Hudson Flyer

The New York World has paid $10,000.00 for Mr. Curtiss’ ticket from Albany to New York – when it might have brought him down by train for just $4.65.

The Birmingham News June 1st, 1910

Quite an undertaking

To fly from Albany to New York City was quite an undertaking in the summer of 1910. I realised that success would depend upon a dependable motor and a reliable aeroplane.

In preparation for the task, therefore, I set the factory at Hammondsport to work to build a new machine. While awaiting its completion, I took a trip up the Hudson from New York to Albany to look over the course and to select a place about half way between the two cities where I could land for gasoline and oil if necessary.

There are very few places for an aeroplane to land with safety around New York City. The official final landing place, stipulated in the conditions drawn up by the New York World, was to be Governor’s Island, but I wanted to know of another place on the upper edge of the city where I might come down if it should prove necessary. I looked all over the upper end of Manhattan Island, and at last found a little meadow on a hillside at Inwood. It was small and sloping, but had the advantage of being within the limits of New York City. It proved to be a fortunate choice.

Curtiss Factory
Proud craftsmen with the Flyer at Glenn Curtiss’ Hammondsport NY factory.

The flying machine man

There was quite a party of us aboard the Hudson river boat leaving New York City one day in May for the trip to Albany. I approached an officer and asked several questions about the weather conditions on the river, and particularly the prevailing winds at that time of year.

Incidentally, I remarked that I was contemplating a trip up the river from New York to Albany in an aeroplane. The officer answered all my questions courteously, but it was evident to all of us that he believed I was crazy. He took me to the captain and introduced me, saying “Captain, this is Mr. Curtiss, the flying machine man; that’s all I know,” in a tone that clearly indicated that he disclaimed all responsibility as to anything I might do or say.

The captain was very kind and courteous, asking us to remain in the pilot house for a better view of the country along the way. He answered all our questions about the winds along the Hudson and seemed to enter heartily until we approached the great bridge at Poughkeepsie. I began to deliberate whether it would be better to pass over or beneath it in the aeroplane. Then it seemed to dawn upon the captain that I was actually intending to fly down the river in an aeroplane. Thereafter his answers were vague and given without interest.

Glenn Curtiss at the controls, most likely at Reims in 1909
Glenn Curtiss at the controls of his plane, undated, but most likely during the Gordon Bennett races at Reims, France in 1909. LC-B2- 1039-8

Albany afforded a better starting place than New York, because there were convenient spots where one might land before getting well under way. This was not true of the situation at New York City. The prevailing winds seemed to be in favour of Albany as the starting place, and I finally decided to have everything sent up to the capital city.

On my way up I had stopped at Poughkeepsie, in order to select a landing place. We visited the State Hospital for the Insane, which seemed to be a good place to land. Dr. Taylor, the superintendent, showed us about the grounds, and when told him I intended stopping there on my way down the river in a flying machine, he said with much cordiality: “Why, certainly, Mr. Curtiss, come right in here. Here’s where all the flying machine inventors land.”

Notwithstanding the Doctor’s cordial invitation to “drop in on him” we went to the other side of Poughkeepsie, and found a fine open field at a place called Camelot. Arrangements were made for gasoline, water, and oil to be brought to the field in readiness.

“Curtiss gives us a pain in the neck”

I shall always remember Albany as the starting place of my first long cross-country flight. My machine was brought over from Hammondsport and set up; the Aero Club sent up its official representatives, Mr. Augustus Post and Mr. Jacob L. Ten Eyck, and the newspapers of New York City sent a horde of reporters.

A special train was engaged to start from Albany as soon as I got under way, carrying the newspapermen and the Aero Club representatives, as well as several invited guests. This train was intended to keep even with me along the entire trip, but as it turned out, it had some trouble living up to its schedule.

A mediocre image of the Hudson Flyer, but one that shows the flotation devices added specially for the river flight.
A mediocre image of the Hudson Flyer, but one that shows the flotation devices added specially for the river flight.

The aeroplane, christened the ‘Hudson Flier’, was set up on Rensselaer Island. It was now up to the weather man to furnish conditions I considered suitable.

