Curtiss soon learned that he had landed on the grounds of the estate of the late financier and leather merchant William B. Isham. The current residents, Isham’s daughter and her husband, jumped up from reading the Sunday newspaper and ran outside when they heard the roar of the approaching motor. They had just been reading about the proposed flight and were stunned to see Curtiss’s airplane bouncing up their sloping front lawn.At the Isham estate, Curtiss telephoned the New York World with the news that he had landed within the city limits. Having technically fulfilled the contest’s requirements, another aviator might have pronounced the flight complete. But not Curtiss. He explained that he would continue to his planned landing on Governors Island at the other end of Manhattan as soon as he refilled his oil pan. He said later that he thought of all the spectators in the city counting on his arrival. Later, one magazine writer noted that Curtiss’s decision to fly on over Manhattan was “a magnificent sportsmanlike thing that won him the unbounded admiration of all New York.”
After a dangerous and tricky takeoff down the sloping cliff over the river, Curtiss once again rose above the Hudson, this time with the shimmering Manhattan skyline beckoning him onward through the clear midday sky. As he approached the city, he was overwhelmed by the spectacle he saw below him. Crowds were everywhere: on rooftops, in trees and packed many deep along the riverbanks. Passengers on ferry boats and ocean liners craned over railings and waved wildly in the air to him. And people directly beneath him on scores of crafts large and small dotting the Hudson cheered him on. In no time, the Statue of Liberty-Curtiss’s sought-after landmark of the finish line-stood close before him. Turning westward, he remembered, he triumphantly “circled the lady with the torch” and headed as planned for the parade grounds at nearby Governors Island.
It was just past noon when, after a perfect landing, Curtiss emerged from his airplane to cheers from scores of enthusiastic U.S. Army personnel stationed at the island’s small base. Much acclaim followed Curtiss’s heroic flight, including awards, dinners and press conferences. The New York press crowned Curtiss “King of the Air.” At a black-tie dinner at the Astor Hotel in his honor, Curtiss formally presented to New York mayor William Gaynor a letter given to him by James B. McEwan, the mayor of Albany. It was the first airmail letter delivered in the United States.
Although he was unable to attend the gala event, President William H. Taft sent a congratulatory telegram to Curtiss. “It seems that the wonders of aviation will never cease,” Taft wrote, adding that Curtiss’s flight “will live long in our memories as having been the greatest.”
Taft didn’t know the half of it. Curtiss’s flight from Albany to New York City broke a formidable psychological barrier for aviation in America. That Sunday, and not just for the hundreds of thousands of witnesses but for many others who read or heard of Curtiss’s accomplishment, the airplane all at once presented itself as a useful and practical technology.
The prevailing mythology about the airplane portrays the Wright brothers as earnest young bicycle builders-which they were, early in their careers. But once competition like Curtiss’s comes into the picture, the Wrights look more like greedy spoilers. And the astounding leap into the air they took at Kitty Hawk begins to seem less like an isolated breakthrough and more like an important step in a very long progression of brilliant accomplishments in aviation.
The period of the airplane’s earliest development, the first decades of the 1900s, was one of dynamism-a time much like today, dominated by fast-paced and unsettling technological change and the clamor to control it. Having made a tremendous breakthrough in aviation, Wilbur and Orville Wright tried to control the development of the airplane in its first decade through patents and aggressive business tactics. Curtiss’s legal battle with the Wrights would continue for nine long years-years that were absolutely crucial to the airplane’s development. Ultimately, the Wrights would fail in their effort to secure a monopoly, thanks to Curtiss’s persistence and, with the advent of World War I, a decision by the U.S. government that forced the Wright Company to cross-license its technology to produce more airplanes for the war.
For his part, Glenn Curtiss did receive a number of patents over his lifetime. But he always permitted further use of the principles underlying his inventions-a strategy that enormously benefited the emerging industry. Unlike the Wrights, Curtiss believed his inventions and products had to succeed or fail in the marketplace on their own merit. The goal, he said, ought to be simply to keep building better airplanes than anyone else. This, ultimately, is the way he would have wanted his career to be judged, and it is how it should be judged: by the lasting, unrivaled success of his aeronautical inventions.