Harry N. Atwood Cross Country Flight Records – 1911

Harry N. Atwood Cross Country Flight Record – 1911

     Harry N. Atwood, (1883 – 1967)

     The following article appeared in The Washington Times, June 30, 1911, page 10.  


Aviator Harry Atwood

     NEW LONDON, June 30. – Harry N. Atwood, the boy aviator, with a passenger, made a flight of 107 miles in order to witness the Harvard-Yale rowing regatta today.

     Leaving the Harvard aviation field at Squantum Mass., at 7:05, he crossed the states of Massachusetts and Connecticut and arrived at his destination at 9:10 o’clock.

     With weather conditions ideal all the way, he covered the 107 miles in 125 minutes, an average of a fraction over 51:56 miles an hour.

     Atwood broke the American record for a single flight across country, and established a world’s mark for passenger carrying flight across country.     

     One hundred thousand visitors who jammed into New London and were ready to leave for the race course, forgot all about college rooting and cheered themselves hoarse when Atwood circled twice around the Groton monument, directly across the Thames River from the New Haven Railroad station,  passed over the big drawbridge, and flew over the two-mile course at a speed which the waiting oarsmen at Red Top and Gales ferry envied.

     The Yale and Harvard crews for the moment turned loose all their enthusiasm and cheered the daring aviator.

     Secretary of the Navy Meyer and party aboard the Untied States dispatch boat Dolphin applauded Atwood wildly and the great fleet of yachts on both sides of the race course tied down their whistles and fired salute after salute from their cannon.

     After passing the Dolphin, Atwood picked out the west bank of the river for a landing place.  He volplaned from a height of 1,000 feet in two magnificent sweeps and landed lightly on the ground in Riverside park to the south of the drawbridge.


     Atwood would break his own record thirty days later when he flew from Boston to New York, a distance of 139 miles.  This trip received much more attention by the press than the one to New London.   

Click on image to enlarge.

A vintage postcard view of Harry N. Atwood and his airplane.


Lincoln Beachey – Pioneer Aviator

Lincoln Beachey – Pioneer Aviator

     Much has already been written about Lincoln Beachey, (1887 – 1915), one of America’s best known pilots of his time, and this information can be found in books and other websites.   Information presented here pertains to Beachey’s activities in New England. 

     Its been noted that Beachey’s last name was sometimes misspelled in the press and appeared as “Beachy”. 

     The following article appeared in the Waterbury Evening Democrat (Waterbury, Connecticut), on June 7, 1907.


Lincoln Beachey’s Airship Almost Death Of Him

On Return Journey to Revere Beach Motor Became Disabled and the Balloon Was Carried Out Over the Atlantic. 

     Boston, June 7.- The breaking down of his motor, which allowed the airship he was navigating to be blown seaward, almost resulted in the death of Lincoln Beachey off Revere Beach. 

     Boston Got the surprise of its life when it looked up and saw sailing over the buildings in the center of the city its first visiting airship.

     Beachey passed over the capitol building and dropped a message for Governor Guild.

     The governor and most of the legislators crowded the balconies and sidewalks about the statehouse as the airship sailed over them and when the message came down waved their hands and cheered the aeronaut.

     Beachey had made a seven mile journey from Revere Beach to Boston, sailing high over the city’s tallest structures, and passing over the steeple of the Park Street Church and the statehouse dome, and finally landed on Boston Common, where thousands of persons were attracted by the airship. 

     On the return journey to Revere Beach the motor became disabled when the aeronaut was a mile off shore over Boston Harbor, and the airship was carried some distance seaward.  Beachey managed to partially repair his engine so as to get back to the vicinity of Revere Beach. 

     When several hundred feet off shore the airship settled rapidly, and it looked as if Beachey would be thrown into the water and entangled beneath his airship.  Men in rowboats and launches, who hastened to Beachey’s assistance, seized the drag rope and were able to tow him and his apparatus ashore before he struck the water.  The airship was not damaged.         


     The following article appeared in The Bridgeport Evening Farmer (Connecticut.), May 15, 1911, page 8.  


Starts at Aerodrome and drops in at Yale Commons to Have Supper


Early postcard image of Lincoln Beachey.

     Having heard that Yale Commons affords good eating, Lincoln Beachey stepped into his Curtis aeroplane at the Bridgeport Aerodrome yesterday afternoon, and sauntered over to New Haven .  Most of the saunter was made at a height of about 2,000 feet.  It took him just 14 minutes and 57 seconds from the time the propeller first turned over at the aerodrome to the time it stopped turning in the center of Yale Field.

     In about fifteen minutes more Mr. Beachey was seated at the table in Yale dining hall.  He tried to ignore the enthusiastic crowd of Yale students and declared that he had done nothing out of the ordinary, but his hosts refused to be left out of the program, and gave him a Yale yell.

     Beachey slipped away from the enthusiastic crowd in New Haven as soon as he could, and took a train for Bridgeport.  At the Stratfield here he was disgusted to find another big crowd awaiting him.  he couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. 

     Beachey’s flight to New Haven, the first cross-country flight made in Connecticut, and about the smoothest ever made in this country, was a fitting ending to an aviation exhibition of four days, which experienced aviators declared to be one of the finest ever given.

     Yesterday was ideal for flying.  The wind was light nd steady and blew from the southeast, so that the bird men in starting could life over the lowest portion of the aerodrome fence. It was this shift in the wind which enabled Beachey to make two passenger flights yesterday.

     Miss Margaret Shea and frank Arnold were Beachey’s guests.  Mr. Arnold was the first to be taken up.  He was seated on the lower plane in back and to the left of Beachey’s chair.   The aeroplane rose nicely and soared into the air without apparent effort, despite the double burden it was carrying.  Beachey made a nice trip, circling around the field at a height of about 350 feet and came down easily.

     Miss Margaret Shea was the next to go up, and for her entertainment Mr. Beachey gave an even longer trip, circling around in the air several times at a height of about 500 feet, and making a steep swoop in landing.

     Another “stunt” which was a record breaker took place at the Bridgeport Aerodrome when McCurdy from his machine got into touch with New York by wireless.  This is believed to be the longest distance that a message was ever sent by wireless from an aeroplane.     

     McCurdy sent the initials “M. D. T.”  These were caught by the wireless operator in the tower of the Pulitzer Building.  They were also caught at a private station in New Haven and were taken as a signal that Beachey had started on his flight to that city.

     Before shaking the air of Bridgeport off his wings, Beachey went through a number of the thrilling aerial evolution for which he is noted.  Bo less that seven times he made deep swoops over the field, coming within a few feet of the ground and then shooting up into the air again.  Several times he just grazed the fence.  Once or twice he swooped down among the crowd outside the aerodrome and gave them a bad scare. On the return he passed over a barn so close that he shook the shingles on the roof.  he dived and dipped around the field  looking like an immense bird playing a game of tag with itself.

