In 1910, you could have printed on a single sheet of paper the name of every person to have flown in an airplane. Engine-powered flying machines had evolved from the stuff of fantasy to reality in less than two short years (or so most of the public and press believed) and the “bird-men” that sailed through the air were rockstar famous. No community was as aviation crazy as Santa Rosa, in large part because of hometown daredevil Fred J. Wiseman, whose progress in building an aircraft from scratch, making his tentative flights and finally public exhibitions were events followed breathlessly by both of the town’s newspapers. As noted in the introduction to this series, over forty articles about his doings appeared in that year alone. And so it came to be that Tom Gregory flew one morning with Fred Wiseman and thus entered the record books himself as the world’s first terrified passenger.
“I had assured Wiseman that there was no limit to my nerve,” Gregory wrote in his Press Democrat essay, “but when I saw him monkeying around the engine of his bi-plane, and I looked aloft and saw the emptiness of things up there, I begin to get skreeky.”
It was an inspired choice by the PD to send Gregory aloft. He was an experienced reporter with a long career at the San Francisco newspapers where he was also often published as a featured poet. Tom was now settling in to his final career as scholar and historian, writing what still remains the best history of Sonoma County. And far from least, he was one of the funniest writers found anywhere. “‘We are almost ready to go,’ said Fred, doubtless thinking I was impatient to start. I wasn’t. In fact, could have sat there and waited a week, or even longer.”
After a detailed description of the aircraft, “[f]inally we stowed ourselves aboard, and amid the deafening crackle of the engine and the buzz of the propeller, we spun along on the bicycle-wheels for about thirty feet.” And then Tom Gregory was flying. The entire article is about 1,300 words and transcribed below, all of it quite an enjoyable read. An excerpt:
How shall I describe it? Just as soon as the wheels left the ground we seemed to stand still, and every object around us and below us seemed to hurry past. There wasn’t a bump or jar, though occasionally a swinging sensation when Wiseman tipped his plane the fraction of an inch–infinitesimal things count for much up in the air–and we were pulling higher against gravitation…I didn’t do any talking or anything else except gasp and catch breath, but I noted that Wiseman was exceedingly busy. He would elevate and depress his altitude planes as we would strike a warmer body of air which would drop us–or a colder, which, being heavier, would buoy us up to a greater elevation. Of course we would fall first on one side and then the other, and Fred’s shoulders woud work the tilting planes in his almost-agony to get her level again. Once when we went over until I almost quit breathing he attempted a jest by saying our starboard wing had passed over somebody’s hot chimney…He picked a “soft place to fall on,” and killed the engine, and in the silence which seemed doubly silent after the boom of the motor and propeller, we glided softly down; the wide planes parachuting us in safety, to the old earth.
|Fred J. Wiseman making a test flight at the ranch near Windsor where the aircraft was built, 1910. PHOTO: National Air and Space Museum|
Tom Gregory’s essay has worth beyond its historical and entertainment values; it also provides unique insight into how people of the day actually saw these strange-looking machines that somehow flew. His essay might also help clarify an old dictionary mystery: The origin of the word, “airplane.”
Before “airplane” there was the British name, “aeroplane,” which appeared in print in 1873 as the name given to the flat wings of a glider invented seven years earlier. Even before that was “aéroplane,” coined in 1855 by Frenchman Joseph Pline to describe a proposed gas-filled dirigible driven by propellers. Thus at about the same time, the English and French were using the same word to describe both a section of an aircraft and the whole thing itself.
The French name was supposedly derived from the verb planer, which means to glide or soar (the French adjective for a flat surface plane is plan, and it wasn’t spelled “aéroplan”). But for reasons unclear, the venerable Oxford English Dictionary declared that the “plane” part of the name had nothing to do with flat surfaces or gliding, but instead came from the Greek verb planos, which means, “to wander.” As the OED is considered Holy Writ by dictionary editors, this odd claim has been repeated in almost all English language dictionaries, much to the annoyance of some scholars (there’s even a book on this topic).
