Sunday, September 30, 2012

Glenn Curtiss Day at Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome

Like a series of undulating waves rolling down the Hudson River Valley's west side, the Catskill Mountains, somehow losing momentum, yielded to the much lower Shawagunk, Schunnemunk, and Bear Mountain peaks, descending into the Palisades, threshold to Manhattan. A century ago, on May 29, 1910, Glenn Hammond Curtiss, navigating his frail, Albany Flier biplane, forged an aerial link along this route between Albany and New York.
Then in the midst of a legal battle with the Wright Brothers for allegedly using their patented wing-warping method for banking and thus forbidden to continue selling any of his own aircraft, Curtiss, sinking in the quicksand of bankruptcy, saw a single rope of salvation in the $10,000 Hudson-Fulton prize offered by Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World, for the first person to fly from Manhattan to Albany, in either direction, with a maximum of two stops.
Although Curtiss never feared competition-in fact, he thrived on it-the intended course was the antithesis of his numerous previous flights: unlike these prior, controlled circuits and aerial demonstrations, the inter-city connection was fraught with significant obstacles, including unfamiliarity with the route, an overwater course, unknown wind and weather patterns, and height obstructions, aside from the fact that technology had been insufficiently mature-and fuel capacity simply insufficient-to permit a long-range aerial journey of 150 miles.
Nevertheless, perhaps desperate circumstances lead to desperate measures, and which of the two had been the more perilous was a matter of debate: the flight or his life.
One of the first solutions-to both-had been to design an aircraft which could transcend them after extensive research and analysis, entailing a ground-based trip along the Hudson River. Based upon its prevailing, northwesterly winds and relative lack of man-made obstructions, he decided to make the flight in a southerly direction, departing from Albany. Should he lose his engine immediately after take off, he had reasoned, his chances of a safe, emergency landing markedly improved in comparison to those offered by a New York departure.
The airplane intended to tackle the distance, appropriately named "Albany Flier," featured a bamboo pole frame; two canvas-covered wings; interplane ailerons; a dual, forward elevating plane; an open cockpit; a wooden propeller in pusher configuration; a tricycle undercarriage; and, in the event of a water landing, cork-filled pontoons. The engine was the most powerful Curtiss had ever designed.
Van Rennselaer Island, located on the southern edge of Albany, was a flat, obstructionless plain offering the most optimum conditions for take off, and the aircraft, transported in section-containing boxes, was assembled there several days before the actual event. Its exact day, however, had been subjected to winds and weather-and Curtiss's assessment of them. Resultantly, he targeted dawn because it usually brought the calmest conditions, but winds proved too formidable on three consecutive days until Sunday, May 29.
With the sky just opening its eyes to dawn, he equally opened his and concluded that the ideal conditions had presented themselves, subsequently traveling to the designated departure point by rail and changing into his flight gear in the makeshift tent he had erected at it. He later shared that the delays, culminating in the day's calm, clear conditions, led him to conclude, "it was now or never."
Starting his engine, performing a final check, and accelerating in the direction of the wind, as determined by the smoke rising from nearby factory stacks, he deflected the canard elevating surfaces and the Albany Flier surrendered to the air at 0702. For 1910, the journey had been the equivalent of today's global circumnavigation.
A white flag, raised from a warehouse, signaled the airplane's airborne status and alerted the New York Times-chartered train, carrying Curtiss's wife and members of his team, to commence its own flight-following movement on New York Central's east side Hudson River Line tracks.
Climbing to a 700-foot initial altitude, Curtiss cruised over the middle of the Hudson, as if it had been an open, blue road which led to Manhattan, later expressing, "I felt an immense sense of relief. The motor sounded like music."
Paralleling the train, the Albany Flier maintained about 50 mph in flawlessly-blue skies, but the primitive bird's lack of cockpit instrumentation forced Curtiss to sublimate senses to readings: speed was measured by the strength of the wind and altitude was an estimation of height above the ground.
The Poughkeepsie Bridge, hung across the river and located 87 miles from Albany, moved into view, roughly marking the journey's halfway point.
Bouncing on Camelot's open field at 0826, the Albany Flier decelerated at its first refueling stop, where prearranged gas and oil should have awaited it, but the flight's first hitch had materialized, with neither to be found.
Two New Jersey motorists driving their touring car on the nearby road offered to transfer eight gallons of gas and oil into spare cans and present them to Curtiss, who was now surrounded by hundreds of onlookers and his own team from the train, which had intermittently pulled on to a siding near Camelot.

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