Flight of the June Bug
On July 4, 1908, Glenn H. Curtiss, a hometown mechanical genius with a flair for speed, trundled a fragile, box kite-like contraption onto a half mile racetrack on the outskirts of Hammondsport, NY, and made the first pre-announced flight in America of a heavier-than-air flying machine.
In the flight demonstration, made under the auspices of the Aero Club of America, with the public, press and accredited aeronautical experts present, Curtiss flew a distance of almost a mile, swooping over vineyard stakes and barbed wire fences, 15 to 20 feet off the ground and landing in an open field.
This flight won him the Scientific American trophy for the first public flight in America of one kilometer, and has bestowed a kind of immortality on the small Hammondsport community which nestles on the shore of Keuka Lake, in the picturesque Finger Lakes region of New York State.
Curtiss quickly skyrocketed to fame in the new field of aeronautics, and subsequently made Hammondsport the scene of many other historic aviation advances, including the establishment of the Curtiss Aeroplane & Motor Company, the Curtiss Flying School, and development of the hydroaeroplane and flying boat. This early work on seaplanes, plus his association with the U. S. Navy, earned for Curtiss the title of Father of Naval Aviation.
Public interest in Curtiss's flight of July 4, 1908 stemmed from the fact that, although the Wright brothers had made their epochal first powered flight at Kitty Hawk, NC on Dec. 17, 1903, most of their work had been done with utmost secrecy at their home field near Dayton, Ohio. With few exceptions, only those closest to the Wrights actually had glimpsed the plane in flight.
When Curtiss, who had been collaborating with Dr. Alexander Graham Bell and others in an effort to develop a power-driven airplane, announced he was ready to make a public flight, great excitement arose. While Hammondsport, a modest lakeside village chiefly noted for its nearby vineyards and wine making, had scarcely 1,200 in population, Curtiss, the son of a local harness shop proprietor, had become known far and wide as a builder of motorcycles. He had set world's records and his motorcycle factory in Hammondsport was the village's principal industry. In 1907, as a result of his association with Alexander Graham Bell, Curtiss began delving into the field of flight. Curtiss and his associates built four airplanes, the "Red Wing", the "White Wing", the "June Bug" and the "Silver Dart". The Red Wing and the White Wing were both wrecked after successful, but short, flights.
The "June Bug", an improvement on the others, is reputed to have been named by Dr. Bell as the result of the color produced by coating the cotton cloth wings with brown shellac. The plane was driven by the same pusher-type Curtiss engine used previously on the "Red Wing" and the "White Wing". Also, as in the first two airplanes, the pilot sat in front of the engine on a perilously unprotected perch. The June Bug was the first airplane in America to be equipped with a steerable tricycle landing gear. It should be noted, however, that ailerons, which are also attributed to Curtiss, were first used on the "White Wing".
Curtiss himself set the date of the flight on the nation's birthday. As he expected, crowds poured in by horse and buggy from all over the countryside. His announcement also brought a distinguished official party from New York City by train, including Alan R. Hawley and Augustus Post of the Aero Club of America; Stanley Y. Beach, editor of the Scientific American; George H. Guy, secretary of the New York Society of Engineers; E. L. Jones, editor of the American Journal of Aeronautics; Wilbur R. Kimball, of the New York Aeronautical Society; Simon Lake, the submarine inventor; Charles M. Manley, and others including many newspaper representatives.
The site selected for the trial was a half-mile racetrack on what was known as Stony Brook Farm located in Pleasant Valley, two miles south of Hammondsport. It was one of the few level areas to be found in the vicinity, aside from the surface of Keuka Lake. The track was bordered by grape vines held up by stakes, and farm lands rimmed with barbed wire fences.
Misfortune seemed to dog the flight. The day arrived raw and windy, raining much of the time. To make matters worse, the previous afternoon the "June Bug" had crashed on a trial flight, damaging the wing and rudder. These were repaired after many hours of hard work. Late on the 4th, however, the weather broke and the blue skies appeared. The "June Bug" was rolled out of its tent. Curtiss climbed aboard and the engine was started. The plane started slowly down the muddy track, while a breathless silence fell over the crowd of about 1,000 persons. The plane rose steeply into the air before quickly settling to the ground. Undaunted, Curtiss and his crew dragged it back to the starting point, made an adjustment to the horizontal stabilizer, and tried again. The "June Bug" rose, this time more surely and steadily. It passed the half-mile mark and then the red flag denoting the full kilometer, but Curtiss kept on. 15 to 20 feet above the ground, he flew down the valley, turning right and left above the vineyard stakes and barbed wire, finally coming to a graceful landing almost a mile from the starting point.
He had been airborne for 1 minute, 42.5 seconds. Pandemonium broke loose among the crowd, and the official observers were equally delighted. The celebration lasted well into the night. The following day, Curtiss again flew the plane over the course, just to convince the scientists and the press that it was not a fluke. The Scientific American promptly awarded him the trophy and Curtiss became the first American to receive an aviation award. Records show that because of this flight, he also received from the Aero Club of America, pilot's license No.1, the first pilot's license granted in this country. Curtiss would go on to collect many national and international honors, while making huge contributions to the progress of American aviation.
Today, Glenn Curtiss remains a living memory in the quiet village of Hammondsport on Keuka Lake. Though no longer a center of aviation development, Hammondsport is referred to as
"The Cradle of Aviation" and Curtiss is remembered as the "Father of Naval Aviation" and the "Founder of the American Aircraft Industry".