The Wright Exhibition Team

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Famous Wright Airplane Flights

The Wrights formed the Wright Company on November 22, 1909, with Wilbur as president and Orville as a vice-president. The company manufactured airplanes, engines and accessories, operated a flying school, and in 1910, formed and managed an exhibition flying team.

Orville and Wilbur were not enthusiastic about setting up an exhibition team. They deliberated about it for a long time. They were urged by others to form a team, particularly by Roy Knabenshue, who argued that the Wrights should be represented at the many air meets who were touring the country. Knabenshue at the time was involved in demonstrating dirigibles at state fairs so he was knowledgeable about the exhibition business.

The Wrights’ were hesitant about what they termed the carnival-like atmosphere at the air meets and the “fancy flying – daredevil” flying aspect of it.

They were eventually swayed by the opportunity to showcase their technology and the opportunity to make some money and keep the company profitable.

On January 17, 1910 Wilbur sent a telegram to Knabenshue inviting him to manage the new Wright Exhibition Team. The first goal was to attend the air show at the new Indianapolis speedway to be held on June 13-19.

Mabel Beck was hired as secretary to Knabenshue. She later became secretary to Wilbur, and after his death, became secretary to Orville, staying with him until his death in 1948.

To meet the June date in Indianapolis, The Wrights’ decided to move the training of their pilots down south where the weather was warmer. They chose a site near Montgomery, Alabama, (Now Maxwell Air Force Base.)

Three of the original team members were from Dayton, Ohio. One of them was Walter Brookins, who the Wright brothers had known since he was four years old. The Wrights’ sister, Katharine, had taught him in high school. The Wrights’ had a nickname for him of “Brooky.”

The other members of the team were Spencer Crane from Dayton, Clifford Turpin from Dayton, Arch Hoxsey from California, Ralph Johnstone from Kansas City, Frank Coffyn from New York, Philip Parmelee from Michigan, and Al Welsh from Philadelphia and Washington D.C.

In March, Orville and five novice pilots arrived in Montgomery. Orville trained Brookins first and he thereby became the first civilian pilot trained by the Wright brothers. Brookins completed his training on May 3rd and did so well that Orville assigned him to instruct the remaining men.

Orville returned to Dayton with Welsh on April 9. Crane followed later after deciding that becoming a pilot was not for him.

In May it was warm enough in Dayton to move the entire training camp back to Dayton as they continued to prepare for the Air Show in Indianapolis.

The night before their first performance at the Indianapolis Speedway, the new pilots were handed contracts that specified they would receive $20 per week and $50 per day of flying. The pilots were not happy with the amount, but after some bickering, accepted the terms.

They were also told that there would be no drinking, gambling, and no flying on Sunday.

Brookins was the star of the show in Indianapolis. On the first day he broke the world’s altitude record, rising to 4,939 feet. He became famous for making short turns and flying circles close to the ground with wings at angles of up to 80 degrees.

Before long the team was performing across the U.S. and the money was good, earning a profit of over $100,000 in 1910.

Another important Air Show to the Wright brothers was the International Aviation Tournament at Long Island’s Belmont Park. The specific event that attracted the Wrights’ was the Gordon Bennett speed competition. Their archival Glenn Curtiss had won the speed prize the year before. The Wrights’ wanted to win this year to demonstrate to the world the superiority of the Wright airplanes.

The Wrights’ decided to design a new airplane for the race that was built for speed. They named it the “Baby Grand.” Orville flew it in a test before the big race and attained a speed of 78-mph.

Orville chose Brookins to fly the airplane for the actual race. On Brookins’s first pass before the grandstand with Wilbur, Orville and the entire racing team intently watching, the engine started making a strange sound. The airplane began coming down too fast and although Brookins was able to level the machine, it hit the ground hard. The Baby Grand was destroyed. It turned out that the cause of the accident was that the engine had lost four of its eight cylinders.

Brookins was badly bruised, but not serious injured. The winner of the race, it turns out, flew 10-mph slower than the Wrights’ machine had flown before the race.

The Wright team also experiences an unusual event at Belmont Park. Johnstone and Hoxsey were competing with each other to establish a new altitude record. The winds were fierce that day and when the two pilots turned into the wind they were blown backwards. Hoxsey landed 25-miles from the airport. Johnstone was blown even farther backwards and landed 55-miles away. Johnstone did achieve a new altitude record.

The Wright airplanes were attracting a lot of publicity with their daredevil stunts, but Wilbur and Orville were becoming concerned about the dangerous showmanship.

Wilbur pulled Hoxsey and Johnson aside and warned them: “I am very much in earnest when I say that I want no stunts and spectacular frills put on the flights — Anything beyond plain flying will be chalked up as a fault and not a credit.”

The warning had little effect. On New Years Eve in Los Angles, Hoxsey had started to descend at a steep angle of about 80 degrees from the 100-foot level and never pulled up before hitting the ground. Hoxsey was killed.

Hoxsey will be remembered for taking President Theodore Roosevelt for his first airplane ride in October 1910.

The Wrights’ began to question whether they should continue the exhibition business. Even Katharine was upset. She commented, “New Year’s day was a night-mare for all. I am so sick of this exhibition business. It is so absolutely wrong.”

By mid year Orville reviewed the exhibition business and concluded that the profits were down. Wilbur responded that, “If it appears the exhibition business is not really profitable, my idea would be to get out of it as soon as possible.”

In November 1911 they closed the exhibition business.

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