The First Century: 100 Years of North American Air Shows

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More than a century has flown by since the first air show, an enormous aviation event in Reims, France.  By January of 1910, the city of Los Angeles had hosted a similar exhibition for a quarter-million fans, a show so successful it would run again by year’s end. That fall, thick crowds filled major stages in Boston, Massachusetts, Belmont Park, New York, College Park, Maryland, and a half dozen smaller venues.

By the end of 1910, aviation shows, races, and even open practice sessions had thrilled hundreds of thousands on both coasts and between, inspired others to take flight or to invent new machines, and elevated air shows from novelty to industry.

Mistakes were made that ranged from the basic safety of pilots and the public, to the financial stability of organizers, concessionaires and sponsors. Many of the worst practices withered, perhaps for good reason. Yet the year 1910 also meant brilliant innovation in staging, media coverage, and a potent new elixir for solid value to fans. But just the same, many of these best practices have long lay dormant. In this, our second century, perhaps they should awaken.

By the spring of 1909, the City of Reims, France, and a splash of champagne makers and businessmen, had raised money for facilities, promotional announcements and prizes to lure pilots and crowds to an unprecedented aerial event. Vineyards were staked and measured for the new Aérodrome de Reims-Champagne.

A virtual city rose in weeks. Organizers built an immense grandstand and open-air, white-tablecloth restaurant to serve 600 with airfield views. Not to mention a barber shop and beauty salon, arrangements for chartered trains and horse carriages to haul 100,000, and ad hoc lodging for pilots, crews, and a well-heeled public.

Promoters at Reims told reporters that from August 22 to 29, 1909, “the Grand Week of Aviation in Champagne,” some 350,000 to 500,000 attended. Actual attendance was likely far less, since organizers may have counted daily visitors on every day they returned. Still, the three-mile road from the nearest train depot was clogged with arriving or escaping fans, mostly on foot.

Though some pilots were proven, like a then-obscure American named Glenn Curtiss, safety issues arose partly because few standards existed beyond access to an airplane, and the means to hire its maintenance. At one point, as many as a dozen aircraft lay disabled or wrecked on the field while others continued flying.

At least 38 pilots registered, but only 23 flew, at least one of whom had never flown before arriving in Reims. Just 87 flights took place in the course of a week, yet the novelty of flight itself meant that records were set or shattered daily.

Shortly after the Reims air meet, back in the United States, seeds were planted for a homegrown show. At an air meet in St. Louis, pilot-businessmen including Charles Willard, a dirigible pilot named Roy Knabenshue, and the now famous Glenn Curtiss, aimed to stage an air show in the winter of 1909-1910.

They hoped to adopt the Reims’ flair for promotion, attendance, and variety of entertainment, but cure its main ills, such as the remote location that was difficult and costly to stage and attend; a poor safety record; a loosely controlled gate and muddy receipts; and lost opportunities to capitalize on promotions and the celebrity of aviators.

A promoter from the sports industry, Dick Ferris, was sent to Los Angeles to begin organization and finalize the dates as January 10-20, 1910.

Ferris made a bold pitch for sponsorship to the Los Angeles Examiner, and it agreed, but with stipulations that a flamboyant French racer and aerobatic pilot name Louis Paulhan be invited, since he was a proven draw in Europe. Paulhan was offered $50,000 to take part.

The Wrights did not fly at Los Angeles, but came with their attorneys, to observe and defend against alleged violations by Curtiss, Henri Farman, and Paulhan of the Wright patent on the aileron. Curtiss disabled his ailerons to prevent taunting the Wrights, but in trying to control the machine with rudders alone he turned the aircraft on its side. Paulhan plunged on, but as part of a later court award, the Wrights won damages for his performances at Los Angeles.

Famous or soon-to-be famous civilian aviators were welcomed, as were the first military participants. Toward the close of the Los Angeles meet, Paulhan took an Army signals expert, Lieutenant Paul Beck, to a height of 250 feet AGL at 40 mph, to drop three bags of dirt before the crowd to simulate an aerial bombing.

