Dallas' First Aeroplane Flight
By Steven Butler
On December 17, 1903 Orville and Wilbur Wright, two previously obscure bicycle mechanics from Ohio, made history with the first powered aircraft flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. A little more than six years later, the dawning age of aeronautics reached North Texas when an aviation meet, sponsored by the Dallas Chamber of Commerce took place at Fair Park.
Originally scheduled for February 25, 26, and 27, 1910, the meet was supposed to have featured the famed French aviator Louis Paulhan. But as the first day of the exhibition drew near, there were reports of an attempt by the Wright brothers to obtain a court injunction, alleging patent violation by Paulhan. If successful, the restraining order would have prevented him "from making further flights with the machines he is now using." At first the French pilot pooh-poohed the Wright brothers' action, assuring Dallasites that he would appear as planned. He even sent word that he would pit his biplane in a five-mile race against an automobile. At almost the last moment, however, the Wrights were successful in persuading a New York court to issue the sought-after injunction and Paulhan was forced to send his regrets.
It is thanks to the Wright brothers, therefore, that the pilot who ended up making the first aeroplane flight in Dallas (and arguably in all of Texas), was twenty-three-year old Otto Brodie, who had only about a year of aviation experience when he arrived at Fair Park on Wednesday, March 2, 1910 as a last-minute replacement for Paulhan. Accompanying him was his manager James E. Plew (who was also the owner of the aeroplane to be used in the exhibition) and two mechanics - Allyn G. Flemming and Zee Field. Brodie, "the nephew of the celebrated Steve Brodie, high bridge jumper who lost his life jumping from Brooklyn Bridge into East River a few years ago," reportedly shared his uncle's recklessness nature. When he was only sixteen the young flyer "began a professional career as a loop the loop rider on a bicycle and since then" had "been changing from one hazardous vocation to another, including parachute jumping, dirigible operating and automobile racing." More recently, Glenn H. Curtiss, the Wright Brother's rival, had employed him "to demonstrate the Curtiss aeroplane."
After inspecting the racetrack infield, where the meet was scheduled to take place, Brodie remarked that the ground was "better than provided at Los Angeles," where he had flown previously, "and with the exception of a few minor bumps, better than any in the country now being used." If there was good weather, the young flyer commented further, he seemed confident he would "show the people of this section something undreamed of in the way of aerial navigation." Adding that Plew's Herring-Curtiss racer was "the fastest and best machine that Curtiss had made," Brodie reckoned it was likely he would not only "do all the sensations" for which the celebrated Paulhan was known, but that he might "possibly add a few of my own." Due to a missed connection, the train carrying the biplane from Chicago did not arrive in Dallas until late Wednesday night. After being transported by express wagon from the depot to a large canvas tent set up at the south end of the track, it was uncrated and, assisted by Flemming and Field, Brodie worked into the early morning hours of Thursday, "putting together the delicate sections of bamboo, balloon cloth, and engine."
The machine, "a Herring-Curtiss make," measured 26 feet in length and weighed 400 pounds. It was powered by a light-weight "four-cylinder gasoline engine" that achieved from "25 to 40-horsepower," turning a propeller with six foot long and five inch wide blades at a rate of "1,200 revolutions per minute." "Mounted on three ordinary bicycle wheels," the craft's delicate frame was constructed of "American spruce wood and bamboo reeds, fastened with small cold-drawn seamless steel piano wire cables" with two wings that were "covered with balloon cloth." Ailerons on the wingtips kept them balanced. To one observer, the wings looked like "the halves of the roof of a street car sawed lengthwise through the middle," with "one about eight feet above the other." The pilot sat between them holding "a wheel which turns the rudder twelve feet behind him." His feet operated a device called a "tilter," which extended "twelve feet in front" of the aircraft.
During the late afternoon of Thursday, March 3, about 500 eager spectators jammed the racetrack grandstand to see if the confident young aviator would make good on his promise to provide them with a spectacular display of aerial dexterity. As it turned out, the demonstration they witnessed did not live up to either Brodie's or their own expectations. A reporter who witnessed the event wrote:
Because Brodie's initial attempts to get off the ground were not in accordance with the exhibition that ticket holders had been led to expect, a representative of the Chamber of Commerce announced that they could use them for the next day's performance. Even so, said the Dallas Morning News, the young flyer had accomplished something novel - "the first flight" of "a heavier-than-air flying machine in North Texas."
Unfortunately, Friday's show was little better. Altogether, Brodie made six "flights" that day, none more than 1,000 feet in length nor more than seventy-five high. The culprit, according to the pilot and his manager, was a wind so "fitful and gusty that no other aviator would have made more than one attempt to fly the machine." On his first attempt, remarked one observer, "Brodie took his machine off the ground about a distance of twenty feet" when the aircraft "was badly tilted by a breeze." After flying another ten feet, "it hit the earth and from on to the tent at the other end of the field it hopped along like a big bird, crippled, yet trying to fly."
