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The Flight that Tamed the Skies

Glenn Curtiss’s aeronautical innovations outlasted the Wright brothers’. But his biggest contribution to aviation was an Albany-Manhattan flight many deemed suicidal.
September 1, 2002

Next year marks the centennial of flight-100 years since the December day in Kitty Hawk, NC, when the Wright brothers etched themselves so deeply into our collective consciousness. No doubt a good deal of hoopla will be whipped up about those two bicycle builders and their flight that changed America. But what the history books leave out is that the highly secretive Wright brothers refused to publicly demonstrate their airplane for four and a half years after that now legendary 12-second, 37-meter hop. By the time they revealed their machine, a number of other inventors already had airplanes flying.

One of them was Glenn Hammond Curtiss, who in the spring of 1910 completed a 243-kilometer public flight along the Hudson River from Albany, NY, to Manhattan. Curtiss’s feat-the first true cross-country flight in the United States-was a technological tour de force. Not only was it by far the longest flight yet attempted in the United States, but it meant traveling over unpredictable terrain with virtually unknown wind and weather hazards-quite a different matter from the fair-weather demonstration laps around airfields that characterized most of the previous flights. Hundreds of thousands of people showed up to watch Curtiss’s flight, and the New York Times devoted no less than six full pages of text and photos to the occasion-the most space the newspaper had ever allotted a single news event.

Glenn Curtiss, largely forgotten today, teaches us an important lesson with implications far beyond aviation history about how technology evolves and how its development is remembered. We’re often obsessed with those, like the Wright brothers, who are first to cross a technological threshold. As important as those progenitors are, though, new technologies often take time to find their niches. Determining their ultimate uses-and their markets-is rarely an easy task. It can take daring to demonstrate a new capability that is well beyond the public’s imagination. It surely takes dedication, to persevere against the status quo. And it almost always takes vision.

Glenn Curtiss combined all these traits. He arguably did more to make the modern airplane a reality than anyone before or since. While his formal education ended at the eighth grade, Curtiss’s mechanical genius resulted in some 500 groundbreaking innovations, including many features still incorporated in airplanes today-from wing flaps to retractable landing gear. (By contrast, none of the Wrights’ aeronautical designs have stood the test of time. Most were obsolete by as early as 1912.) But Curtiss’s contributions weren’t limited to mechanical insights.

By 1910, many flights had already taken place in the United States and in Europe. The year 1909 marked Louis Blriot’s astonishing 39.5-kilometer flight across the English Channel and the world’s first international air meet, where nearly a dozen airplane designs were on display, and the grand prize was offered for a 20-kilometer flight-twice around a huge, specially designed course marked by pylons several stories tall.

In the United States, Curtiss had been working closely with a team called the Aerial Experiment Association that included Alexander Graham Bell, and on July 4, 1908, he had unveiled his June Bug airplane. It made the premiere public flight in America, winning Scientific American’s coveted prize for the first airplane in the United States to fly a measured kilometer before judges. Later that summer, with all the activity at home and abroad, the Wrights were finally goaded into demonstrating their airplane: Wilbur showed it off to great acclaim in Europe, and Orville demonstrated it to the U.S. military at Fort Myer in Virginia, where it crashed with an army lieutenant on board in the world’s first aviation fatality. But despite a growing number of exhibitions before paying spectators, the airplane, like many emerging technologies, was slow to find its place as much more than an exciting novelty.

All that changed with Curtiss’s 1910 flight. More than any other, that event launched the United States into the age of modern flight, much as Louis Paulhan’s similar 1910 flight from London to Manchester did Europe. These two dramatic journeys on either side of the Atlantic cleared the path for the development of airmail and modern air travel, as well as the terrible prospect of air power in war.

Near dawn on May 29, 1910, in a field on Rensselaer Island on the outskirts of Albany, NY, Curtiss donned his flying outfit in a makeshift tent. When he stepped out, he was in a pair of fisherman’s rubberized waders that came up to his armpits, a cork life jacket, a snug-fitting cap and a pair of goggles. The waders, Curtiss later explained, were not intended so much for the prospect of a water landing as to provide warmth. After all, despite the clear spring day, Curtiss would be flying in the open, several hundred meters in the air, at a speed of roughly 80 kilometers per hour.