     The nice smooth wind yesterday made these stunts possible.  Beachey was tickled with the day and declared it ideal.  The wind blowing just opposite to the prevailing direction of the other three days of the meet.  Otherwise, passengers could not have been carried.

     On Saturday the wind was blowing from the west so that the aviators had to start toward the west and head directly for the trees.

     McCurdy, in making his first trip with the wireless apparatus on Saturday, came near getting into serious trouble.  Either his engne wasn’t working, or the wireless was unexpectedly heavy; at any rate it looked as though he would smash into the trees.

     Beachey, who was watching him, was dropping cold sweat.  Hamilton was another onlooker.  Both heaved a sigh of relief when the machine sagged through the trees without mishap.

     “If you’d been in that tree and yelled, ‘will you make it?’, he’d have yelled back ‘ I don’t know!,” said Hamilton.


Click on image to enlarge.

Orleans County Monitor
(Barton, Vermont)
June 26, 1912

Click on images to enlarge.

Advertisement for the 23rd Annual Orleans County Fair held in Barton Vermont, August 20, 21, & 22, 1912.

Lincoln Beachey advertising Red Crown Gasoline.
Daily Capitol Journal, Salem, Ore.
May 14, 1914



     For more information about Lincoln Beachey in New England click on the following links elsewhere on this website.

     Bridgeport’s Aerodrome

     Lincoln Beachey’s Airship

     Manchester Ct. – June 14, 1914 – Lincoln Beachey survives plane crash.

     First Woman To Fly An Airplane In R. I.



The Loss Of The Old Glory – 1927

The Loss of the Old Glory

September, 1927     

Grim Milestones.  Illustration from Sept. 20, 1927, depicting headstones for those lost on attempted trans-Atlantic flights.

Grim Milestones. Illustration from Sept. 20, 1927, depicting headstones for those lost on attempted trans-Atlantic flights.

     On September 6, 1927, barely four months after Charles Lindbergh completed his historic flight across the Atlantic, three men took off from Old Orchard Beach, Maine, on what was to be a history making non-stop 4,000 mile flight to Rome, Italy.  Their aircraft was large single-engine monoplane named Old Glory capable of carrying three passengers and supplies.

     The project was sponsored by newspaper giant William Randolph Hearst, who sent his representative Philip Payne along as an observer. 

     The pilots, James De Witt Hill, and Lloyd Wilson Bertaud were both experienced flyers who had similar life experiences. 

     Bertaud was born in Alameda, California, on September 20, 1896.  At the age of twelve he built and flew his own glider which he made from plans found in a magazine.  While still in his teens he took a job as a mechanic at a California air field where he spent most of his wages on flying lessons.  By the age of 18 he was a licensed pilot; one of the youngest in the United States.  When America entered World War I, he enlisted in the army where he served as a flight instructor.  After the war he flew as a stunt pilot, and later as a test pilot for an aircraft manufacturer.

     In 1924 he became a postal flyer for the U.S. Mail.  In June of 1926, while flying over a small town in the Allegheny Mountains, he happened to look down and saw a house on fire.  It was still very early in the morning at a time when people would still be asleep, so Bertaud gunned his engine as he swooped low over the house arousing occupants and nearby neighbors. The owner of the burning house later wrote him a letter of thanks for saving their lives.          

     Hill was born in Scottdale, Pennsylvania, March 2, 1885.  While still a boy, he fashioned a parachute made from his mother’s table cloth and used it to jump from a barn roof.  Although the parachute didn’t perform as expected, Hill wasn’t hurt, and the incident didn’t deter him from wanting to fly. 

    He later attended Cornell University to study mechanical engineering, but was forced to quit due to ill health.  After regaining his health, he learned to fly at the Glen Curtis School in California.  Like Bertaud, he too served as a flight instructor with the United States Army during WWI, and also joined the air mail service afterwards.  

     Shortly before take-off Hill won a coin toss for the honor of being at the controls as the plane left America. 

     As the men were climbing aboard, Payne ran back and kissed his wife Dorothy one more time. 

     The take-off went smoothly, but the heavily laden plane required a mile and a half to become airborne.  Once aloft it continued southward for a bit before turning out to sea and fading into the sky.    

    The plane carried with it a wreath which the men were to drop when they reached the coast of Newfoundland in memory of two Frenchmen, Charles Nungesser, and Francois Coli, who both disappeared in their plane, the White Bird, while attempting a trans-Atlantic crossing earlier that year. The banner on the wreath read; “Nungesser and Coli, you showed the way, we followed. Bertaud, Hill, Payne.”  In a twist of irony, they did follow the two French aviators, and have never been seen since.  A few hours later someone from Old Glory sent a wireless S.O.S. to the ships at sea that the plane was in trouble about 500 miles off Newfoundland. 

    The nearest ship was the Transylvania, roughly eighty-three miles distant, but the weather was bad, and there was no moon, which made for nearly pitch black searching conditions.  

    The steamship Carmania later reported that prior to the SOS, Old Glory had transmitted they were following “the great circle to Rome” at a speed of about 100 mph.  The weather service reported that the weather along this route was unsettled, and speculated that they had run into an unexpected storm.    

     The Old Glory was equipped with fuel tanks that could be quickly emptied in the event of an emergency water landing so the added weight wouldn’t pull the aircraft under, giving the crew time to escape in a rubber raft it carried.  However, with rough seas being reported by ships in the area it was offered that the rubber raft wouldn’t last long.

     Many assumed the Old Glory had suffered the same fate her sister ship, the Saint Raphael, which disappeared on August 31, 1927, while on a flight from England to Canada , taking with it Princess Anne of Lowenstein-Werthiem – Freudenberg, Colonel Frederick F. Minchin, and Captain Leslie Hamilton.

    On September 13th, it was reported that the wreckage of Old Glory had been recovered by the steamer Kyle, about 600 miles east of Newfoundland, and 100 miles away from their last known position.  The message read; “Located wreck of Old Glory, latitude 51.17 north, longitude 39.23 west at 4:20 P.m. No signs of crew.  Particulars to follow” 

    A 47 foot section was brought aboard the Kyle, and eventually to New York.  Those who examined it offered the opinion the plane had hit the water head-on at an approximate speed of 90 mph.  Most likely it had dove in nose first.

     The bodies of Bertaud, Hill, and Payne were never found, but at least the mystery of what happened to the Old Glory was solved.  There were those who felt such dangerous oceanic flights should be stopped, and cited other instances where planes had gone missing and lives lost, but despite these protests, airmen all around the world were determined to continue setting new records and pushing the limits of flight ever higher, faster, and farther.  Would we have ever made it to the moon if they hadn’t?       

Excerpt from the
Evening Star, (Wash. D.C.)
September 8, 1927
Click to enlarge.