Besides its favorable winds each afternoon, organizers chose a hilltop mesa named Dominguez Field to prevent viewing by anyone not paying the entrance fee.

In Reims, the rural trains had been low capacity and sporadic, while in Los Angeles, trains would arrive every two minutes, for a special excursion price of 30 cents. The new Dominguez Junction station of the Pacific Electric Railway was only 2,500 feet from Aviation Park, close enough to walk in five minutes, though on the busiest days, with more than 50,000 fans, the walk plus a return train took hours.

Grandstands were built for 26,000 and an infield standing area for up to 60,000, with semi-permanent stalls or rigid tents for maintenance and storage, VIP events, enclosures for food service, as well as sanitary toilets and a plan to freshen them. Loudspeakers were well disbursed and amplified, to prevent the alternate pattern of clustered fans and empty zones seen at Reims. Unlike the ad hoc lodging in France, performers would live in the nearby aviators’ camp.

An important safety improvement separated the landing field from spectators by a fence running three miles, to contain crash debris and prevent swarming fans. The race course formed a hexagonal pattern where hazardous turns and aircraft energy were directed away from the crowd area, and the long straightaways and best views parallel to the crowd.

The Los Angeles field included 11 fixed-wing participants, along with three dirigibles and seven balloons, which floated from the suburb of Huntington Park.

The event opened with a parade of all participants, the theme of which was, “From oxcart to airplane,” and was executed literally. In one news photo, a man is seated at the controls of a taxiing aircraft while an oxen and cart amble alongside.

Curtiss leveraged a tailwind to deliver the first known air show high-speed photo pass. Scholar D.D. Hatfield, in his book The Dominguez Air Meet, captured his quote.

“Running straight before the wind on the home stretch, it was before the grandstand that I was traveling at not less than 60 miles per hour, and at no other exhibition in the world, so far as I know, has such a speed been attained where thousands of people could witness it,” said Curtiss. “Sixty miles per hour is about as fast as a man wants to travel by any method of locomotion.”

Participants were encouraged to fly as many times as possible between 2:00 and 5:00 p.m. each day to chase records as well as to keep fans interested and returning. If missing a given day, they were assessed a time penalty off their best performance.

“Aviators must not fly over the grandstand or any place where a crowd is assembled without permission of the judges,” it continued. “There will be a judge stationed at each end of the field to see that no aeroplane passes inside the posts.”

Pilots complied, but an event postcard nonetheless gives an imagined rendering of just this type of flight, low above the heads of well-dressed fans.

Given the over-enthused crowds at Reims, Los Angeles hired legions of security. In photos, the crowd is seen trying to surge ahead to spinning props, but kept back by a dark-coated man with a lapel ribbon proclaiming Deputy Sheriff.

Each ticket was precisely tracked, and printed on stock that was difficult to counterfeit, with an individual number of issue. These controls made reports far more reliable than at Reims. Some 254,000 tickets were sold, or an average of 20,000 attendees per day, for gate receipts of $137,500. The Aero Club estimated that the event returned $1.25 for every dollar invested by a subscriber.

Advertising was affixed to nearly every aircraft even while in competition, including the hot-air balloons, one of which read “All in the Examiner,” to promote the sponsoring newspaper.

Merchandise ranged from postcards to baseball-style pennants, to a series of medals and metal pins. Fans were encouraged to dress the part; one woman wore an enormous floppy black hat shaped to look like a sleek monoplane.

Pilots and organizers dazzled media, and aimed high. One attendee was William Randolph Hearst, whose family at one time owned or controlled one in every four newspapers read in America. Hearst appears in photo after photo, relishing a media ride or a cockpit visit, including with Louis Paulhan.

Organizers tightly controlled the competition results so that the Los Angeles Examiner, the event’s title sponsor, would gain editorial advantage over its newspaper competitors. Each of the ten days of event programs was individually sponsored or honored a local supporter, for example with a ‘Pasadena Day’, or a ‘Southern California Day’ printed on the front cover of each day’s program.

