Some of the pioneer airplane pilots specialized in speed, or distance, or altitude; Charles K. Hamilton specialized in crashing spectacularly.

While researching Fred J. Wiseman’s first flights in 1910, it came as a surprise to learn he crashed their aircraft three times, once causing major damage to the plane (see previous item). By comparison, Wiseman’s partner Jean Peters also flew the biplane often and had not a single mishap  – that we know of. Was Fred a bad airman? In one of the very few quotes from him that year. he seems to come across as flippant and reckless: “This airship sport has automobile racing licked to a frazzle,” he confidently told a Press Democrat reporter. “I tell you one thing–that a man has a far better chance of saving himself in an airship when she commences to drop than he has in an automobile race when the wheels skid or the gear goes wrong.”

(RIGHT: Charles Hamilton in July, 1910. Photo:

But Wiseman’s record doesn’t look so bad compared to some others, particularly since about ten flyers had died to that point. Consider the performance of his friend (acquaintance?) Charles Hamilton; he crashed at least seven times in 1910 (a Feb. 1911 wire story claimed there were “two score” by that point), four of the accidents involving life-threatening plummets from the sky. Loathe that I am to quote a Wikipedia page, the entry for Hamilton summarizes him well. He was “nicknamed the ‘crazy man of the air…known for his dangerous dives, spectacular crashes, extensive reconstructive surgeries, and ever present cigarette’ and was ‘frequently drunk’. He survived over 60 crashes.”

Hamilton also had a local connection. Before he was flying planes, he was “Professor” or “Captain” Hamilton, the parachuting hot-air balloon pilot who appeared in Sonoma County in 1905, 1908, and twice in 1909. At first he piloted and landed the balloon only; the jumper here in 1905 was his girlfriend/wife/sister (we don’t even know what year he was born, much less his family connections). Before that, he had a parachuting monkey named “Jocko.” I would not be surprised to learn the first of his “extensive reconstructive surgeries” had something to do with pitching a terrified monkey overboard at 500 feet.

Before long Hamilton ran out of parachute jumpers (human or no) and began jumping himself. Sometimes this did not go well. During his 1909 performance in Santa Rosa, he was left dangling with his parachute caught in overhead wires until a PG & E lineman rescued him. Worse, a year before he had fallen through the skylight at Moke’s funeral home on Third street, frightening the undertakers. “I’m not a dead one just yet,” Hamilton quipped.

The September, 1909 Santa Rosa jump was possibly his last. By the end of the year he was on the East Coast learning how to fly from Glenn Curtiss, then the hotshot American aviator, having just set the world’s speed record. Hamilton was a quick study; a few weeks later he was competing at the first West Coast flying exhibition in Los Angeles (discussed here). There he gained confidence when he glided to safety after his crankshaft broke, and learned that air shows paid a helluva lot better than flinging himself or a monkey over the side of a balloon. He won $4,500 in prize money at the event, using his winnings to lease the racing plane that Curtiss had used to set the record for speed. Hamilton’s aviation career was launched.   

Also called the “red devil” for his shock of ginger hair, Charles Keeney Hamilton was one of the most famous men in America for a few glorious months. His career peak came that June, when he won $10,000 for making the first roundtrip flight between New York City and Philadelphia (as a precaution because he was flying over twenty-two miles of open water, he wrapped three bicycle inner tubes around his waist). The New York Times ran a full-page feature, “Charles K. Hamilton Tells How To Run An Aeroplane.” As the public was crazy over everything flight related that year, the wire service illustration shown to right appeared in many papers accompanying generic aviation stories, with Hamilton more prominently displayed than his mentor Curtiss or the Wright brothers.

Municipalities everywhere wanted to host an air meet that year, and Hamilton was raking in money by charging $4,000 for an appearance. Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley, wearing his hat as president of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, met with Hamilton in Fresno to try to arrange for him to fly here.

He put on quite a daredevil show that included going into a steep dive and pulling out twenty feet from the ground. “There were persons present yesterday who believed that before Hamilton quit for the day he would disrobe, stand on his head, throw away one plane [wing] at a time and come in on the carburetor,” gasped the NY Tribune. Part of the thrill for show goers was the chance Hamilton would set some new record or have one of his horrific accidents. In March he was attempting to skim low over the water in Seattle and had a pitchover, the biplane somersaulting end over end. During a novelty race with an auto at the California state fair – apparently using an engine on loan from Wiseman – he crashed nose down, leaving spectators amazed that he wasn’t killed on the spot. He destroyed an experimental aircraft on a test flight and an engine failure at 200 feet in December led to another smashup. And it was even something of a miracle that he had completed his famous Philadelphia-New York flight given that he broke two propellers, one when he made an emergency landing in a meadow that turned out to be a swamp.

Hamilton’s career flamed out as quickly as it had started. He flew little after 1910 and his last known flight was in Feb. 1913 at Jacksonville, Florida. True to form, he crashed the plane – this time jumping out seconds before impact. He died of tuberculosis in 1914 and his obituaries were small, appearing mostly in towns where he had once wowed the locals with his death-defying stunts.

Successful Balloon Ascension Feature of the Celebration at Sebastopol on Monday

Professor Hamilton, the aeronaut, made a successful balloon ascension and parachute jump from Sebastopol on Monday afternoon. His ascent into the heavens was witnessed by thousands of people in the Gold Ridge City and for miles around. All over the section people were out waiting for the big balloon to rise. There was much speculation as to where Professor Hamilton alighted and where the balloon fell. The man landed on the Solomon place and the balloon came down on the electric railroad near Bassat station some distance below Sebastopol. It was a very successful exhibition in every respect.

– Press Democrat, July 7, 1909


Professor Hamilton, the aeronaut who made the balloon ascension here Admission Day, attracted a large crowd of persons to witness his trip into the heavens. He went up a great distance into cloudland before cutting loose his parachute. The descent in the huge umbrella like affair was very graceful.

The aeronaut landed on terra firma just in front of the Henry M. Forsyth residence on upper Fourth street. By a strange freak he came down between two sets of wires and the canvas parachute clung to the wires. The trapeze on which Professor Hamilton did his “stunts” which sailing through the air was within a few feet of the ground at the time, so there was no drop for him to make to reach the earth.

Clancy Sherman, one of the linemen of the lighting company, ascended a pole after some delay and pulled the huge bag off the wires, for this he was awarded with liberal applause.

The ascent and descent were as thrilling as those ever get to be and was particularly pleasing to the children.

– Santa Rosa Republican, September 10, 1909

Charles K. Hamilton, whose great flight from New York to Philadelphia on Monday is chronicled in another column, is the aviator whom the Chamber of Commerce committee endeavored to secure at the time the giving of an aviation meet here under the auspices of that organization was being considered. President Finley visited Fresno for the express purpose of securing Hamilton, and he agreed to come providing he could possibly arrange to do so, but on reaching Phoenix, Arizona, Hamilton found that his manager had made engagements without consulting him, which made it impossible to keep the tentative engagement made for Santa Rosa. When the local committee found it could not secure Hamilton, the matter was dropped. Hamilton has been in Santa Rosa, however. He is the same Hamilton who made the parachute jump at the Fourth of July celebration given here two years ago, under the auspices of the Native Sons, the ascension being made from the Court House grounds.

– Press Democrat, June 14, 1910

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