NAA History Series: Part 6

NAA History Series: Part 6

by Stuart Nixon, Contributing Editor

It is difficult today to imagine the world of 1905, the year that NAA’s predecessor, the Aero Club of America, was born. You might assume that a hot topic of conversation in 1905 was the powered aircraft invented just two years earlier by the Wright Brothers. The Wrights, after all, had solved one of humankind’s truly great mysteries, beating out a number of high-profile rivals and other experimenters.

Wilbur and Orville were a lot better at inventing things than they were at marketing them. Following their historic flights in North Carolina in 1903, they returned home to Dayton, Ohio, and spent the next two-and-a-half years quietly developing their Flyer on farmland outside of town while trying to win patent protection for their work. As far as the general public knew, there were only two types of practical flying machines at that time–balloons and airships–and even these were a novelty most people had never seen.

A more immediate subject of popular interest was another newfangled contraption, the automobile. Automobiles were starting to show up on roads–or what passed for roads–all across America. The Aero Club of America, in fact, was organized in 1905 by virtually the same people who had organized the Automobile Club of America six years before.

One of the movers and shakers behind both clubs was Charles J. Glidden, whose wealth enabled him to embark (with wife Lucy) in the early 1900s on various automobile trips that made him famous. Between 1905 and 1913, he sponsored an annual Glidden Reliability Tour, complete with silver trophy, to help demonstrate the promise of automotive technology.

The adventuresome Glidden was equally enamored of balloons and soon joined with other members of the Automobile Club to try his hand at lighter-than-air flight. Over time, he would make dozens of ascensions and would go on to serve in the U.S. Army Signal Corps in WWI.

Another Automobile Club founder who shared Glidden’s enthusiasm for aviation was Homer W. Hedge, an advertising executive in New York City, whose name turned up in local newspapers with some regularity as a participant in automobile races and ballooning events. Hedge enjoyed flying primarily as a sport, but he also recognized it might offer more material benefits if capital could be invested in developing it. He was anxious to explore those possibilities.

A third visionary at the helm of the Automobile Club was David H. Morris, a New York attorney with business interests in railroads, hotels and other ventures. Socially, Morris moved in rarefied circles, giving his support to many political, charitable and civic causes. He also found time, with his brother Alfred, to breed race horses. In 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed him U.S. ambassador to Belgium.

Yet another of New York City’s prominent “automobilists” (as the newspapers liked to call them) was John F. O’Rourke, an Irish-born civil engineer. He was best known for his work constructing bridges, tunnels, and the foundations for large buildings (including the New York Stock Exchange), but who also undertook projects in other parts of the country. Like his fellow sportsmen, O’Rourke enjoyed the good life, maintaining a home on Long Island and memberships in several country clubs.

Another New Yorker closely associated with automobiles was Augustus Post, one of the first people in the city to own a motorcar (an electric model) and one of the first anywhere in the country to help establish an automobile garage. Post, like David Morris, was a direct contemporary of Orville Wright; all three men were born within a few years of each other in the 1870s.

Augustus Post stands today as a kind of Benjamin Franklin figure–a man of many talents who always seems to turn up when something important is happening. With degrees from Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, Amherst College and Harvard Law School, Post earned his living mainly as an editor and writer but gained the most attention for his exploits in aviation. He got hooked on flying in 1900 when he rode in a balloon in France. He went on to earn a name for himself in balloon racing. Years later, it was Post who suggested that New York hotel owner Raymond Orteig offer a prize to the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in a heavier-than-air machine. Orteig’s pot of $25,000 was what first attracted Charles Lindbergh to enter the competition.

Sometime during the first half of 1905, these five men–Charles Glidden, Homer Hedge, David Morris, John O’Rourke, and Augustus Post–decided that growing interest in ballooning in Europe was a signal for astute Americans to put some muscle behind development of aviation in the States. What better organization to do this, they concluded, than their own Automobile Club of America, which had already awarded an honorary membership to France’s celebrity promoter of cars and balloons, Alberto Santos-Dumont. Accordingly, on June 7, 1905, the five men spun off a new group called the Aero Club of America, incorporated in New York City, home of four of the men (Glidden lived in Boston). The first officers were:

President, Homer Hedge; First Vice President, John O’Rourke; Second Vice President, Charles Glidden; Treasurer, Augustus Post; and Secretary, S.M. Butler (another member of the auto club).

An infant NAA was born.