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“The Birdmen
and Their Early Airplanes"
Part 1
From Air Trails Magazine, February 1946

In the Days of the Crates

Early Aircraft Looked Like Eggbeaters and Mousetraps, Shook Like Leaves, and Shed Parts Regularly.....
...... But They Made Immortal Aviation History.


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.’’

Mosquito-like 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.

Graham White in open cockpit, won many prizes flying his assorted crates early in the (twentieth) century; designed the first British lightplane for sports use.

Flying machines, 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 an hour.

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.

Glenn 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.

Blériot's 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.”

Certainly this first competitive meet of the flying crates, held in a barley field on the old Dominguez Rancho south of Los Angeles, ………(continued next week)

Link to Part 2