Chicago's First Airplane Flight, 100 Years Ago | WBEZ
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Chicago's First Airplane Flight, 100 Years Ago

After a runaway silver aircraft launched yesterday from a home outside Denver, Colorado, many folks today are still shaking their heads in wonder. That strange incident may give us 21st century folks a taste of the amazement that onlookers must have felt the first time airplanes took flight. Exactly one hundred years ago today, a daredevil engineer flew a plane in the Chicago area for the first time ever. For WBEZ, Robert Loerzel takes us back to a time when Chicago was a hotbed of aviation experiments.

The story of airplanes in Chicago begins with an immigrant from Paris named Octave Chanute. He was the engineer who designed the Union Stockyards. After building many bridges and railroads, Chanute became fascinated with the idea of human flight. Chanute had an office in his home on Huron Street, where models of possible flying machines covered the entire ceiling. Early in the morning, he would go up on his roof and send model planes drifting down.

CROUCH: Octave Chanute was an extraordinary guy.

Tom Crouch is senior curator of aeronautics at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.

CROUCH: In the mid-1890s, he wrote quite a famous book, called "Progress in Flying Machines," that was sort of the bible for the generation of flying-machine pioneers who were actually going to invent the airplane.

In 1896 and 97, Chanute took some gliders out to the Indiana Dunes, near Miller. These planes didn't have motors, but they did briefly lift men up into the air. In 1900, Chanute got a letter from a bicycle maker in Dayton, Ohio, named Wilbur Wright. Crouch says Chanute gave the Wright Brothers advice on how to build an airplane.

CROUCH: In a nutshell, Chanute becomes their closest friend in aeronautics.

The Wright Brothers made amazing progress, but it was hard work figuring out the aerodynamics. In 1901, they were thinking about giving it all up. But then, Chanute brought Wilbur to Chicago.

CROUCH: Chanute invited Wilbur to come out and give a talk to the Western Society of Engineers. And in fact in the course of giving the talk, Wilbur is sort of re-energized. And so is Orville, and they redouble their efforts.

In November 1903, Chanute took a trip to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. He was hoping to see the Wrights fly an airplane, but the brothers' experiments took longer than expected.

CROUCH: Winter was coming on, and Chanute just left and went back to Chicago.

A month later, Chanute received a telegram in Chicago with the big news: Wilbur and Orville had made the first airplane flight in history. Chanute was eager to tell the world, but the Wright Brothers wanted to keep their invention secret while they perfected it.

CROUCH: Their philosophies were different. Chanute had patented flying-machine ideas with other people, so it wasn't as if he didn't believe in patents. But he did believe in sharing ideas and so on. He disagreed with them about that.

For the next four years, virtually no one saw the Wright Brothers flying. In 1907, the American public finally saw an airplane flight, but it wasn't by the Wright Brothers. The pilot was a motorcycle racer from New York named Glenn Curtiss.

SHULMAN: I'm Seth Shulman. I wrote a book about Curtiss called "Unlocking the Sky." Glenn Curtiss was certainly one of the great pioneers of aviation. He was a mechanical genius, but he was also a daredevil, and you really needed both of those things to be an aviator at that time.

In October 1909, Chicagoans got their first chance to see this amazing new invention. Curtiss brought his plane to the Hawthorne Race Track in Cicero. Crouch describes the Curtiss No. 5 biplane.

CROUCH: The propeller's in the back, pushing it forward, not in the front, pulling it forward. Curtiss used something called ailerons, which is what we use today. They're little tabs. Today, they're on the back of the wing. Curtiss put them, in fact, between the wings.

Unlike Curtiss, the Wright Brothers did not originally use ailerons. Instead, they warped the wing to make their planes bank to the left or right. So Curtiss's aircraft was a bit different from theirs. But that didn't stop the Wright Brothers from suing. When Curtiss arrived in Chicago, he was facing a patent lawsuit, which would drag on until World War I. But Shulman says Curtiss had a more immediate problem to deal with — Chicago's famous wind.

SHULMAN: If the wind conditions were not right, Curtiss would simply not get up in the air. We're talking about incredibly rickety machines. They're basically like flying motorcycles with big bamboo and fabric wings.

On October 16th, three thousand people, including Octave Chanute, waited around all afternoon at the racetrack while the plane just sat there. As darkness fell, the wind died down. The airplane was wheeled out onto the racetrack, and people rushed toward the newfangled machine. Curtiss yelled at the crowd: "I won't fly while any of you people stay in here! It takes a lot of room to get started!" Shulman says some people were probably wondering if the plane could actually fly.

SHULMAN: Many people at that time still didn't believe that it was possible.

The time was 5:32 p.m. Here are the words Chicago newspapers used to describe what happened next:

NEWS: Curtiss leaped into his seat, pulled the lever, and the machine slid forward. The huge propeller in the rear of the machine began to beat the air with such force that the hats were blown from the heads of a number of men. Very soon there was a buzzing, a snapping, a rush like a little wind eddy. The bouncing machine hopped along the ground a hundred yards. The machine rose with a whirring sound. There was an audible gasp, and then a roar of cheers as the strange bird passed almost directly over the crowd.

Curtiss flew over the pond in the middle of the Hawthorne Race Track, going forty miles an hour. The highest his plane got was about sixty feet. He landed after forty seconds, a quarter of a mile from where he took off. It wasn't much of a flight, but Curtiss called it a success. He said: "I have demonstrated that aeroplanes are not, as most people believe, a dream."

Curtiss made two more short flights at Hawthorne the next day. Octave Chanute died a year later, just as the Wright Brothers were trying to patch things up with their old friend.

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