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Iowa's Centenary of Flight (And First Flight Controversy)

By Mike Gretz

This article is presented to go with the theme for the 2010 AAA National Fly-In, Iowa's Centenary of Flight. There's also more information on the "Air Meets" of 1910 which popularized aviation in the public eye.

The 2010 AAA-APM Fly-In is saluting the 100th anniversary of the first airplane flight in Iowa. However Iowa is not alone in this claim. Many other states can say the same, as 1910 was the year that aviation really exploded in front of the public, with "Air Meets" being held nearly every week somewhere in the United States.

History shows that four aeroplanes actually flew in Iowa in 1910. Which one was first has been debated for many years. The candidates are:

Number 1: May 19, 1910

Pilot: Art Hartman
Location: Burlington Golf Club; Burlington, Iowa
Airplane: Hartman original

It is generally acknowledged that Art Hartman of Burlington, Iowa did in fact make a short "hop" off the ground in his homemade airplane on May 19, 1910. The airplane is said to have risen under its own power to a height of about 10 feet, and then fell back down hard, damaging the landing gear. Five people witnessed the flight. Documentation of the airplane itself is sparse, except for a few very blurry old photographs (that actually appear to show two at least two different airplanes). There is no photograph of the first flight itself. Hartman completely rebuilt the airplane in 1939 and flew it until 1956, when he gave it to the Pioneer Village Museum in Minden, Nebraska.

Art Hartman's career in aviation began with his first balloon ascension at the age of 15, three months before Orville Wright's flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903. For several years he worked with the Goddard Balloon Company flying exhibitions at county fairs across the Midwest. Eventually he got his own balloon and went into the exhibition business for himself. During a stint in Chicago early in 1910, Hartman reportedly met the Wright brothers. Upon returning to Burlington, he was convinced aviation's future was in heavier-than-air craft. He built his first fixed wing powered aeroplane by himself at the age of 21, working from news pictures he had seen of Louis Bleriot's English Channel crossing monoplane.

Whether Art Hartman made a controlled flight, or simply an uncontrolled hop is a source of debate among some people (similar to the Gustav Whitehead vs Wright Brothers debate). Nonetheless, in the strictest sense there seems to be little doubt that Art Hartman's airplane did leave the ground momentarily on May 19, 1910, giving him the claim to First Flight In Iowa.

Numbers 2 & 3: June 29, 1910

Pilot: Bud Mars of the Curtiss Exhibition Team; followed closely by Curtiss teammate Eugene Ely
Location: Woodland Park; Sioux City, Iowa
Airplane: Curtiss Pusher

At the end of June the Curtiss Exhibition Team came to Iowa. The pilots were J.C. "Bud" Mars, known as "The Curtiss Daredevil", and newly hired Eugene Ely, an Iowa native. Mars had met Glenn Curtiss at the Los Angeles Air Meet in January 1910 and asked Curtiss to leach him to fly. Ely was self taught and had met Curtiss at the Minnesota Air Meet just the weekend before the Sioux City show. Curtiss liked what he saw, hired Ely on the spot, and sent him on the exhibition circuit with Mars. The flights of Mars and Ely in Sioux City were the first airplane flights in Iowa witnessed by the public.

At first things didn't go smoothly for Mars and Ely in Sioux City because of high winds. Here is how it was reported in the August 1910 issue of AERONAUTICS magazine:

Sioux City, IA., June 29-July 1.
BY P.M. MICABE.

Due to a wind which ranged from 5 to 18 miles an hour the flights given here by Mars and Ely June 29, 30 and July 1 were far from successful.

On June 29 Mars attempted to circle the mile race track, attaining a height of from 10 ft. to 40 ft. Meeting adverse air currents he did not make the circle, stopping several yards short. Ely made a similar attempt but he too was compelled to alight without being successful. Two other attempts were made to get into the air but were failures.

On June 30 after 6 o'clock Mars made another attempt and succeeded in getting from 40 ft. to 50 ft. high and went with the rapidity of an express train for a short distance but was compelled to let down because of the winds.

