Inventor and aviator Glenn Curtiss flew high over the Hudson —and made history doing it.
Often forgotten, New York’s Glenn Hammond Curtiss was one of the greatest aviators and aeronautical inventors of all time
By Seth Shulman
At morning services on Sunday, May 29, 1910, Rev. William Hubbard of Poughkeepsie’s Mill Street Baptist Church found his normally bustling church nearly empty. Hubbard was not pleased, but his congregation had a good excuse for going missing. They were lining the banks of the Hudson River for one of the greatest aeronautical feats of all time.
Airplane inventor and aviator Glenn Curtiss, from Hammondsport, New York, in the Finger Lakes region, was attempting the unthinkable: a 152-mile flight along the Hudson from Albany to Manhattan. It was the first time anyone had ever tried to fly from one American city to another, and it would mark the first time most of Rev. Hubbard’s parishioners had ever seen an airplane.
Rev. Hubbard lambasted Curtiss for desecrating the Sabbath. “Conditions have come to a pretty pass when church members should so far forget themselves as to allow such a spectacle to draw their thought away from God and the proper observance of His day,” Hubbard told the New York Times. But Curtiss also had a good excuse for flying on a Sunday. He and his airplane had been camped out in a farmer’s field on the outskirts of Albany for three days, waiting for unseasonably high winds to die down enough to permit a safe takeoff.
The nerves of Curtiss’s team members were beginning to fray, but thankfully that Sunday morning dawned calm and bright. Curtiss phoned the police station in Poughkeepsie before sunrise and received the news he sought: there wasn’t even enough breeze to flap the flag at the local courthouse. As he wrote later, he knew “it was now or never.”
Although largely forgotten today, Curtiss surely belongs in the pantheon of America’s greatest entrepreneurial inventors. While his formal education never extended beyond the eighth grade, his mechanical genius resulted in some 500 groundbreaking aviation innovations, including many features — from wing flaps to retractable landing gear — still used today.
If anything, Curtiss’s exceptional creativity was exceeded by his extraordinary energy and drive. A national bicycle champion while in his youth, he also won world renown as “the fastest man alive” by riding a motorcycle of his design at a record-breaking 136 miles per hour. Later, it was Curtiss — not the Wright Brothers — who was issued the first U.S. pilot license, made the first public flight, and sold the first airplane in America.
In 1909, at the world’s first International Air Meet in Rheims, France, Curtiss’s airplane, the Rheims Racer, beat all others — including those designed by the Wright Brothers. And, in 1919 — eight years before Charles Lindbergh’s solo crossing — Curtiss was the first to design a seaplane that could successfully cross the Atlantic in three hops.
Of all his remarkable accomplishments, though, few can match his death-defying flight along the Hudson. The first true point-to-point flight in America, it was a technological tour de force. Daring and intrepid just like Curtiss himself, it was also epoch-making. Hundreds of thousands of people showed up to watch it, and the New York Times devoted no less than six full pages to the feat — among the most space the newspaper had ever given to a single news event.
By 1910 there had, of course, been a handful of other astonishing flights. The Wright
Brothers made the first sustained, controlled flights in a powered aircraft in 1903. Six years later, Louis Blériot flew 24.7 miles across the English Channel. But despite a growing number of aeronautical exhibitions before paying spectators, by the end of the decade the airplane had yet to find its place as anything more than an exciting novelty.
Against this backdrop, Curtiss set his sights on one of the most tantalizing aviation contests of the day. Joseph Pulitzer, the wealthy publisher of the New York World, had offered a $10,000 prize to the first aviator to fly from Albany to Manhattan. According to the rules set by Pulitzer, the airplane was allowed up to two stops along the route, provided the journey was made within a 24-hour period. (There was no thought of a nonstop flight; the weight of the fuel needed to cover such a great distance would prevent any airplane of the period from taking off.) Pulitzer’s contest had drawn much public attention, but most everyone deemed the feat impossible: it had been a year since Pulitzer’s announcement, but not one pilot had stepped forward to meet the challenge.
