The first US Air Meet, 1910

Aviation Meet poster
An advertisement for the first Aviation Meet in America featured a variety of flying machines.

Viewing the aeroplane for the first time

Fans attended the first major International Air Meet at Reims, France, in August 1909, with close to 500,000 spectators. It set the standard for all future air shows of the time. To meet the challenge, they built special grandstands, numerous restaurants, a barbershop, and even press facilities. The main drawing card was the Gordon Bennett Cup Race (speed contest). In the end, a handful of Americans cheered their countryman Glenn Curtiss to a six-second victory in the Gordon Bennett Cup (46.77 mph). The race, and the entire Reims meet, was a huge success and helped establish air meets as an international spectator sport for fans and dignitaries of Europe and the US.

Challenged by the Reims Meet, Albert Bond Lambert (St. Louis Lambert International Airport namesake), who attended the event in France and was a leading St. Louis industrialist and aviation enthusiast, offered Glenn Curtiss a guarantee of $5,000 (2013 – $122,000) to fly his Gordon Bennett Trophy winner, the “Golden Flyer,” at the Airship Show in St. Louis, October 1909. Curtiss, who was the fastest man in the air (47 mph at Rheims) and the fastest man on the ground (motorcycle at 136.27 mph at Ormond Beach, Florida, in his own V8 engine design), accepted the challenge and proceeded to St. Louis in late fall for the St. Louis Centennial Week exhibition. Thousands of St. Louis citizens turned out to watch Glenn Curtiss in his Reims racer–the “Celebrity of the New Air Circuits.” At the time, the newspapers were full of headlines of the Wright Brothers suing all the pilots (worldwide) and air meets for infringement of their patents, as they felt they owned the rights to the all the flying experiences.

The public’s aviation interest at St. Louis and at Reims inspired a group of aviators at St. Louis, including Curtiss, to get together to discuss how they could capitalize on the growing interest in aviation. They decided to hold a world-class air meet of their own, in the style of Reims, in the United States as soon as possible. It would be an “International Event,” featuring the best aviators from around the world. With winter on the horizon, Los Angeles was their choice of location. At that time, Curtiss was considering the West Coast as a potential site for his winter flying as Hempstead Plains, Long Island, New York proved to be impossible with the northern winters and the winds.

In October 1909, airship (not aeroplane) pilot Roy Knabenshue, from Toledo, Ohio, and Charles Willard, the first man Curtiss taught to fly, met and decided to use Southern California as a winter base for their aerial demonstrations. To reinforce the event’s “international” billing, French aviator Louis Paulhan, a notable from the 1909 Reims Meet, was invited. He took part in many air meets, including Douai in July 1909, where he set new records for altitude (492 ft) and duration (1h 07m), covering 47 km, and the Grande Semaine d’Aviation in Rheims. In Lyon, flying a Farman, he broke three records: height at 3,036 ft, speed of 12 miles in 19 minutes and weight, carrying a 160 lb passenger. Paulhan was guaranteed a small sum of money as encouragement to attend the Los Angeles meet. They then persuaded railroad magnate Henry Huntington to pledge $50,000 (2013- $1,170,000). The Wrights refused to partake in the flying event due to Sunday flying and the non-competitive spirit.

Curtiss flying over crowds
Glenn Curtiss flying over the crowds.

Hence, with the help of Dick Ferris (LA promoter), Henry Huntington (LA railroad owner), Los Angeles Merchants and Manufacturing Association, all the major cities of the West Coast, plus William Randolph Hearst (Los Angeles Examiner owner and aviation fan), they decided to move ahead and a few months later, Los Angeles hosted the “First American Air Meet.”

The first major U.S. aviation meet took place at Dominguez Field, just 15 miles south of Los Angeles, from January 10-20, 1910. The first location considered was a field in Santa Anita, but physical obstructions such as tall trees led the aviators to search for another site. About a month before the January start date, Dominguez Field was agreed upon. The Dominguez family donated the property for the event as it was a former battle area from the Mexican War. This field was located on the top of a small hill in land once a part of the Rancho San Pedro, an early Spanish land grant and could not be viewed by non-paying attendees as Rheims was.

Arriving from the Rose Parade in Pasadena, Curtiss agreed to the plan, though he had no intention of using the Meet to defend the Bennett Trophy he captured at Rheims; that race would be months (October) away and held in New York at Belmont Race Track; however, he believed more money was to be made than in California. Curtiss was looking for winter quarters somewhere in the warmer climate of Southern California. He made several inquiries during the Dominguez Meet and residents from both Los Angeles and San Diego made inviting offers. The greatest inducement came from the Spreckles Sugar Company, who offered some vacant land they owned in the San Diego area known as the North Island for a token rental fee of $1.00 per year.

ballon with crowd
Large crowds and aeroplanes awaiting takeoff.

