Ralph Johnstone, Daredevil Wright Pilot

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Famous Aviators

Ralph Johnston was a member of the first group of five members of the Wright brother’s exhibition team. He had the personality for such an adventure. At the age of 15 he became a trick bicyclist. His specialty was riding his bike up a springboard and performing a flip in midair. His tolerance for risk may have been his downfall. He would die in an airplane crash while performing within six months.

The team’s debut in an air show was at the Indianapolis Speedway in June 13, 1910. Two weeks later Johnstone set a new Canadian endurance record in Montreal. He was making a reputation as a fearless flyer.

The high risk flying began to take its toll. In August at Asbury Park, New Jersey, Johnstone flying a Model B Flyer for the fist time and crashed into parked cars while landing. Arch Hoxsey, another team member, had an accident that injured spectators at the Wisconsin State Fair.

Orville and Wilbur were becoming concerned about the risk their flyers were taking. Wilbur wanted plan flying and wrote a letter warning them. “I am very much in earnest when I say that I want no stunts and spectacular frills —.”

The admonition had little effect as they continued their stunts. The competitive juices flowed too strongly.

In October, Johnstone was sent to Richmond, Virginia to perform at their county fair. He was the current celebrity on the team, holding world’s altitude record of 9,714 feet.

The highlight of the flying exhibition at the fair was to be Richmond’s Mayor, David Richardson, flying as a passenger with Johnstone on the third day of the three-day exhibition. Richardson decided to make the flight over his wife’s objection.

On the day of the Mayor’s planned flight Johnstone’s program of flight was conservative and he had experienced no problems. He promised to be careful with the Mayor and not try anything fancy.

The only worry among the 50,000 spectators was whether Johnstone could get the airplane off the ground with the overweight mayor as a passenger. Johnstone assured everyone that there wasn’t any problem and there wasn’t.

Before being strapped in his seat, Mayor Richardson announced to the crowd: “I’m not taking this trip up into the air for notoriety, but as the personal representative of Richmond.” He continued, “I’m going up to keep her in the front rank in the march of progress.”

The flight was going well as Johnstone circled 50 feet over the grandstand. Then the unexpected happened. The mayor caught up in excitement raised his free hand to wave. His arm hit the exposed fuel line with such force that it broke. Immediately the engine stopped.

The airplane glided down to about 20-feet above the ground then crashed. The crowd was silent as people rushed to the wreck.

Fortunately, it looked worse than it was. Both men were stunned but not seriously hurt.

Johnstone and the team went on to fly in other flying exhibitions. The dangerous stunts continued and so did the accidents. Johnstone performed what was called the “Dive of Death.” He would dive from 1,000-feet with a pullout at the last possible minute.

On November 17 Johnstone’s flirting with death came to an end in Denver. He went into a spiraling dive and never pulled out. His body was smashed beyond recognition. He was the first American pilot to die in an airplane crash.

Before fellow team member Arch Hoxsey could reach the wreck, spectators had stripped Johnstone’s body of his gloves and other clothing items.

Hoxsey died of similar circumstances as Johnstone six weeks later in Los Angeles.

The cause of the crash could have been Johnstone falling out of seat during his dive. Airplanes of that period didn’t have seat belts. Harriet Quimby, the first woman to fly the English Channel was thrown out of her airplane over Boston Harbor and killed in 1912.

Profits began to decline while death and injury among pilots continued to decline. Five of nine aviators on the Wright payroll died in the crash of Wright airplanes. The Wrights dissolved the exhibition team in November 1911.

Reference: “With a Wave to the crowd, mayor nearly said farewell, by Larry Hall, Richmond-Times Dispatch, March 1, 2006.

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