Woonsocket Call, “Plane Hops Off From Beach At Old Orchard After Fine Run”, September 6, 1927, Pg.1

Woonsocket Call, “Ocean Liner Searches Without Avail 30-Mile Stretch Of Sea”, September 7, 1927, Pg. 1

Woonsocket Call, “Giant Monoplane Resumes Flight To Windsor England” September 7, 1927

Woonsocket Call, “Message Dropped In Sea Emphasizes Bitter Irony Of Fate AS S.O.S. Is Heard.”  September 7, 1927

Woonsocket Call, “Bertaud Gave Up Engineer’s Career To Become Flyer”, September 7, 1927

Woonsocket Call, “Hill Began Flying Career At Early Age”, September 7, 1927

Woonsocket Call, “Ship Captain Ordered To Report Progress Of Search”, September 7, 1927

Woonsocket Call, “Commander of Carmania Conducts Vigorous Search” September 7, 1927

Woonsocket Call, “Search Bt Steamship Fails To Reveal Fate Of Rome Flyers” September 8, 1927, Pg. 1   

Woonsocket Call, “Royal Windsor Not To Conduct Search For Missing Plane”, September 8, 1927

Woonsocket Call, “Accident While Flying In Fog Chamberlin’s Theory”, September 8, 1927, Pg. 10

Woonsocket Call, “Sentiment Against Perilous Flights Sweeping World”, September 8, 1927, Pg.10    

Woonsocket Call, “No Trace Found Of Old Glory And Canadian Airplane”, September 9, 1927, Pg. 1

Woonsocket Call, “Flyers Still Intent Upon Conquering Atlantic Despite Wave Of Protest”, September 9, 1927, Pg. 1

Woonsocket Call, “Wreckage Of Three Planes, One Of Them Old Glory, Picked Up” September 13, 1927, Pg. 1

Woonsocket Call, “Old Glory Believed To Have Hit Water Head-ON In Fall”, September 21, 1927, Pg.1

Woonsocket Call, “Wreckage Of Monoplane “Old Glory” Arrives In Red Cross Liner At Brooklyn From Newfoundland”, September 29, 1927, Pg.1  

Number of New England Aircraft And Pilots – 1930

     Number of New England Aircraft and Pilots – 1930

     On October 19, 1930, The New York Times announced that there were 8,893 licensed airplanes in the United States, and gave a breakdown if the number of aircraft, pilots, and gliders in each state.  For the purposes of this website, only the New England states will be mentioned.  

Connecticut: 126 aircraft, 162 pilots, 6 gliders.

Maine: 30 aircraft, 64 pilots, 1 glider.

Massachusetts: 206 aircraft, 436 pilots, 18 gliders.

New Hampshire: 26 aircraft, 44 pilots, 3 gliders.

Rhode Island: 36 aircraft, 41 pilots, no gliders.

Vermont: 17 aircraft, 26 pilots, no gliders.

Source: New York Times, “8,893 Airplanes Licensed By Nation”, October 19, 1930.

Connecticut Airplane Contest – 1912

Connecticut Airplane Contest – 1912

     On July 28, 1912, an aerial contest between two well known aviators, Charles K. Hamilton, and Nels J. Nelson, took place in the town of Berlin, Connecticut.  The well advertised event was attended by over 5,000 people.

     The first contest was the “testing of winds”.  Hamilton was in the air for three minutes and four seconds, while Nelson remained aloft for seven minutes and ten seconds. 

     The “quick starting” contest was held next.  Hamilton got off the ground in 311 feet, 9 inches, while Nelson’s airplane only required 172 feet, 9 inches to get airborne. 

     For the “bomb dropping” event, a target was placed on the ground and each aviator was to make a “bombing runs” at it using oranges.   On his first run, Nelson’s orange hit the ground 51 feet, 1 inch, from the target’s center, and 9 feet, 10 inches on his second.  His third orange hit 17 feet from the center.

     Meanwhile, Charles Hamilton’s oranges struck the ground 27 feet, 18 feet, and 47 feet, 8 inches, respectively.     

     The final contest involved flying a figure-eight in the air.  As Hamilton was starting to take off, an intoxicated man stepped in front of his aircraft and was struck in the head by one of the wings.  He was knocked to the ground and received a bad cut.  Once the man had received treatment, Hamilton took off, but only circled the airfield once due to wing damage from the accident.  After making some repairs, he completed his figure-eight over the judges in just 55 seconds.  Nelson completed his figure-eight in two minutes.       

     When all the scores were tallied, it was determined that the contest had resulted in a tie. 


     Hartford Courant, (Conn.), “Aeroplane Duel Results In Tie”, July 29, 1912  



The Harvard-Boston Aero Meet of 1910

The Harvard-Boston Aero Meet of 1910


Vintage postcard view of a
Curtiss Airplane

     The Harvard-Boston Aero Meet of 1910 was the first international air-meet of its kind ever held in the United States, and became an aviation record setting event.  Some newspapers touted it as “the greatest meet of its kind ever held in America”, and it was, for it eclipsed the first international aviation meet that was held in Reims, France, the year before.  

     Although it was advertised as the “Harvard-Boston Aero Meet”, the event was actually held on a 500 acre tract of land on the Squantum Peninsula in the neighboring town of Quincy, but some newspapers reported the location as being in “Boston”, “Squantum”, “Atlantic”, or “Soldiers Field”.

     The air meet was originally scheduled to be held from September 3rd thru September 13, but was so successful that it was extended for two additional days.  Preparations had been made months before the start, with advertising and promotion, vendors, and the construction of grandstands capable of seating 150,000 people, and parking areas which could accommodate up to 10,000 automobiles.

     The event came about through the efforts of the Aero Club of New England and the Harvard Aeronautical Society of Harvard University.   

     The following newspaper article which appeared in The Bridgeport Evening Farmer, (Bridgeport, CT.), on May 24, 1910, indicates that during the early planning stages there was some disagreement between the various aero clubs across the country.     


     New York, May 24. – When the board of governors of the Aero Club of America meets this afternoon to decide formally upon a place for holding the international aviation contest and to award the contract for financing the meet, it is not likely that representatives of the various aero clubs throughout America will be present following the split which has resulted in the foundation of a rival aero club.  The split will probably be followed by new complications in the patent suits of the Wright Brothers which were thought to have ended when the Aero Club of America recently recognized the validity of the Wrights patents and agreed that no aviation meet should be held in America unless it consed (newspaper word/spelling) by the Wright company.  

     The clubs which were formally affiliated with the Aero Club of America and which have now broken away to form the American Aeronautic Association are the aero organizations of Indianapolis, St. Louis, Baltimore, and Harvard, Illinois, Washington and Buffalo.  The Aero Club of America declares that the association of out-of-town clubs will in no way affect the international aviation meet to be held in October, plans for which will be completed this afternoon.

     The insurgents say they will in their turn hold such aviation meetings as they see fit.  This will surely be followed by legal complications for the Wright company would immediately seek to enjoin any meeting held without license.  If the courts uphold the validity of the Wright patents as some have done heretofore, opposition would be useless.


