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Tanforan and early aviation
February 10, 2014, 05:00 AM By Darold Fredricks

Photo courtesy of the San Mateo County History Museum
Eugene Ely’s first landing on a ship.

Transportation has always been difficult. Walking was the only means of getting around for tens of thousands of years. Principles of physics have always been a great curiosity of mankind and although use of these principles was sometimes hard to grasp by most people, a few had the “mental bent” to see applications that no other man could see at first.

Bicycles and engines began to be perfected in the 1800s. What to do with them now? The bicycle was simple and small enough for all to understand but the engine was considerably more difficult. But there were those who had the insight to begin to use both for getting around. The engine exhibited much potential when hooked up to a bicycle and a common means of transportation that had been around for ages — the wagon/carriage. By the end of the 1800s, the automobile became the most worked on form of transportation but many were becoming intrigued by the thought of extending direction of experiments into the atmosphere. Balloons, blimps and dirigibles were the rage in Europe but their use was quite limited and dangerous. Huge cash prizes were being offered for outstanding aeroplane performances. Government militaries began to take notice and some recognized that future developments in air flight could be the key to the successful power of nations.

In 1909 Louis Paulhan, a Frenchman, set records unheard of when he flew at a height of 2,760 feet at a speed that covered 10 miles in 19 minutes and carried a 160-pound passenger in his plane. His fame became worldwide. In 1909, American Glen Curtiss won the world’s first air meet at Rheims, France with a speed of 46.5 mph over five miles in just under 16 minutes. Curtiss aced out the great French aviator Louis Bleriot. Bleriot later that year flew over the English Channel for the first time. Curtiss, who owned a bicycle shop, raced bicycles and constructed motorcycles, had set an unofficial world record 136.38 mph on a 40-horsepower motorcycle of his design, in 1907. The engine he designed, an air-cooled F-head, was the beginning of his career in manufacturing engines for airplanes. Between 1909 and 1912, The G.H. Curtiss Manufacturing Company produced the most successful aircraft of the pioneer era — the Curtiss D-III “Headless Pusher.” Improvements in control of these planes spurred sales to the public and the military. His JN-4D “Jenny” of World War I became famous after its introduction into the war. The Army purchased thousands of these planes over the years.

In 1909 and 1910, Curtiss employed numerous demonstration pilots to advertise his planes. This was the beginning of the “barnstorming” across the United States. The death rate was high, but many pilots couldn’t resist the thrill of doing daredevil stunts on what would be called recreation aircraft today. Flying under bridges and through open doors of a barn was expected of these daredevils. Few survived the stresses put on their aircraft that made wings falls off and planes nose-dive into the ground.

In Jan. 10-20, 1910, the Dominguez International Air Meet was put on in Los Angle. It was the biggest display of aeronautics for the first time in the United States.

After the Dominguez Air Show was concluded, many of the pilots, along with their air machines, traveled to Tanforan race track in San Bruno to hold a meet. Monoplanes, diplanes and triplanes crowded the race track for three days while pilots like world famous Louis Paulhan demonstrated the art of flying an airplane. In January 1910, thousands arrived from San Francisco on the #40 trolley line to “ooh” and “aah” at the daring exploits the daredevils offered. Paulham soared above the crowds to more than 700 feet before swooping down over the field. He set no records that day but the crowd long remembered him and his magnificent machine.

On Sept. 17, 1911, Eugene Ely arrived at Tanforan. Ely had been demonstrating the Curtiss Pusher across the country and had recently completed the first aircraft takeoff from a naval vessel, USS Birmingham, at Hampton Roads, Va., on Nov. 14, 1910. This successful operation paid him $500 and a commission as a lieutenant in the California National Guard. On Sept. 17, 1911, he completed a successful landing and takeoff on another naval ship in the San Francisco Bay. Ten years later, the Navy completed its first aircraft carrier due to Eugene Ely’s demonstration in California.

On Oct. 19, 1911, Ely was killed when his plane didn’t pull out of a dive and it crashed. On Feb. 16, 1933, Eugene Ely was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross posthumously, “for extraordinary achievement as a pioneer civilian aviator and for his significant contribution to the development of aviation in the United States Navy.”

Rediscovering the Peninsula by Darold Fredricks appears in the Monday edition of the Daily Journal.



Tags: curtiss, first, aircraft, these, successful, planes,

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