To prepare for the flight, Curtiss armed himself with maps, weather data, and sketches. He learned as much as he could about the wind patterns along his proposed flight path. He made several trips along the Hudson by train, car, and boat to study the route and to reconnoiter suitable landing sites along the way. Among the places he visited was the large, open grounds of the
Near dawn on that fateful Sunday, with virtually no fanfare, Curtiss took the pilot’s seat of his fabric-covered pusher biplane, its large wooden propeller sitting behind a dual set of wings. He wore a cork life jacket, a snug-fitting cap, goggles, and a pair of fishermen’s rubberized waders that came up to his armpits. The waders, he later explained, were not intended so much for the prospect of an untoward water landing as for the warmth they would provide. After all, despite the clear spring weather, Curtiss would be flying in the open, hundreds of feet in the air, at a speed of roughly 50 miles per hour.
From his perch on the makeshift runway in Albany, Curtiss readied for takeoff. He noted the direction of the smoke from factory stacks to judge wind direction. With little instrumentation, he had no way to determine his speed other than the strength of the wind against his face. With no altimeter, he could similarly only guess at his altitude. In Curtiss’s own detailed, minute-by-minute account of his adventure, published in 1912, he describes rising smoothly from the field on a cloudless day to an altitude of 700 feet and flying straight above the middle of the river. The Hudson spread out below him, he wrote, like “a wide, glimmering road.”
The first half of the journey went smoothly. Before long, Curtiss could see the distant outline of the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge spanning the Hudson, some 87 miles from Albany, marking roughly the midpoint of his journey. Peering out from his open-air perch, Curtiss soon saw the open grassland area near Poughkeepsie where he had planned to stop. He bounced to a landing on the bumpy field where he had arranged to have gas and oil waiting for him. Despite the best-laid plans, though, there was no gas or oil to be found. Seeing him land, however, throngs of nearby spectators and dozens of automobiles soon rushed to his side. Curtiss explained his predicament and, as he recalled, nearly a dozen local residents were soon offering him assistance. He gratefully accepted some eight gallons of gas and a gallon of oil from two motorists who helped fill his tank from spare cans in their touring cars. After carefully checking his aircraft’s engine and each of its wires and struts, he was soon airborne again.
But trouble lay ahead. Twenty miles south of Poughkeepsie, the river carves a steep, 15-mile-long gorge in the so-called Hudson Highlands near Storm King Mountain and Breakneck Ridge. The spot funnels treacherous wind currents above the river. Made aware of the danger by his research, Curtiss tried to climb above it, rising to an altitude of roughly 2,000 feet. But it was not high enough. Just past
Momentarily losing control, Curtiss was nearly thrown from the airplane. “It was the worst plunge I ever got in an aeroplane,” Curtiss later wrote. “My heart was in my mouth. I thought it was all over.” After the near accident and an unplanned stop to repair a leaking oil pan, the intrepid aviator approached Manhattan.
Crowds were everywhere: on rooftops, in trees, and packed along the riverbank. Scores of watercraft large and small dotted the Hudson, their passengers waving wildly. “New York can turn out a million people probably quicker than any other place on earth, and it certainly looked as though half the population had flocked to Riverside Drive or out onto the rooftops of the thousands of apartment houses that stretch for miles along the river,” Curtiss recalled, adding that he had never experienced anything so dramatic and inspiring.
In no time, the Statue of Liberty — Curtiss’s finish-line landmark — stood before him. Turning westward, he triumphantly “circled the Lady with the torch” and headed, as planned, for a perfect landing at the small U.S. Army base at nearby Governors Island.
Much acclaim followed the heroic flight, including awards, dinners, and press conferences. The New York press crowned Curtiss “King of the Air.” At a black-tie dinner in his honor at the Astor Hotel, Curtiss formally presented New York City Mayor William Gaynor with a letter given to him by James B. McEwan, the mayor of Albany. It was the first airmail postal delivery ever made in the United States. Although unable to attend, President William H. Taft sent a telegram to the gala event. “It seems that the wonders of aviation will never cease,” Taft wrote, adding that Curtiss’s flight “will live long in our memories as having been the greatest.”
Taft was right. Curtiss’s flight from Albany to New York City that Sunday broke a formidable psychological barrier, and not just for the hundreds of thousands of witnesses, but for the many others who read or heard of his accomplishment. Suddenly and all at once, the airplane presented itself as a useful and practical technology.
Seth Shulman is the author of Unlocking the Sky (HarperCollins, $13.95), a book about Glenn Curtiss. His most recent book is The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell’s Secret (W.W. Norton, $24.95).
Captions: “After I had negotiated the narrow reaches in the Highlands south of Poughkeepsie, I felt pretty sure of success,” Curtiss wrote after his famous flight in the biplane he called the Albany Flyer
A model of the Albany Flyer