     An unrelated dispute arose between two of America’s top aviators, Glenn Curtiss and Charles Hamilton, which was reported in the New York Tribune, on August 2, 1910, page 2.


Aero Club Can’t Settle Dispute Between Curtis And Hamilton

Both Men Prove Obstinate

Hamilton Still Without License, And Curtis Insists He Stick To Old Agreement

     Aviators have highly sensitive organisms, and when they fall out there is not much use in a third party trying to reconcile them.

     Curtiss and Hamilton have not smiled when speaking of each other for several weeks now.

     “You can’t fly at Harvard in any machine other than the one I make at Hammondsport,” says Curtiss to the bull-headed younger man.

     “I won’t fly anywhere unless in a machine not made by Curtiss,” replies Hamilton to one and all.

     And then the third party, the national council of the Aero Club of America, tried to calm the breezes and invent some means whereby both aviators could make money while utilizing the same sky.

     The council met at 3 p.m. yesterday and worked hard until 7 o’clock.  It was decided that that body could sanction only an aeromatic show that was open to any licensed and duly qualified aviator.

     The action settled the right of Hamilton to fly at Harvard, without of course, involving the council concerning the alleged contract existing between Curtiss and Hamilton, which Curtiss maintains, binds Hamilton to fly the former’s type of machine for a stated period.

     Although Hamilton has not yet been “licensed” by the Aero Club, no doubt is prevalent of his ability to qualify.  It would, in fact, be a serious undertaking for any aviator in America to duplicate the things that Hamilton  might well be expected to do while proving that he knew how to be a pilot.

     Curtiss was appointed by the club some time ago to “observe Mr. Hamilton for three flights,” so the officials might be guided in giving him a license.  Curtiss has requested that the club waive the triple observation and issue the license any way.

     All this then points to the probability that if Hamilton does not fly at the Harvard aeronautic meet, September 3 to 13, it will not be because he is short on qualification.

     But it does not lessen the strain on a lot of persons as to whether Curtiss and Hamilton will fly at Harvard together or separately, or whether Harvard will have any aeronautical meet.  The action of the council yesterday doesn’t help Curtiss or Hamilton to attain equilibrium.  It is said by Curtiss’s manager, J. S. Fanciulli, who is also secretary of the executive committee of the council, that Curtiss will not fly at Harvard if the aero club of that learned institution consents to Hamilton’s appearance in a machine not named for his principal.      

     Hamilton said last night after the conference that he would not go to Harvard or take any steps leading toward Harvard unless he was invited – he might add, urged.

     It is all most unsatisfactory and befuddled to many interested enthusiasts.

     Israel Ludlow was Hamilton’s attorney at the meeting yesterday.  Fanciulli was invited to retire temporarily as secretary, but was commended in a resolution later.

     It is said he will be retained by the council in that capacity, and will also manage the making of exhibition contracts for Curtiss.

     “I am at a loss to explain the action of the National Council of the Aero Club of America,” said President A. Lawrence Rotch of the Harvard Aeronautical Club, when told to-night at his summer home in Northeast Harbor, Me., of the council’s step in deciding to withhold sanction of the Harvard aviation meet in September unless the entry of Charles K. Hamilton is accepted.  

     President Rotch declined to say whether or not the meet would be held regardless of the official sanction, saying it was a matter for the directors to consider.

     Adams D. Claflin, manager of the meet, denied that any one had been barred from competing.  he added: “Hamilton can fly if he wants to.  I can assign no reason for the action of the national council.” 


     Apparently all matters were settled for the aero meet took place as scheduled, and Charles Hamilton and Glenn Cutriss participated.        

     Initially balloons of all types were going to be allowed to participate in the aero meet, and plans were in the works for constructing a hydrogen plant, however, in mid-August it was announced that balloons would not be allowed so as not to detract from the airplane flying contests.  

Vintage postcard image of Boston Light

     The Harvard-Boston Aero Meet drew the world’s top airmen of the day.  One particular incentive was a $10,000 cash prize offered by the Boston Globe newspaper for the fastest flight by “any kind of flying machine from Soldiers Field to Boston Light” and back, without stopping.   The distance from the airfield to the light was reported to be a little more than 12 miles which meant an aircraft had to cover almost 25 miles.  This might seem mundane in today’s world, but aviation technology was still in its infancy in 1910, and a pilot had to be confident of his abilities and his machine to attempt such a “long distance” water crossing.  And besides the fame that would go to the winner, ten-thousand dollars was a fortune.   This contest was open to anyone, and contenders were welcome to try their best efforts each day of the meet 12 noon and 7 p.m.   Furthermore, a contestant would be allowed to fly the course as many times as they dared.         

Curtiss Airplane

     In addition to the Globe’s prize money, cash prizes totaling $50,000 were to be awarded to the winners of other contests which included “duration flights” to see who could stay in the air the longest; bomb dropping contests, where points would be scored for accuracy; “get away” contests, to see who take off in the shortest distance; and “accuracy in landing”, to see who could land closest to a designated spot on the field.  These contests were open to all types of mechanical aircraft.

     On August 20, 1910, the New York Tribune reported in part: “No aviation meet held in this country, and probably none yet held in the world, has had such a representative list of foremost aviators as is assured the Harvard-Boston Aero Meet according to the list of entrants to date, announced to-night.  The entry list is international and includes seventeen individual aviators and eleven types of air navigating machines.  The latter embrace the three principal standard types – the monoplane, biplane, and triplane.  It will be the first time the latter type has been exhibited in this country. ”    

      The entrants to date, with their respective types of airship, are as follows: 

     Walter Brookins and Arthur Johnstone, Wirght biplane. (This should read Ralph Johnstone, not Arhtur.)

     M. Didier Masson, Vendome aeroplane.

     A. V. Roe, Roe triplane. (Mr. Roe’s full name was Alliott Vernon Roe.)

     C. Graham-White, Farman biplane and Bleriot monoplane.

     William M. Hillard, Herring-Burgess biplane.  

     J. M. Allias, Harvard biplane.

     Dr. W. W. Christmas, Christmas biplane. ( Full name William W. Christmas, 1865-1960)

     John G. Stratton, Burgess-Curtiss aeroplane.

     Horace F. Kearney, Pfitzner aeroplane

     Greeley S. Curtiss, Bleriot monoplane,

     Ernest P. Lincoln, Clifford B. Harmon, Captain Thomas Baldwin and Jacques De Lesseps.

     For the purposes of exhibition only, Cromwell Dixon also will appear in a dirigible balloon.


A vintage postcard view of a Bleriot monoplane.

     As the aviators arrived in Boston in preparation for the meet, their aircraft were secured in tents at the airfield.  On August 26 disaster struck for two of them when a severe storm came through the area and severely damaged two planes; the Harvard I, belonging to the Harvard Aero Club, and the Pfitzner monoplane owned by Horace Kearney.  Both aircraft had their canvas skins shredded and the wings from Kearney’s monoplane were pulled away. 

