The Los Angeles Examiner's balloon holds a woman aloft at the 1910… (Cal State Dominguez Hills )
One hundred years ago, "few Americans had seen an airplane, let alone an air race," Air & Space magazine recently noted.
The flying machines were considered the toys of eccentric grown-ups who, in the words of one historian, enjoyed a professional status comparable to "contortionists, dog trainers, organ-grinders and wire-walkers."
That would change with the 1910 Los Angeles International Aviation Meet, an 11-day demonstration of planes, dirigibles and passenger balloons that drew more than 200,000 spectators to the old Aviation Field near what is now Carson.
Awed spectators would learn that planes could stay in the air longer than an hour, travel at the amazing speed of 40 mph, land more or less where they intended, carry passengers and drop bags of dirt (or, if one chose, bombs).
The daredevil hobby suddenly had commercial and military possibilities.
The event, the first of its kind in the United States, was a sort of spin-off of a 1909 air show in Reims, France.
The French meet "captured the imagination of American aviators, inventors and entrepreneurs who rushed in to capitalize on aviation's newfound popularity," writes Kenneth Pauley in his new book, "The 1910 Los Angeles International Air Meet."
Pauley will read excerpts this afternoon at Dominguez Rancho Adobe Museum, near the site of the air meet. The museum, which commissioned the book, opens its “100 Years of Aviation” exhibit today. Features include extensive aviation memorabilia and a 7-foot by 12-foot scale-model diorama of Aviation Field, now home to a warehouse complex.
The 1910 show, which celebrates its centennial today, had a circus-like atmosphere -- literally.
Spectators who got off one of Henry Huntington's trolley cars and trekked half a mile to Aviation Field were met by sideshow barkers. Attractions included the Siamese twins Cora and Etta, who were dubbed the Human Biplane in honor of the occasion.
One reporter groused that at the concession stands "a nickel cup of coffee cost a whopping 10 cents."
In an effort to draw women, "airplane fashions" were advertised, including a hat shaped like a plane.
Part of the spectator appeal, Pauley wrote, seemed to be the prospect of catastrophe for those foolish enough to challenge gravity.
Newsreels and newspapers spotlighted previous gruesome aviation accidents.
William Randolph Hearst's Los Angeles Examiner noted that "ambulance and emergency equipment would be on the ground at all times." The newspaper tethered a balloon on the grounds that bore its slogan: "It's all in the Examiner."
Hearst and Huntington cosponsored the meet after the Dominguez family allowed them to use the land free.
Though 43 machines were entered, only 16 showed up, and not all of them were air-worthy.
One no-go was the five-winged plane of high school teacher J.S. Zerbe, which tipped over at takeoff and fell apart.
Then there was the "ornithopter" of another teacher, H. LaV. Twining, a sort of bicycle with two flapping wings. Twining later confessed, "I could beat the wings some 52 half-beats per minute" but it would "take the wind out [of me] in about 10 seconds."
One of the stars was the famed Isidore Auguste Marie Louis Paulhan, a tiny Frenchman whose retinue included his wife, his mechanic, a baron and baroness, and a poodle named Escapade.
Paulhan, guaranteed a $25,000 purse, set world records for altitude (4,165 feet) and endurance (a round-trip flight of 45 miles in 1 hour and 52 minutes) in his Bleriot monoplanes.
But he could be a bit touchy.
Lifted on the shoulders of a spectator after his long flight, he indicated that "he did not like this and asked to be put down," Pauley wrote.
In another story, Paulhan was late to an event because he was trying to teach Escapade how to carry a basket in its teeth, "much to the impatience of the crowd," Pauley said.
Paulhan also took Army Lt. Paul Beck to an altitude of 300 feet for a demonstration of aerial bombardment.
"Beck had three small black bags of dirt that he was to throw at a paper bull's-eye on the ground," Air & Space recounted. "The closest missed by 58 feet."
The dominant American was Glenn Curtiss, who won $4,000 in prizes and set two world records, including one for quickest takeoff (6.4 seconds) in his monoplane.
Charles Willard, meanwhile, won $250 for "landing accuracy," setting his machine down in a 20-foot square.
There were no serious injuries, though pilot J. H. Klassen had to move quickly after his plane caught fire because a gasoline can had been left onboard.
The air meet "was an inspiration," wrote Pauley, a retired aerospace engineer who worked on the Apollo heat shield for North American Rockwell.
He noted that spectators who "became famous titans of aviation" included Glenn Martin, Lawrence Bell, Donald Douglas and William Boeing.
In a few generations, flying machines would routinely lift people into the sky.
Whether Escapade the poodle ever learned how to lift a basket into the air is not recorded.