern military aviation officially began in the United States
on August 2,1909 when the Aeronautical Division of the U.S. Army
Signal Corps took delivery of a Wright Model A. The aircraft
was handed over at Fort Myer, Virginia, for $30,000 and was the
first conventional-winged aircraft ever sold for military use.
The U.S. Army had earlier told Orville and Wilbur Wright that
it would not even begin formulating a requirement for a "flying
machine" until one was designed that could fly horizontally
and carry "an operator."
Flying caught on quickly and the Wright brothers soon found themselves
faced with several competitors. Their most significant rival,
however, was a young Glenn Hammond Curtiss.
Following their historic flight in December 1903, the Wright
brothers continued in the bike business in Dayton, Ohio, while
experimenting with their planes. Glenn Curtiss was also a bicycle
mechanic, but soon started manufacturing motorcycles forming
his own company in 1902. The taciturn, unsmiling Glenn Curtiss
was called "the fastest man on earth" when he was clocked
at 136.6 mph during a motorcycle race at Ormond Beach, Fla.,
Glenn Curtiss' entrance into flying began in 1904 when Thomas
Scott Baldwin, a famous lighter-than-air devotee, asked Curtiss
to make him a two-cylinder, air-cooled engine to power his airship.
Two years later, Glenn Curtiss joined
the Aerial Experiment Association (A.E.A.), a group of aviation
enthusiasts led by Alexander Graham Bell.
The first plane Curtiss had anything to do with was "Red
Wing," which Casey Baldwin lofted from the ice at Keuka
Lake on March 12, 1908, before a small crowd. The flight was
hailed by the local press as "the first public flight by
an airplane in the United States." The Wright brothers contended
this was untrue, as they had been flying in plain view from a
field beside the trolley line linking Dayton and Springfield,
Ohio, since 1904.
Glenn Curtiss made his first flight on his 30th birthday, May
21, 1908, in "White Wing," a design of the A.E.A. The
White Wing was the first plane in America to be controlled by
ailerons instead of the wing-warping then in use by the Wright
brothers. It was also the first plane on wheels this side of
The invention of the aileron was one of the major contributions
to flight progress during this period, which was to become the
basis for the litigious rift between the Wright brothers and
Later that year, Glen Curtiss achieved the world's first ever
one-kilometre flight (a distance of more than one mile) in his
own aeroplane the "June Bug."
The following year, he was the lone American entrant at the First
International Aviation Meet at Rheims, France, in August 1909.
Glenn Curtiss won world-wide fame by winning the Gordon Bennett
Cup Race and the Prix de la Vitesse at this event, achieving
the greatest reputation as an aviator on the European Continent.
During this Air Meet, on August 28, reached a speed of 46.5 m.p.h.
Still, within the span of six months, Curtiss beat his own record
with a speed of 55 m.p.h. while carrying a passenger. This one
accomplishment was part of an event held January 10-20, 1910,
destined to change aviation history forever --America's First
International Air Meet, held at Los Angeles, California.
Except for the Wright brothers, who refused to participate in
the meet, there was gathered at Dominguez what was probably the
most representative collection of aviators in America at that
time. Flying machines of all sorts, including biplanes, triplanes,
and monoplanes appeared from all over the country. Various experimental
models such as the multiplane, aerofoil, and ornithopter were
also on hand. Not to mention balloons and dirigibles of every
make and their pilots.
But America's leading representative at the Los Angeles-Dominguez
International Air Meet was clearly Glenn Hammond Curtiss.
Glenn Curtiss was a deliberate performer, on who shunned spectacular
feats for the sake of pure showmanship. He was strictly business
and in spite of his aerial achievements, he was intent upon but
one thing selling aeroplanes.
Glenn Curtiss was always looking for possible new exhibition
flyers to assist him in selling his planes. At an event in June
1910 he took quite a liking to the young man by the name of Eugene
Burton Ely. Impressed with his flying abilities, he signed Eugene
Ely on as one of his exhibition men. Six months later, when Eugene
Ely was at Norfolk, Virginia, at the urging of Glenn Curtiss,
he would make the first of two historically notable flights during
his fabulous flying career.
In the first of these events, Eugene Ely was to fly from a special
platform built on the cruiser BIRMINGHAM. After months of trying
to convince naval authorities of the aeroplane's capabilities,
Glenn Curtiss had finally received Naval approval, and preparations
were made to launch an aircraft from a ship.