     Meanwhile, aeronaut Cromwell Dixon, stated to the press that on Tuesday, August 30, he planned to fly his dirigible airship from Boston to Plymouth, Massachusetts, a distance of more than forty miles, and landing as close to  Plymouth Rock as possible.  He then planned to retrace Paul Revere’s historic ride via the air, and circle the Bunker Hill Monument before continuing out over Boston Harbor where he would drop imitation bombs on naval vessels. 

     Cromwell Dixon was born July 9, 1892, and by the age of 14 had built his own airship.  In September of 1910, at 18,  he was one of America’s youngest aviators.  He died in an aviation accident on October 2, 1911, in Spokane, Washington.  

Souvenir Postcard View of A. V. Roe’s Triplane

     One aircraft that drew a great deal of attention was a tri-plane belonging to aviator A. V. Roe, (Alliott V. Roe, 1877-1958), which was the first of its kind seen in America. It was reported that his competitors were anxious to see how it would perform against their biplanes and monoplanes. 

     It also was announced that there would be a woman aviator taking part in the meet, 21-year-old Miss Emily T. Willard, of Melrose, Massachusetts, sister of well known aviator Charles F. Willard, hailed by the press to be one of America’s most daring aviators. 

     By September 1st the number of aviators registered to compete in the aero meet had risen to twenty-two.  The following in an excerpt of an article that appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune, (Utah), on September 2, 1910, page 10.       

    “ When the contest committee closed the entries at noon, twenty-two aviators and thirteen different makes of aeroplanes had been registered.  Among the latest to file their applications were Stanley Y. Beach, who will be seen in a Bleriot equipped with a gyroscope for securing stability – the first of its kind: H. Rietmann, with a helicopter, also the only one of its kind: H. A. Connors, with a Connors biplane; Augustus Post, with a Curtiss biplane, and John W. Wilson, who will be seen in a unique man-propelled monoplane.”          

A Vintage Souvenir Postcard of
Claude Grahame-White’s Bleriot monoplane

     The evening before the aero meet was to begin, English aviator Claude Grahame-White made a practice flight around the airfield.  The following morning, people began to gather at the field before sunrise to be sure they obtained prime viewing locations.  Not wanting to disappoint the early risers, Grahame-White started his aircraft and took off to make a six mile flight circling the field, thus unofficially opening the meet.       

      The Bridgeport Evening Farmer, (Conn.), reported in part; “Grahame-White left the ground within five minutes after his machine was run out of the tent which had sheltered it.  He flew three times around the course marked out on the field.  The first lap was made in 2:16.75 official time.  The second lap was completed in 2:17.75.”

     The flight was made at an average height of between 150 and 200 feet, and took a total time of 7 minutes and 1.60 seconds.        

     Later in the day the first accident occurred when Clifford B. Harmon’s biplane sank into soft dirt during take-off.  Some of the wet dirt stuck to the wheels of the plane, upsetting the aircraft’s aerodynamics and causing it to crash into a marsh from an altitude of forty feet.  Although the plane was damaged, Harmon was not hurt.    

     About noon time a drizzling rain began to fall sending some of the crowds home, but those that chose to remain got to see Claude Grahame-White make another three-lap flight around the field.  The five and a quarter mile flight was accomplished in 6 minutes and 5 seconds, which was the best speed of the day.        

     At 6:30 p.m., Glenn H. Curtiss made some practice flights in his airplane.

    Among the spectators on opening day was John Trowbridge, the Cambridge, Massachusetts author who in 1869 penned the famous poem, “Darius Green and His Flying Machine”.  It was reported that despite his writings, he’d never seen a flying machine, and took great interest in the aircraft.        

    On September 4, Claude Grahame-White took first place in all five classes.  He also gave several exhibition flights where he performed hazardous aerobatics.  On one flight he carried as a passenger a Miss Campbell of New York.  With Miss Campbell aboard he circled the field twice and then performed a 200 foot aerial slide pulling out a mere ten feet from the ground before coming down to land.     

     It was reported that the best time of the day (around the airfield) was made by Grahame -White.  This time he covered 5 and 1/4 miles in six minutes, one second with a Bleriot airplane.

     White’s distance record of the day was 45 miles 617 feet, on which trip he was in the air for one hour and 15 minutes, 7 seconds.

     On that same day, Charles F. Willard took Miss Eleanor Ladd of Boston on a flight.  She worked for a Boston newspaper, and was reportedly the first newspaper women in America to fly in an airplane.

     Apparently it wasn’t until September 7th, five days into the meet, that any of the airmen attempted to win the coveted $10,000 cash prize offered by the Boston Globe.  The following details were reported in the Burlington Weekly Free Press, (Vermont), on September 8th. 

     “On September 7th Claude Grahame White became the first competitor to try for the Boston Globe’s 10,000 prize money by flying to Boston Light and back in his Belriot monoplane.  The established course required two trips to the light and back as well as some twists and turns which brought the total miles to be covered to 33.  Grahame-White accomplished this in 40 minutes 1 and 3/5 seconds which set the mark for all other contestants to beat.    

     While passing over the water toward the light at an altitude of 1,000 feet, three U.S. Navy torpedo boats, Stringham, MacDonough, and Bailey, gave chase, but couldn’t keep up with the speed of the airplane.   

     Meanwhile Glenn Curtiss flew his aircraft over a one-and-three-quarter-mile course in six minutes and 29 3/5 seconds.  He also beat Graham-White’s score in the “landing accuracy” event when he came down within 68 feet 10 inches of the mark, besting his rival by 100 feet.” 

Claude Grahame-White’s Curtiss Airplane

     On September 8th, Alliott V. Roe took off in his triplane and circled the field once before his aircraft was hit by a strong gust of wind and crashed near the grandstand from an altitude of about twenty-five feet.  As he was assisted from the wreckage he declared that he wasn’t seriously hurt, but the triplane had to be removed in sections.

     William Hillard then made a similar flight circling the field at about thirty-five feet in the air without incident.

     Ralph Johnstone, Walter Brookins, and Claude Grahame-White, competed for the altitude record. 

     Wilbur Wright announced that his aircraft would not be participating in the speed contests, stating that his airplanes were built more for better fuel economy,  carrying ability, and durability.    

     Augustus Post made several short flights in his Curtiss biplane.

     On September 9, Claude Grahame-White was piloting his Farman biplane when he crashed while attempting to land, crumpling the right wing and damaging the chassis.  Grahame-White, however, was not hurt.  The accident was due to the aircraft being caught in a strong gust of wind.

     The accident occurred at the end of a duration flight contest.  Ralph Johnstone was forced to land during the same contest when the motor of his Wright biplane began to misfire.  At the time Grahame-White had his accident, he had exceeded Johnstone’s time by four minutes, and would have stayed up longer, but was signaled to land by Mr. McDonald, his manager, due to the wind building up.    

