The Man-Birds Fly in Phoenix

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Charles K. Hamilton and the 8 cylinder plane used by Curtiss to win the Bennett cup 
at Rheims, France in 1909 at the Phoenix Fairgrounds. 
Photographic postcard, Collection of the Author. Copyright 2006 Jeremy Rowe, All Rights Reserved

"Huge Crowds Pour Into Phoenix to see the Man-Birds Fly" read the headlines in February of 1910. The event was the second Aero Meet in the country, following soon after the aviation meet in Los Angeles in January. The Territorial Fair in Phoenix had previously included ballooning, but the Aero Meet was the first event to include the miraculous new "aeroplanes".

In 1910, powered flight was still a novelty, if not a miracle to most Americans. The Wright brothers had first flown in Kittyhawk only 7 years before, but few people actually say powered flight until 1909. As a result there was a world-wide passionate interest in "flying machines" and the men that made and operated them.

The world's first International Aviation Cup meet in August 1909 in Rheims, France drew more than 2 dozen planes to compete for speed, endurance, and distance records including the prestigious Gordon Bennett cup. Almost half a million people attended the meet in which an unknown American, Glenn Curtiss beat the favored French flyers to win the cup.

In America, over 1 million people watched Wilbur Wright fly around the Statue of Liberty during the Hudson-Fulton celebration during his first public flight in October, 1909. New aviation speed and cross country distance records were being set and broken at a rapid pace, and each new record made front page headlines throughout the world.

In the first five years after word of the first flight by the Wright brothers spread, the number of experimenters and soon of successful flights began to grow. Making airplanes was seen as profitable business and several entrepreneurs, including the Wrights, Curtiss, and other bicyclists and amateur mechanics had begun producing and selling planes. In 1907, the U.S. Government issued a bid for purchase of the the first military airplane. The government's intent to purchase validated a huge potential aviation market and further fanned the interest in flying machines and aviators.

The first military plane to be tested, made by the Wrights, flew successfully for a few months, until its first major crash. The plane lost power and the crash marked the first aviation fatality, the death of the passenger, the pilot, Wilbur Wright, was also seriously injured. The general environment of danger and excitement that formed the aviation business at the time fostered a breed of "aeroplane" daredevils who travelled the country demonstrating aerial feats, thrilling crowds, and occasionally taking wealthy "locals" for trips aloft.

Overview of 1909 Territorial Fair with O'Dell's balloon preparing for an ascension. 
Photographic postcard, Collection of the Author. Copyright 2006 Jeremy Rowe, All Rights Reserved

Though flying machines were of interest to Arizonans, their first exposure to aviation had been through traveling "aeronauts" appearing with their dirigibles or balloons. For example, Roy Knabenshue appeared with his dirigible during the 1908 Territorial Fair. At the 1909 Territorial Fair, Mr. Otha O'Dell offered the wealthy and adventurous balloon trips above the fairgrounds, and provided a new forum for local advertising. The local interest in the event led to balloons appearing in the background of store advertisements in both local papers. Interest in bringing an aeroplane to fly in Phoenix was sufficient to garner Mr. Knabenshue several column inches of space when he tentatively promised to bring a "Wright aeroplane" to Phoenix for the sixth Territorial Fair in 1910.

Detail of O'Dell's balloon basket with advertisement for "The Hub" clothiers in Phoenix, 1909 Territorial Fair. 
Photographic postcard, Collection of the Author. Copyright 2006 Jeremy Rowe, All Rights Reserved

An intriguing sidebar in the story of early aviation in Arizona is a late entry in the crafts exhibit at the Fair in November 1909. The "Desert Eagle", a glider built by Gates Fowler - clearly one of the first planes to appear in Arizona - was placed on display during the fair. On the last day of the fair, the craft was taken outside and flew to a height of 4 feet while being towed by a car around the racetrack. Surprisingly, few people were present and the event, the first "aeroplane" flight in Arizona, received only a brief note in the paper the following day.

