The aviation world had one of its biggest events in its fledgling days on August 5, 1911, at Fort Jay. On this afternoon three aviators took off from the tiny Governors Island airfield destined for Philadelphia. The men, Lincoln Beachey, Eugene Ely, and Hugh A. Robinson, are all members of aviation history for their pioneering flights.
Beachey, 24, was a stunt pilot and daredevil. Ely, also 24, was the first pilot to use a tail hook and land a plane on a Navy ship. Robinson, 30, was the third man to fly, after the Wright Brothers.
The occasion of the historic day was the first-ever air race for the Gimbel Brothers $5,000 prize (about $130,000 today). They owned Gimbels department store. The aviators of the Glenn Curtiss Company left Governors Island shortly before 3:00 p.m. all flying the same model biplane. It was billed as the first cross-country aero race in the country. Interest was high as tens of thousands lined the streets of New York and Philadelphia and along the route to see the racing biplanes.
General Frederick Dent Grant, commander of the U.S. Army Department of the East, and son of President Grant, personally greeted each pilot and racing team at Fort Jay. The Army officers took keen interest in the preliminary work on the machines, and General Grant directed his staff to assist the pilots in any way necessary.
Aviator Charles K. Hamilton, who held the New York-Philadelphia air record, refused to make the trip because his plane had never been tested and taken in the air. Hamilton would not take the risk. Ely, who worked for Curtiss and had gone to Governors Island as a witness, volunteered to take his place. Wearing his street clothes, Ely took the pilot’s seat.
Beachey, who had recently flown figure eights over Niagara Falls, started his trip at 2:40 p.m. Ely departed at 2:41, and Robinson one minute later. Beachey and Ely rose to a height of 1,000 feet, while Robinson flew a little under them. They passed over Buttermilk Channel, flew around the Battery, and up the Hudson River. The conditions of the race called for the fliers to pass over the Gimbels department store at Thirty-third Street and Broadway in Greeley Square. Orville Wright was standing on the massive store roof among 200 spectators to see the race.
The pilots made a wide arching turn over Manhattan and the crowds below. The American Aero Club officially timed them as they flew overhead. Beachey’s time was at 2:48, Ely’s 2:49:30, and Robinson 2:52. As the planes circles low over the city, the pilots somehow managed to drop cards from their planes to the crowds gathered below.
Beachey and Ely passed over Rahway, New Jersey, neck-and-neck at 3:10, with Robinson close behind at 3:17. Beachey got lost and landed in Trenton to get his bearings. Ely landed at New Brunswick to refuel a broken fuel tank. He ended up pulling out of the race in Princeton Junction at 4:56 p.m. Robinson also refueled in New Brunswick and didn’t get airborne again until 4:06, which led him to finish in second place.
The day belonged to Beachey, who arrived at Philadelphia at 5:36, with a time of one hour and forty-five minutes. He circled city hall and made a beautiful landing at Fairmount Park. Streets and rooftops were jammed with crowds eager to see the finish. Gimbel’s put up grandstands for VIP viewing at Fairmount Park; the park was so crowded the reserve police force was called in to help.
The careers of these brave aviators were not the same after they flew from Governors Island.
Beachey, the first great stunt pilot, retired soon after the race after seeing so many friends killed. But he went back to flying. On March 14, 1915, his wings fell off over San Francisco Bay and he was fatally injured.
Ely only lived for two more months after the race. He was killed in a crash on October 19, 1911, in Macon, Georgia. In 1933 he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and is considered the first U.S. Navy aviator.
Robinson, who survived 15 crashes, lived to be 80 and died in 1963.
In 1954 all three men were honored on the Early Birds Monument, which today is placed on King Avenue, not far from where the airplanes were once located.
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.