On July 1, in the evening after the wind and the crowd had departed, Mars made a fairly good flight ascending to a height estimated between 100 ft. and 150 ft. He circled the mile course 2-1/2 times and went at a good speed. Ely made one circle of the field the same evening but his engines were not working well and he was compelled to give up before doing anything of a sensational nature. Following Ely, Mars made two other flights, in one circling the field twice and concluding his performance with his "Mars glide", dropping from a position of about 75 ft. in the air to an eagle like sweep and then alighting.

Ely is flying now for Curtiss, using the machine sold Henry Wemme of Portland, Ore.

Number 4: October 13, 1910

Pilot: Thomas Baldwin
Location: Fairgrounds, Iowa City, Iowa
Airplane: Baldwin "Red Devil"

Not to be outdone, Iowa City, the original capitol of Iowa, scrambled to include aeroplane flights in its annual Farmer's Fall Festival. Their first choice was native son Eugene Ely, but it turned out he was not available. They eventually secured a contract with another Curtiss trained aviator, Thomas Baldwin, the former balloonist who had been inspired to take up aeroplanes after witnessing the Los Angeles Air Meet in January. Baldwin was touring the country flying his new "Red Devil", a Curtiss pusher derivative that he had designed and built himself.

Baldwin's contract called for three flights from the local fairgrounds in Iowa City. Wednesday October 12th, the day he was scheduled to make his first flight, was very windy. Not wanting to disappoint the eager crowd, Baldwin took off to the east and flew straight towards the trees at the edge of the fairgrounds. Strong air currents made it a struggle to keep control of the Red Devil. Quickly Baldwin decided to continue on straight ahead and set the airplane down as soon as possible. He landed safely in a meadow outside the fairgrounds. The disappointed crowd were issued "wind checks" which entitled them to return the next day.

The next day, Thursday October 13th, was a perfect day for flying. By 3:30 in the afternoon, the throngs had assembled at the fairgrounds and Baldwin was ready. He took off from the half-mile race track, headed north and then west in a counter-clockwise fashion, circling upward to about 125 feet. Heading north, he flew directly over the grandstand, circled the field, and landed in the center of the grounds.

With three flights promised to the public, Baldwin quickly prepared for another flight. This time the pilot took off and turned east, instead of west, and immediately ran into trouble. The Red Devil clipped through tree tops and struggled to gain altitude as it headed towards two barns. Thinking the danger passed, the crowd cheered. The Red Devil nearly cleared the buildings but snagged its rudder at the rear of the plane on one of the barns, catapulting Baldwin to the ground from 30 feet in the air. Bruised and bleeding, but essentially unhurt, Captain Baldwin explained; "After crashing through the trees I'd have escaped 0.K., if the bad air pocket between the two barns had not caught the bi-plane."

Making lemonade from lemons, the local press quickly focused on Baldwin's successful first flight of the day, and proclaimed for Iowa City the honor of the "first city in the state to present a perfect flight in an aeroplane."

IN SUMMARY

It seems fair to credit Art Hartman with the First Flight In Iowa on May 19, 1910, in spite of the fact that it was an uncontrolled short hop, and it appears that he never flew the airplane again in its original form.

J.C. "Bud" Mars and Iowa native Eugene Ely of the Curtiss Exhibition Team made the First Public Flights in Iowa on June 29 - July 1 - becoming the second and third aviators to fly in Iowa.

Iowa City claims that the flight of Captain Thomas Baldwin on October 13, 1910 was the First Perfect Flight in Iowa.

The bottom line is that each of these "Early Birds" were true pioneers, doing a dangerous job in an infant and fast changing science. Mars and Ely were both killed flying air shows in 1911. Hartman and Baldwin lived to old age, staying in aviation all their lives.

In 1910 Iowa was just one of dozens of states where the public came out by the thousands to see aviation for the first time. It was a very exciting time when new inventions and technology were changing people's lives at a breathtaking rate. 1910 marked the beginning of a decades long public fascination with airplanes and aviators.