     Grahame-White had flown 33 miles and 1,420 feet, compared to Johnstone’s 28 miles, 4,557 feet.     

     Grahame-White already held the world’s record for distance required for take-offs;  20 feet 9 inches.  Prior to the accident he’d tried to beat his own record but was unsuccessful.  He did, however, manage a low score of 26 feet 11 inches which put him in first place for that competition at the aero meet.    

     September 9th was also Governor’s Day at the meet, and Massachusetts Governor Eben S. Draper was on hand with several of his staff.

     Apparently contestants were given points based on their performance in various contests. By the end of the day the following rankings were reported: 

     Bomb Dropping Contest: Claude Grahame-White, 75 points; Glenn H. Curtiss, 25, Charles F. Willard, 13.    

     The standing of the contestants in the other four events in which points were awarded were as follows:  Claude Grahame-White, 30.5 points; Ralph Johnstone, 17; Walter Brookins, 10: Charles F. Willard, 7: Glenn H. Curtiss, 6.5.

     On September 10, Wilbur Wright and Glenn Curtiss competed in the bomb dropping contest by dropping bombs at a mock-up of a battleship.  Curtiss flew his new biplane dubbed “The Flying Fish”.

     Walter Brookins attempted to best his own altitude record of 6,160 feet but was unable to do so.  He did however set a record for airplanes equipped with skids instead of wheels when he landed his biplane 12 feet 1 inch from a given point on the ground in the accuracy contest.   

     Ralph Johnstone set a new duration record by remaining in the air two hours, three minutes, and 5.25 seconds, covering 62 miles and 3,756 feet.  

     On September 12th it was reported that one world’s record and two American records had been broken.  Ralph Johnson set two new records, one in accuracy landing, and the other in distance.  He remained airborne for 3 hours, 4 minutes, and 44 seconds, which broke Clifford Harmon’s record of 1 hour and 58 minutes.  Johnstone’s flight covered 97 miles and 4,466 feet, breaking Harmon’s old record of 90 miles.  Upon landing Johnstone came down almost on top of the designated mark on the field setting a new world’s record.   

     Claude Grahame-White flew twice to Boston Light in his Belroit monoplane covering a distance of 33 miles in 34 minutes.

     What was mentioned as “a feature of slightly less interest” involved a flight made by Charles F. Willard who took along army lieutenant Jacob E. Finkel, a rifle sharpshooter.  As Willard circled the airfield, Finkel fired shots from the airplane at targets on the ground, hitting them more often than not.  The “experiment” was considered “highly satisfactory”.        

     On the final day of the meet, it was determined that the overall champion was Claude Grahame-White.  He’d not only won the $10,000 crash prize from the Boston Globe, but also won first place in four other events, and second place in three others, earning an additional $22,000 dollars.   

     As to Grahame-White’s victory,  the Norwich Bulletin reported in part: (that Glenn Curtis had) “secured a fast motor for his Hudson river flier too late to contest White’s rights to the Globe $10,000 prize, has challenged the Englishman to a match race, the latter to use the Bleriot with which he won the prize.” 

     Ralph Johnston won three first prizes and one second prize for at total of $5,000 in winnings.  Johnston would be killed a few weeks later in a plane crash in Denver, Colorado, on November 17, 1910.  

     Walter Brookins won two first place prizes and one second, earning himself $4,250.

     Glenn Curtiss won the second place prize for speed and took home $2,000.

     Charles Willard won $50 for second place in take-offs. 

     Clifford Harmon of New York reportedly won “all the amateur prizes” but there was no mention of what the amounted to in prize money.

    Although regular prize competition for all events had been closed on the last day, the meet had been so popular that it was decided to allow it to continue for an additional two days. 

     The following day, September 14, a bomb dropping contest from an altitude of 1,800 feet was held, and trophy’s were awarded the winners.

     Two more Boston aero meets were held at the same airfield, one in 1911, and the other in 1912. It was at the 1912 aero meet that well known aviator Harriet Quimby, and William Willard, the event’s organizer, were killed.    


     The Bridgeport Evening Farmer, (Conn.) “Insurgents Will Now Hold Rival Aviation Meets”, May 24, 1910, page 8

     New York Tribune, “Harvard Meet In Danger”, August 2, 1910, page 2.

     Vermont Phoenix, “Globes $10,000 Prize”, August 5, 1910, page 3.

     New York Tribune, “No Balloons At Aero Meet”, August 18, 1910, page 3.

     New York Tribune, “Leading Aviators Enter”, August 20, 1910, page 3.

     New York Tribune, “Wind damages Aeroplanes”, August 27, 1910, page 4.

     The Calumet News, (Calumet, Mich.), “Big Aviation Meet In Boston”, September 1, 1910.

     The Salt Lake Tribune, (Utah), “Twenty-two Aviators In Harvard-Boston Meet”, September 2, 1910, page 10.

     The Bridgeport Evening Farmer, (Conn.) , “English Aviator Makes Six Mile Flight In Boston”, September 3, 1910, page 2.

     Los Angeles Herald, “Big Flock Of Men-Birds Flies At Harvard Field”, September 4, 1910.

     The Bemidji Pioneer, (Minn.) “Aeroplane Cuts Capers”, September 6, 1910.

     The Washington Times, (Wash. D.C.), “Current Tumbles Amateur Aviator”, September 8, 1910, Last Edition, page 4.

     Burlington Weekly Free Press, “English Airman Flies To Light”, September 8, 1910, page 12.

     The Topeka State Journal, (Kansas), “Wrecks his Machine”, September 8, 1910, page 3.  

     New York Tribune, “Smash At Aero Meet”, September 10, 1910, page 4.

     Los Angeles Herald, “Big Aeroplane At Boston Falls In A Heap On Aviation Field”, September 10, 1910, page 13.

     New York Tribune, “New Endurance Record”, September 11, 1910, page 7.

     Los Angeles Herald, “Johnstone Sets Three New Records”, September 13, 1910, page 6.

     Palestine Daily Herald, (Palestine, TX.), “Records Crumble”, September 13, 1910.   

     San Francisco Call, “English Aviator Wins Blue Ribbon”, September 14, 1910, page 1.

     Norwich Bulletin, (Conn.) “Continue For Two Days”, September 14, 1910.

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.      

Advertisement from the
Bridgeport Evening Farmer
May 4, 1911

     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. 

     On July 28, 1911, Ovington crash-landed a borrowed airplane in Mineola, New York.  On July 29th the Bridgeport Evening Farmer reported that the aviator “had the most remarkable escape of his life” when he took off in anew monoplane belonging to William Evans.  Not long after becoming airborne the engine quit, and the plane crash-landed and flipped over near a roadway construction project not far from the airfield.  Ovington was pinned beneath the wreckage for ten minutes before rescuers could extricate him.  Despite the damage to the aircraft, he escaped with minor injuries.  

