Even at the early hour, nearly a hundred groggy spectators had assembled at the edge of the field. With virtually no fanfare, Curtiss took the pilot’s seat in the airplane-one of a handful of airplanes that he had designed and built. A fabric-covered pusher biplane, it had a large wooden propeller that sat behind a dual set of wings. Because Curtiss would make the entire flight over the Hudson River, he had fitted an airtight metal pontoon beneath each wing and, from cloth used for hot-air balloons, had sewn five small air bags and roped them, inflated, onto the undercarriage of the airplane’s frame. The Hudson Flyer was thus the world’s first “amphibian plane.” It could not take off from water (Curtiss would brilliantly solve that problem the following year), but as he and his friend and assistant Henry Kleckler proved in earlier tests, it could handily accomplish a water landing.From his perch on the makeshift runway, Curtiss noted the direction of the smoke from factory stacks to judge wind direction as he readied for takeoff. In Curtiss’s own detailed, minute-by-minute account, published in 1912, he describes rising smoothly from the Albany field to an altitude of 212 meters and flying straight above the middle of the river. With the Hudson spread out below him like a wide, glimmering road, he noticed with fascination that he could see through the clear water to deep beneath the river’s surface. Finally airborne on such a beautiful, cloudless day, “I felt an immense sense of relief,” Curtiss writes. “The motor sounded like music.”
Curtiss had his sights on one of the most tantalizing aviation challenges of the day. Joseph Pulitzer, the wealthy publisher of the New York World, had offered a $10,000 prize to the first aviator to fly from Albany to Manhattan. According to the rules, the airplane could make two stops along the route, provided the journey occurred within a 24-hour period. There was no thought of a nonstop flight because no airplane of the period could carry enough fuel to cover such a distance. Pulitzer’s contest drew much public attention. The only problem was, most everyone deemed the feat impossible. Nearly a year after Pulitzer’s announcement, not one airplane pilot had stepped forward to meet the challenge.
Making things considerably more dramatic for Curtiss were his personal circumstances. In January 1910, a U.S. federal court, in a startlingly broad interpretation of a Wright brothers’ patent, had issued a preliminary injunction against Curtiss. As a result, even though the case had yet to be heard, Curtiss was legally prohibited from manufacturing or even exhibiting his aircraft in the United States without a license from the Wrights. And the brothers, who had received backing from a consortium that included Cornelius Vanderbilt and came to be known as the Wall Street Air Trust, were in no mood to discuss licensing arrangements-especially with Curtiss.
The Wrights made little secret of the fact that they sought a monopoly on the airplane comparable to the one Alexander Graham Bell had won on the telephone. But the case looks particularly odd in hindsight. The Wrights patented their so-called wing-warping method of bending their airplanes’ delicate wings in flight to achieve lateral stability. It was a conceptual breakthrough, but it was hopelessly impractical. Few pilots other than the Wrights were ever able to master it, and many died trying; it quickly became obsolete.
Curtiss never used the Wrights’ method. Instead, he and his team developed ailerons: flaps appended to stronger, rigid wings. As Curtiss argued, the ailerons represented a separate and distinct system for achieving lateral stability-not to mention one that would quickly become the industry standard.
With the help of his friend and advisor Judge Monroe Wheeler, Curtiss managed to get the court to allow him to post a $10,000 bond and resume aviation work while he appealed the U.S. court’s injunction. The money, in essence, served as an advance on royalties due to the Wrights in the event that Curtiss lost the case. Curtiss posted the bond, but he was forced several times to pay his employees out of his own deflating pocket. Even worse, given his precarious legal situation, he didn’t know where he could turn for a loan, and his company, based in his hometown of Hammondsport, NY, had been officially forced into bankruptcy in April 1910.
It was at this dire point in his career that Curtiss seized upon the Albany-Manhattan flight-impossible or not-as one of the very few promising options he had. Curtiss’s closest advisors, and his wife Lena (who had always supported his dangerous forays into aviation before), were united in judging the flight to be too risky to attempt. But in signature fashion, Curtiss, undeterred, was a juggernaut of action even as those closest to him remained skeptical. He came to see the flight as a kind of redemptive project-a way to somehow persevere against all odds.
In May, word of Curtiss’s intended flight sparked headlines. The New York World launched an immediate publicity campaign for the flight. Not to be outdone, the rival New York Times announced a coup: it would charter a special train on the New York Central’s Hudson River Line to pace the flight, carrying Lena Curtiss and other members of the Curtiss team. Much to the dismay of the staff at the World, the train would also carry New York Times reporters and photographers, affording them an exclusive opportunity to keep abreast of the plane every step of the way.