Coffyn Flies Under the Manhattan Bridge

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Honoring the Wright Brothers

Frank T. Coffyn left the Wright Exhibition Team in 1912 to pursue other flying opportunities. His new adventure would lead to fortifying his reputation as one of the most famous of the early pilots.

The change in vocation came about when a Detroit financier, Russell A. Alger, wanted to buy a Wright airplane and hire Coffyn as his instructor. There was one problem though and that was that the Wrights at the time were not selling airplanes to private individuals.

Alger, however, was able to persuade Wilbur to sell him an airplane. It helped that the Wright Company’s general manager, Frank Russell, was Alger’s cousin.

In addition to teaching Alger to fly, Coffyn took advantage of other opportunities. One of them was a contract to take pictures of New York City from the air for the Vitagraph Co. Initially, the head of the company, J. Stuart Blackton and other company officials were skeptical that it could be done. They thought that Coffyn might be choosing a spectacular way of committing suicide.

He assured them that he could do it.

Wilbur had flown two years earlier in the fall of 1909 during the Hudson-Fulton Celebration. His flight took him around the statue of liberty and up the Hudson River to Grant’s Tomb and back.

But this time it was winter and there was ice in the Hudson River and Coffyn planned to fly off the water.

To accomplish this risky task, Coffyn designed and installed pontoons on Alger’s Wright Model B airplane. Alger and his brother paid for the reconstruction. They said it was “solely in the interests of aviation.”

A crank to start the engine was also added because the airplane would be sitting in the water and no one would be able stand in the water to turn the propellers over.

On February 6, 1912 Coffyn was ready for his first flight. The machine sat on the Hudson River at the foot of 23rd St. The temperature was ten degrees and there was ice in the water so the plane had to be towed by a river tug to open water to take off.

The tug was filled with newspaper reporters. Coffyn said that it didn’t make a difference to them whether I went up or under. They had a good story either way – but “it made a difference to me.”

The take off was successful. “Underneath me the sirens of the ferry boats, tugs and other craft shrieked the city’s welcome to me.” Coffyn flew for about 20 minutes on this first trial flight.

On the second flight of the day, Coffyn flew to a height of 1500 feet and circled the Statue of Liberty several times.

Then he returned and picked up a photographer, Adrian C. Duff. The extra weight made the climb much slower and water sprayed over them from the waves. Duff suffered severely from the cold and Coffyn reported that part of him was actual ice.

Duff set two world records that day. He was the first passenger to be carried over New York Harbor and the first photographer to take pictures of it from an airplane.

Despite the extreme weather conditions, Duff took 9 pictures and obtained 5 excellent pictures including pictures of Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty and Governors Island. The pictures were published in many newspapers.

The Wright airplane had performed extremely well despite the buffeting of the stiffest winds that Coffyn said he ever encountered.

The still pictures were such a success, Coffyn decided to take motion pictures. Taking motion pictures required the cameraman to turn a crank at a constant rate. This would be difficult task in an airplane, so Coffyn designed a little electric motor to turn the crank.

The electric motor had another advantage; it eliminated the need for a photographer and thus saved precious weight.

The flight that received the most publicity was the one in which Coffyn was the first to fly under the Brooklyn Bridge on February 13. It was another frigid day and the pontoons had frozen to the raft. They had to be chopped free.

He first flew over the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. He then returned to fly under them. At the Manhattan Bridge, Coffyn reported he misjudged his distance and almost hit the bridge. He said could see a policeman looking down at him.

At he passed under the Brooklyn Bridge he tried to compensate and flew too close for comfort to the water. He barely missed the stacks of a tug and a ferryboat. The force of nearby welcoming tugboat whistles nearly lifted him out of his seat and he dropped the camera and a precious roll of film into the water.

The flights were a great success and the films shot for Vitagraph did well and were shown all over the world.

The Wrights were pleased with Coffyn’s success. Wilbur even traveled to New York in March and witnessed some of them along with thousands of other spectators.

Coffyn said he performed some extra stunts he hadn’t performed previously in New York while Wilbur was watching because he wanted his commendation before anything else.

Wilbur told reporters, “There are great things in store for the hydro-plane in the future.”

Reference: “Flying with the Wrights,” by Frank T. Coffyn, World’s Work Magazine, Dec. 1929-Jan. 1930.

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