     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


     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 6, 1911, page 7

     The Bridgeport Evening Farmer, “Earl Ovington’s Narrow Escape”, July 29, 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


Jack McGee – Early Daredevil Of The Rhode Island Skies

Jack McGee –  Early Daredevil Of The Rhode Island Skies 

By Jim Ignasher 


John Francis McGee Pawtucket Historical Society Photo

John Francis McGee
Photo credit: Elizabeth J. Johnson Pawtucket History Research Center, Pawtucket Library

     It was the Wright Brothers who set the standard for what a mechanically powered aircraft should look like, and each subsequent builder copied their basic design.   Early airplanes were flimsy compared to what came later, jokingly held together with bubble gum and bailing wire; home built products manufactured in barns, (or bicycle shops) and not in hi-tech factories.  Some actually flew; many did not; and those that could, didn’t always stay in the air.  Accidents were common, but that didn’t deter young men like Pawtucket’s Jack McGee from climbing into one of those “newfangled flying contraptions” and taking to the sky.  

     John Francis McGee was born in Central Falls, Rhode Island, on June 18, 1885.  One could say he was born at just the right time in history to make his mark as an aviator, for he witnessed the dawn of mechanical flight; a time when there were no manuals, no regulations, and safety was a matter of perspective.  It was an era when daring young men made up the rules as they went along while at the same time teaching themselves how to fly.

     When he was four, Jack’s father moved the family to Maine, but they returned to settle in Pawtucket in 1900.  In his youth, Jack worked in a machine shop which gave him valuable experience with engines that would come in handy later on while working on his airplanes. 

     Jack’s interest in mechanics led to an interest in automobiles, which led to his learning how to drive one.  This acquired skill eventually landed him a chauffeur’s job with J. C. McCoy of Barrington.  Mr. McCoy was an aviator in his own right, and in the spring of 1911 he had Jack drive him to an air show in Massachusetts.  It was there that McGee decided he wanted to fly.       

     After borrowing money from a friend, McGee enrolled in the Atwood Aviation School in Cliftondale, (Saugus) Massachusetts.  He was a quick study, and flew at the controls, with an instructor aboard, after only three flights. 

     There were no pilot licensing standards or requirements in those days for there were no state or federal regulatory agencies that required one.  It was up to the student, with input from his instructor, to determine for himself when he had enough experience to fly alone. Most students took the matter under serious consideration, for aircraft technology was still in the developmental stages, and one mistake in the air could mean a messy end on the ground.  McGee continued taking lessons when he could afford them, finally making his first solo flight on August 18, 1912.     

Jack McGee in his "Kite"  Pawtucket (RI) Historical Society Photo

Jack McGee in his “Kite”
Photo credit: Elizabeth J. Johnson Pawtucket History Research Center, Pawtucket Library

     It was also in 1912 that McGee purchased his first airplane, a Burgess-Wright bi-plane, for the princely sum of $3,050, which he affectionately called “The Kite”.  The name resembled the aircraft’s construction; wood, wires, and canvas, powered by a small smoke belching, oil-spitting, engine.  The aircraft was primitive by today’s standards, and its seemingly flimsy construction left many wondering how Jack was able to perform such daring feats with it and still live. Yet as rickety as it was, those who could afford it, quickly lined up to pay for a short ride.

      McGee briefly teamed up with another promising young aviator by the name of Farnum T. Fish who had participated in air shows in the western United States. It was while flying with Fish on the afternoon of July 9, 1912, over Revere Beach, Massachusetts, that McGee experienced what was to be the first of thirteen plane crashes that he would survive during his career.  On that day, while Fish was passing low over the water, a wing dipped sending the craft into the surf.

     Jack asked his friend, Pawtucket businessman Joseph Boyle, to be his manager, and Boyle did such an excellent job of promotion that crowds estimated to be as large as fifty-thousand people would come to watch McGee perform his stunts.  Yet despite the large crowds, the money was slow to roll in.  There were operational expenses and loans to pay off, and McGee often went without food so he could feed his passion for flying.  

     In August of 1912, Boyle got McGee a $1,000 contract to fly from Saugus, Massachusetts, to Newport, Rhode Island, to perform stunts for the Newport Beach Association.  The flight and exhibition were scheduled for August 25th. 

     However, things began to go awry when McGee left Saugus and ran into strong winds which blew his tiny airplane out over Boston Harbor and towards the sea.  Its engine was no match against Mother Nature, and had the wind not shifted he could have been a goner.  He managed to set down on a race track in Boston and contacted Boyle in Newport with the news that he wasn’t going to make it that day.  The news was disappointing to say the least, for not only were thousands awaiting McGee in Newport, thousands more were waiting in Pawtucket because Boyle had promised Jack would stop in that city on his way to Newport.  Boyle was left with only one option; postpone the events by one day and drive to Boston to help Jack prepare for another flight. 

     Jack took off from Boston the following morning, but when he arrived over Pawtucket he found the city shrouded in fog.  One of the few visual landmarks available to him was the smokestack of the Hand Brewery, next to which he knew was a relatively flat section of land where he could set down.  In the meantime, Boyle returned to Newport and explained that Jack’s arrival would be delayed yet another day.    

McGee's Wrecked Airplane Pawtucket Historical Society Photo

McGee’s Wrecked Airplane
Photo credit: Elizabeth J. Johnson Pawtucket History Research Center, Pawtucket Library

     The following morning a large crowed gathered to see McGee off, but more bad luck stymied his trip when he crashed into a tree on takeoff because someone had left a baby carriage in his path. McGee escaped without injury, but the right wing was damaged further preventing his departure to Newport.

     McGee didn’t have the funds to repair his airplane, and without it, he couldn’t full-fill his contract.  When news of his predicament spread, the good citizens of Pawtucket came to his rescue by taking up a collection.  With the wing repaired, McGee was once again on his way to Newport. 

     In Newport, Jack was invited to attend an exclusive party held by Mrs. Belmont on Easton’s Beach.  Jack graciously accepted and presented Mrs. Belmont with a yellow banner that read, “Votes For Women”.  (At that time, Mrs. Belmont was a leader in the fight for women’s voting rights.)  The publicity from Jack’s frustrating trip to Newport, and subsequent high society party invitation gained him national publicity. 

     After Newport, he embarked on an exhibition tour around Rhode Island giving shows at places like Crescent Park, Rocky Point, Pawtucket, and Woonsocket.  His “headquarters” was located in a special hangar at the Pawtucket Driving Park off Newport Avenue.  It was here that he survived yet another crash which put his plane out of commission for several days.  

     In all, McGee survived thirteen crashes during his career and was once quoted as saying, “It is a general belief among aviators that, if they remain in the flying game long enough, they will eventually be killed.  I know that I will be killed some day if I fly too long.”  But crashing wasn’t his only worry.  On September 3, 1912, he and his airplane were shot at by an irate hunter while passing over some woods in Danbury, Connecticut.  The bullet barely missed him as it embedded itself in the plane’s control panel.    

