Aviation history unfolded at Curtiss flying school
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — When the airplanes of the Curtiss Flying School first took to the skies over Newport News Point on Dec. 29, 1915, there was no Norfolk Naval Air Station or Langley Field.
The pioneering Atlantic Coast Aeronautical Station — as it was also called — opened before both of those early aviation landmarks.
And almost immediately some of the world's best airmen began using its canvas-covered hangars and dirt landing strip as the launching pad for an unprecedented string of speed, altitude and endurance records.
So sensational were the aerial exploits that played out over Hampton Roads during the school's brief six years that reporters, photographers and newsreel cameramen from around the nation gathered to record them. Hundreds of would-be fliers from Canada, Britain, France and a half-dozen other countries — including Imperial Russia and Japan — waited in line to belt themselves into one of Glenn Curtiss' legendary flying machines and take lessons from his famed test pilots.
More than 1,000 of the Army, Navy and Coast Guard's first aviators trained here, too, adding such soon-to-be distinguished names as World War I fliers Edward "Eddie" Rickenbacker, a leader in commercial aviation, and William "Billy" Mitchell, the father of the U.S. Air Force, to a long list of prominent instructors, observers and graduates.
"No Hollywood casting director could have been so lucky," writes Norfolk author and historian Amy Waters Yarsinske, whose books on aviation and aviation history include "Flyboys Over Hampton Roads: Glenn Curtiss's Southern Experiment."
"The men who came and went (from Newport News) were a who's who of early civilian and military aviation…It was the place to be if you wanted to be trained as a pilot instructor."
A champion cyclist and motorcyclist as well as a prodigious inventor, Curtiss was widely known as "the world's fastest man" before he turned his talents and lust for speed to aviation in the early 1900s.
Piloting a landmark V-8 motorcycle of his own design and construction, he set a world land speed record of 136.6 mph in 1907, the same year he joined with telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell to produce a series of experimental, technologically advanced airplanes that went on to log their own speed and altitude records.
"He liked motorcycles. He liked cars. He liked planes. He liked speed," Yarsinske said.
"And he was always trying to find ways to make them go faster."
By 1910, the founder of the American aircraft industry was producing his own planes at a factory in western New York.
By mid-November that year, one of his demonstration pilots — Eugene Ely — had flown the company's pioneering Model D "pusher" biplane off the deck of the USS Birmingham near Old Point Comfort in the historic first flight from a ship.
Despite that success, Curtiss was rebuffed when he tried to set up a new flight training and aircraft proving station in Norfolk.
Five years later he came back to Hampton Roads, this time securing a 20-acre tract at the Small Boat Harbor in Newport News where his pilots and mechanics could test and refine his revolutionary planes year-round in a protected, ice-free harbor.
"Curtiss was a visionary in the early aircraft industry. And everybody wanted to fly his Jennies and his flying boats," said historian John V. Quarstein, former director of the Virginia War Museum in Newport News, which owns a large of collection of photos documenting the school.
"So his coming represented a pretty significant development for Newport News. It attracted a tremendous amount of attention."
With the outbreak of World War I in Europe in 1914, Curtiss had other motives, too, including a seemingly limitless war-time demand for pilot instruction.
His existing schools in Hammondsport and Buffalo, N.Y., San Diego and Toronto were not only filled to capacity by would-be fliers from Canada, Britain and other countries but also straining to keep up with wait lists that numbered in the hundreds.
Of the first 30 students to report for training at Newport News in late 1915, 28 were uniformed Canadians hoping to earn wings for the Royal Canadian Air Force, Yarsinske said.
Soon the flying boat instructors were training a class of American Navy officers officially known as "Naval Air Detachment, Curtiss Field, Newport News," who later became the founders of Naval Air Station Norfolk.
By Sept. 6, 1916, the Army had selected Newport News as its principal aviation training station, a role in which it produced more than 1,000 pilots during the war.
Just two days earlier, Billy Mitchell completed his first flight lesson at the school. He'd later total his plane during his first solo flight yet walked away unharmed after landing upside down and having to be cut out of his harness.
In his journal, instructor Walter Lees described the air power pioneer as "very erratic".
"One day he would be OK and the next lousy," Lees wrote.
Widely admired as a pilot and instructor, Lees wasn't the only reason that Curtiss' Newport News school attracted the attention of both students and veteran fliers around the world.
Among the other prominent aviators teaching there was legendary pilot Victor Carlstrom, who set record after world record in the skies over Hampton Roads before spiraling to his death from 3,500 feet on May 9, 1917, after a wing separated from his plane during a routine training flight.
"He was the cream of the crop — the best-known pilot in the country," Yarsinske says.
"He had the swagger. He had the good looks. He had the records and the skills. He had everything you needed to turn the heads of other pilots."
Curtiss' fliers turned the heads of the public, too, drawing large crowds of spectators to Newport News Point from the very beginning.
So many people wanted to watch the Jennies and F-Boats maneuver through the air that — starting the first weekend after the inaugural Dec. 29, 1915, flight — the Newport News and Hampton Railway added extra trolleys to the run from the shipyard to the Small Boat Harbor, the Daily Press reported.
Many hundreds more crowded the weekend ferries from Norfolk.
"Watch us," said station manager Capt. Thomas Baldwin — a famed turn-of-the-century balloonist — as reporters gathered for one of Carlstrom's most spectacular endurance flights in August 1916.
"We're going after all the world records."
Adding to the draw of Curtiss' planes and his famous pilots was one of the school's first students — internationally known ballroom dancer Vernon Castle — who earned at least one ticket while speeding to the field from his rooms at the Hotel Chamberlin.
"He and his wife, Irene, were big, big stars," Quarstein said, "and it was big news when he came here and started flying."
Among Castle's classmates was a former Newport News dance professor — Harold Marcellus "Buck Gallop" — whose exploits as a World War I ace in Europe were made famous by the Oscar-winning 1930 film "Dawn Patrol."
Pioneering female aviator Mary Anita "Neta" Snook — who later taught Amelia Earhart to fly — trained at Newport News, too.
Such a steady stream of prominent graduates made the station famous.
But both Yarsinske and Quarstein said that success also led to its undoing.
By the end of 1916, the Army and the National Advisory Committee on Aviation had purchased a 1,659-acre Hampton tract that Curtiss previously considered and then turned down as too expensive for an expansion.
Trough the new Aviation Experimental Station and Proving Grounds began operations too late to have much impact on the war, returning ace Billy Mitchell transformed the renamed Langley Field into the center of Army air power in the early 1920s.
By late 1917, similarly, the Navy aviators trained at Newport News were flying their Curtiss F-boats across Hampton Roads. There they moored at stakes driven into the water until their landmark hangars and headquarters at newly constructed Naval Air Station Norfolk were finished.
Both developments had been predicted by Baldwin, whose recall to active duty during the war weakened the Newport News school still further. Many of the remaining instructors also left after receiving orders for duty in Europe.
When it finally closed in 1922, the station had already been eclipsed by several newer testing and training centers, most of them manned by Curtiss-trained pilots.
"He was so far ahead of his time that — when he opened the Newport News school in 1915 — the Army and Navy came to him," Quarstein said.
"But he made himself redundant."