Wings Over Keuka

This is the first installment of many to come of the writings of A. Glenn Rogers. Stories of Yesteryear will be a department dedicated to re-publishing the wonderful narratives from Forgotten Stories of the Finger Lakes, published in 1953. The accounts by Mr. Rogers will appear as they originally did to maintain the integrity of his work. Thank you to the Ontario County Historical Society, which has allowed us to publish these wonderful stories.

Man’s conquest of the air has been one of the many great romantic feats of history and the story of aviation is known to virtually everyone. It is only natural when we think of Hammondsport, NY, we think of aviation, for it was here that Glenn Curtiss made his greatest contributions to the art of flying.

It was on a day in 1915 when a little group of men in boats clustered about a plane, tossing on the waves of Keuka Lake, just off Hammondsport. Months of experiments were about to be put to the test, and the undercurrent of eagerness and anticipation was felt by everyone.

Finally, the pilot started the motor of the plane…the men in the boats pulled away from the craft and then sat watching with bated breath. Slowly the plane began to move through the choppy waves, faster and faster, until it was skipping from crest to crest. Then as the watchers cheered, it slowly rose into the air until it had reached several hundred feet.

As the men sat in the boats and watched, it disappeared into the northern sky. Minutes later it landed safely in the lake waters near Bluff Point, some 10 miles from the starting point. And still later, it was jubilantly towed back to Hammondsport.

You might well voice the questions: “What was so wonderful about a plane flying from Hammondsport to Bluff Point in 1915? Hadn’t the Wright brothers flown at Kitty Hawk in 1903? Hadn’t Glenn Curtiss made many flights since 1908? What then was so wonderful?

Well, you see, this particular plane had been built about 1901, some two years before the Wright brothers’ flight, and this was the first time it had ever been flown. That flight in 1913 vindicated a man who had been laughed at some 13 years before, and proved that his plane had been the first capable of flight.

For it was Samuel Pierpont Langley, noted American scientist, who had built the plane. Shortly before 1900, Langley, then in his 60’s, had studied the principles of flight and in 1896 had built a steam-powered aircraft which had flown a half-mile and had stayed up a minute and a half. Being small, weighing but 26 pounds, it carried no pilot. Never before in the history of the world had any mechanism, however actuated, sustained itself in the air so long.

At the turn of the century, Langley experimented with a larger model, built to carry a pilot. An attempt to catapult the plane off a barge in the Potomac River ended in failure when the craft plunged into the water. The ridicule which followed resulted in the withdrawal of government support which Langley needed.

The Langley ship was placed in the Smithsonian Institute where it was to be exhibited for the next decade. Langley’s theories of flight were used to some extent by the Wright brothers and in later years, Glenn Curtiss himself acknowledged that his contributions to aviation were improvements on Langley’s data.

Then, in 1914 Curtiss determined to prove the Langley plane was really capable of flying and so arrangements were made and the ship was brought from the Smithsonian to Hammondsport.

Only two changes were made by Curtiss and his co-workers, neither of which altered the basic structure of the plane. The steam engine was replaced by a gasoline motor and adjustments were made in the tilt of the wings. Curtiss himself taxied the plane around the lake waters in testing, but for the long flight he picked one of his assistants, who had been with him for two years.

As we have already seen, Langley’s theories of flight were substantiated and he received the rightful credit due. And the man who piloted this first airplane…the plane that antedated the Wright Brothers? He is living in Hammondsport today. He is Elwood Doherty, but in those infant days of flying he was better known as “Gink” Doherty.

Mr. Doherty still vividly recalls that flight up the lake, a flight which has been overshadowed by the developments of the later years, but which proved for once and for all that it was an aged scientist from another century who had furnished the first wings for man’s flight into the heavens.

by A. Glenn Rogers