The site is now marked as California Registered Historical Landmark No. 718, “First United States Air Meet.”

Come September, the first major air event arrived to the East Coast. From September 3-13, at Harvard Aviation Field in Massachusetts, the Englishman Claude Grahame-White joined the Curtiss and Wright entrants and others to compete for $90,000 in prizes.

Grahame-White not only won the event’s most prestigious challenge, a 33-mile race around the Boston Light, but managed the most accurate landing and the shortest distance takeoff. In addition, he furthered the staging of mock military assaults at an air show, dropping duds made of Plaster of Paris atop a model warship built on the airfield.

One fan at Harvard-Boston was Harriett Quimby. She was inspired to become one of the first women aviators and air performers. Tragically, Quimby was killed flying at the same event two years later.

October saw novel activities teasing the major show to be held at Belmont, New York.

The Chicago Evening Post and The New York Times jointly contributed $25,000 to sponsor a race between the cities. The ‘Studebaker Pathfinder’ drove ahead, officially to choose a landmark to navigate, but mainly to trumpet the contest with streamers and signage. South Bend’s Aero Club arranged for three companies of militia, “to protect the men and their machines from the crowds.”

Charles Willard, at one of many open practices at the Belmont event, “…thrilled all and frightened some, by dropping suddenly from a height of 1,500 feet to within 10 feet of the heads of those who had filled the open space in front of the paddock. Women screamed and men looked as though they would like to run. One or two men did run,” wrote The New York Times. “Willard smiled, turned his front control slightly upward and soared aloft again at scarcely diminished speed.”

From October 10 to 20, amateur pilots from at least five cities converged on College Park, Maryland, for a meet sponsored by the Washington Aero Scientific Club. Participants had to pre-qualify in local contests in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Norfolk, each event drawing a fresh and satisfied crowd.

But the international meet to come at a horse track in Belmont, New York, was the big draw. Orville and Wilbur Wright helped supervise the event, which opened on October 22 and ran 10 days.

Colorful pilots added to its appeal. Charles Hamilton was known to fly drunk, while carrying a loaded gun. James Radley of Britain was a fiery showman. The American Walter Brookins had a reputation for pushing the envelope in his Wright model “R” that he called Baby Grand, and suffered one of the worst crashes at Belmont, a mishap that led to a surge in attendance the next day. Wilbur Wright assembled a team of horses to pull it off the field.

The Belmont venue offered on-site parking, proximity to transit, and a full enclosure to ensure that no one watched for free. Belmont also hosted its own private mansion, and the cushy Turf and Field Club, which could be booked by high-level sponsors. But its old-boy network may have limited its draw; photos of attendees at Belmont suggest that the crowd was nearly all men.

Nonetheless, the year 1910 made such tracks a fine choice, since the New York State legislature had banned horse racing and wagering, motivating track owners to give discounts to air show organizers.

Belmont’s high point was a race around the Statue of Liberty to and from the track, which drew at least 75,000 spectators to the horse oval and twice that many to vantage points en route.

At Belmont, organizers perfected some of the methods tested throughout 1910. Its printed program invited the elite attendees to a pre-show banquet run by the Aero Club of America. Hangars and fan tents were individually sponsored and carried huge signage in thanks. The entrance tickets, $1 for general admission and $2 for the grandstand, were individually numbered and also limited to a single day, with no evidence of a price break for repeat attendance.

On December 24-30, 1910, stretching into January 1-3, 1911, the Los Angeles meet was repeated and improved in staging, number of events and displays, media coverage, and revenue. Its daily printed program now ran 30 pages or more and with full-page ads, its cover price bumped from the original 10 cents to a lofty 15 cents. One of those ads was for the Hall-Scott Motor Car Company. “Hear what one of America’s foremost aviators has to say about our motors,” it read, in one of the earliest known product endorsements by air show pilots.

By the time 1910 came to a close, a new cultural phenomenon had been born, not only for air shows and pilots, but for the organizations which support our industry.

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Roger Mola
Roger Mola wrote extensively for ICAS publications in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He now works as a research specialist for Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine.