Earl L. Ovington – Early New England Aviator

Earl L. Ovington – Early New England Aviator

   early monoplane illustration

     There’s evidence to suggest that Gustave Whitehead was the first to fly an airplane in Connecticut – in 1901 – which pre-dates the Wright Brothers flight at Kittyhawk, North Carolina, in 1903.  However, could it be that Whitehead’s accomplishment was relatively unknown in 1911?  If so, it might explain the following headline in The Bridgeport Evening Farmer on May 6, 1911; “Ovington, First To Make Successful Flight In Connecticut, Has Narrow Esacpe As Plane Drops Into Air Hole”.  

      Earl L. Ovington, (1879-1936) (Also spelled “Earle” in some sources.) was a pioneer aviator from Newton, Massachusetts, who’d worked as an assistant to Thomas Edison prior to starting his aviation career.   

     The Bridgeport Evening Farmer article referred to a harrowing flight Ovington made on May 5, 1911 at Steeplechase Park (On Steeplechase Island) in Bridgeport, Connecticut. 

     The article began, “At Steeplechase Island yesterday afternoon Earl L. Ovington wrote his name deep into aviation history by making the first really successful aeroplane flight in the state of Connecticut.”

     The article went on to describe how Ovington’s Bleriot aeroplane dipped in “a dreaded air pocket” while at 2,000 feet over a crowd of spectators, and narrowly missed slamming into the ground.   As a point of fact, he’d had three brushes with death on the same flight.

     The first involved his take-off where he narrowly missed crashing into a building.  The second was when the plane hit the so-called “air pocket” and experienced a sudden dip.  During the dip, Ovinton remained in his seat due to his “life belt” holding him securely in place, thus saving him from being pitched to the ground.

     “These lifebelts are great things.” he joked later, “I don’t see why they are not included in the fashion plates of all aviators.”    

     As the plane’s right wing suddenly dipped when it entered the “air pocket”, the aircraft began falling from the sky, and it seemed virtually certain that Ovington was going to crash, but he recovered control of the plane just in time.  

        In an exclusive interview with a reporter from the The Bridgeport Farmer, Ovington described what happened that day.  

     “I certainly thought for a moment at the start yesterday that there was going to be a big dent in that ball room, with a wrecked machine and probably a wrecked aviator beneath it.

     That Steeplechase track is certainly the smallest and worst field I ever arose from or attempted to alight into.  I had great difficulty in getting a proper start over that sub-soil of sand.  The small wheels loaded down with the heavy motor, sank into it and retarded badly.

     When I got into the air I pushed down the tail of the machine and started to rise.  My Machine didn’t respond the way it should, and I saw that I wasn’t going fast enough.

     I had a fraction of a second in which to make up my mind: to come down and start over again, or make an attempt to get over the buildings upon which I was sweeping.

     I find that my mind works automatically in such cases quicker than I can think.  I realized instantaneously that to come down would mean that I would plough right into the fence and the spectators at (the) speed I was traveling.

     So Instead, I straightened out the tail and shot straight ahead, plumb for the buildings.  It must have looked as thought I was going to crash right into them with terrific force.  I took that course on purpose, in order to get sufficient speed .  Then I lowered the tail hard, and the monoplane lifted up nicely and just cleared the flag pole of the ball room.

     Over every building of that kind there is a heavy stream of air when there is a wind blowing.  As soon as I had cleared the ball room, my wings struck the stream of air and I went directly up then at a sharp angle.  But I owe my life and the safety of my machine to the splendid way in which my engine worked in lifting me over that building.  If it had failed, there would have been a great wreck. 

     Once in the air, my machine asserted its right to be what it is – the fastest climbing machine in the world.  I went up at an angle of 30 degrees.  There isn’t another machine in America that can do it.

     When I was making my second turn over the Sound (Long Island Sound) at a height of about 2,000 feet, I experienced what I consider to be the narrowest shave of my career as an aviator.

     Without warning, my right wing dropped into an “air pocket” or calm space, and immediately sank down, tilting the machine at a sharp angle.  There is only one way to save yourself in a case like that.  I lowered the machine quickly, and the downward plunge gave me sharp acceleration.  At the same instant I jammed over as hard as I could and the machine just righted itself.”

     When he was safely back on terra firma, Ovington kissed his new bride of two weeks, who had watched the entire event unfold.

     Ovington flew again at Steeplechase Park on May 7th, and once again he nearly died when his airplane hit another “air pocket” and almost crashed in the same manner as before.   

     On June 15, 1911, slightly more than a month after his flights at Steeplechase Park, Ovington’s fame grew when became the first man to pilot an airplane over the city of Boston. 

     In August of 1911, Ovington  entered the International Aviation Meet held in Chicago, and won the 12 mile race for monoplanes with a time of 13 minutes and 30.92 seconds,  winning $400.  

     In September of 1911 he entered the Harvard-Boston Aero meet where he raced other well known airmen, Tom Sopwith, and Claude Graham-White, 15 an 1/2 miles to Boston Light and back. Ovington placed third with a time of 16 minutes 15.25 seconds. 

     One Sunday in October of 1911 Ovington was nearly arrested on Long Island, New York, when three deputy sheriffs appeared at the Nassau Boulevard field and told him and another aviator, Miss Mathilda Moisant, they couldn’t fly their airplanes due to it being the Sabbath.  This was due to a New York court ruling which determined that Sunday airshows where admission was charged were illegal.  

     This left both pilots in a predicament as they would be forced to leave their airplanes overnight, and make arrangements for guarding them.  Both aviators flew anyway, with the deputies in hot pursuit via automobile.

     As both took to the sky the deputies were forced to make a choice as to which one to chase.  For unspecified reasons they stuck with Miss Moisant who flew from the field to her hangar in Mineola, which was located on her brother Alfred’s property.  Once on the ground she ran towards her car where her chauffer was standing by, and secured herself inside. The three deputy sheriffs arrived in short order and attacked the chauffer with billy-clubs when he tried to prevent them from extricating Miss Moisant. 

     Miss Moisant was taken into custody, but was later released with all charges dropped because the deputies didn’t have a warrant.   

     Meanwhile, Ovington fared better, and landed near Belmont Park when he encountered a squall that nearly wrecked his aircraft.  By then the deputies had no idea where he’d gone and he escaped arrest.   

     Another interesting story about Earl Ovington occurred in the summer of 1919 when he flew two New York men,  J. O. Colt, and L. W. Hutchins, six miles out to sea in a seaplane so they could fish for sea bass.  It was reported that they returned with a string of fish. 

     In November of 1919, Ovington took part in an airborne search-and-rescue operation off the coast of New Jersey.  On November 7th, two 16-year-old youths, John Ledbetter, and Raymond Iszard, went duck hunting in a small boat and were carried out to sea.  When the boys didn’t come home a search was instituted.  In addition to water craft, two seaplanes from the Cape May Naval Air Station, and Earl Ovington’s personal aircraft, took part in the search.    

     The boat with the youths still inside was found by one of the navy planes about three miles off Cape May.  Unfortunately both had succumbed to exposure.

     More information about Earl Ovington can be found at www.earlyaviators.com

     Sources:

     The Bridgeport Evening Farmer, “Ovington, First To Make Successful Flight In Connecticut, Has Narrow Escape As Plane Drops Into Air Hole”, May 6, 1911 

     The Bridgeport Evening Farmer, “Ovington In Flight Over Steeplechase” , May 8, 1911, page 7

     Burlington Weekly Free Press, “Aviators Speed Mile-A-Minute”, September 7, 1911, Page 9

     The Daily Missoulian, Photo and caption, August 14, 1911, Page 3 

     (Rock island Ill.) Rock Island Argus, “Third Day Results In Aviation Meet”, August 15, 1911, page 3

     Arizona Republican, “Miss Moisant Is called Aviatrix”, October 9, 1911, pg. 1

     (Ocala, Florida) The Ocala Evening Star, “Struck A Woman To Save The Sabbath”, October 10, 1911 

     The Washington Times, “Fish From Plane Six Miles At Sea”, July 12, 1919, final edition

     New York Tribune, “Bodies Of Two Boys Found Drifting In Boat”, November 11, 1919, Page 3

 

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