Friday, November 16, 2012

Those Magnificent Men

There's a first time for everything, and unfortunately, that includes the first time someone dies doing something new. November 17th is the anniversary of one of those sad pioneering moments.

After building and flying their first heavier-than-air vehicle in 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright found themselves in a logistics pickle. In order to build more aircraft, they'd need to sell aircraft  so they would have capital to construct new planes. Unlike their bicycle-buying customers in Ohio, new aircraft customers probably had never seen a demonstration of the product the Wrights were trying to market. Since Orville and Wilbur were the only people on the planet who knew how to pilot a Wright Flyer, it was difficult, if not impossible, for the brothers to give demonstration flights across the country while trying to manufacture new aircraft.

The obvious solution was to establish an aircraft flying school, where novice pilots could learn the rudiments of operating Wright biplanes and take these new-found skills on the road, or rather, to the air. So, on March 19, 1910, Orville Wright set up an aviation camp along the banks of the Alabama River in Montgomery, Alabama. His first order of business for the school was to train 10 newly hired employees who would act as a flying exhibition team across the country.
Orville Wright (3rd from right, in pitched-back straw hat)
conducting a class at the Wright Aviation School in Montgomery.
Two of the employees at the Montgomery flight school were naturals for the aerial exhibition field. Archibald Hoxsey, a 26-year-old mechanic from central Illinois, impressed the Wright brothers so much that he was assigned a teaching job when the school opened. Hoxsey understood the nature of aircraft piloting so well, he became the first person to fly an aircraft at night. Ralph Johnstone, a 30-year-old former vaudeville trick bicycle rider, was a quick learner, too, and had a knack for acrobatic maneuvers.

Wright Exhibition Team Member Arch Hoxsey (right) explains
aeronautics to a Mr. Theodore Roosevelt in St. Louis, Oct 11, 1910.

The 10 Wright employees became instant celebrities as they toured the country in their new Wright flyers. Hundreds, even thousands of spectators would jam state fairgrounds and horse race tracks to watch the daring aviators take off, soar, swoop, dive, and land. Aviation skeptics would be converted by just a glimpse of Johnstone and Hoxsey tracing figure eights in the sky. Wright pilots  crisscrossed the country, turning the fanciful idea of flying men into a vivid, undeniable reality.
Ralph Johnstone in a Wright Flyer, demonstrating aerial reality to the crowds.

The true nature of flight became a bit too real on November 17, 1910 in Denver, Colorado. At the Overland Park golf course and aviation field, Johnstone, Hoxsey, and another Wright pilot named Brookings put on yet another typical airshow for hundreds of spectators in the airfield grandstands. After a few laps and low level passes, Hoxsey and Brookings landed, leaving Johnstone alone in the sky. Johnson began a slow spiral turn to gain altitude so that he could perform a crowd pleasing favorite: a narrow spiral dive.

Johnstone was at an altitude of only 300 feet when he began his spiral dive. With the plane tilted almost perpendicular to the ground, he swooped into a narrow circle smaller than the length of his own aircraft. Witnesses on the ground later reported that as Johnstone finished the second complete spin of his plane, one of the wing spars on the left side of the aircraft fell away, causing the upper and lower wings to fold up like a lawn chair. Ralph tried to correct by warping the right side of the wing with his foot pedal, but without any remaining aerodynamic surfaces on the port side of the aircraft, he was no longer in control of the ship. Johnstone was tossed out of his seat as the plane spiraled toward the ground, and was caught in the wire stays bracing the center part of the wing. He reached frantically toward the upper wing, trying to work it with his bare hands to regain control of the aircraft. Johnstone's actions only succeeded in causing the plane to flip upside down. Ralph slammed into the earth at an estimated 60 mph, run almost completely through by a shattered vertical strut.

All dressed up in potential souvenirs
It was difficult for police investigators and Wright engineers to piece together the cause of Johnstone's crash. Not much was left of the aircraft, not due to the crash, but due to a descending swarm of souvenir-hungry spectators, who raced from the grandstands in order to scoop up Johnstone's personal effects from the just wrecked plane. Even Johnstone's gloves had been swiped from his body by the ghoulish audience. Hoxsey and Brookings had to fight their way through the crowd to retrieve Johnstone's body, which they loaded into an automobile.

Newspapers across the country had a field day with their editorial postmortems. The San Francisco Call speculated that although Johnstone had promised there would be no stunts that day, several daring maneuvers by Hoxsey earlier in the show spurred Ralph toward more riskier acrobatics. Another theory stated that Johnstone may have been affected by the bitter cold, making it difficult to grip the control services on such a bitterly frigid day. Weeks after the accident Orville Wright concluded that Johnson lost control because he was unable to stay in his seat. Unlike today, aircraft seats were not equipped with safety belts.

Johnstone would not be the only pilot to die in service to the Wright brothers. Archibald Hoxsey, after setting a flight altitude record of 11,474 feet on December 30, 1910,  would crash his plane the following day in Los Angeles trying to beat his own record. The guilt stricken Wright brothers paid for Hoxsey's funeral. Orville and Wilbur disbanded the Wright exhibition team the following year.

Apart from his gravestone in Independence, Missouri, Ralph Johnstone doesn't seem to have any memorials erected in his name. I guess there are some firsts that people would rather not remember. RIP, Ralph.

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