The weather bureau promised repeatedly, “fair weather, with light winds” but couldn’t live up to the promises. For three days I got up at daybreak, while the newspapermen and officials, not to mention crowds of curious spectators, rubbed the sleep out of their eyes before sun-up and all went out to Rensselaer Island, but the wind was there before us and blew all day long.

I spent the time going over every nut, bolt, and turnbuckle on the machine with shellac. Nothing was overlooked; everything was made secure. I had confidence in the machine. I knew I could land on the water if it became necessary, as I had affixed two light pontoons to the lower plane, one on either end, and a hydro-surface under the front wheel of the landing gear. This would keep me afloat some time should I come down in the river.

We bothered the life out of the weather observer at Albany, but he was always very kind and took pains to get weather reports from every point along the river.

1868 strip map of the Hudson River Valley
(Click for full size) A delightful 1868 strip map of the Hudson River valley as it was before 20th Century development.

However the newspapermen lost faith and grew tired of the delay. One of those at Albany offered to lay odds with the others that I would not make a start. Others believed I was looking for free advertising. One of the Poughkeepsie papers printed an editorial which it said: “Curtiss gives us a pain in the neck. All those who are waiting to see him go down the river are wasting their time.”

The machine was the centre of interest at Albany during the wait. One young fellow gazed at it so long and so intently that he finally fell over backwards insensible and it was some time before he was restored to consciousness.

Just like a real race

Our period of waiting almost ended on Saturday morning, May 30th. The ‘Hudson Flier’ was brought out of its tent, groomed and fit; the special train stood ready with steam up; and the newspapermen were watching eagerly for the aeroplane to set out on its long and hazardous flight.

Then the wind came up. Not more than a breeze at first, it grew stronger and reports from downstream told of a strong wind blowing up the river. This would have meant a head gale all the way to New York, so everything was called off and we all went over and visited the State Capitol. The newspapermen swallowed their disappointment and hoped for better things on the morrow.

Sunday proved to be the day. The morning was calm and bright. News from down the river was favourable. It was now or never. Shortly after eight o’clock the motor was turned over and I was off!

As I got up and away from Rensselaer Island, the air was calm, the motor sounded like music and the machine handled perfectly.

I kept a close lookout for the special train, and pretty soon caught sight of it whirling along on the tracks by the river. I veered toward it and flew along with the locomotive for miles. It was no effort at all to keep up, even though the train was making fifty miles an hour. It was just like a real race and I enjoyed the contest. At times I would gain as the train swung around a short curve while I continued on in an air line.

All along the river, I caught glimpses of people with their faces turned skyward, their attitudes betokening the amazement which could not be read in their faces at that distance. Boatmen on the river swung their caps in mute greeting, while now and then a river tug with a long line of scows in tow, sent greetings in a blast of white steam, indicating there was the sound of a whistle behind. But I heard nothing but the steady, even roar of the motor in perfect rhythm, and the whirr of the propeller. Not even the noise of the speeding special train only a few hundred feet below reached me, although I could see every turn of the great drive-wheels on the engine.

A welcome landmark

On we sped, the train and the aeroplane, representing a century of the history of transportation, until Hudson had been past. Here as the train took a wide sweeping curve away from the river bank, I increased my lead perceptibly and soon lost sight of the special.

It seemed but a few minutes until the great bridge at Poughkeepsie came into view. It was a welcome landmark, for I knew that I had covered more than half the journey and that I must stop to replenish the gasoline. I might have gone on and taken a chance on having enough fuel, but this was not the time for taking chances. There was too much at stake.

Poughkeepsie Bridge, cc1900
“The great bridge at Poughkeepsie” captured on a photochrom postcard from around 1900. (via wikipedia)

 

I steered straight for the centre of the Poughkeepsie bridge and passed a hundred and fifty feet above it. The entire population of Poughkeepsie had turned out, apparently, and resembled swarms of busy ants, running here and there, waving their hats and hands.

I kept close watch for the place where I had planned to turn off and make a landing. A small pier jutting into the river was the mark I had chosen and it soon came into view. I made a wide circle and turned inland, over a clump of trees, and landed on the spot. But the gasoline and oil which I expected to find were not there. I saw no one for a time, but soon a number of men came running across the fields and a number of automobiles turned off the road and raced toward the aeroplane. I asked for some gasoline and an automobile hurried away to bring it.

