Had rain made the aircraft's fabric too heavy for takeoff?
Many obstacles stood in the way of the first powered flight in Snohomish County, which took place 100 years ago this Saturday.
A former racecar driver, Fred J. Wiseman, had brought his aircraft from California to the county for what was to be a string of aviation shows. Billed as the "world's greatest aviator," Wiseman had hoped to fly both May 6 and 7.
Wiseman's aircraft, which he called the "fastest machine in the world," was a unique blend of planes flown by the Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss and Henri Farman, a French aviator. On May 5, Wiseman reassembled the plane after it arrived via rail.
But heavy rain on the morning of May 6 forced Wiseman to cancel the first day's flight. It prompted concerns about the next day's event. Glue used to hold the plane together could have softened in the rain. The fabric wings could have become too damp.
Other problems Wiseman faced on that day 100 years ago: his plane was incapable of turning at low altitudes. When damp, its engine was "a world of nightmares," said David Dilgard, history specialist for the Everett Public Library.
"It was risky," he said.
But Wiseman was charging $1 per person for seats in the grandstand of Harvey Park in Snohomish to see the takeoff and landing. He already had lost the previous day's pay. On May 7, about 416 people forked over the fee, though roughly 4,000 gathered in locations around the area, hoping to glimpse Wiseman's flying machine.
After a couple attempts, Wiseman's aircraft took off, rising roughly 60 feet in the air. Less than a minute later, the engine faltered and Wiseman made a rough landing in a field about half of a mile away where the aircraft came to a stop nose-down in the mud. Bruised and battered, Wiseman was able to walk away.
Several onlookers also walked away -- with pieces of the plane, which suffered a broken propeller blade and snapped struts from the landing.
"There's a great amount of physical courage Wiseman had to fly," Dilgard said.
Early airplanes, and flights, were a system of trial and error. Wiseman spent almost as much time crashing his plane as he did flying it, Dilgard said.
Wiseman recovered from the flight in Snohomish and made several successful flights in Olympia less than two weeks later. However, Wiseman quit the aviation business before the end of 1911 and went on to be an executive at Standard Oil.
Late in his life, Wiseman reflected on his early aviation experience: "We thought all you had to do was build a kite and put a motor on it ... but we found it was more complicated than that."
The aircraft that Wiseman flew in Snohomish was the same one he used to carry mail between Petaluma and Santa Rosa, Calif., earlier in 1911. The trip has been recognized as the first airmail flight in U.S. history. Wiseman's aircraft has been restored and hangs in the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C.
Barry Smith had hoped to bring Wiseman's plane to the Future of Flight Aviation Center and Boeing Tour in Mukilteo, where he serves as director. However, offices that were added inside the Postal Museum after Wiseman's aircraft was installed essentially have walled it in. It would have to be taken apart to be removed.
Had Wiseman's flight gone as planned, he would have flown from Snohomish toward Everett. Wiseman and his helpers had picked Snohomish for logistical reasons -- the rail line and a lack of landing and takeoff space in Everett.
"Everett was jealous as hell," Dilgard said.
Waiting for Wiseman's plane in Everett was Terah Maroney, who emigrated from Italy. Noting the interest in Wiseman's short-lived flight, Maroney saw opportunity. He figured if people were willing to pay $1 just to watch a flight, they'd pay even more to be a passenger on one, Smith said.
Three years later, Maroney was hired to participate in an air show on July 4 in Seattle. After his demonstration, Maroney offered to take passengers on rides in his Curtiss seaplane from Lake Washington.
Bill Boeing took Maroney up on the offer. His associate U.S. Navy Lt. Conrad Westervelt did as well.
Boeing historian Mike Lombardi wrote about Boeing and Westervelt's conversation after their flight in a February 2010 article for the company's internal magazine.
"There isn't much to that machine of Maroney's. I think we could build a better one," Boeing told Westervelt.
Westervelt replied, "Of course we could."
The two men went on to build a plane called the B&W, the first Boeing aircraft.
One-hundred years after Wiseman's flight in Snohomish County, Boeing's factory stands in Everett, where Wiseman's plane never made it. The county has been home to several other first flights -- such as Boeing's 787 on Dec. 15, 2009 -- all more famous than Wiseman's.
"In a way, all of this (aviation success) today came out of what Wiseman was doing," Dilgard said.
Information from an article by David Dilgard, historian for the Everett Public Library, was used in this story.
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