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Ralph Johnstone, exhibition flyer

Ralph Johnstone, a member of the Wright exhibition team, set a world record for altitude, climbing to 9,712 feet in his Model B at Belmont Park. He consistently competed against Arch Hoxsey to set new records. Johnstone died in November 1910 in Denver while putting on a demonstration flight.

Arch Hoxsey, early exhibition flyer

Arch Hoxsey was one of the aviators to appear at both the 1910 Los Angeles and Belmont air meets. He was killed on December 31, 1910, in Los Angeles, while trying to better his own world altitude record.

Charles Hamilton, early exhibition flyer

Charles Hamilton, a famous Curtiss exhibition pilot, flew at the 1910 Belmont air meet. He always flew carrying a loaded gun and was frequently drunk.

Belmont Air Meet

Britain's James Radley sails past the scoreboard in his Bleriot during the air meet at Belmont Park.

Brookins and his Wright Model R at Belmont

American Walter Brookins competed against Claude Graham-White in the Gordon Bennett speed race on October 29, 1910, during the Belmont Air Show, flying his Wright Model "R," known as the "Baby Grand." He was taken out of the running when he crashed.

Ralph Johnstone crosses finish line at Belmont

Ralph Johnstone crossing the finish line in air race, 1910.

Claude Graham-White lands near White House

In October 1910, Claude Grahame-White won the Gordon Bennett speed race at the Belmont airs meet. The next month, he flew to Washington, D.C. and landed on a street next to the White House.

The First U.S. Airshows--the Air Meets of 1910

Soon after the Reims Air Meet of August 1909, three major airshows occurred in the United States that profoundly affected the future of American aviation. In Los Angeles, Boston, and New York, large crowds turned out to see their first actual aircraft. Several pilots set new records in a variety of events at each of the meets, and spectators got to view some dazzling aerial stunts. The first American airshows created, as some scholars note, a sense of "air awareness" among those who attended them. Many spectators were suddenly conscious not only of the airplane's entertainment value but also some of its utilitarian potential. Notably, the U.S. air meets of 1910 also motivated several would-be pilots, many who would become key figures during the early exhibition era of aviation, to learn to fly.

The first major U.S. airshow took place at Dominguez Field, just south of Los Angeles, from January 10-20, 1910. The key participants included Glenn Curtiss (the American hero who had won the prestigious Gordon Bennett Cup race at Reims), Charles Hamilton (a future American daredevil aviator), Lincoln Beachey (who was still flying dirigibles at that time, but who would become America's greatest early exhibition pilot), and Louis Paulhan (a Frenchman who had started working in a military balloon factory and eventually taught himself to fly).

Paulhan dominated the Dominguez meet. First, he set a new flight endurance record by carrying a passenger almost 110 miles (177 kilometers) in his Farman biplane in 1 hour, 49 minutes. Then he went on to achieve a new altitude mark of approximately 4,164 feet (1,269 meters). He also performed several aerial feats during the week, and near the end of the show, carried U.S. Army Lieutenant Paul Beck aloft to perform one of the first aerial bomb dropping tests, using weights to simulate the bombs. Overall, Paulhan ruled the skies over Los Angeles, winning as much as $19,000 in prize money.

Although the Frenchman dominated the Los Angeles meet, spectators could celebrate at least a couple of American victories. Glenn Curtiss set a new air speed record of approximately 55 miles per hour (89 kilometers per hour), and took home the prize for the best quick start. In all, he won approximately $6,500.

The Dominguez Air Meet was highly successful. Spectator turnout numbered somewhere between a quarter and a half-million people. The Los Angeles Times called it "one of the greatest public events in the history of the West." Notably, the Dominguez event also motivated at least one would-be aviator, Lincoln Beachey, to learn to fly. Although Beachey had begun the meet as a dirigible pilot, by its end, he had been so inspired by the airplane pilots that he approached Glenn Curtiss and asked Curtiss to teach him to fly. Within a year, Beachey would become America's leading exhibition airplane aviator.

The next significant American airshow--the Harvard-Boston Aero Meet--took place at Harvard Aviation Field in Atlantic, Massachusetts, from September 3-13, 1910. It was the first major air event in the East and offered aviators more than $90,000 in prizes and appearance fees. Both the Wright brothers and the Glenn Curtiss exhibition teams made good showings, but it was the Englishman Claude Grahame-White, who had become an aviator after being inspired by Louis Bleriot's historic 1909 English Channel flight, who ruled the show.

Grahame-White won several contests at the Massachusetts show, including the speed race, and won the prizes for the most accurate landing and the shortest take off. He also gave a bombing demonstration by dropping plaster-of-Paris duds on a mock warship. The most prestigious event he won was the 33-mile race from Squantum, Massachusetts, around Boston Light, and back. The winner's purse was $10,000. Grahame-White won approximately $22,000 in prizes in all during the meet.

The Massachusetts show stands out as important not only because it was the first major air meet in the eastern United States and gave many New Englanders their first real glimpse of an airplane, but also because it inspired Harriet Quimby, one of America's most important early women aviators, to pursue her pilot's license. Sadly however, while the Harvard-Boston meet originally inspired Quimby to pursue flying, the same venue would take her life two years later.

The last major U.S. airshow of 1910 took place at a large racetrack on Long Island, in Belmont Park, New York, from October 22-31. The Belmont International Aviation Tournament offered approximately $75,000 in prize money and attracted one of the period's most talented fields of pilots. Events ranged from competitions for the best altitude, speed, and distance, to contests for the most precise landing and the best mechanic.

