NAA History Series: Part 8

NAA History Series: Part 8

by Stuart Nixon, Contributing Editor

When we think today about aviation, we typically think about airplanes and helicopters–our modern world was transformed by the Wright Brothers and heavier-than-air flight.

But in 1905, when NAA’s predecessor, the Aero Club of America (ACA), was formed, aviation was more or less synonymous with ballooning, since that was the only practical means of flying at the time. People like Alberto Santos-Dumont in France, Ferdinand von Zeppelin in Germany and Thomas Baldwin in the United States were adapting balloon technology to produce steerable airships. Tethered or free-floating balloons were still the only man-made objects (aside, perhaps, from kites) that anyone was likely to see in the sky, and even those were a rarity.

In January 1906–the same month that ACA staged an aviation exhibition in its home base of New York City–the club conducted an experiment with the U.S. Army at West Point to determine whether the Army could produce high-quality gas for inflating and launching balloons. Three small, unmanned balloons were sent aloft, each with a note to the finder offering a reward of $5.00 for return of the device to the club. Only one balloon was recovered, shipped to the club from an address on Long Island, but the experiment was a success; the gas generated at West Point exceeded applicable requirements.

Two months later the club drew a large crowd to Pittsfield, Mass., to witness the maiden flight of a balloon made for the Club by Leo Stevens, a manufacturer of lighter-than-air equipment and a charter member of ACA. Although the balloon was destroyed by heavy winds while still tied down, the club benefited from the experience, because the Pittsfield Gas Works offered ACA free use of company land as a permanent launch site and agreed to provide the club favorable rates on coal gas.

One of the advantages of ballooning near Pittsfield, located in the Berkshires, in the early 1900s was its distance from the Atlantic Ocean–the last place a pilot wanted to end up when riding at the mercy of the wind. Homer Hedge, one of ACA’s founding members and its first president, was reminded of this problem in November 1906 when he went aloft with Leo Stevens and ACA’s secretary, Sam Butler, in a race with 35 automobiles. The idea, cooked up by Stevens, was to offer a prize to the first auto driver who started at the same time and place as the balloon and could catch up with the balloon within 45 minutes of its landing. A newspaper reporter in New Haven, Connecticut, described what happened:

“Captain Homer W. Hedge, with his two companions in his famous touring balloon, Le Centaur, landed at Short Beach about 7 o’clock last night, after a perilous sail from Pittsfield, Mass., covering, as nearly as can be reckoned, 156 miles in the path of a terrific wind storm. Captain Hedge, with Leo Stevens and Lt. Samuel M. Butler, landed in the middle of a deserted settlement at Short Beach, three miles outside this city [New Haven], on the shore of Long Island Sound. According to Captain Hedge, the balloon dropped 6,000 feet in a minute and a half, all landing safely with the exception of Mr. Stevens, who was badly bruised from the sand bags as the cage struck the earth.” The reporter quoted Hedge as saying, “Had the trip been continued a few minutes more, the balloon would…likely have been dragged over the Sound.”

As for the cars in the contest, sunset overtook them, making it impossible to follow Le Centaur.

Ballooning in the Berkshires made for very good sport (not to mention headlines), but ACA actually had bigger fish to fry at this time; the Club had won a surprise victory in the first James Gordon Bennett International Cup competition–held in France in October–and, as a result, had earned the right to sponsor the same event in 1907 in the U.S. For an organization only a year-and-a-half old (ACA was founded in June 1905), this was a formidable challenge. The French race had attracted 16 balloonists and a crowd estimated at 250,000. Santos-Dumont was one of the contestants, although he was forced to pull out after injuring his arm.

Fully aware that France was not happy about losing the Bennett Cup to America, ACA quickly organized a contest committee and appointed as chairman one of the club’s more prominent members, Cortlandt Bishop, a New York art collector and automobile enthusiast who had learned to fly a balloon in France on a visit in 1905. Bishop, Hedge, and other key people in the club wasted no time scouting out possible locations for the 1907 competition, eventually selecting St. Louis, where local business interests envisioned numerous opportunities to promote the city by hosting the ACA event. Such expectations would prove to be prophetic, putting St. Louis.

One of the movers and shakers in St. Louis was Albert B. Lambert, a local industrialist with hands in many pies. Lambert got turned on to aviation in 1906 when he happened to meet Cortlandt Bishop and several other ACA representatives on a trip to Europe. Like Bishop, he took ballooning lessons and developed friendships in the flying community. Early in 1907, he helped organize the Aero Club of St. Louis to work with ACA in staging the Bennett contest. Augustus Post, ACA’s treasurer, and Alan R. Hawley, another pioneer balloonist, traveled to St. Louis at Lambert’s invitation to meet potential backers of the Bennett show. Lambert is remembered today for his shrewd purchase of a balloon launching site near St. Louis, which he renamed for himself and later converted into an airport (now St. Louis International).

NAA historian Bill Robie describes the Gordon Bennett long-distance balloon race of 1907 as “a watershed event for American aeronautics in general and the Aero Club of America in particular.” Held in October, it brought out something like 300,000 spectators, enough to persuade U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt to dispatch the Army to help keep order. Leo Stevens was on hand to supervise the filling of the nine competing balloons, three of which were American entries. As the contest progressed, it proved to be a long race, with each balloon remaining aloft for over 24 hours. The winner was a German pilot, Oscar Ebersloh, who landed some 873 miles from St. Louis. The three America balloons, each flown by two people, placed fourth, fifth, and last. One of the American teams, Post and Hawley, was lucky to compete at all. During a trial run before the big event, someone fired a gun at the two men as they flew overhead. Later that same evening, their drag rope tore off the front fence of a woman’s home. As the pilots later commented, “The woman came out and said something, [but we] couldn’t understand her and didn’t particularly want to.”