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Curtiss and his June Bug wowed the large Allentown fair crowd

Published September 25. 2010 09:00AM

The exhibit was accompanied by two live test flights by Glenn Curtiss, a pioneering giant in both motorcycles and airplane flight. During the first decade of the 20th century, the Glenn Curtiss name was magic in both fields.

In 1907, Curtiss rode his V-8 powered motorcycle at a speed of 136 MPH, thus claiming the title as "fastest man in the world." Curtiss had a reputation as being an expert in building lightweight, powerful engines. Later that same year, Alexander Graham Bell, the noted scientist-inventor-engineer-innovator, sought his expertise in developing an engine to power a heavier than air flying machine.

The association between Bell and Curtiss led to the formation of the Aerial Experiment Association, and that group was responsible for building four state-of-the-art flying machines by the end of the decade. Among the most famous early craft was the June Bug, which Curtiss himself designed.

This craft earned Curtiss the Scientific American Trophy, a kind of Super Bowl for early aviators. Curtiss' June Bug featured the innovative Curtiss "tricycle" landing gear, still the standard for modern aircraft.

It also carried another Curtiss trademark, the first "shoulder yoke" aileron control. This metal frame device replaced the simple rope arrangement on his earlier craft.

The summer of 1910 had already been a record-setting one for Curtiss. On May 29, just about fours months before his appearance at the Allentown Fair, he made the first city-to-city flight from Albany, N.Y., to New York City, a distance of about 150 miles. This could also qualify as being the first air-mail flight since he unofficially carried a letter from Albany's mayor to the mayor of New York City.

When people heard that Curtiss and his famous June Bug would be flying at the Allentown Fair, the event took on a rock-concert-like status. An estimated crowd of 105,000 flocked to the fairgrounds on Sept. 22 to personally witness Curtiss make two test flights in his June Bug.

Central and eastern Pennsylvania were well represented in the large assembly. The N.J. Central and Reading railroads brought passengers on special excursion trains. The Tamaqua Courier stated that some 600 residents from that town alone made the journey to witness the event in person.

"From every section of the state the people are flocking there not only to see the fair but also to see the aeroplane exhibition," the Courier reported on its front page on Sept. 22.

Curtiss used 19th Street as a runway to fly over the fairgrounds during two test flights in his June Bug. Afterward, the pioneering flyer told reporters that because the terrain was so hilly, aviation would probably never catch on in the Lehigh Valley. Curtiss said he would "just as soon fly across the Alps as across this country."

That reference he made about the Alps was not a random remark. At about the same time as he was flying his plane at the fair, word was received that a fellow aviation pioneer named George Chavez became the first to fly over the Italian Alps.

A month after the Allentown Fair, Eugene Ely, another demonstration pilot in the Curtiss stable of aviators, took off from a temporary platform mounted on the forward deck of the cruiser USS Birmingham. This successful takeoff was a landmark moment in the annals of Naval aviation, planting early seeds in the race to give flying a military application. Three decades later, aircraft carriers would provide the launching platforms for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and play crucial roles in subsequent battles in the Pacific during World War II.

In the closing months of 1910, Curtiss himself took a personal role in applying aviation principles to the military. At a winter encampment in San Diego, he taught flying to Army and Naval personnel. Today, as part of Naval Air Station North Island, the Navy refers to it as "The Birthplace of Naval Aviation."

One of Curtiss' trainees, Lt. Theodore Ellyson, became U.S. Naval Aviator #1.

In 1930, Curtiss suffered an attack of appendicitis in a courtroom in Rochester, N.Y., where he was contesting a law suit brought by a former business partner. He died of complications from appendix surgery. He is buried in Hammonds port, a village in Steuben County, N.Y.

Curtiss lives on today in the fictional character of Tom Swift, who made his first appearance in a juvenile novel in 1910. Tom Swift and His Motor Cycle and Tom Swift and His Airship were reportedly based on the life of Glenn Curtiss.

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