On his second try, Brodie managed to travel fifty feet through the air before a similar gust of wind ended the attempt. The third flight was a little better, remarked one witness, who wrote:
The fourth time Brodie tried to become airborne, spectators watched the machine "scurrying across the grass for a distance of 1,000 feet" before it "went up probably fifty feet in the air." As the aeroplane headed for the south end of the field, it reportedly "dipped once or twice." Brodie finished the flight by cutting his engine and gliding the last fifty feet or so, "a gust of wind" helping to keep his aircraft aloft.
On the fifth attempt, the machine became airborne after only eight seconds and reached a height of as much as seventy-five feet, which Brodie "decreased as he passed the grandstand," landing near his tent at the south end of the track after a flight lasting thirty-one seconds. His speed was estimated at twenty miles per hour.
The final flight of the day was deemed by a newspaper reporter to have been "as much a failure or as much of a success" as the previous flights but conceded that "from a scientific standpoint" Brodie's efforts constituted "what may prove to be the premiere of aerial navigation in this section." Unfortunately, the journalist also remarked, "many of those present to witness the flights were not scientists." On their way out of the grandstand, not a few dissatisfied spectators asked for a refund of their money (although they didn't get one due to attendants having no authority to grant the request). In fact, so few stayed in their seats following Brodie's demonstration, that a scheduled balloon ascension was cancelled.
Apparently customer dissatisfaction was so rife that the Chamber of Commerce felt compelled to issue a statement, which was published in the Dallas Morning News:
Owing to gusting winds that prompted the young pilot to entertain "doubts as to his ability to sail successfully," Saturday afternoon's exhibition was even more disappointing than Friday's. At 4:30 p.m. when Brodie first tried to take off, he "went up about ten feet and away perhaps twenty feet when the aeroplane suddenly dropped to the ground, ran along on the wheels for thirty or forty feet, jumped up again no higher than before and as suddenly struck the ground again." After this sequence was repeated once more and the machine was brought to a halt, Brodie discovered that one of the fragile aircraft's ribs "and two wire supports on the right wing" were broken. "An iron bolt which held on one of the bicycle wheels" was also damaged. No doubt aware of the criticism that followed Friday's show, the intrepid young flyer was determined to continue. During the two hours it took for a local furniture shop "to turn a wooden rib of the dimensions of the broken one," reported one journalist, the "aviation tent was crowded with the curious."
By the time repairs were complete the sun was setting "and the spectators had dwindled" to about 150. Regardless, announced Brodie, "he was going to fly 'wind or no wind,'" and in the deepening shadows of early evening he "had the machine trundled from the tent…across to the other end of the field." A journalist described what happened next:
Although he tumbled from his seat "and struck the ground before the machine…fell upon him," (unbelievably, few early aviators used seatbelts) Brodie was miraculously unhurt, "except a few scratches about the face and a bruise on the nose which caused profuse bleeding." After extricating himself "from underneath the mass of broken rods, wire, and cloth" the seemingly unconcerned young flyer, blood gushing from his nostrils, gazed at his smashed aircraft and remarked: "That's what I get for trying to fly in this wind." Calculating that the crash "might have been worse," he added, "let's pull her into the tent and see what'll have to be done." When someone asked if Brodie wanted his wife to be contacted, he replied: "No, she won't worry. She knows I'm not going to be hurt."
Unfortunately, the damage to Plew's biplane was too severe for the meet to continue. Bowing to public sentiment, the Dallas Chamber of Commerce announced that not only would Sunday's exhibition have to be cancelled but also that all ticket holders could apply for a full refund. It was explained that this was owing to the fact that the contract with Brodie had called for flights comparable "with the exhibitions by Paulhan, Hamilton, Curtiss and other successful aviators, the whole agreement being subject to the giving of a satisfactory entertainment to the public and a scientific exhibition of a heaver-than-air flying machine."
On Monday, as Brodie and Plew prepared to take the damaged aircraft to Chicago, the nearest place where the necessary repairs could be made, the youthful aviator defended his performance. "Scientifically," he told a reporter, "the flights at Dallas were good." But, he admitted: "They were not spectacular and it was dangerous to try to make them so, because of the fickleness of the wind over the Fair Grounds." Thanking the Dallas Morning News for its objectivity "in reporting the flights and the work done at the Fair Grounds," he added that he planned to return to Dallas someday "and hope that there will be more spectacular interest for the people then."
Sadly, Brodie never got that chance. On Saturday, April 19, 1913, as "the head of school of aviation" in Chicago, the young flyer was "testing a new machine" when, as he flew over a tree, "a branch snapped a guide wire, preventing control of the aeroplane." The crash of his machine "from a height of forty-five feet" proved fatal. At the time of his death, Brodie was "26 years old and had been flying for about four years."
Copyright © 2005 by Steven Butler. All rights reserved.