1. The First Biplanes and Pilot School

by Peter C. Conrad

The story about pioneer pilots and their biplanes begins in a time before airplanes and pilots were common. Even though the Wright brothers had built a flying machine, most people still believed that flying wasn’t safe or practical. Pioneer barnstormers began giving flying demonstrations in communities across North America. My name is Charles F. Willard, one of the first of the barnstormers. I flew my biplane at the 1909 summer fair in Toronto, Canada.

I am going to tell you a story about Glenn Curtiss, one of the first to make biplanes for others. Curtiss was also among the first to teach flying; I was his first student. At least, I was as much of a student as I could be. I never had any formal lessons because no one, not even Glenn Curtiss, knew much about flying. When I was chosen to be the first student pilot, I was told that the tiny biplane wasn’t big enough for two people. All that could be taught was how to take off and land. Then, it was up to me to teach myself how to fly. After landing, I asked questions which Glenn tried to answer. We were both students working out the mystery of flight together.

I should tell you how Glenn came to teach flying. It began in 1908 when the American Aeronautic Society decided that flying should be more than experimentation. Flying was to be a demonstration sport. The Society was a group of well to do New Yorkers who united to promote the new phenomena of flying.

It began by trying to persuade a French experimenter to come to New York with his plane to give a demonstration. This failed. The Society then persuaded Glenn to build a biplane and train a pilot for it. To do this, the Aeronautic Society paid Glenn $5,000.

The Society’s biplane was delivered July 17, 1909. This first aircraft had the name Curtiss on it. That name became renowned for early biplanes.

The name Glenn gave his biplane was the Golden Flyer because it was bright yellow with bright orange struts. It was held together with bamboo and high strand wire cables.

Glenn really built a nice motor. It had four cylinders in a vertical formation and a three-and-a-half inch bore with a four-inch stroke. The motor could go at a top speed of 1300 to 1400 revolutions a minute. The tank held exactly one gallon of gas. That was large enough because flights were short at best in those days.

Another feature of the biplane was that it could be easily assembled and taken apart. This made it possible to put it into packing cases for transporting, which became important later when it was used for touring and doing demonstration flights.

Once the biplane was ready, Glenn Curtiss had to teach me to fly. It didn’t take long because there wasn’t much to learn. I had to either learn to fly on my own or forget about being a pilot. Curtiss was already a certified pilot with the Aerial Experimental Association. He couldn’t just stand on the ground and watch as I took flight after flight. He flew the Golden Flyer as much as I did.

After I was trained, Glenn moved quickly to build himself another biplane. While I was touring with the first biplane, Curtiss went to France with a new aircraft. On August 29, 1909, he flew in the first Gordon Bennett Trophy race and won.

I went on to become one of the first barnstorming pilot. The Golden Flyer was shipped from New York to Toronto. It was assembled on August 28, 1909 at the amusement park at Scarborough Beach, east of the city.

Well, I couldn’t believe it when I arrived in Toronto. The summer fair committee had set aside space between two buildings to set up a tent for the airplane to be placed inside. There was barely enough room outside of the tent to pull the biplane out. The committee must have thought that the airplane would just jump up and take off like a bird. The only place that I could use to take off was in between the two buildings.

The opening between the two buildings faced Lake Ontario. To take off, I had to arrange for a trough of boards to be built to guide the centre wheel down. There was only six inches between the ends of the wings on each side and the walls of buildings. In front of me was wide-open water. If I didn’t make it into the air, I would land in the lake.

“I’m sure glade it is you that is going to fly this,” said Mark, my assistant.

“I think it will be all right,” I said.

“I think you’re going to end up in the water,” he replied. “Should I arrange for a boat to go out and pick you up?”

“That shouldn’t be necessary,” I said.

“Even if everything is running fine, you could get caught up in that trough.”

“We already checked it out. It’s fine.”

“Let’s say you do get into the air, where are you going to land?”

“I guess I’ll get a better view from up there. I’ll find a place,” I said.

“Let’s hope it isn’t in the lake,” he replied.

“I guess I’ll get a better view from up there. I’ll find a place,” I said.

“Let’s hope it isn’t in the lake,” he replied.

I was ready to go, but it rained. The flight was delayed until September 2, a cold, cloudy day. Rain threatened again, but it was the end of the fair. I had to go! I felt nervous and little light headed before I was even in the air. I warmed up the motor, let it roar, and then gave the final signal to Mark to let go. The craft rushed down the trough set for it. I stared at the breakwater as I went. The plane took to the air, but it was going too slow. The motor simply was not going as fast as it should. I was flat out over the water and I needed speed to climb. The aircraft was too low to even turn around. I decided to use the height I had to gain speed so that I could pull up, and then turn. I pushed the nose down to speed up. It didn’t work because the plane didn’t get enough speed on the drop. The motor didn’t have the power I hoped it would. Down I went until the inevitable happened; I was in the water about three hundred feet out. The water was cold, but shallow. I stood up and waited to be rescued. The aircraft, which landed with its wheels down and tail high up in the air, was not damaged.

The Toronto Star called the flight the grand finale of the summer fair. It was the finale, but it certainly was not grand!

About peterconrad2014

I am a writer with experience in writing short stories, articles, non-fiction books, the novel, on line course content, journalism, and encyclopaedia articles. Never accepting limitations, I have had successes in diverse writing approaches. I am a storyteller, teacher, and artist.
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