By 1910, Phoenix was growing rapidly, and local businessmen had begun to aggressively promote the Salt River Valley to investors throughout the country. Sponsoring an aviation meet and aerial competition in Phoenix was seen as a wonderful promotional opportunity for in-state development, and provided a splendid attraction to entice investors in nearby California to visit Arizona for the event.

H. I. Latham traveled to Los Angeles to coordinate a businessman excursion to Phoenix for the Aero Meet. He successfully met with the Chamber of Commerce , Merchant's and Manufacturers' Association, and Jobbers' Association. The Arizona Republic optimistically reported " ... it is hoped he (Latham) will be able to bring a large delegation of the Los Angeles businessmen here, not only for the added success of the meeting, but for the commercial and developing benefits that will follow a closer acquaintanceship between the two cities". Unfortunately, the excursion was cancelled a few days later. Despite the cancellation, interest in the Aero Meet was growing rapidly.

A week before the event, the Gazette was touting the Aero Meet as the source of world-wide publicity. The American Press Association intended to distribute photographs of the meet and solicited photographs of the planes in flight from the Aero Club manager. The article noted that the only cost associated with the publicity would be $30 - $50 to have the photographs taken. The paper also noted that "Most of the aviation cuts are run as front page stuff".

Planning and preparation for the meet addressed a broad range of services and accommodations. An "aviation center" was established to assist visitors with room and local travel reservations for their stay in Phoenix for the meet. The Aero Committee coordinated listings of local residents interested in renting rooms to visitors and is encouraging those with rooms available to list them to accommodate the large crowds that were expected. Travelers were advised "to write or call for reservations but that Phoenix was working to make sure that all who come will be accommodated."

Printed postcard used to promote the Phoenix Aviation Meet.
Collection of the Author. Copyright 2006 Jeremy Rowe, All Rights Reserved

Special invitations had been extended to notables throughout the state, including the territorial governor. Most of the private boxes for the meet were taken well before the event began. "Boxes" for the meet were available to subscribers on Tuesday February 8th at aviation headquarters. Subscribers had to be in attendance to claim their box, and each box ticket cost $18. The following day, the papers listed the names of each of the 52 box holders for the meet.

Phoenix's preoccupation with the Aero Meet was evident everywhere. Sales and promotional materials revolved around images of flight and many store advertisements incorporated aeroplanes flying through the background. The Miller-Sterling Co. advertised "Kodak the Flying Events", while Paslap and Herman invited patrons to "Aviate to Cow Ranch Restaurant". The H. A. Diehl Shoe Co. sponsored a contest inviting boys under seventeen to build a model "Flying Machine", offering "five dollars in gold" to the winner, and a three dollar pair of shoes for the second best.

The Aero Meet created a holiday atmosphere and many local businesses announced that they would close during the event itself. Local school boards from the elementary level to the Normal school in Tempe were caught up in the excitement as well. Public schools closed for the day, and high schools and the Normal school closed for half a day on Friday the 11th so their students could experience the wonders of the new machines.

The list of aeronauts invited to participate in the Phoenix Aero Meet read like a Who's Who of the aviation world. The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, Louis Paulman, Charles Hamilton, and Charles Willard were among the invitees. By the first of February, daily reports about flyers coming to the upcoming Aero Meet dominated the front pages of both Phoenix newspapers.

Unfortunately, several of the best known flyers were unable to attend the meet. By February 6th, the Wrights noted their lack of planes in condition to fly and sent their regrets. This notice was of little surprise as the Wrights had rarely flown publicly. Despite recognition for the flights at Kitty Hawk, Wilbur Wright had first flown publicly only a few months before, in October 1909 at the Hudson-Fulton celebration in New York.

Louis Paulman, the famous French aviator was unable to attend after he was slightly injured and his plane hit a fence during takeoff and was demolished in the crash in Denver.

Aviator Glenn Curtis in his Curtis Biplane at the Los Angeles Aero Meet (aparently labled for sale in Phoenix before Curtis was called East and missed the Phoenix meet).
Collection of the Author. Copyright 2006 Jeremy Rowe, All Rights Reserved

Glenn Curtiss who had become world famous after winning the Gordon Bennett cup in Rheims had committed to bringing two planes to Phoenix. Unfortunately word arrived on the 9th that a court injunction tied to legal action by the Wright Brothers would keep Curtiss himself from attending the meet. An additional conflict was the Egyptian Aviation meet scheduled in late February, which drew most of the major European flyers.