More than two dozen of the world's top aviators attended the New York meet. They came from England, France, and the United States. The key pilots from France included Count Jacques de Lesseps and Roland Garros. Claude Grahame-White from England also attended, as did several Americans--Glenn Curtiss, John Moisant, Arch Hoxsey, Ralph Johnstone, and Charles Hamilton among them.

One of the meet's highlights was an altitude duel between Ralph Johnstone and Arch Hoxsey. Johnstone eventually won the contest by soaring to approximately 9714 feet (2961 meters), a new record. Another highlight occurred when Charles Hamilton won the precision landing event. For a while, it looked as if Americans might sweep all of the contests, but then the prestigious Gordon Bennett Cup event, or speed race, took place.

On October 29, Claude Grahame-White flew his Bleriot monoplane to victory in the $5,000 Gordon Bennett Cup contest in just a little over an hour. He had averaged 61 miles per hour (98 kilometers per hour) over the 100-kilometer race. In the process, he beat nine other competitors, only three of which even flew the entire distance. American John Moisant placed second but took more than an hour longer than Graham-White because of mechanical problems. Although many contemporaries considered the Gordon Bennett event aviation's most prestigious race, another showcase contest at Belmont was just as significant thanks to its $10,000 purse.

The meet's final event was a quick dash that took competitors from the Belmont Park Racetrack, over New York City Harbor, around the Statue of Liberty, and back. On October 30, some 75,000 people crowded around the racetrack to witness the start and finish of the competition. Countless others viewed the contest from various points around the city.

Once again, Claude Grahame-White, piloting his 100-hp (75-kilowatt) Bleriot monoplane, put up the best time and completed the course in 35 minutes, 21 seconds. He seemed to have won the contest, but then John Moisant surprised him at the last moment. Moisant had seriously damaged his own plane earlier in the week and was busy trying to purchase another aircraft while Grahame-White was winging his way to an apparent victory. At the last minute, however, Moisant acquired a 50-hp (37-kilowatt) Bleriot and took off in pursuit of Grahame-White's time. Flying a more direct route than the Englishman thanks to a new navigational system, Moisant, much to the delight of the crowd, bettered Grahame-White's mark by 43 seconds. Despite the Englishman's prestigious victory in the Gordon Bennett race, Moisant was the meet's hero.

Afterward, Grahame-White protested Moisant's victory because the American had started the race 21 minutes after the close of allowable start times. Meet officials, nevertheless, sided with Moisant. After appealing his case all the way to the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (aviation's main ruling body at the time), Grahame-White finally achieved his victory when the FAI reversed the Belmont Park Meet officials' decision in 1912. Graham-White collected the race's prize money and an additional $500 in interest. For most of the people who saw the contest firsthand, however, Moisant was the real victor.

From Los Angeles, to Boston and New York, Americans had flocked to the American air meets of 1910, gotten their first glimpses of aircraft, and started to contemplate the future of aviation. In the process, they saw several record-breaking events and some splendid daredevilry. These first significant American airshows would prove important to the future of U.S. aviation.

--David H. Onkst

Sources and further reading:

Gunston, Bill, ed. Chronicle of Aviation. London: Chronicle Communications Ltd., 1992.

Gwynn-Jones, Terry. The Air Racers: Aviation's Golden Era, 1909-1936. London: Pelham Books, 1983.

____________. Farther and Faster: Aviation's Adventuring Years, 1909-1939. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.

Harris, Sherwood. The First to Fly: Aviations Pioneer Days. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970.

Hatfield, David D. Dominguez Air Meet. Inglewood, Cal.: Northrop University Press, 1976.

Launius, Roger D. and Embry, Jessie L. "The 1910 Los Angeles Airshow: The Beginnings of Air Awareness in the West," Southern California Quarterly. 77 (Winter 1996): 329-346.

Marrero, Frank. Lincoln Beachey: The Man Who Owned the Sky. San Francisco: Scottwall Associates, 1997.

O'Neil, Paul. Barnstormers and Speed Kings. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1981.

Prendergast, Curtis. The First Aviators. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1980.

Schonberger, William A. California Wings: A History of Aviation in the Golden State. Woodland Hills, Cal.: Windsor Publications, 1984.

Smits, Edward J. Nassau Suburbia, USA: the First Seventy-Five Years of Nassau County, New York, 1899 to 1974. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974.

Wallace, Graham. Claude Grahame-White: a Biography. London: Putnam, 1960.

"Glenn H. Curtiss, the Henry Ford of Aviation." http://glennhcurtiss.com/id51_m.htm

"The Greatest Show Above Earth," Long Island History. http://www.lihistory.com/histpast/past/1031.htm

Jones, Ernest. "1910 Proved Banner Year in the History of Early Birds." Early Birds of Aviation. http://members.tripod.com/ralphcooper0/ebanner.htm

"Lincoln Beachey: A Brief Biography," Carroll Gray's Lincoln Beachey website. http://lincolnbeachey.com/lbbio.html

"The 1910 Los Angeles International Air Meet," California State University, Dominguez Hills. http://www.1910dominguezmeet.com

"1911" U.S. Air Force Museum. http://www.wpafb.af.mil/museum/history/preww1/pw18.htm

Smits, Edward J. "Aviation on the Hempstead Plains: A New Sport," United States Genealogy Network Inc. http://www/usgennet.org/usa/ny/county/nassau/aviation.html

"Some Important Events in Aviation, 1903-1913. "Fred Sgrosso's "Things that Fly." http://home.attbi.com/~fredhome.chrno.htm

"Those Magnificent Men 1900-1913," Tom Brearley's Aviation History website. http://members.lycos.co.uk/Vigilant/men

"Time Machine--Racetrack of the Sky," Long Island History. http://www.lihistory.com/tmachine/htime509.htm

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