California Aviation History
California's Story of Flight . . . A Historical Perspective
By Mark J. Denger
California Center for Military History
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 box kite.

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 were adopted.

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 a hero.
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 state.

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., in 1904.

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 Atlantic.

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 Glenn Curtiss.

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 pilots."

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 first aviator.

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 aeroplane.

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 weapon.

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 Diego, California.

Few at the time realized what power these frail-looking aircraft were to bring to the world's war machines.


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Updated 8 February 2016