by Peter C. Conrad
I was young back in the summer of 1910. It was the first summer that I was employed at the Minoru Park racetrack. If you don’t know, that was on Lulu Island near Vancouver, British Columbia. My job was to clean up after the races and to do odd jobs. Those were some good days. I have an image of myself in ankle high black shoes, knickers, a plaid shirt, and a tweed cap; just like the touring automobile drivers wore. People began to believe anything was possible. Machines were the way of the future! More important to me was the newest invention of them all: the biplane. That summer was the first time I ever saw one and the first time people in my neighbour-hood saw one.
The flying machine that arrived that spring was piloted by one of those early pioneers of the sky who built their own plane then flew them at the summer fairs. The pilot was Charles Hamilton from California. From what I was told, he built his biplane in the fall of 1909. It was ready to fly only four months before he arrived on March 25, 1910. I still find it hard to believe that he learned how to fly the machine that fast.
We were the first group he ever flew for. There was a real good-sized crowd, about 3,500 people, at the park. He flew in over top of the racetrack and circled around. We had been told that men were flying like this down East and in the States, but we couldn’t believe what we were seeing. The biplane came closer and closer. We could see the rigging of the wings and hear the roar of the motor. The machine looked like a huge kite, but it was big enough to carry a large motor and a man!
When he came in to land the airplane, it touched the ground and with just a little bit of space came to a stop. It didn’t need a long runway like planes do now. I walked to where the machine was as it came to a halt. Even though Charles Hamilton was a small man, I couldn’t believe that the biplane in front of me was able to carry him into the air. Hamilton was wearing heavy tweed trousers and a heavy coat with a sweater. I could see his light frame shivering from the cold.
“How do you do? I’m Charles Hamilton,” he said as he stepped out of the biplane.
“Hello, I’m Tom. Can I get you anything?”
“No, that’s fine,” he said. He walked away as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.
The machine had an engine behind the wing. It was a biplane with cloth-covered wings and an open body construction.
Later in the day, Hamilton returned to the airplane to fly again. We watched as the motor roared and the biplane skipped along the grass. In a moment, he was flying around the racetrack. I stopped staring up when I heard the sound of a car on the track. The driver was speeding along right under the biplane. He was racing! The car soon gained on the biplane above, speeding up until it was in the lead. Hamilton hadn’t noticed because he was watching where he was going, not looking down. He swung wide over the track. If he wanted to win a race, he would have tried to turn tight on the bends in the track like the car. The biplane landed and the pilot stepped down from his seat.
“You lost the race!” I called.
“What race?” replied Hamilton.
“The car on the track was racing you.”
“Oh? I wondered what that crazy guy was doing?”
“Do you think you could have won?”
“Maybe if I tried.” said Hamilton.
The next day, the local newspaper, the Vancouver’s Daily Province, had a photograph and a story entitled: “Hamilton’s Aerial Clipper.” The story was a good description of the day’s flying. Yet, there was more to come. The next day Hamilton took his biplane into the air three times.
When Hamilton was in the air, he went north along the Fraser Valley for twenty miles. He was gone for some time. The crowd was beginning to worry as time past. Then, he reappeared. He had set a record for the longest cross-country trip in Canada.
Hamilton’s return was recorded in the Daily Province: “Everyone crowded about him, asking where he had been. ‘New Westminster,’ came the reply. Mr. Hamilton, shaking with cold, was immediately supplied with a stimulant. … He described how he had followed the winding course of the North Arm of the river, mounting to 2,500 feet. Then because the temperature was too chilly, he had descended to a lower altitude, which he maintained until he reached New Westminster, where he sank to within nearly 100 feet of the ground. He arrival there caused considerable interest. The streetcars stopped while the occupants watched his revolution. Turning just west of the bridge, he began his homeward flight.”
Hamilton’s last day in Vancouver was March 28th, a cold day with westerly winds. In spite of the cold, Hamilton was going to go up. Many pilots would never consider flying on a cold day like that.
Hamilton had accepted a challenge to a race. This time, the race was against a horse ridden by Curly Lewis. Hamilton allowed the horse a head start, three-eighths of the mile-long track. As it turned out, the head start was a little too much. The horse won the race by a few feet.
To give us a real show, Hamilton flew his biplane to a great height and then cut the motor. He glided back to the ground with a steep dive and flattened out just in time to make a safe landing. That really proved Hamilton as a master flyer.
Unlike most of the early flyers, Hamilton died only two years later from pneumonia. Most of the other pioneer pilots died when their biplanes crashed.