Spectacular Flight Ends in Grim Death

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Wright Contemporaries

Ralph Johnstone, 24, a member of the Wright Brothers’ Exhibition Team and holder of the World’s Altitude Record of 9,714 feet, was the first professional American pilot killed in a crash. The location was Overland Park, Denver, Colorado on November 17, 1910.

Fifteen thousand spectators at first his cheered his sudden descent, believing it was a part of his act, only to be horrified when he plunged into the ground and was crushed under his machine.

Johnstone of Kansas City was a former a trick cyclist who since the age of 15, had performed acts such as flipping in midair after riding his cycle up a springboard. He joined the exhibition team May 1910 and became one of the team’s most daring pilots.

His most thrilling stunt was called the “spiral glide.” The spectators got their thrill’ but on this occasion it cost Johnstone his life.

Johnstone was visiting his uncle in Dayton just prior to his departure for Denver. His uncle, W. M. Federman, made a prescient remark, “I’ll receive a telegram one of these days to come after your remains.”

“Not mine,” said Johnstone, shaking his relative’s hand and smiling. “When I make a flight, I have my plans well laid. Before I leave the ground I know exactly what I am going to do. Don’t worry about me being injured.”

What happened on the fateful day was described in the Dayton Daily News on Nov. 18, 1910.

Johnstone took off and after a few circuits of the course to gain height, headed toward the foothills. Still ascending, he swept back in a big circle and as he reached the north end of the enclosure he started his spiral glide.

He was then at an altitude of about 800 feet. With his wings tilted at an angle of almost 90 degrees, he swooped down in a narrow circle, the aeroplane seeming to turn almost in its own length.

As he started the second circle the middle strut, which braces the left side of the lower wing, gave way and the wing tips of both upper and lower wings folded up as though they had been hinged.

For a second Johnstone attempted to right the plane by warping the other wing tip. Then horrified spectators saw the plane swerve like a wounded bird and plunge straight toward earth.

Johnstone was thrown from his seat as the nose of the plane swung downward. He caught on one of the wire stays between planes and grasped one of the wooden braces of the upper wing with both hands. Then working with hands and feet, he fought by main strength to warp the planes so that their surfaces might catch the air and check his descent. For a second it seemed that he might succeed, for the helmet he wore blew off and fell much more rapidly than the plane.

The hope was momentary, however, for about 300 feet from the ground the machine turned completely over and the spectators fled wildly as the broken plane, with the aviator still fighting grimly in its mesh of wires and stays, plunged among them with a crash.

Scarcely had Johnstone hit the ground before morbid men and women swarmed over the wreckage, fighting with each other for souvenirs. One of the broken wooden stays had gone almost through Johnstone’s body. Before doctors or police could reach the scene one man had torn this splinter from the body and run away, carrying his trophy with the aviator’s blood dropping from its ends.

The crowd tore away the canvas from over the body, and even fought for the gloves that had protected Johnstone’s hands from the cold.

The machine fell on the opposite side of the field from the grandstand and there was but a few hundred near the spot, but physicians and police were rushed across as soon as possible. Physicians declare that death must have been instantaneous as Johnstone’s back, neck, and both legs were broken, the bones of his thigh being forced through the flesh and the leather garments he wore.

Arch Hoxsey, a fellow Wright team member, was in the air at an altitude of 2500 feet when the accident occurred. As he swung down the other end of the course he saw that Johnstone had fallen and guided his machine directly over the body of his friend. He descended as soon as he could bring his plane to the ground and rushed to the wreckage, where he and Walter Brookins, the Wright team leader, helped lift the mangled form to an automobile which brought it to the city.

Many spectators were watching Hoxsey’s flight and did not see Johnstone’s machine collapse, but a woman’s shriek, “My God. He’s gone,” drew every eye in time to see him dashed to death upon the ground. The band in the grandstand blaring away under contract never ceased to play, and Johnstone’s body was taken out of the enclosure with the strains of a ragtime melody for a funeral march. (End of Dayton Daily New article)

Orville and Wilbur had been concerned by the ever more dangerous stunts the team was performing and made repeated warning to their pilots. When Orville first saw the “Spiral Dip” performed, he exclaimed, “Cut It Out!”

The brothers had calculated the exact pressure the machines would sustain and they told the boys (pilots) never to tilt their machines more than 45 degrees.

Wilbur said of Johnstone that the trouble with him is that he will never be content with equaling the achievements of a rival. “He must always excel. There is no way of holding him in. Orders mean nothing to him.”

In September Wilbur tried to reign him in with a terse letter. He wrote the following letter to Hoxsey and Johnstone:

“I am very much in earnest when I say that I want no stunts and spectacular frills put on the flights there (Detroit). If each of you can make a plain flight of ten to fifteen minutes each day keeping always within the inner fence wall away from the grandstand and never more than three hundred feet high; it will be just what we want. Under no circumstances make more than one flight each day apiece. Anything beyond plain flying will be chalked up as a fault and not as a credit.”

But Hoxsey and Johnston, dubbed the “Stardust Twins” by the press for their spectacular altitude duels, knew that the crowd didn’t come to see sedate circles. Their competitive spirit drove them to show off for the crowd.

Johnstone couldn’t even follow his own advice in Denver. The day before his deadly crash, he declared that he would not attempt any tricks the next day because he felt it was too dangerous in the high altitude.

Johnstone’s widow, whom he had met and married in Paris, received the news of his death from Wilbur who was in New York at the time where Mrs. Johnstone lived with their two children. Orville was on his way to Europe on an ocean liner.

Mrs. Johnstone telegraphed to Denver to hold the body there until her arrival, but Wilbur persuaded her to have it sent to Kansas City, where his parents lived. She remarked, “I never was worried about Ralph. He was so brave and careful. It seemed nothing could happen to him. I did not take into consideration a mishap to his machine.”

Wilbur sent a telegram to Walter Brookins stating that he was leaving in company with Mrs. Johnstone for Kansas City and instructed Brookins to have the body sent to the city at once. He also requested Brookins to call off the meet, providing the Denver officials consented.

They didn’t and the show went on.

It wouldn’t have surprised Johnstone that the show continued the next day. In an interview published in the New York Times eleven days before his fatal crash he was frank with his comments:

“I fly to survive. If I were not obliged there, I would not do it. I am fatalistic. I believe that the hour of each one is fixed in advance, but for those which are attracted by the plays of the sky, it comes early. The only means of cheating it is to give up. But if it is written that you must continue, you cannot release. I say it to you, people who come to see us, want emotions. And if we fall, do you believe that they think of us and cry over our fate at all..”

Mrs. Johnstone showed she had some of the same daring as her late husband. In September 1911 she decided to take pilot lessons to master the machine that killed her husband. At the time there were only two licensed female pilots in America — Mathilde Moisant and Harriet Quimby.

Hoxsey was the next Wright flyer to die. He was performing in Los Angeles and crashed on December 31 in a manner similar to Johnstones’. Six of the Wright’s team would die in crashes before 1912 was half over. Eleven months after Hoxsey’s death the Wights had had enough even though they were making good profits on the exhibition circuit. They dissolved the team in November 1912.

The Wright Company paid monthly annuities to the widows of the team members.

Some critics claimed that the Wright planes were flawed. But the Dayton built machines were the sturdiest in the air. The problem was that the planes were less stable and therefore gave the pilots absolute control. The planes would do exactly what the pilots asked them to do.

By October 14, 1911 there had been 100 fatal airplane crashes worldwide.

It didn’t help that none of the planes had seat belts at the time. In fact Brookins believes that Johnstone and Hoxsey fell out of their seats while still alive. Wilbur concurred with his observation.

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