New York: Aviation Pioneer
By Susan Ingalls Lewis
The story of aviation in the United States usually begins with the Wright Brothers and their famous flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903. Yet the Wrights, though they were the first to successfully test a flying machine, are only a small part of the story of the development of powered aircraft. New York State was actually at the center of aviation pioneering in the years between 1908 and 1929, with developments concentrated first near Keuka Lake, then on Hempstead Plains. This period of aviation history highlights New York as a center of innovation, leadership, competition, and capitalism.
The first name in New York aviation was Glenn H. Curtiss of Hammondsport New York (Steuben County) in the Finger Lakes region of the state. Curtiss became known as “The Fastest Man of Earth” in 1907, when the “Hercules” motorcycle he designed, built, and raced set a speed record of more than 136 miles per hour. By 1908, Curtiss had moved from motorcycles to flying, and began testing his planes by taking off on the frozen surface of Keuka Lake. When Scientific American organized a three-part contest that year, Curtiss set out to win all three competitions. “On July 4, 1908, the publication’s editors, along with members of the Aero Club of America traveled to the tiny hamlet of Hammondsport, N.Y., to witness the first pre-announced, public flight of an aircraft in America, the ‘June Bug,’ which won the first leg of the three-part competition” by flying in a straight line for 1 kilometer (.62 miles). Although the Wright brothers had preceded Curtiss’s flight by several years, his was the first scheduled, publicized test of an airplane. The following year Curtiss flew 25 kilometers (15 miles) in his “Golden Flyer” biplane to win the second stage of the contest. Finally, in 1910 he won both the third leg of the Scientific American competition in “The Albany Flyer,” which he piloted from Albany to New York City. Curtiss not only designed and flew his planes, but built the special high-powered, water-cooled V-8 engines that ran them.