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Those Daring Young Men

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We take a look back at the perilous early days of flight.

One hundred years ago, on Nov. 17, 1910, Ralph Johnstone became the first American pilot to die in an airplane crash. We take a look back at the perilous early days of flight.

Born in Kansas in 1880, Johnstone began his daredevil career performing bicycle tricks for vaudeville shows. It was a fitting beginning to a career in aviation, given that Orville and Wilbur Wright, inventors of the fixed-wing aircraft, were also bicycle enthusiasts. In fact, an employee at the Wrights bicycle shop, Charlie Taylor, is generally credited with helping build the first aircraft engine.

Flying was a dangerous business at the turn of the century. One of the Wright Brothers’ inspirations – Otto Lilienthal, a German flight pioneer known as ‘The Glider King’ – died in 1896 after breaking his spine in a glider crash in Berlin (his dying words: “small sacrifices must be made”). Percy Pilcher, a British glider pilot, had been experimenting with powered flight and hoped to test a triplane he designed, but a fatal glider crash in 1899 robbed him of the opportunity.

Smithsonian Institute secretary Samuel Langley, whom the Wright Brothers consulted in their early days, made two disastrous attempts at piloting, the second of which resulted in him being pulled from an icy river by rescuers. Excoriated in the press (one newspaper wrote, “We hope that Professor Langley will not put his substantial greatness as a scientist in further peril by continuing to waste his time, and the money involved, in further airship experiments”), his health suffered following the accident and he died of a fatal stroke in 1906.

Their experiments at Kitty Hawk in 1903 proved that manned, powered and controlled flight was possible, but the Wright Brothers found themselves confronting the question that faces any inventor after coming up with a workable prototype – who was going to buy this contraption and how should it be marketed?

The military provided one solution, but it took the Wright brothers several years of design improvement and rigorous testing before the government would award them a contract. During a demonstration flight at Fort Myers, Virginia, Sept. 17, 1908, Army Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge was riding as a passenger and observer when a propeller came apart at an altitude of about 100 feet and the aircraft plummeted. Selfridge’s skull was smashed on impact and he died that evening at a nearby hospital. Orville Wright suffered a broken leg and four broken ribs (years later, it was discovered the crash had also caused hip bone fractures and a dislocated hip). Two years later, the Army would buy their first airplane from the Wright Brothers for $30,000. By 1913, 11 soldiers had died in airplane crashes.

Wilbur Wright in his airplane, France, 1908

Wishing to expand into the private sector, Wilbur and Orville Wright needed to convince the public that air flight was a reliable mode of transportation. To this end, in 1910 they opened the Wright School of Aviation, with the aim of training people to demonstrate their product throughout the United States and overseas. They situated the school in Montgomery, Alabama, at a converted cotton plantation that later became Maxwell Air Force Base.

Some graduates of the school made up the Wright Exhibition Team, who made their debut June 13, 1910, at the Indianapolis Speedway. Over the next several months, the pilots performed aerial stunts and tried to beat endurance and speed records. Johnstone often performed with Arch Hoxsey, and the two became known as “the star dust twins” or "heavenly twins."

Less than a month before his fatal crash, Ralph Johnstone set a new altitude record of 8,471 feet. Asked about the dangers of flying, the 24 year-old told the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “I am fatalistic. I believe that the hour of each one is fixed in advance.”

Onlookers gather at Ralph Johnstone crash site in Denver, Colorado, as a doctor attends to Johnstone, Nov. 17, 2010.

His hour came Nov. 17, 1910, in Denver, Colorado, when his plane took a dive he couldn’t recover from. His "twin" Arch Hoxsey would die less than two months later in a crash in Los Angeles. Another of the Wright flyers, Philip Orin Parmelee, would die in a crash in 1912. Wright student Calbraith Perry Rogers, the first aviator to fly all the way across the country (with several stops along the way), also died in a crash that year.

But by then, the Wright Exhibition Team had already disbanded. They had captured headlines and the public imagination, but weren’t doing much to sell airplanes.

One hundred years later, with airlines transporting an estimated 1.5 billion passengers a year, we should all spare a moment – perhaps while waiting in a long TSA security line – to remember those daring young men in their flying machines.