Charles Hamilton had flown at the first U.S. aviation meet in Los Angeles and made several exhibition flights in California since January. Hamilton was a student of Curtiss and had contracted with the Curtiss Exhibition Company to fly the famous record-holding 8 cylinder plane from the Rheims meet in exhibitions. Recently, Hamilton had trimmed 6 seconds from Curtiss' world record for flying the one mile oval with a new time of 1 minute and 12 seconds - a speed of over 50 miles per hour. An avid self-promoter, Hamilton began corresponding with the local Arizona papers from Fresno to build interest in his appearance at the upcoming meet.

Aviator Charles Willard in his Curtis Biplane.
Collection of the Author. Copyright 2006 Jeremy Rowe, All Rights Reserved

Charles Willard, also a protege of Curtiss and exhibition licensee, had flown with Hamilton at the Los Angeles meet as part of the Curtiss team. His plane was the famous "Golden Flyer", the four cylinder, 25 horsepower plane that was the first plane designed and built by Curtiss. The plane had originally been built for the Aeronautical Society of New York and Curtiss had flown in and won the Scientific American Trophy with the plane in 1909.

Though lesser known than Curtiss, Willard and Hamilton had quickly become prominent aviators. The Gazette portrayed Curtiss as a "careful experimenter and manufacturer with a half-million dollar plant who takes no unusual risks" while Hamilton and Willard were portrayed as "showmen and daredevils ready to thrill the crowd".

Three Curtiss planes arrived for the Aero Meet by rail on February 9th, and were delivered to the fairgrounds for assembly. Mr. Willard supervised the "mechanicians" who worked all night to uncrate and reassemble the planes.

Preparation of Charles Willard's  4 cylinder Curtiss "Golden Flyer" at the Phoenix Aero Meet. 
Photographic postcard, Collection of the Author. Copyright 2006 Jeremy Rowe, All Rights Reserved

The planned Aero Meet program was composed of 16 events that were typical of the time. Included were endurance tests; competitions for greatest height; high glide with motor off; a race with Mel Johnson's Buick, the " White Streak", driven by his chauffeur Mr. Smith; cross country flights; quick starts; slow mile; starting and landing in a 20 foot square; and a flight with a passenger. In keeping with the style of the time, the meet had a significant staff roster. Officials for the meet included judges; Hugh Campbell, B. A. Packard, J. C. Adams, T. E. Pollock, and H. C. Lockett, timekeepers; George Purdy Bullard, Billy Cook, Shirley Christy, and H. I. Latham as the starter.

Charles Willard at the controls of the 4 cylinder Curtiss "Golden Flyer" at the Phoenix Aero Meet. 
Photographic postcard, Collection of the Author. Copyright 2006 Jeremy Rowe, All Rights Reserved


Charles Hamilton and charles Willard with H. I. Latham posed in front of the 4 cylinder Curtiss "Golden Flyer" at the Phoenix Aero Meet. 
Photographic postcard, Collection of the Author. Copyright 2006 Jeremy Rowe, All Rights Reserved

February 10 the Aero Meet officially began as Hamilton made his first flight that afternoon in front of three thousand spectators. Hamilton started his "aeroplane" at the three-quarter pole and reached a height of 200 feet. Later his plane was damaged slightly, first on a cross country flight, then again while landing when it hit a stake left over from O'Dell's balloon flights in 1909.

Willard had trouble, taking off from the fairground and was forced to land in the Latham addition near the fairgrounds for a brief repair. The crowd at the fairgrounds had lost sight of Willard and was greatly relieved when his plane returned to the fairgrounds about 45 minutes later.

Other events of the first day included a 3/4 mile test flight by Hamilton, a 2 mile cross country flight by Willard, 5 and 6 mile cross country flights by Hamilton, high glides from 200 and 300 feet, a short flight with a passenger (H. I. Latham), and record mile flight around a circular track by Hamilton.

