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Celebrating a centennial of flight

This year, the world celebrates 100 years of aviation history.

Burbank and the eastern San Fernando Valley were once a great center

of aviation development, bringing to our area the most famous

aviators of the time. Our citizens created the most advanced and


fastest aircraft ever built, and completed top-secret projects that

affect world events to this day. Although aviation on the West Coast

started on a hilltop 20 miles south of here, some of those pioneering

aviators are still with us in Burbank today.


After the Wright brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk on Dec. 17,

1903, they returned to Dayton, Ohio to further develop their skills

and to secure patents on their achievements. In 1906, Alberto

Santos-Dumont of France made the first sustained flight outside the

U.S. Unlike the reclusive Wright brothers, his flights were witnessed

by the general public. Progress was rapid and “firsts” were


Henry Farman was the first to fly a one-kilometer circuit, the


first passenger in an airplane and the first to make a cross-country

flight. The first aircraft factory was opened by the Voisin brothers

in France.

The first international air meet was in Rheims, France in August

1909. Wilbur Wright was in France at the time giving flying lessons

but the Wrights chose to not participate in public flying displays,

believing them to be ostentatious. The only representative from the

U.S. was Glenn H. Curtiss from Hammondsport, N.Y., flying his “Golden


Flyer.” Curtiss won the main event at a speed of 46.5 miles per hour.

With a cold winter in the east, Roy Knabenshue and Charles Willard

decided that Los Angeles would be the perfect place to fly. They

contacted Curtiss and began planning an international air meet even

greater than the one at Rheims the year before. To ensure the

international flavor of the meet, they invited Louis Paulhan from


An area on the Dominguez Ranch north of Long Beach was chosen

because it was undeveloped, near the Pacific Electric trolley lines

and, being high up on a mesa, the public would have to pay admission

to see the action. Opening day was Jan. 10, 1910 -- 93 years ago

yesterday. The event lasted 10 days.

As described in the book “Dominguez Air Meet” by D.D. Hattfield:

“At one o’clock, a yellow winged Curtiss biplane was rolled to the

starting point in front of the grandstand and the crowd became silent

as they realized that the action was about to start. A mechanic swung

the propeller and the engine started with a roar. As the machine

began to roll, a cheer went up from the crowd, which changed to an

amazed silence as it rose from the ground and sailed gracefully

around the course at a height of 50 feet. After 1 minute and 28

seconds in the air, covering a distance of 5/8 of a mile, Curtiss

landed easily and rolled to a stop. This was the first successful

powered airplane flight made in the West. The skeptics were convinced

that an airplane could fly, and the crowd was satisfied their time

was well spent.”

On some days, there were more than 50,000 in attendance, and it

could take several hours for the crowd to make the long journey back

to town. With 11 airplanes, three dirigibles and seven balloons and

daily feats of daring, the first U.S. air meet was a huge success.

Lincoln Beachey and Knabenshue made ascents in their dirigibles. The

crowd could clearly see the men scrambling back and forth on the

structures below the gasbags to balance the craft.

The Wright brothers did not attend the Dominguez air meet; in

fact, they had injunctions served to some participants in an attempt

to stop them from flying. The Wrights felt that they owned the rights

to flight and that others were encroaching on them.

One of many records set at this meet was the longest cross-country

flight yet made in the U.S. As announced to the packed grandstands,

“Paulhan will fly to Baldwin’s Ranch (now the L.A. Arboretum) and

return, 45 miles. Back in one hour.” The crowd was incredulous at

such a feat. “In Los Angeles ... there were thousands of necks that

ached and thousands of pairs of eyes that burned from the strain of

watching the strange creature of the air in his mad flight. Around

the Santa Anita racetrack Paulhan flew at an altitude of nearly 2,000

feet. “Ah, it was good sport,” he exclaimed as he jumped down from

his seat.

On another day, Curtiss took off in a strong wind and wound up

flying downwind past the grandstands at a fast clip. Curtiss said,

“Running straight before the wind on the ‘home stretch,’ it was

before the grandstand that I was traveling at not less than 60 mph,

and at no other exhibition in the world, so far as I know, has such a

speed been attained where thousands of people could witness it. Sixty

miles per hour is about as fast as a man wants to travel by any

method of locomotion.” Curtis should try an L.A. freeway today.

The Centennial of Powered Flight will be celebrated Dec. 17. Roy

Knabenshue and a dozen other aviation pioneers are buried at the

“Portal of the Folded Wings -- Shrine to Aviation” in Burbank.

Docents from the Burbank Aviation Museum are there from noon to 4

p.m. Sundays.

* J. RON DICKSON is a lifelong Burbank resident and aviation

enthusiast. Contact him through his Web site at www.GoDickson. com.