Governors Island played an important role in the history of aviation. Each week this month will be a historical look at one event in the island’s contribution to the history of manned flight.
Wilbur Wright snared glory in 1909 on Governors Island. The next year his chief rival, Glenn H. Curtiss, snared something much more valuable on the Island: military contracts. While Orville and Wilbur Wright earned one kind of fame, Curtiss sewed up War Department funding. Some of the first-ever military airplane demonstrations happened in the same spot where Liggett Terrace is today.
Like the Wrights, Curtiss also came from a humble background and had a keen interest in bicycles, engineering, and going faster via gasoline-powered engines. He was born May 21, 1878, in Hammondsport, New York, in the Finger Lakes region. His widowed mother was a schoolteacher and Curtiss’ education stopped in the eighth grade. He held scores of jobs around upstate New York, including in the nascent Kodak plant.
Curtiss opened his own bicycle shop and became obsessed with putting engines in them. He pioneered the first motorcycles, and set world records for speed at the turn of the century. He was introduced to ballooning and lighter than air dirigibles, which used his small engines for power. Once Curtiss was aloft, he focused on aviation.
In October 1907, he joined the Aerial Experiment Association, or AEA, a group founded by Alexander Graham Bell. Curtiss reached out to the Wrights to inquire if they wanted to use one his engines. They refused any collaboration with Curtiss. He turned to working with AEA on refining his designs with them.
Curtiss first made waves in aviation in his hometown of Hammondsport. On July 4, 1908, he flew a craft nicknamed June Bug a distance of 5,090 feet. For this accomplishment, he won the first leg of the Scientific American trophy, which required an unassisted take-off and straight flight of at least one kilometer. Curtiss and the AEA were now in direct competition with the Wrights, who soon sued him for patent infringement. The AEA plane and the Wrights were the only American airplanes in the air at the time.
Governors Island was the place where the two pioneers were to meet. Wilbur Wright and Glenn Curtiss were both booked by the Hudson-Fulton Committee to appear at the grand celebration in September-October 1909. This was to celebrate the tricentennial of Henry Hudson’s exploration of New York, and the centennial of Robert Fulton’s steamboat. A citywide extravaganza was to be held, with aeronautics to replace nautical achievements. While Wright was offered one contract, Curtiss was offered $5,000 (about $133,000 today) to fly roundtrip from Governors Island to Grant’s Tomb in Manhattan.
On Sept. 29, 1909, Curtiss and Wright were at Fort Jay. Two hangers contained their inventions. A horde of reporters was present, as were Army officers. Wilbur Wright stole the show by flying from the Island to the Statue of Liberty and back. However, Curtiss failed. He was using a weak four-cylinder engine, which was no match for the harbor wind conditions. His plane could not stay in the air as long as the Wright Flyer. With another engagement in St. Louis, he left New York humiliated on October 2. Two days later, with a canoe underneath his plane, Wilbur Wright made the trip to Grant’s Tomb and back.
Over the winter Curtiss went back to his factory in New York and built a better engine. He accepted a $10,000 challenge from the Pulitzer-owned New York World to fly the reverse course of Henry Hudson, from Albany to Manhattan. On May 29, 1910, he departed from Albany in a new plane, the Hudson Flyer.
This plane, with a 50-horsepower, 8-cylinder engine, was perfect for the flight. Without no air maps, he followed the course of the Hudson River southward. Curtiss refueled near Poughkeepsie. He needed to make an emergency landing in Inwood, in Northern Manhattan, for fuel and oil. Curtiss continued the flight and landed on Governors Island. The flight of 151 miles took 2 hours, 51 minutes, and averaged 52 miles per hour. It was the longest airplane flight to date.
Curtiss was now besting the Wright Brothers in the new world of aviation. He spent the remainder of 1910 developing what would make him rich: military airplanes. He had limited success with taking off from a lake, but one of his test pilots, Eugene Ely, flew a Curtiss plane from a U.S. Navy ship and landed in a field at Hampton Roads, Virginia. Meanwhile, Curtiss was developing a relationship with the U.S. Army on Governors Island.
Three months after his triumphant flight from Albany, Curtiss took the ferry back to Governors Island. He met with Army brass at the new airfield that was constructed on the landfill, roughly where Liggett Terrace and Hammock Grove are today. He had a two-seater plane to demonstrate, for the first-time, that aircraft could be used in combat.
In August 1910 Curtiss was assigned Lt. Jacob E. Fickel to demonstrate for the Army what the airplane could do for them. The 27-year-old infantry officer from Fort Jay was a marksman and helped Curtiss show that rifle recoil wouldn’t damage a plane in flight. On the Island, Curtiss and Fickel showed off the first armed airplane. The Army took them to Sheepshead Bay Racetrack in Brooklyn. From an altitude of 100 feet, Fickel hit his targets. Curtiss got his Army contracts, and Fickel was promoted (ultimately rising to a major general in the Air Force).
Following this, Curtiss went to California for sea trials with his aircraft. In December 1910 he arrived at North Island in San Diego Bay to start a U.S. Navy aviation school. Curtiss made the first-ever aircraft carrier landing, and is credited as the first Naval Aviator.
In 1912 Wilbur Wright died and soon after his brother sold the business. The U.S. government urged that the patent dispute be settled. In time for World War I, the Army had new airplanes. Curtiss retired from day-to-day flying and focused on the business, becoming one of the wealthiest men in the field. In 1929, the Curtiss-Wright Corporation took shape from twelve Wright and Curtiss affiliated companies, and became the second-largest firm in America.
On July 23, 1930, Curtiss died suddenly of complications following appendicitis surgery in Buffalo General Hospital. He was 52. Curtiss is interred in Pleasant Valley Cemetery in Hammondsport. His name appears on the Early Birds Monument on Governors Island.
Kevin C. Fitzpatrick has written and edited seven books with ties to New York history, including "The Governors Island Explorer's Guide" and "World War I New York: A Guide to the City’s Enduring Ties to the Great War." Kevin is a licensed sightseeing guide and has been leading walking tours since 1999. He resides in Manhattan.