Charles Hamilton in flight and Charles Willard's plane in foreground at the fairgrounds racetrack at the Aero Meet. 
Photographic postcard, Collection of the Author. Copyright 2006 Jeremy Rowe, All Rights Reserved

On February 11, the second day of the event the streetcars and roads to the fairgrounds were packed from the fairgrounds to the center of town. More than 7,000 people attended the Aero Meet to watch the flights and to see Hamilton's plane beat Mel Johnson's Buick in a 10 mile race around the track with a winning time of 13:31.6.Willard excited the crowd when his engine went dead during a flight and his plane crashed breaking several wing ribs. Luckily, Willard was not hurt and after a quick repair, his plane was able to fly once again.

In promotion for Phoenix in terms of terrain and climate which had proved to be ideal for flight, the Phoenix Gazette noted:

"Few places are better provided with facilities for these contests. The race track has the world record for speed, and the field is practically clear of obstructions: there are no trees, had the atmospheric conditions are dependable. ... That is one of the assets of this valley, as aviators have learned and demonstrated".

The weather stayed ideal and Saturday saw a number of additional flights. Hamilton raced a Studebaker in a five mile competition and won once again. The race was touted in the April issue of Popular Mechanics as the "first speed contest of this kind to take place in this country."

Saturday afternoon Hamilton provided additional excitement as his flights were delayed by two typical early aviation accidents. In the first, the propeller splintered and a two to three foot long, inch thick piece of wood was thrown into the tire, missing the dozen or so ground crew helping to prepare the plane to take off. The wheel and propeller were replaced in just a few minutes and the plane was flying again. In the other accident, Hamilton's gas tank caught fire and burned over 40 square feet of canvas before he and his mechanic were able to extinguish the flames.

Charles K. Hamilton and the 8 cylinder plane used by Curtiss to win the Bennett cup at Rheims, France 
in 1909 in front of the grandstand at the Phoenix Fairgrounds. 
Photographic postcard, Collection of the Author. Copyright 2006 Jeremy Rowe, All Rights Reserved

On Sunday, Hamilton raced the Studebaker once again and this time was beaten by half a length. In an additional challenge, the plane raced a Curtiss motorcycle over a five mile course. The motorcycle was running poorly and was easily beaten by the plane. The following day the headlines read "biplane puts Curtiss' earlier invention out of the running."

In addition to the wire photos of the Aero Meet that were distributed to the press, photographs of the aeroplanes, personalities, and meet were in great demand by those attending the event. In addition to George Sadler, the self-proclaimed official photographer for the event, photographs and postcards were produced and sold by"Bob" Trumbull, Harrigan and Christie and probably most other amateur and professional photographers attending the Aero Meet.

Painted photographer's studio backdrop of airplane used for "Aerial" portraits. Postmarked in Phoenix, 1911. 
Photographic postcard, Collection of the Author. Copyright 2006 Jeremy Rowe, All Rights Reserved

Photographic postcards were advertised widely, and formed an aggressive component of promoting Phoenix and the Aero Meet. Several of the images used by the Republic and Gazette also appeared as postcards. The Adams Pharmacy advertised six different 1¢ postcards of the planes and aviators that were invited to attend the meet, as well as some good comic aviation scenes. At least one photographer offered portraits taken in front of a painted background of a plane in flight over Phoenix. Postmarks on cards mailed indicate that the cards were still in circulation long after the meet.

The Phoenix Aero Meet was the true introduction of aviation to territorial Arizona. Immediately following the meet, Hamilton took his plane to Tucson and flew exhibitions at Elysian Grove on February 19th ant 20th 1910. Arizona became a haven for cross country fliers - including the famous "Vin Fizz", early experiments in aerial bombing during the Mexican Revolution, and flight schools for military aviators.

Printed postcard used to promote the Phoenix Aviation Meet. 
Collection of the Author. Copyright 2006 Jeremy Rowe, All Rights Reserved

Unfortunately, the Aero Meet in Phoenix has remained a relatively obscure chapter in the annals of aviation history. Hopefully additional images will come to light and a more complete picture of the meet will raise awareness of the early aviation history of Arizona.