On the morning of November 14, 1910, Eugene Ely flew off a platform
on the deck of the cruiser BIRMINGHAM lying at anchor in Hampton
Roads and landed ashore on the beach near Ft. Monroe using the
same plane Glenn Curtiss had used on his famous flight from Albany
to New York earlier that year making naval aviation history.
Glenn Curtiss was fixated on selling his aeroplanes to the military.
In the winter of 1910, Glenn Curtiss established a private flying
school on North Island, on land obtained through the cooperation
of the Aero Club of San Diego. He soon invited the Army and Navy
to send officers to receive free instruction as "aeroplane
Two months later, Glenn Curtiss had Eugene Ely and his men busy
making arrangements to demonstrate to the Navy that an airplane
could land, as well as take off, from a ship at anchor.
On the morning of January 18, 1911, Eugene Ely made his second
very notable, and undoubtedly most historic flight, when he flew
from the Air Meet at Selfridge Field, circled several vessels
of the Pacific Fleet at anchor in San Francisco Bay, then made
a precise and perfect landing on an inclined platform on the
U.S. cruiser PENNSYLVANIA exactly as planned. One hour later
Eugene Ely made a perfect take-off from the same platform and
returned to the Air Meet at Selfridge Field. Both the landing
a take-off were witnessed by distinguished officers of both the
U.S. Army and U.S. Navy.
The U.S. Navy, however was still not satisfied. So a resourceful
Glenn Curtiss converted his Golden Flyer areoplane into a "hydro-aeroplane"
by fitting a float to the undercarriage creating the first
seaplane. Utilizing his flight school on North Island as a base
camp for these experiments, on January 26, before a large crowd
of San Diego spectators, Glenn Curtiss successfully took off
and landed on the waters of San Diego Bay.
A month later, on February 17, 1911, at San Diego, California,
after completing a spectacular show in the air, he landed his
craft on the water and brought his hydro-aeroplane alongside
the cruiser PENNSYLVANIA. Here both pilot and plane were hoisted
aboard, and then lowered back to the bay, from where he lifted
off for a return flight to North Island.
The result, a young Lieutenant T. G. Ellyson, USN, was sent to
Curtiss' flying school at North Island for training as the Navy's
The month of January, 1911, witnessed Lieutenant Myron Crissy,
U.S.A., become the first to drop a live bomb from an aircraft
when he launched it over the side of a Wright biplane. The year
before, Lieutenant Fickel, U.S.A., became the first to fire a
rifle from an aircraft while flying as a passenger in a Curtiss
To both Glenn Curtiss and Eugene Ely go the credit of establishing
the State's air arm as well. The events which took place in January
1911 sparked the imagination of Major General E. A. Forbes, Adjutant
General, who foresaw the possibilities of the aeroplane as a
The Aeronautical Squad, Coast Artillery Corps, National Guard
of California was organized on February 20, 1911, with headquarters
at the San Francisco Armory. Through Glenn Curtiss the Corps
had acquired a single Curtiss aeroplane, and Eugene Ely enlisted
in the California National Guard and offered his services to
train two officers and carry on experiments in aerial scouting,
photography and bomb dropping. Following his National Guard flying
activities in March, 1911, Eugene Ely was appointed Aviation
Aid to the Governor of California.
To the credit of the Wright brothers goes the distinction of
the first men to achieve powered flight. Also, modern military
aviation officially began in the United States on August 2,1909
when the Aeronautical Division of the U.S. Army Signal Corps
took delivery of its first aeroplane --a Wright Model A.
But Glenn Curtiss had more significant "firsts." It
was a Curtiss plane that was flown by Eugene Ely, a company exhibition
pilot, that made the first successful takeoff from a Navy ship
in 1910. It was Eugene Ely who would successfully land on and
takeoff again aboard another Navy ship in a Curtiss plane. And
it was Glenn Curtiss who pioneered the design of the first floatplane
and the flying boat. Another Curtiss plane, the NC-4, made the
first crossing of the Atlantic in 1919. Glenn Curtiss also built
the first U.S. Navy aircraft, called the Triad, and also trained
its first naval pilots.
In 1912, the U.S. Army again received money for more planes and
began evaluating a range of aircraft. During this same time frame,
Glenn Curtiss began the drive to standardize on one style of
aircraft and, with the aide of British engineer Douglas Thomas,
developed the Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" this famous
biplane of the U.S. Army's 1st Aero Squadron that formed at San
Few at the time realized what power these frail-looking aircraft
were to bring to the world's war machines.
Questions and comments concerning
this site should be directed to the Webmaster