All of the US states west of the Mississippi had been plastered with posters/brochures; special trains from San Francisco, Arizona, San Diego, and St. Louis had all been booked. Trainloads of lumber were required for the building of 26,000 seats for the fans, along with electric lights for the tent city of aeroplane hangars. Auto roads for parking were constructed. At the Hotel Alexandria (pilots’ hotel) all the rooms were booked. Fifty thousand people were estimated from San Francisco, and all politicians had their schedules fixed. Huntington’s trains were designed to haul 600-800 people every two minutes. A full medical hospital staff was on duty along with a small army of special police (300 men under Sheriff Hammel) to keep the fans away from the aeroplanes, off the infield and to subdue pickpockets, a popular venue at the time.

Telegraph companies placed special wires in the reserved box seats to keep the world aware of the current events. The “Aviation Camp” was ready. The weather cooperated, with average winds of 3mph and temperatures of 65F during the day–significantly warmer then NYC which was hit on January 15th with 14″ of snow in a blizzard and several deaths.

Paulhan and Didier Masson were served Wright lawsuit papers as soon as they arrived at the port of New York City on January 3, 1910, as was Curtiss prior to his departure from New York. Judge Basel granted a temporary wavier for the flyers against the Wrights, just days prior to the meet, to allow for no restrictions at the Air Meet .

The plan unfolded to create the “1910 Los Angeles Air Show” with a circus-like atmosphere (literally). Spectators who got off one of Henry Huntington’s trolley cars and walked half a mile on the newly-built sawdust roads to the Aviation Field were met by sideshow barkers, a Ferris wheel and deep sea divers. Attractions (most from the Seattle World’s Fair the previous summer) also included conjoined twins Cora and Etta, who were dubbed the Human Biplane in honor of the occasion. Cash prizes were allotted for competitive events in altitude, speed, and endurance.

Lincoln Beachey flying plane
With Lincoln Beachey at the controls, a Curtiss design dashes past the crowd.

The spectators paid for a 35-cent train ticket (round trip–35 miles) and fifty cents for grandstand admission. All admission tickets had to be bought prior to boarding the train. Fourteen-year old Jimmy Doolittle attended, as well as William Boeing, Thaddeus Lowe, Pancho Barnes (Right Stuff fame), Glenn Martin and William Randolph Hearst. Contributing talks and aeroplane lectures were given at the YMCA and University. Cortland Bishop, President of the Aero Club of America, gave his approval for the advancement of aviation for this event. Each day was dedicated to “Special City Program,” from San Francisco to Arizona Day.

Curtiss made the first flight over California and the Pacific coastline in a new 4-cylinder which sounded like 100 motorcycles all set in motion at the same time. Spectator turnout numbered somewhere around 254,000 by most accounts for the full event (LA population at the time was 319,198). Although 43 flying machines were officially entered, only 16 showed up, and not all of them flew over the mile and three-quarters course, rolled perfectly flat for the aeroplanes’ takeoffs and landings. The Los Angeles Examiner called it “one of the greatest public events in the history of the West.” Gate receipts for the event totaled more than $137,500 at fifty cents per ticket (2013 – $3,217,500). In 1910, that number represented more than half of the population of Los Angeles and that does not include the attendees who didn’t pay for grandstand seats and a 125% return on investment for stakeholders.

The key participants included Glenn Curtiss, the American hero who had won the prestigious Gordon Bennett Cup at the Reims Race one year prior. Curtiss, a true American aviation pioneer and founder of the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, was most famous with his motorcycle speed records. On Jan 12th, Curtiss broke three world records in front of 20,000 spectators. C.F. Willard finished off Tuesday’s record with a perfect flight and landing score. Paulhan went on to capture the world altitude record for 4,165 ft off the ground. This earned him the San Diego Medal. Paulhan won the prize longest cross country flight the world had known to date: 1 hr 2 min, winning $10,000 (2013- $244,000). Curtiss still retained the speed record for the event at 55 mph.

Louis Paulhan in biplane
Louis Paulhan making his record flight in his Henry Farman biplane.

Also featured were Charles Hamilton and Lincoln Beachey, (who were flying dirigibles at that time, and later would become America’s greatest early exhibition pilots) and Paulhan, who was the international star of the show. The Los Angeles Air Meet drew many other famous aviators, most of whom were American. Others included Roy Knabenshue, Charles Willard and Clifford B. Harmon, many of whom are listed among the Early Birds of Aviation. French aviators at the event included Paulhan and Masson. Strict rules were enforced that all the pilots had to fly either Monday or Tuesday to be considered for the prize monies for the remainder of the Meet.

Paulhan dominated the Dominguez meet financially and won the opening day prize of $500 ($12,200 in 2013) for “Best Opening Day Show.” Mr. Paulhan brought with him to the event two Bleriot Monoplanes, with Gnome engines, flown for the first time in the US and famed for its English Channel crossing in 1909, plus two Farman Biplanes, two student pilots, his wife and pet poodle from France (he employed eight mechanics). Consider the logistical issues of shipping these four aeroplanes and crew from Europe via ship and train and wagons to Los Angeles in an age with limited delivery service, no shipment tracking, and lack of telephones. The main line of communication was the telegraph. In addition, the poor quality of gasoline on the opening days caused excess engine maintenance and unexpected flight delays.