The wordy dust over the meaning of “aeroplane” settled in 1906. That year near Paris Alberto Santos-Dumont made the first certified flight entirely under its own power, cementing the view of France as the leading country in aviation research. Scientific American also conceded that an aeroplane was the name for a flying vehicle and not just a part of it – although there was a bit of a scrum when it was proposed that the overall thing should be properly called an “aerodyne” instead.
All of this stumbling in etymological weeds is preface to explaining how revealing it was that Tom Gregory in his 1910 essay seemed to revert to the old British terminology in describe Wiseman’s flying machine in terms of planes. There were the “side-planes” (wings) with “smaller planes called ‘balancing tips'” ( called ailerons today), “elevating planes” and a “horizontal plane” (forward and rear elevators) and a “vertical plane” (rudder). Note that he only once used “wings” in a way descriptive.
Clearly, Gregory was parroting terminology he heard from Wiseman and his partners, which showed they were immersed in the latest technical literature about aviation, such as patent applications and engineering magazines; “balancing tips,” for example, was a short-used term that only appeared between 1910 and 1912. But even more so it reveals Wiseman and others like him had no romantic notions that flying an aircraft required some kind of innate talent or was a simply taught skill like driving an auto. Wiseman viewed himself as the operator of a collection of interconnected planes, which modern pilots call “control surfaces” to be manipulated in the same manner.
Thus: “aeroplane” (“airplane” in the U.S. by 1911) is really a practical, descriptive noun. It’s not a lyric reference to the manmade wings of Icarus that soar or glide or wander about in the sky; it is as functional and plain in meaning as “washing machine.” It simply means a thing in the air that is controlled by moveable flat surfaces.
Yet even though Tom Gregory penned a remarkably precise description of the aeroplane of the day, he could not refrain from waxing poetic about the experience of flight. “It was startlingly exhilarating, it was gloriously joyful,” Gregory concluded, “but I was scared every cubic foot of atmosphere we drove through. I am scared yet.”
BI-PLANE RIDING AMONG THE BIRDSHow it Feels to Get Off the Earth With Only Empty Air or a Cloud Within Reach
(By Tom Gregory)
“Now hold your nerve–guess you have enough for this, only keep it,” said Aviator Fred Wiseman as he began to “crank-up” for our jump towards the clouds.
I had never been off the earth, but wanted to be–especially since April 18, 1906. It seems so easy to spread wings, flap, flap a little and up in the void. And it seems so safe, too. Most any kind of bird can fly. I have seen a buzzard go to sleep with wings aspread and not even a wisp of fog to hold him up. I had assured Wiseman that there was no limit to my nerve, but when I saw him monkeying around the engine of his bi-plane, and I looked aloft and saw the emptiness of things up there, I begin to get skreeky. Ah aeroplane, bi-plane, fly-plane, or whatever class of plane you may choose to call it, is not as safe as a flat-car; nor does it possess the longevity of an ox-wagon. There is a delicacy about its make-up. You are trusting your precious self to a couple of wings of India grass cloth, 32 feet long and 5 feet wide, hung on piano wire. It is true the cloth and wire are the lightest and strongest that can be procured, but they didn’t appear quite strong enough for this sky-stunt. While Fred was going over things in the matter-of-fact way of all machine-people, I was going over it in the way of a person who would like to be somewhere else.
Besides the two great planes which cut into the atmosphere at an upward angle calculated to overcome the downward pull of the earth–you know the old globe hates to let us go–there are stuck far out ahead smaller planes of the India grass, called elevating planes. Back in the rear are the steering or vertical planes, and attached to these is another horizontal plane which also assists in the elevation of the airship. On the great side-planes are smaller planes called “balancing tips,” and I assure you they are the only things that may be said to stand between the flyer and his own funeral. In fact, during about every second he is a-wing his vehicle is trying its level best–or unlevel best–to capsize. The space is full of probably millions of air impulses or currents, plunging and twisting in all directions, and the fly-man doesn’t find them till he is right among them and he feels himself tilting downward. His hands are full, gripping the steering wheel and elevating planes; his feet are full, working his motor-power; his head is full, wondering how hard he will hit the planet revolving below him, and every cubic foot of the air around him seems full of things unstable and intangible. Attached to his shoulders are the levers of the balancing-tips, and by heaving his body from side to side he works these life-savers, possibly in time to get back to an even keel before he is under the wreck on the ground beneath. Oh! the flying-machine man is a busy man when he is setting a pace for the birds.
