Aviation on the Hempstead Plains

A New Sport

The air was still as dawn broke over the Hempstead Plains on the morning of July 17, 1909. Heavy dew on the plains grass soaked the trouser cuffs of a group of men clustered around a strange machine. Valentine W. Smith, an old Long Islander, was among the crowd of spectators that had gathered, staring at this airplane the "looked like an enlarged boxkite. The driver's seat projected out in front and the engine with the propeller, set to push forward, was the the back". Even thought it was 5"16am, there were many spectators who had driven out by horse and buggy to this section of the plains near the country fairgrounds. Glenn Cutriss, the builder and flier of the aircraft, was surprised at the large turnout of residents, who were quite excited and skeptical.

After making ready, Curtiss wheeled his craft, the Golden Flier, to the east side of the fairgrounds, gunned the engine and lifted off the ground,, He flew only a little higher than the treetop but it was a thrilling experience for the spectators. One reported, "No motion is seen...the flight is never wavering, but steady and straight to the point....one holds the breath for fear it cannot keep up and that the flight will soon end." After this preliminary trial, Curtiss landed and then went aloft again with a more serious purpose. After this preliminary trial, Curtiss landed and then went aloft again with a more serious purpose. He wanted to win Scientific American Trophy which had recently been announced for the first flight of twenty-five kilometers (fifteen and a half miles) by an American.

A slight wind now rocked his craft and with this noticeable chance "the flight took on the familiar freedom of the birds. The aviator boldly flew higher." He headed east toward Meadow Brook, banking around over Westbury, and returned to Mineola, covering twenty-eight miles in fifty-eight minutes, to win the trophy. Aviation had come to the Hempstead Plains. The local weekly newspaper hardly saw fit to give this interesting experiment a mention, but Curtiss realized, "This flight at Mineola gave that place a start as the headquarters for aviators, and it soon became the popular resort for everyone interested in aviation in and near the city of New York.

The flight actually had its origin in 1908 when the Aeronautical Society of New York City placed an order with Curtiss, who lived in Hammondsport, New York, for an airplane. It was delivered and tested at the morris Park race track, but the grounds there proved too small for successful flights. After a thorough search of the New York area,, Curtiss chose the large, level tract of land just outside Mineola as an ideal place for flying. The wisdom of his choice was continually proven since the flat plane enabled safe emergency landings, which were a regular occurrence in ealry aviation. Curtiss planned to demonstrate the machine thoroughly and sharpen his flying ability in preparation for competion at the forthcoming Rheims are meet in France.

A flight course, marked by white flags, was set up on the plains. It was an ideal site, allowing the aviators to ascend or descend without fear of wires, trees or an hindrance. Curtiss was also to train some members of the Aeronautical Society in piloting their machine, but in a flight with the first student he had a minor accident. This did not faze the hardy adventurers interested in aviation, and he went on to instruct his pilot, Charles F. Willard, in the mysteries of flying. On August 13, Willard completed the first long-distance flight on the plains, ending in a forced landing at Hicksville. The Aeronautical Society quickly moved ahead and by the next year had erected a 150'x48' building which housed seven aircraft.

From a distance the Garden City Aviation Field appeared similar to a large circus ground with white tents and flying machines on exhibit. Admission was charged for special field shows, but most of the flying was done during the period of least air turbulence between 5 and 8 am in the summer. By now even the local press was proud that the "part Long Island has played in the development of aviation will go down in history. It is a fact that in this country the enthusiasm over flying was born and waxed strong through the feats performed on the Hempstead Plains". From this adventuresome and experimental beginning, aviation began to grow as a major activity in Nassau County.

In the fall of 1910, international attention was focused on Nassau when an International Aerial Tournament was held at Belmont Park from October 22 to31. The greatest aviators came from America, France and England to compete in several major races. Courses had been laid out on the spacious race track grounds and a fence restricted close view except to visitors who paid a $2 entrance fee. Most of the events however, could be seen from outside the grounds, and large crowds witnessed one or more of the races, which were surprisingly free from accidents.

The galaxy of attending aviation pioneers, such as Glenn Curtiss and Wilbur and Orville Wright, was overshadowed by the novelty of the planes themselves-particularly the monoplanes, which were the center of spectator interest. There were daily altitude contests, distance runs, cross-country races, and mechanic's prize of $1,000 and countless other events with a total of $74,800 in prizes for the tournaments. The daily altitude contest for a $5,000 prize between Arch Hoxsey and Ralph Johnston, both skillful fliers of Wright planes, captured the public's imagination, and the "Stardust Twins" thrilled the crowds in their quest for the large prize. Their planes would spiral upward higher thill our of sight. Late in the afternoon of the lat day of the meet, they both took off again in the final contest. Spiraling upward in the calm air, they continued climbing as the sun went down. Neigher daring flier would stop until his gas tanks were dry. Unable to see them, the spectators heard the engines sputter, and soon the aviators had glided to safety on Long Island's soft fields. Johnston had won and established a new world's altitude record of 9,714 feet.

At the end of the week, the meet's highlight occurred in tow major races, the Gordon Bennett Trophy and the Statue of Liberty. The Gordon Bennett speed race was over a 100-kilometer distance and on the final lap Alfred Le Blanc of France, who had averaged sixty-eight mile per hour, ran out of gas and crashed. England's Claude Grahame-White, flying a borrowed Bleriot, won the $5,000 contest with a sixty-one-miles-per-hour speed. The Statue of Liberty race attracted a tremendous crown on October 30, when over 75,000 packed the track. Large crowds watched from the city and island as the planes made their flight around the famed lady in the harbor. The contest was somewhat confused since it was on an elapsed-time basis. By 4pm, it seemed that Claude Grahame-White had won with a time of 35 minutes and 21.50 seconds for the thirty-three-mile course. But the American flier John B. Moisant took off late in the afternoon and returned at four-thirty, winning the race by 43 seconds. A bitter controversy arose and Grahame-White unsuccessfully challenged the judge's decision.

Despite this note of discord, the meet was a great success. It showed, to the technically minded, the French and American airplane designers were equally talented. The meet focused public attention on aviation and stimulated people to talk and think about the future of the airplane. Lieutenant Governor Timothy Woodruff, Thomas Ryan, Clarence Mackay and other society and industrial leaders were eager visitors to the meet. Hereafter the airplane could not be dismissed as a mere toy. The many records and solid performances at the meet had made many in the crowd feel that it was "veritable the dawning of a new era." 

From the Book "Nassau Suburbia, USA

The first Seventy Five Years of Nassau County, NY

1899 to 1974

Edward J Smits

copyright 1974 By the Friends of the Nassau County Musem