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.

They would only lose sight of him twice as he stopped to refuel, a challenge Curtiss planned for in advance by reconnoitering suitable landing sites along the route. Among the places he visited were the large, open grounds of the State Hospital for the Insane perched high on a hill above Poughkeepsie. The superintendent, Dr. Taylor, was his escort. As Curtiss later remembered, the doctor chuckled “when I told him that I intended stopping there on my way down the river in a flying machine.”

“Sure you can land here,” Dr. Taylor said. “Most of you flying-machine inventors end up here anyway.”

On the first leg of the flight, high above the Hudson River, Curtiss veered to fly alongside the tracking train chartered by the New York Times. He could see his wife Lena waving her handkerchief and later a large American flag out the train window. Henry Kleckler, too, popped in and out of the train window, nervously flapping his cap. Train and airplane, both traveling at roughly 80 kilometers an hour, wove together and apart along the voyage. As Curtiss remembered, “It was like a real race, and I enjoyed the contest more than anything else during the flight.”

With little instrumentation, Curtiss had no way to determine his speed other than the strength of the wind against his face. With no altimeter, he could similarly only guess at his altitude. And the deafening drone of the engine behind his head shut out all other sound. Nonetheless, he felt in complete control of the airplane and intensely alert to the tiniest details around him on the crystalline day. Below him, groups of people stared from the riverbanks and waved from boats; the captain of a river tugboat tooted its horn. Although Curtiss couldn’t hear it, he saw the blast of white steam rise eerily silent into the air below him.

It was clear sailing until his first stop in an open field just past Poughkeepsie, almost 140 kilometers into his journey, where he greeted assembled spectators and, despite his careful planning, wound up having to borrow gas and oil from generous motorists to get airborne again. Curtiss was soon back above the Hudson. But trouble lay ahead.

Thirty-two kilometers south of Poughkeepsie, the river carves a steep 24-kilometer-long gorge near Storm King Mountain and Breakneck Ridge. The spot funnels treacherous wind currents up from the river. Aware of the danger from his research and reconnaissance, Curtiss tried to climb above it, rising to an altitude of roughly 600 meters. But it was not high enough. Just past Storm King Mountain, as Lena watched frantic and helpless from the train, a crosscurrent tilted the plane sideways, and it dropped more than 30 meters within seconds. Momentarily losing control, Curtiss was nearly thrown from the airplane. “It was the worst plunge I ever got in an aeroplane,” Curtiss said later. “My heart was in my mouth. I thought it was all over.”

As the wind steadied, Curtiss managed to regain control of his airplane. Ahead, he could just make out the northern tip of Manhattan and the outline of the 50-story-high Metropolitan Life Tower-the world’s tallest building-above the line of the horizon. He was beginning to feel elated with the knowledge that he was so near the end of the trip when he noticed that his oil gauge read near empty. The design of the plane required Curtiss to lubricate the engine through a manual control roughly every ten minutes to assure its smooth running; his first thought was that he must have inadvertently “been too enthusiastic” with the oil lever over Breakneck Ridge. In fact, although he wouldn’t discover it until later, the airplane had been seriously leaking oil for some time. With the prospect that his engine could freeze up at any time, Curtiss knew he must land immediately to replenish his oil.

Nervously winging east at the northernmost tip of Manhattan, where the Harlem River curves around at the Harlem Gorge to meet the Hudson, Curtiss looked for a little meadow-one of many such spots he had chosen as possible landing sites. There was no time to lose. Spotting nothing more suitable, he set down on a sloping lawn that rose 30 meters above the Hudson. Safely on the ground, he breathed a sigh of relief and realized that he was inside the city limits. In just over two and a half hours of flying time, he had covered 243 kilometers, averaging nearly 88 kilometers per hour.

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.

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