Thursday, October 16, 2014

Glenn Curtiss in Chicago -- October 16, 1909

Glenn Curtiss
On this date in 1909, for the first time in Chicago an airplane lifted off the ground.  It was a big year in the city, a year that began the re-making of its image with the publication of the Chicago Plan of 1909, but in the middle of October 2,000 Chicagoans focused their attention on pilot Glenn Curtiss as he prepared to lift off from the grounds of the Hawthorne Park racetrack on Cicero Avenue between Thirty-Fifth Street and Pershing Road.

Just six years after Wilbur and Orville Wright flew 852 feet at Kitty Hawk, Curtiss, another guy who had started out tinkering with bicycles, was travelling the country, demonstrating the versatility and promise of the airplane. 

Glenn Curtiss was a remarkable guy.  In 1907 he mounted a V-8 engine on a bicycle frame and managed to set a land-speed record of 136.3 miles-per-hour. 

Did I mention that was 1907?

Would you go 136 m.p.h. on this machine?  Glenn Curtiss did in 1907.
Just aa year after the Wrights took off, Curtiss was supplying dirigible manufacturers with engines for their machines.  After the Wrights passed on a proposition by Scientific American magazine, an offer that included a $25,000 prize to the first aviator who could keep a plane in the air for one kilometer, Curtis flew 1.6 kilometers on July 4, 1908. []

A year later he flew 10 kilometers in 16 minutes to win a racing trophy in France.  The next year he flew from Albany to New York City in a plane equipped with a 50-horsepower, 8-cylinder engine and won a $10,000 prize offered by newspaperman Joseph Pulitzer.  On the trip he averaged 52 miles an hour.  []  He wasn’t done.  In January of 1911 he landed a plane on the deck of the cruiser Pennsylvania in San Francisco harbor.  A few days later he made the first successful takeoff from water. 

Today almost no one has heard of him.

He was the center of attention on that October day in Chicago, though.  A heavy northwest wind had been buffeting the area throughout the day, and it was questionable whether Curtiss would be able to take off at all, so the crowd contented itself with watching five- and ten-mile motorcycle races.  In one of those races a motorcyclist turned a 56-second mile.  A mile a minute!

Finally, though, just before 5 o’clock it was announced that Curtiss would attempt to take off before he lost the light of day.

“After a fist tryout the engine was started . . . Curtiss leaped into his seat, pulled the lever, and the machine slid forward,” The Tribune reported.  “It gathered speed, and, when after traversing about 200 feet it rose smoothly into the air, there was an audible gasp – and then a roar of cheers as the strange bird passed almost directly over the crowd, wheeled a bit to the left, and, after wavering a trifle over a small pond in the field, sank gradually to the earth.”

Glenn Curtiss at the controls in 1908.  (Glenn Curtiss Museum)
The whole thing lasted forty seconds, covered “a trifle over a quarter of a mile” at a height of sixty feet.  Curtiss tried again ten minutes later, but he aborted the attempt, saying that he did not dare complete the takeoff since he could only see a few yards ahead.  “I do not like to go away from Chicago without making a good flight,” he said.  “If Sunday’s weather is no better than today’s I may stay over until Monday, although I have an engagement in Detroit that evening.”

He must have felt that time was passing by quickly, and he was probably right to think that .  On July 22, 1930 he was admitted to Buffalo General Hospital for a routine appendectomy.  The next day the man who is known as the “father of naval aviation” was dead at the age of 52.

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