In 1908 the record altitude was 25 ft above the ground, and aircraft had just started to make turns. In 1909 at Rheims, the record was under 100 ft above the ground (1/3 football field) at 47 mph. By 1910 a new record was set: 10,746 ft above the ground (2 miles) and 55 mph with a companion by Curtiss at the LA Meet. Every day was a new record–on almost every flight.

First, Paulhan set a new flight endurance record by carrying a passenger almost 110 miles (177 kilometers) in his Farman biplane in 1 hour, 49 minutes. Then he went on to achieve a new altitude mark of approximately 4,164 ft. Later that year, Paulhan flew the “Le Canard,” the world’s first seaplane, designed by Henri Fabre in France. He also performed several aerial feats during the week, and near the end of the show carried U.S. Army Lieutenant Paul Beck aloft to perform one of the first aerial bomb dropping tests, using weights to simulate the bombs.

famous aviators in Los Angeles
Nine famous aviators at Los Angeles (l to r): Hilary Beachey, Col. Johnson, Glenn Curtiss, Louis Paulhan, Charles Willard, Didier Masson, Lincoln Beachey, Roy Knabenshue and Charles Hamilton

Overall, Paulhan ruled the skies over Los Angeles, winning as much as $19,000 (2013 – $463,410) in prize money, but it seemed like Curtiss, a $6000 winner (2013- $146,000), grabbed all the headlines with the Wright lawsuit and their legal battle to fly and build aeroplanes on a worldwide basis.

At that same time promoters were staging the first international air shows, exhibition aviators were putting on their own demonstrations. Lincoln Beachey, the most inexhaustible daredevil of the early exhibition pilots, entertained more than 17 million people during a 31-week period in the 1910s. This is especially impressive, when one considers that the entire U.S. population at the time was only around 76 million.

As you think about this Air Meet, remember that in 1910, there were no parachutes, no heaters, no enclosed cockpits, no seat belts, no shoulder straps, no brakes, no deicing, no flying instruments and no radios, but there were poor performing engines, wood spars and cloth wings. By end of 1910 there were approximately 1000 men and women all over the world with pilot’s licenses. And yes, aeroplanes and air meets were here to stay.


  • Walt has the ability to make you feel as if you were part of the crowd at some of these events.The courage and daring of these pioneers in aviation is worth sharing with all younger generations. Very enjoyable piece.

  • Thanks to the author for this close up look at early days of aviation. Now that Mach 3 is routine and regular trips to the moon behind us, it’s eye opening to see how it all started.

  • Wonderful piece on aviation history, air shows/ races, well written and informative especially comparing the prices/ value of aircraft today with the early 1900s. Considering how far aviation has come since its short inception, this piece reflects on what men went through to bring that technology to today’s competitive racers in the sky- i.e. Reno Air races for starters. Worth reading more than once. Great job and appealing to all fans of aircraft and aircraft history.

    • Thanks Jack….
      More to come – Next article on “First to Fly – Flight Evolution” then “Women in Early Aviation”
      Thanks again,
      Enjoy early aviation.
      Walt Wick

    • Please send your email address so I can use you as a reference for a application grant on Aviation History.
      Thanks and have a great holiday,
      Walt Wick

      Unfortunately need it ASAP. Thanks

  • Ordinarily, I would not have completed reading this article, But the writer’s thorough research, command of the facts and engaging style stopped me from “bailing out” of this account of early American aviation history. I have forwarded it to the M.S. Tech teachers where I work.

    • Thanks More to come – Next article on “First to Fly – Flight Evolution” then “Women in Early Aviation”
      Thanks again,
      Enjoy early aviation.
      Walt Wick

      PS I did promise the Editor the next one will be shorter

    • Please send your email address so I can use you as a reference for a application grant on Aviation History.
      Thanks and have a great holiday,
      Walt Wick

      Unfortunately need it ASAP. Thanks

    • Thanks More to come – Next article on “First to Fly – Flight Evolution” then “Women in Early Aviation”

      Thanks again,
      Enjoy early aviation.
      Walt Wick

  • very enjoyable read. really liked the past to present analysis. the insight into the daring and courage of those early airmen is amazing

    • Agree with all the +ve comments posted to date. You might be interested in my research into R C Fenwick, aviator and designer of the “Mersey Monoplane”, who was born in South Shields near to where Mme Franck made her flight in 1910. Fenwick was killed whilst flying his aircraft in some trials just over 100 years ago in August 1912.

  • Reading about the daring and determination of these aviation pioneers provides motivation when dealing with my challenges. I learned many new pieces of information from this article. It is very enjoyable!

  • Walt–I agree with all those who speak highly of your skill as a writer.
    I really appreciate all those daring people who risk their lives
    (and many lost) to further aviation. I am an “engine guy” who came from the Big Round Engine era and of course my first love is engines. Structures are my second love and the one that paid the bills. However, without engines we would still be pedaling our ‘bikes. Keep up the good work.

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