Here, the wind was nasty

I could scarcely hear and there was a continual ringing in my ears. This was the effect of the roaring motor, and strange to say, this did not cease until the motor was started again. From that time on there was no disagreeable sensation. The special train reached the Camelot field shortly after I landed and soon the newspapermen, the Aero Club officials, and the guests came climbing up the hill from the river, all eager to extend their congratulations.

Henry Kleckler, acting as my mechanic, who had come along on the special train, looked over the machine carefully, testing every wire, testing the motor out, and taking every precaution to make the remainder of the journey as successful as the first half. The gasoline having arrived, and the tank being refilled, the special train got under way; once more I rose into the air, and the final lap of the journey was on.

NSAP271_EXTR
Eager New Yorkers follow the Hudson Flyer’s remarkable progress via regular updates from the special media train.

 

At the start I climbed high above the river, then dropped down closer to the water to feel out the air currents, before choosing an altitude of five hundred to seven hundred feet. Everything went along smoothly until I came within sight of West Point.

Here, the wind was nasty and shook me up considerably. Gusts shot out from the rifts between the mountains and made extremely rough riding. The worst spot was encountered between Storm King and Dunderberg, where the river is narrow and the mountains rise abruptly to more than a thousand feet on either side. The atmosphere seemed to tumble about like water rushing through a narrow gorge. A little farther along, after I had dropped down close to the water, one blast tipped a wing dangerously high, and I almost touched the river. I thought my trip was about to end, and made a quick mental calculation as to the length of time it would take a boat to reach me.

Hudson Flyer
Curtiss’ Hudson Flyer, which would be prototype for the hugely successful ‘headless’ Curtiss Model D pusher.

The danger passed as quickly as it had come, however, and the machine righted itself and kept on. Down by the Palisades we soared, rising above the steep cliffs on the western side. Whenever I could give my attention to things other than the machine, I kept watch for the special train. Now and then I caught glimpses of it whirling along the bank of the river, but for the greater part of the way I outdistanced it.

No place to land

Soon I caught sight of the skyscrapers that make the skyline of New York City. First the tall frame of the Metropolitan Tower, then the lofty Singer building. These landmarks looked mighty good to me, for I knew that, given a few more minutes’ time, I would finish the flight.

Approaching Spuyten Duyvil, just above the Harlem river, I looked at my oil gauge and discovered that the supply was almost exhausted. I dared not risk going on to Governor’s Island, some fifteen miles farther, for once past the Harlem river there would be no place to land. So I took a wide sweep across the river and put in over the Harlem river, looking for the little meadow at Inwood which I had picked out some two weeks before.

There I landed on the sloping hillside, and went immediately to a telephone to call up the New York World. I told them I had landed within the city limits and was coming down to Governor’s Island soon.

I got more oil and someone from the crowd, which gathered as if by magic, turned my propeller, and I got away again safely.

Portrait made around 1911.   LC-USZ62-49641.
Portrait made around 1911. LC-USZ62-49641.

From the extreme northern limits of New York to Governor’s Island, at the southern limits, was the most inspiring part of the trip. New York can turn out a million people quicker than any other place on earth, and it certainly looked as though half the population was along Riverside Drive or on top of the thousands of apartment houses that stretch along the river. Every craft on the river turned on its siren and faint sounds of the clamour reached me even above the roar of my motor.

It seemed but a moment until the Statue of Liberty came into view. I turned westward, circled the Lady with the Torch and alighted safely on the parade ground on Governor’s Island.

On the trip down from Albany I carried a letter from the mayor of that city to Mayor Gaynor, and delivered it in less time than it would have taken the fastest mail train. My actual flying time was 2 hours, 51 minutes, the distance 152 miles, and the average speed 52 miles an hour.

 

THIS ARTICLE is from Glenn Curtiss’ own account of his 1910 flight, as published in The Curtiss Aviation Book, by Glenn H Curtiss, 1912. You can download a copy here.

Feature Image: Hudson Flyer, prototype for the hugely successful ‘headless’ Curtiss Model D pusher.

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