A Pilot Reflects, Then Grounds Himself: 1911

Early 20th century aviation may have been a quick route to fame for some thrill seekers, but for flier Frank B. Elser, it wasn't worth the risk.

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One day, late in 1911, flier Frank B. Elser lost his nerve. Or else he came to his senses. Either way, he was through with flying.

If you read in the newspapers every five days or so that a clean-cut chap, with whom you had been doing dips and spirals at a county fair the week before, had been carried lifeless or dying from the field while a morbid crowd tried to tear off his blood-stained collar and tie as “souvenirs” would you want to chuck it all and let a new crop of youngsters develop the art of flying?

I think you would.

The appalling and ever-growing death-list is making even the daredevils think—they are not laughing the specter off and talking about fatalism as they used to. Poor Eugene Ely’s recent death at Macon, Georgia, drove it home that even the most cautious fliers are not immune; and the fellows I have seen are wondering whether their turn will come next.

It might have been the death of Ely that prompted Elser to reassess the risks of flying the fragile, underpowered airplane of 1911. In his Post article, “The Wings of Icarus,” he said Ely had the reputation of being a cautious pilot who shunned risky maneuvers and stunts.  Not long before his death, another pilot, Lincoln Beachey had suggested it was possible to fly a “loop the loop,” i.e., a complete, vertical circle. This maneuver was nearly impossible for the limited engine power and lift of early biplanes, yet performing a loop was the goal of many young pilots, like Arch Hoxsey and Ralph Johnstone.

Both had stated that some day they would loop-the-loop in an aeroplane; and it is the opinion of one well-known authority… that Johnstone was actually attempting this when he smashed a wing and fell to his death at Denver.

To the cautious Ely, the idea was ridiculous.  He told Beachey, “You can try it. I won’t.” Yet it was only a short later that Ely was killed while making a short dip in his plane, a maneuver he had performed hundreds of times.

This talk of dying, anyway, when your time comes sounds very well in the abstract, but it doesn’t go very far when you stop to think that you are twenty-five and healthy—and perhaps have a wife and baby. Just naturally you prefer a farm in Iowa or a cottage on Long Island to a place in that new department of the newspaper morgue—that list of now more than one hundred under the heading “Killed in Aviation,” which had its beginning when young Lieutenant Selfridge met death at Fort Myer, Virginia, on September 17, 1908.

The news of Ely’s death came shortly after the crash of 19-year-old Cromwell Dixon. Badly shaken by the news, Elser now realized his future lay not behind rudder control but a desk. It was the choice any pilot would make if he lived long enough.

Lt. Thomas Selfridge, the first man to die in an airplane crash.

The men already in the game may improve it by executive ability and scientific experiments; but most of them will degenerate as fliers. Frequency of flight does not necessarily create a feeling of confidence and safety; rather it brings fuller appreciation of its dangers. The men… ears no longer tingle when the crowd waves its hats and cheers are ready to [make way for] the uninitiated, whose nerve is ignorance.

Down the veteran’s spine, when he risks his life and craft in a devil-may-care swoop, the plaudits of the crowd no longer send a thrill.

The wild exhilaration of flight of which we read so much is apt to be tempered with the sober thought of a young woman in the stand, looking upward with troubled eyes as she breathes a prayer that a cranky lever or missing engine may not widow her. How many times have you read “His young wife was in the crowd and saw him fall”?

Elser also recognized that the flying business had changed. Pilots were no longer the celebrities they’d been just two years earlier.

Now that the newness has worn off, [a flier] is treated just like an ordinary human being, and crowds don’t always follow him right to the door of his room in the hotel. Chambermaids, seeking sentimental souvenirs, used to snitch the pajamas of Willard, of the Curtiss staff, when he was out West. It bothered him greatly at the time. Now he laments that, no matter where he goes, his pajamas are quite as safe as a case of beer at a temperance convention.

Even worse, the public had grown tired of the familiar stunts. They wanted to see bigger, more deadly tricks.

Crowds… are becoming more critical and exacting every day, even to the extent of [taunting] a man into the air to his death during a storm. J. J. Frisbie… was jeered at by a crowd until he ventured into the air during a treacherous wind and was killed.

Yet even with the risks, there was no shortage of applicants. As soon as Ely’s death hit the newspapers, his employer was besieged by applicants, most of whom had never been near an airplane. Both men and women saw flying as a quick and glamorous route to fame. One woman saw it as an personal challenge; when John B. Moisant, a famous pilot and air-race champion, was killed while landing his Bleriot monoplane, his sister, Mathilde Moisant, picked up his career. Becoming the second women in the U.S. to get a pilot license, she continued the fame of the Moisant name, racing competitively until her plane crashed on April 14, 1912, the same day the Titanic sank.

The smooth, uneventful air travel we enjoy today is the product of countless flying lessons taught the hardest way possible to early fliers.

At this writing there have been in this country and in Europe, since 1908, one hundred and two deaths due to aviation accidents. Sixty-four of these occurred during the first ten months of 1911—or at the rate of approximately one every five days

Elser’s article listed many of the pilots who’d already been killed.

What he didn’t know in 1911, however, was how many of other pilots would live far beyond their piloting days.

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  1. Today I have thousands of hours flight time beginning with a two-place 65 HP wood and fabric Taylorcraft in the mountains of Utah to supersonic jet fighters.
    However, my most unforgettable moment in flight was in a Civil Air Patrol Piper Cub out of what was then Salt Lake City Municipal Airport. I was home on leave from US Navy flight training where I had learned a little about aerobatic flight, and I decided to do a loop in that little old Piper Cub.
    I dived it to the “redline” speed then pulled it up and over the top where I was virtually weghtless (and witless), then down the other side of the loop. I can still hear the creaking of those old fabric-covered woodframed wings, and swore I would never do it again.

  2. Pilot, Eugene Ely, brought to
    The U.S. Navy, firsts of flight.
    First shipboard landing he did do,
    And first takeoff from shipboard site.
    Early 1911 ’twas
    When Ely flew, a pioneer,
    Giving the crowds such oohs and awes,
    Watching him soar the atmosphere.
    ‘Twas late 1911 when
    Crowds did watch his plane in a dive,
    Easy fix for Ely, but then
    The crash. Ely did not survive.

    Eugene Ely lived and died of
    Airplane flying, which he did love.


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