by Stuart Nixon, Contributing Editor
NAA began its existence in the summer of 1905 as the Aero Club of America (ACA), founded by five men who had both the time and money to play with such "toys" as automobiles and balloons. Both of these machines were great novelties at the time because relatively few people owned one or even had access to one.
At the beginning of 1905, the five founders recognized that Europe was doing a lot more than America to further the cause of aviation, even though the Wright Brothers had made their historic first flight two years earlier. The reason: the Wrights were keeping a low profile until they could obtain patent protection, something that didn't happen until May 1906. Unaware or barely aware of the Wright Brothers, visionaries in Britain, France, Germany and other countries were actively developing existing technology (light-than-air) for both commercial and military purposes. Aero clubs already existed in these countries to champion such programs.
Cortlandt F. Bishop, an automobile enthusiast and art collector from New York City, visited France during the first half of 1905 to pursue some of his various interests, one of which was to learn to fly balloons. Though not a founder of ACA, Bishop was a colleague of the men who were (four of whom lived in New York) and ended up providing the club office space in a building he owned. Not long after the club was started, its first president, Homer W. Hedge, telegraphed Bishop in Paris, authorizing him to act as ACA's European agent. It was a strategic move on Hedge's part, because interest was growing in Europe to create an international association of aero clubs. As a result of Hedge's initiative and Bishop's follow up, the newly formed ACA was one of eight organizations that met in France in October 1905 to put together the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), the body for which NAA serves today as U.S. representative.
In the month following FAI's founding, the Aero Club of America held its first official meeting, at which the speaker was Charles M. Manly, the mechanical engineer who gained considerable publicity in 1903 as the pilot of two ill-fated attempts to fly Samuel P. Langley's "Great Aerodrome" from a houseboat in the Potomac River. Undeterred by his near-death experience, Manly remained interested in aviation and became a charter member of ACA in late 1905 during a membership drive that his speech to the club helped spark.
During the talk, Manly made mention of the Wright Brothers and expressed confidence in reports that over the past two years they had made successful flights in Ohio in new versions of their Flyer. Such scuttlebutt was partly the work of the Wrights themselves, who were selectively responding to queries and floating information in an effort to retain credibility at the same time they were protecting trade secrets. One request they honored was to contribute hardware or memorabilia from their research for inclusion in a large aeronautical exhibit that ACA proposed to stage as part of the Sixth Annual Official Show of the Automobile Club of America, set for January 1906 in an armory in New York. Had the Wrights been willing to contribute something substantial (they sent photographs, along with the crankshaft and flywheel of their original Flyer's engine), they might have done themselves a favor, because most other experimenters either attended the show in person or loaned actual aircraft. Several balloons, Langley's Aerodrome, a kite designed by Alexander Graham Bell, and two partially assembled dirigibles (one from Thomas Baldwin and one from Alberto Santos-Dumont) were among the eye-popping objects on display.
The show was both a commercial success for the Auto Club and a prestige-maker for the Aero Club. Scientific American magazine called the aeronautical exhibit "the most complete of its kind ever held in any part of the world." Hoping to build on its good fortune, ACA approached the Wright Brothers once again to come forward with further evidence of their breakthrough on the question of heavier-than-air flight. The brothers responded with a letter detailing their experiments and describing their apparatus. Impressed by their candor, the Club passed a resolution:
"Whereas, The Messrs. Wright Brothers, Wilbur and Orville of Dayton, Ohio, have developed an aeroplane...that many times has carried a man safely through the air at high speed and continuously over long distances, and therefore is of practical value to mankind: therefore be it Resolved, That the Aero Club of America hereby expresses to them its hearty felicitations on their great achievement in devising, constructing, and operating a successful man-carrying dynamic flying machine."
As NAA historian Bill Robie notes, ACA was taking something of a chance with the resolution, considering that no one from the Club actually knew the Wrights or had witnessed a flight. The Club, however, had an agenda to prosecute: pushing America as a strong contender in the contest to make aviation more than a curiosity. In 1909, an aviation writer recalled the efforts of Cortlandt Bishop (then serving as ACA president) to stake a claim for Yankee know-how in the aviation community:
"From the first, Mr. Bishop took a special interest in the aeroplane.... He repeatedly endeavored to induce the Wright Brothers to drop their secrecy and prove to the world that they had indeed flown.... That he placed great confidence in the truth of every statement that these two modest young men made is a proof of his keen insight. He deeply regretted that it became necessary for Wilbur Wright to leave his native land [in 1908] and go among foreigners [the French] to find favor, and it was probably through his earnest efforts that Orville Wright remained in the United States to give the government [the U.S. Army] an opportunity to see the workings of his wonderful machine...."
In the end, the Club's intuition proved correct: Wilbur's demonstrations in Europe and Orville's in the States erased all doubts as to the brothers' technical genius. At its annual meeting for 1908 (held in November), ACA passed another resolution regarding the Wrights: to make them honorary members of the Club, to hold a banquet in their honor, and to present them a gold medal. As Augustus Post, ACA secretary, commented:
"Great interest was taken by every member present in all the proceedings of the meeting, particularly in the resolution for the Club giving a banquet to celebrate America giving to the world, through her Wright Brothers, the aeroplane...."
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