100 years on, a lofty precedent is recalled
N.Y. town to mark a first public flight
HAMMONDSPORT, N.Y. - On a steamy Fourth of July evening a century ago, a wood-and-fabric biplane lifted off from Stony Brook Farm and stayed airborne for almost a mile in a stupendous triumph over gravity witnessed by more than 2,000 people.
It was the first preannounced public flight in America, and the first heavier-than-air flying machine outside Europe to officially remain aloft and under control for a kilometer or more. And it helped elevate pilot Glenn H. Curtiss to national hero status, to the dismay of Orville and Wilbur Wright.
The Wrights' epochal flight over the dunes at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1903 had been cloaked in secrecy. Fearing that their ideas would be stolen, the Ohio brothers spent much of the next five years out of the public eye as they tried to lock down patents to secure commercial control over the nascent aerial age. Historians say their first flights were spotted only by five passersby, and before Curtiss made his mark, fewer than 100 Americans had glimpsed the marvel of aviation.
Curtiss, a motorcycle builder who set a land speed record of 136 miles per hour in January 1907, accepted an invitation that summer to supply powerful, lightweight engines to a five-member Aerial Experiment Association led by inventor Alexander Graham Bell.
Within a year, the team sent out invitations for aeronautics buffs to observe Curtiss's attempt to fly the insectlike June Bug plane on Independence Day 1908, in tiny Hammondsport, N.Y.
His first try when the overcast skies finally cleared late in the day could have ended in disaster. The June Bug, which was supposed to rise only a few dozen feet, shot more than 200 feet above the crowd before Curtiss cut the 8-cyclinder engine and glided back down safely. The tail section had been wrongly angled.
On his second attempt at around 7:30 p.m., the plane, its engine crackling and smoking, bobbed 10 to 20 feet above vineyards, potato fields, and a racetrack. It flew for 5,090 feet in 1 minute, 42.5 seconds before touching down just short of the village limits.
Crowded on the grassy hillsides, onlookers roared out their delight, honked their horse-and-buggy horns, and swarmed down into the field to greet the intense but taciturn aviator.
"This thing was wobbling back and forth and up and down, but it kept going and going and going as everybody got more and more excited," said Trafford Doherty, director of the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum.
Doherty, looking out across the same crop field in Pleasant Valley, said that little has changed about the site that locals hope to have listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
At a picnic and music gala tomorrow, a model club will fly a quarter-scale, remote-controlled model of the June Bug above the valley. A full-scale reproduction sits in the nearby Curtiss museum, which is packed with aircraft, motorbikes, and memorabilia.
Soon after the June Bug success, the Wrights went to court to try to keep Curtiss planes off the market. Curtiss himself racked up dozens of patents for landing gear, ailerons, and other innovations still present in aircraft today.
"You get told in grade school that the Wright brothers invented the airplane, but it's a great simplification," Doherty said.