the Days of the Crates
Aircraft Looked Like Eggbeaters and Mousetraps, Shook
Like Leaves, and Shed Parts Regularly.....
...... But They Made Immortal Aviation History.
by Dr VANCE J.
Back in the days
between 1907 and 1912, when flying was the Great Experiment,
and such pioneer “birdmen” as Hoxsey, Paulhan,
and Moisant were making flight history, airplanes were called
“crates’’ and ‘‘kites.’’
Certainly they looked the part, flimsy in construction, made
of bamboo and ‘‘doped’’ fabric, to
which anything might happen any moment, they were aloft. And
as for their unpredictable engines—well, the slogan
of the day was : “Fly at six—repair all day.’’
Antoinette used by Herbert Latham in an attempt to cross
the English Channel in 1909. Seven miles out, the craft
fell into the drink.
It required real
courage to buck the then unknown laws of aeronautics in these
fantastic contraptions which were as fragile as kites, for,
when something did happen, there was no bailing out in a parachute.
The birdman remained in the old crate and took his chances
with the inexorable law of gravity in his plunge to earth.
White in open cockpit, won many prizes flying his assorted
crates early in the (twentieth) century; designed the
first British lightplane for sports use.
as they were generally known were not then standardized in
design. Everything was in the formative stage. Most of the
crates were biplanes, with elevators far out in front, like
a snow shovel on the prowl. The birdman sat on a tiny seat
in front of the engine, gloriously exposed to the elements,
with the wind whistling up his trouser legs. It was very much
like sitting on the edge of a cloud, with plenty of space
all around—especially in the direction of the ground.
Also there was the disturbing thought in the mind of the birdman
that the weight of the machine and engine was behind him;
maybe on to of him if something happened or he muffled a landing.
The Wright and
Curtiss machines, in fact, all the American models—were
biplanes of the pusher style. The Wright craft were equipped
with two chain-driven propellers rotating counterwise, which
necessitated crossing one of the chains encased in tubes.
The Curtiss single propeller was on the end of the crankshaft.
The Frenchman, Blériot, was one of the first to fly
a monoplane in defiance of the general opinion that if one
could fly, a two—wing machine would have twice the lift
a would thus be that much safer. Little was known in those
days of parasite drag.
There were no lightweight,
high—powered motors to pull one off a short field. Power
and weight had not yet been properly adjusted to one another
in the airplane engine. Even in 1910 a 100-hp motor was dangerously
too large for any ship to carry with any reasonable amount
of safety. A 50-hp rotary was the limit, while most pilots
were contented with a 30 to 35-hp powerplant—if the
motor just kept ‘firing.’ That was enough to ask
of any airplane engine in those days.
A motor more than
50-hp would throw the kites into a shimmy of bicycle parts,
piano wire and bamboo. But lightness in craft construction
enabled the crates to accomplish a remarkably quick take-off,
considering the low power the engines. For instance, Glenn
Curtiss could get his pusher off the ground in six and a half
seconds. Even the heavy Farmans lifted at around thirty miles
However, once in
the air, the average speed of the crates hardly exceeded that
of their take-off, rarely topping more than 40 miles an hour.
Speed was still the automobile’s pride and glory over
the flying machine. When in 1910, Glenn Curtiss set a record
of nearly 50 miles an hour in his biplane, Barney Oldfield,
in the same year, drove his 200-hp Benz at Dayton Beach, 131.7
miles per hour; and it was not Until 1919 that any airplane
eclipsed his record for speed.
Curtiss stands to the right of his crate's radiator in
1910. First U. S military aircraft was a Curtiss SC-1.
The same was true
of altitude and weight flights. When Wilbur Wright rose to
187 feet at La Mans in 1908 ,he was called “King of
the Air.’’ And in the following year when Louis
Paulhan mounted to the dizzy height of one-half mile, he was
more than a king of the air, he was an “Emperor of the
Air.’’ Few machines were capable of carrying more
than the weight of the pilot until 1911, when Louis Breguet
flew an airplane a short distance with 12 passengers, all
of whom were small boys.
The crates did
not only suffer from the lack of proper motor power but from
too many wings and “float frills.” Not until Blériot
crossed the English Channel in l909, in his trim little monoplane
did flying machines begin to discard their multiple wings,
looking less like crates and taking on more the lines of our
present-day aircraft. Blériot’s machine was also
one of the first tractors using the pull of the propeller
instead of the push or drive, of the blades. Like all planes
of those days, it was a skeleton affair with uncovered fuselage,
driven by an air-cooled motor. Its landing gear was a brace
of bicycle wheels assisted by a tail skid that resembled more
than any thing else an inverted basket handle. It was no less
fragile than other models and was waspish in appearance; but
the cockpit was on a line with the wings, back of the engine,
which was a decided improvement in plane construction and
added to the pilot’s comfort and sense of security.
trim monoplane more resembled modern craft than any of
the early crates. Note the lack of structural frills.
Now in those formative
days of aviation, two men held important patents in reference
to wing-lift and wing-control. They were John J. Montgomery,
who held a patent on wing warping, or cambered wings, and
Dr. Whitney Christmas, whose patents concerned ailerons. These
claims served as stimuli for the pioneer airplane builders.
Crude hinged flaps on the lower plane were devised in an attempt
to offset wing warping, as was the installation of interplane
floating ailerons between the wings. Although the interplane,
floatin type of ailerons were an improvement over the trailing
edge type of ailerons, they both bedcame obsolete when Blériot’s
monoplane took the place of the biplane, culminating in the
perfection of wing contruction that we have today.
Thus by January, 1910, aviation had gotten into long pants
and had developed to the point where even the most skeptical
no loner doubted man’s ability to conquer the air. In
the minds of many, the Great Experiment was no longer an experiment
but a proven fact; and to put it on record as such, the air-minded
citizens of Los Angeles decided to hold an aviation carnival
under the title of “First in America Air Meet.”
first competitive meet of the flying crates, held in a barley
field on the old Dominguez Rancho south of Los Angeles, ………(continued
to Part 2