“We are almost ready to go,” said Fred, doubtless thinking I was impatient to start. I wasn’t. In fact, could have sat there and waited a week, or even longer. Then he turned loose his motor and the 7-foot-6-inch propeller began to hum. Its pitch is such that with its 1800 revolutions each minute the whirling thing was soon driving a fifty-mile gale to the rear of the machine. But we were not off. Wiseman was only trying out his power, trying his engine, trying my nerves–trying everything in reach of his hand. M. Peters, his partners, was trying the tension of the oil-tempered wires, the steering-control, the working of the planes. In fact, everybody present was taking no risk, but was trying something. I was trying to get my courage up.
“It is well to be careful,” explained Wiseman. “We may not have another opportunity.” Finally we stowed ourselves aboard, and amid the deafening crackle of the engine and the buzz of the propeller, we spun along on the bicycle-wheels for about thirty feet. Fred slightly tipped the elevating planes, and we were off–the earth, with all the drive of the 75-horsepower engine.
How shall I describe it? Just as soon as the wheels left the ground we seemed to stand still, and every object around us and below us seemed to hurry past. There wasn’t a bump or jar, though occasionally a swinging sensation when Wiseman tipped his plane the fraction of an inch–infinitesimal things count for much up in the air–and we were pulling higher against gravitation. It was a calm day, no wind except our motion and the movement of the air as our propeller caught and dragged it to the rear. Atmosphere at the earth surface weighs 15 pounds to every square inch it presses upon, and this solid body offers not only something for the planes to rest on but the same something for the flying propeller to grapple. Yet a wrecked aeroplane can fall through it with the greatest of ease. Frequently the spruce frames of the planes in the tremendous strain would crack loudly, but they are “laminated,” each timber put together in thin layers, pressed and glued in a solid stick making it additionally strong with as little weight as possible. The propeller is of the same construction. There was a strong pressure on the cloth of the planes showing that they were “lifting” for all that was in them and giving us a fly for our money.
I didn’t do any talking or anything else except gasp and catch breath, but I noted that Wiseman was exceedingly busy. He would elevate and depress his altitude planes as we would strike a warmer body of air which would drop us–or a colder, which, being heavier, would buoy us up to a greater elevation. Of course we would fall first on one side and then the other, and Fred’s shoulders would work the tilting planes in his almost-agony to get her level again. Once when we went over until I almost quit breathing he attempted a jest by saying our starboard wing had passed over somebody’s hot chimney. We didn’t try any Icarian flights, so didn’t get high enough to have “the sun melt the wax on our wings,” as it did the old Greek aviators. We were not breaking records or necks, and the Sonoma birds may have the speed prize. Our whirl around the turn was made in a graceful curve, fluttering the leaves on a gum tree we drove dangerously near but escaped by Wiseman’s slapping his rudder-plane hard-a-port. He picked a “soft place to fall on,” and killed the engine, and in the silence which seemed doubly silent after the boom of the motor and propeller, we glided softly down; the wide planes parachuting us in safety, to the old earth.
It was startlingly exhilarating, it was gloriously joyful, but I was scared every cubic foot of atmosphere we drove through. I am scared yet.
Today Messrs. Wiseman and Peters, the builders and owners of the successful bi-plane, which has been exhibited during the Carnival in this city, will make exhibition flights at the race track, and the public will have an opportunity to see the airship in its native element.– Press Democrat, May 8, 1910