Thursday, September 16, 2010

The 1910 National Aero Meet in Memphis

Posted By on Thu, Sep 16, 2010 at 12:27 PM

Glenn and Lena Curtiss
  • Glenn and Lena Curtiss
A huge flock of "Bird Men" swooped into our city in 1910, when Memphis — yes, Memphis — hosted one of the first aviation meets in America. Wilbur and Orville Wright had made their famous flight at Kitty Hawk just seven years before, so this four-day event was many Memphians' first look at those newfangled "aero-planes," which one reporter described as "a weirdly shaped automobile on three wheels."

He might have mentioned the wings, too.

Held at the Tri-State Fairgrounds April 7-10, 1910, the National Aero Meet featured noted flyer Glenn Curtiss ("the champion of the world"), Charles Hamilton ("the dare-devil of the air"), and a number of more modest aviators from around the country.

The photo here shows Curtiss with his wife, Lena, in the cockpit of their plane, Miss Memphis.

The Commercial Appeal bragged that "all eyes are on Memphis," and workers transformed Main Street into "a glare of patriotic colors in honor of the thousands of visitors." Local businesses jumped on the bandwagon with bizarre enticements. A newspaper ad for Lowenstein's department store bragged, "Our rest rooms, a revelation of artistic beauty and luxurious comfort, are one of the interesting features of Memphis."

Brisk winds grounded most of the frail bamboo-and-canvas biplanes on the opening day, and some 8,000 visitors were issued "wind-checks." The following day, the crowds cheered such exploits as Curtiss setting a new world record for "quick starts," and fliers circling over the fairgrounds racetrack at almost 50 miles per hour! Curtiss even offered brave men and women short rides in his new racing plane, dubbed Miss Memphis. (I wonder if he changed the name every time he visited a different city?) One passenger, excited by his first airplane trip, declared, "Aeroplaning beats automobiling all hollow."

Still, if the National Aero Meet was supposed to show spectators how safe and reliable these new contraptions were, that aim probably fell short. On the first day, Curtiss' engine quit in mid-air and he had to glide down for a rough landing. On the second day, the aviator plunged his airplane into a crowd of spectators, hurling a little boy to the ground. It's amazing that no one was killed. On the third day, one of the other fliers smashed into a fence.

And it just got worse. On the last day, aviator J.C Mars crashed into a parked car loaded with people. One passenger in the car was slashed by the plane's whirling propeller, and Mars was thrown from the cockpit and knocked unconscious.

Apparently the fliers — and probably the spectators, too —┬áhad experienced enough thrills. The Commercial Appeal curtly announced, "Mars' accident brought the National Aviation Meet to a close." The bird men quietly folded their wings and flew home.

PHOTO COURTESY MEMPHIS ROOM, BENJAMIN HOOKS CENTRAL LIBRARY

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