Learning to Fly in 1912

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in History of Flight

The Wright brothers owned a flying school at Nassau Boulevard, Long Island, New York. This is a true story of James, who was undergoing pilot training at the school. His instructor was Kellum, who was a former star pilot for the Wrights’.

James and Kellum arrived at the flying field early in the morning to begin the day’s training. They started early because the morning air is calmer and thus easier to fly in. Also, there were fewer spectators and therefore less danger of running them down when they ran onto the field, as they were apt to do.

James jumped into the pilot’s seat, grasped the controls rather theatrically and shouted to the mechanicians, “All right, start her up!”

Two men in blue overalls took hold of the wooden propellers.

Others grasped the tail of the machine and dug their heels in the grass with the evident intent of holding it a captive.

The instructor, Kellum, put his hands to his mouth and shouted:

“Remember James, don’t leave the ground? Just cross the field and shut off your engine at the other end.” He then nodded his head to the figures in overalls.

Instantly they twisted the propellers, casually at first, as if expecting no result. Then they whirled them harder, and a feeble coughing emanated from the engine.

Harder, and harder, and the cough grew into a grumble, a snarl; an angry roaring. Then the motor began to explode freely and the two propellers slashed through the air.

Now, the machine was trembling — an inanimate thing, suddenly given life, swaying slightly, eager to spring forward.

Behind the propellers the grass was blown flat; the men were clinging to the tail, pulling as one does in a tug of war.

The explosions increased in volume; a bluish smoke drifted between the planes.

The instructor waved his hands to signal the men to release their hold and some of them fell face forward as the machine jumped across the grass.

Down the field it hopped, gathering speed with every turn of the propellers.

Kellum explained, “That is what we call grass cutting. After they teach a fledgling the principles of the aeroplane and his mechanical knowledge is perfect, they let him drive over the grass.”

“The purpose of grass cutting is to give the student the instinct for control and to accustom him to the feel of the machine. Before the student acquires these things any attempt to fly would be dangerous and foolhardy.”

“The student spends days at this and later weeks at simply lifting a few feet and coming down. James, for instance, would no more attempt to leave than a spectator would.”

“Some day soon I will tell him he is equipped to fly and then he will, but not before.”

Kellum looked to see what had become of James, the grass cutter, and was shocked to observe that the biplane was headed for a fence. The motor was roaring and James was apparently making no attempt to shut it off.

Kellum exclaimed, “Oh! He is going up!”

Vividly against the spreading gold of the eastern sky you could make out the silhouette of the aeroplane as it rose from the ground. Farther and farther it went. Soon, all you could see was a black dot in the sky apparently headed for Garden City.

Then James tipped his wings one above the other and the machine banked and turned level with the horizon, and turning again came flying back toward the airfield.

Louder and louder grew the droning of the engine and all of the sudden he was over the airfield.

Kellum shouted: “Come down! Come down!” He forgot that he couldn’t be heard over the noise of the engine.

The machine turned and swooped down the field, crossing the horizon as it had done before and soaring back toward the airfield. Again the circuit was completed.

James’s mastery of the biplane was perfect; the turns were wonderfully executed; a level keel was kept.

The mechanicians were talking excitedly and gesticulating, marveling at the superb driving.

Kellum was not so happy. He knew that James was unfitted to be swooping above the field. Only kind Providence must be guiding the machine. It was a serious breach of the discipline of the school. Other students seeing James’s success, might venture into the air and possibly kill themselves

“We will have to expel James.”

James had turned and he was waving frantically with his left hand as if it was a sign of triumph as he flew overhead and down the field.

Suddenly one of the mechanicians darted to his side. “Hurry!” He shouted. “Run down the field. He’s trying to tell us that he wants to come down, and he wants us over there to stop him.”

Already the figures in blue were swarming over the grass. The biplane was descending.

“Shut off your motor!” somebody yelled. The cylinders continued rumbling, however, swooping down, the machine dashed across the grass. The mechanicians threw themselves on the tail and with their weight managed to bring the machine to a halt.

Still the engine was roaring and the propellers hacking.

“Shut off the engine! Shut off!” yelled Kellum.

Then one of the mechanicians reached in and moved the throttle, and the mad whirling of the propellers ceased.

James rose stiffly in his seat, and, stepping out, he sank to the ground exhausted.

People were congratulating him for his wonderful flight when Kellum, scowling, shouldered himself through the crowd. “What did you go up for?”

“I couldn’t stop the motor when I got to the other end of the field,” said James weakly. “I broke the throttle cord. If I hadn’t gone up, I would have smashed into the fence. It was my only chance.”

“Nonsense!” said Kellum, “If you’d simply pressed your foot against the brake it would have cut of the magneto and the engine would have stopped!”

James looked at him in wide-mouthed amazement. “So I could,” he grinned, sheepishly. “I never thought of that.”

Whereupon Kellum cast his hands overhead in a gesture of helplessness.

Such was one event at the flying school.

Student pilots paid $500 tuition. But that was just the beginning. Any item broken, including a whole machine had to be paid for by the student. The machines were valued at $5,000. Students also had to pay their own medical bills, if injured.

The instructors were often paid as much as $200 a week. They also received a special fee every time they left the ground in an airplane.

Reference: Harper’s Weekly, 1912.

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