Early Post Card View Of Fort Adams

Early Post Card View Of Fort Adams

     The day before that incident, McGee had gone to Newport to prove a point to the military men stationed at Fort Adams and the naval torpedo station on Goat Island that they were vulnerable to aerial attack by airplanes. McGee was a visionary who foresaw a time when aircraft would have practical military applications, an idea that was slow to be accepted by the armed forces, who saw the airplane as nothing more than a toy for the wealthy and the foolish.  This notion by the military was not completely without merit, for World War I was still two years away, and the unreliability of pre-war aircraft, coupled with the high mortality rate of pilots, led many to feel that airplanes were nothing more than a passing fad.


Early Post Card View Of The U.S. Navy Torpedo Station, Newport, R.I.

Early Post Card View Of The U.S. Navy Torpedo Station, Newport, R.I.

     On the morning of September 2, 1912, McGee took off with bags of flour to drop as “bombs” over his intended targets.  McGee knew what he was doing for he had taken part in bomb dropping contests at air meets in Massachusetts, reportedly winning prizes for his accuracy.  As he came in high over Fort Adams he let a few bags fall.  When they struck the parade ground and parapets they burst apart in simulated blasts.  Attached to each bag was a note: “What if this were 16 percent nitroglycerine?”  He did the same at the naval torpedo station, and fortunately no irate soldiers took pot-shots at him. Naturally military commanders weren’t pleased with the stunt, but McGee had proven his point.  

     McGee was flying in an age when aviation records for speed, distance, altitude, and endurance, were constantly being set and broken. The ultimate achievement for any aviator of that era would be to fly across the Atlantic, something that had never been done before.  Doing so was easier said than done, for aviation technology hadn’t yet reached the point where making such a trip had any real chance of success.  Despite any limitations with his aircraft, in May of 1913, McGee announced his plans to try.  It wasn’t just a place in the history books that he was after, it was the $50,000 purse offered by the British Aero Club to the first aviator(s) who could do it.  Fifty-thousand dollars in 1913 was a fortune, and certainly would have secured McGee’s financial situation for life.      

Pawtucket, Rhode Island - As Jack McGee Saw It.

Pawtucket, Rhode Island – As Jack McGee Saw It.

     McGee’s plan called for naval vessels to be spaced a few hundred miles apart all across the Atlantic from Newfoundland to England to act as refueling stations for his pontoon equipped airplane.  It seemed simple enough in theory, and he set his departure date for July 4, 1913.  

    Of course executing such a plan would require money, and lots of it, as well as an incredible amount of logistical planning and cooperation by the U.S. Navy and any other foreign vessels involved.  It is perhaps for this reason that investors were reluctant to put money towards the project forcing McGee to cancel his plans. 

     On July 28, 1913, McGee and a companion survived another accident, this time splashing down in the middle of Narragansett Bay.  The plane sank beneath the waves and soon afterwards a reward was posted to anyone who recovered it. 

     More than a few rose to the challenge, for besides the reward, there was the publicity, but in the days before underwater sonar, locating it would be purely a matter of luck. The aircraft was finally located and recovered by accident on August 10th by a boat dragging for oysters.

     McGee’s fame was a lure for souvenir hunters who eagerly sought artifacts from his wrecked airplanes.  Several artifacts ranging from propellers to wing struts connected with McGee’s planes are known to have survived to this day and are in the hands of private collectors.

      Though he himself flew, McGee tried to discourage those he cared about from following in his footsteps.  One such person was his good friend Leo Leeburn, to whom McGee had given basic flight training.  Mr. Leeburn later went on to join the Army as a flight instructor during World War I, and served as an airbase commander in World War II, eventually reaching the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

     Another friend was Henry Connors, who went on to command the Rhode Island National Guard.  One day he and McGee raced from Rumford to Crescent Park, Connors in his automobile, and Jack in his airplane – Jack won.         

Rocky Point Park, Warwick, R.I. - A once popular destination.  McGee and other early aviators flew their planes here.

Rocky Point Park, Warwick, R.I. – A once popular destination. McGee and other early aviators flew their planes here.

      In 1914, Jack purchased a seaplane capable of traveling 70 mph. In May of that year, he was paired with a man who was to parachute from his airplane at an exhibition at Rocky Point. The plan was for the man to ride on one of the plane’s pontoons until they reached an altitude of about 3,500 feet. Unfortunately, the man weighed too much and McGee was unable to take off.  After several unsuccessful attempts, 17-year-old John Downey of Providence approached McGee and offered to perform the stunt.  At first McGee declined, but the youth insisted, so a contract was hastily drawn up which the boy took to his father to sign.  For never having any formal instruction in leaping with a parachute, Downey reportedly performed admirably, and even returned for an encore performance the following day.      

     It was also in 1914 that World War I broke out in Europe, and Jack was courted by the French Government to join their military aviation corps to instruct their pilots, but he declined their offer.

     One news snippet which appeared in a magazine known as Aerial Age, on March 22, 1915, stated that McGee had been selected by B. Stephens & Sons of Providence, R. I., “to exclusively fly its hydro-areoplane, the first machine of the kind ever made by a Rhode Island concern which has the added distinction of being driven by the first 12-cylinder air-cooled marine engine ever made in America.”  The company was located at Fields Point.  

     In the summer of 1917 McGee accepted a position as a test pilot for Gallaudet Aircraft Corporation of Warwick, Rhode Island.  By now, America had entered the war and the Navy had given Gallaudet a contract to build seaplanes for the war effort.     

Jack McGee's Grave - Mount St. Mary's Cemetery,  Pawtucket, R.I.

Jack McGee’s Grave – Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery,
Pawtucket, R.I.

     The job of a test pilot is a dangerous one.  Those who designed the planes had a theoretical knowledge of what the craft’s capabilities might be, but it was the test pilot’s job to make sure they were right, and to see if it was capable of doing more. 

      On June 11, 1918, while testing one of Gallaudet’s planes on Greenwich Bay, the aircraft suddenly nosed over in the water.  Those who witnessed the event reported an explosion just after the impact, but officials later denied that an explosion had occurred. In any event, McGee was trapped in the overturned wreckage and drowned.  He was 33.

     Jack was survived by his wife of less than six months, Miss H. Louise Morris of Pawtucket.          

     Jack’s prediction that he would eventually die in an airplane accident proved prophetic, but some might say it was inevitable.  During his seven year career he performed hundreds of aerial feats that had killed lesser pilots, and had cheated death in at least thirteen crashes.  Over the years, and there have been several attempts to have a permanent memorial erected to his honor, including the naming of a state airport, but unfortunately all efforts have been unsuccessful. 

     Update: Today a bronze plaque to McGee’s achievements is located at the entrance to Slater Park in Pawtucket.



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