Glen Curtiss
Alexander Graham Bell
Fort Meyer Trials
Louis Blériot
Reims air race
the first U.S. airshows
Santos Dumont
squaring up for war
the first bomb run
the amazing Dreadnought 1

Alexander Graham Bell and the AEA

The Scottish-born inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, who had grown rich from his 1876 invention, had been present for some of the failed tests of Langley’s Aerodrome. Bell was interested not just because he was a friend of Langley’s, but because he had dabbled with the question of flight and had experimented with kites made of many pyramid-like cells (sometimes as many as three thousand). He called these “tetrahedral kites,” and their aerodynamics were similar to the box kite.

The sight of a large complex structure flying in the wind was certainly impressive and gave Bell the idea that the tetrahedral kite could be used as the basis for a heavier-than-air craft. At the insistence of his wife, Mabel, and with her financial support. Bell assembled a small group and formed the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA) in the summer of 1907.

The group met first at the Bell summer home at Baddeck, Nova Scotia, and in 1908 moved to Hammondsport to he near Curtiss’ shop and Keuka Lake. The group—known as “Bell’s Boys”—consisted of two Canadian engineers, John A.D. McCurdy and Frederick W. “Casey” Baldwin (not related to Curtiss’ balloonist friend); a U.S. Army officer, Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, assigned by the War Department at Bell’s request; and Glenn Curtiss, who at that time had nearly no involvement in aviation outside of providing engines for Thomas Baldwin’s dirigibles.

Curtiss quickly became the driving force of the AEA, being designated director of experiments and given the largest stipend of the group. The strategy of the AEA was reminiscent of Chanute’s approach a decade earlier—each of the members would design an aircraft that would be outfitted with a Curtiss engine and tested, in the hope that five different approaches would yield the best possible airplane.

The group started with one of Bell’s kites, the Cygnet I, tested on December 6, 1907, and piloted by Selfridge. It was clear that this design was not going to yield a controllable aircraft. Bell, now sixty, accepted this disappointment and, to his credit, continued his support of the AEA. The next aircraft tested was a Selfridge design called the Red Wing (because of its bright red wing fabric)—it was piloted by Baldwin and flown over frozen Keuka Lake on March 12, 1908, before a huddled audience.

The aircraft flew some 320 feet (97.5m) at an altitude of about twenty feet (6m) for approximately twenty seconds, and then crashed onto its wing. Baldwin was unhurt and the AEA was able to claim its first success. The public reports of the Red Wing’s success were particularly galling to the Wrights since Selfridge had written to them asking specific questions about design, giving the brothers the impression that he was inquiring as an official of the U.S. Army.

The AEA next experimented with a design of Baldwin’s dubbed the White Wing. This aircraft used triangular wing-tip ailerons at the ends of both wings to control the aircraft, and performed excellently when flown on May 18 by Selfridge, and then by Curtiss. Selfridge’s report to the Associated Press made it clear that the AEA airplane had the ability to land and take off immediately on its wheeled undercarriage, dispensing with the Wrights’ derrick catapulting method and landing skids. The group believed that their problems with the Wright brothers’ patents were finally over with this, the first successful use of ailerons in the United States.

 Unfortunately, on May 20, with an inexperienced McCurdy piloting the White Wing, the plane crashed. The AEA now turned to its crowning achievement: the Curtiss-designed June Bug, which incorporated all that was learned from the previous two efforts. The airplane was controlled in flight by the wing-tip ailerons and had a wheeled undercarriage (and raised skids in case a hard landing crushed the wheels). Most important, it used a wing design that had been inadvertent in the earlier Red Wing and White Wing but which was discovered to boost stability and control.

The earlier aircraft had been built with their lower wings curved upward to prevent them from bumping on the ice and slowing down the plane. (Recall that at Kitty Hawk Wilbur had to run alongside the Flyer to keep the wingtip from dragging in the sand.) The only way this could be accomplished with  wings so light was to curve the upper wing downward. The result was a double-wing configuration that made the plane look like a narrow eye when viewed head-on. When wings are slanted upward from the horizontal plane, that is known as “dihedral”; this configuration keeps the aircraft locked when it banks into a turn and prevents it from slipping sideways.

Wings slanted down-ward are called “anhedral”; this gives an aircraft more vertical control. The combination of dihedral and anhedral wing design gave the aileroned June Bug control that rivalled the Wright Flyer. The aerodynamics of this configuration were not well understood in 1909, certainly not by the courts that heard the Wright patent suit. A better understanding might have vindicated the AEA design as an alternative means of airplane control, putting an end to the litigation that hurt the Wrights. Less than a month after the crash of the White Wing, the June Bug was ready. Curtiss entered it in a competition sponsored by the magazine Scientific American which offered a trophy and a twenty-five-hundred-dollar cash award for the first public flight over a 0.6-mile (1km) straight course.

The entire competition had been the brainchild of the magazine’s publisher, Charles A. Munn, who felt bad about how his magazine had treated the early reports about the Wright brothers and who was making virtually a gift of the prize and the money to the Wrights. All they had to do was step forward and claim it. The Wrights steadfastly refused (even declining the written pleas of Munn), claiming that their plane did not meet the qualification of taking off unassisted. Wilbur was off to France to demonstrate their Model A, and Orville was too busy preparing for the trials at Fort Myer, Virginia, to make the necessary modifications. But the truth was that the Wrights were not so easily placated and would probably have turned Munn down anyway. This left the field open for the AEA, and on July 4 Curtiss flew his craft over the prescribed course at Stony Brook Farm, Hammondsport, and claimed the prize much to the embarrassment of Munn.

Glenn Curtiss and the AEA team are seen here on the morning of March 12, 1908, at the first flight of the June Bug.

Graham Bell’s Cygnet II was a tetrahedral kite (the craft had to be towed to become airborne), one of many constructed and tested.

The event was widely covered in the press and bolstered the impression that the AEA was a worthy rival of the Wrights. The AEA tested one more plane, John McCurdy’s Silver Dart, which, on February 23, 1909, became the first plane to fly in Canada. When Bell disbanded the AEA in March 1909, he pointed to the death of Selfridge in the Fort Myer accident (described next) and the loss of Curtiss, who went off to market his aircraft, as the reasons.

More than likely, Bell had continuing doubts about what the outcome of a patent fight with the Wrights would be and he wanted no part of being on the losing side. (The fact is, he did have his lawyers inspect the June Bug for possible patents and received a discouraging report.) And Bell may have gradually lost interest once it was clear his tetrahedral kites were not to be a part of aviation’s future. In the summer of 1908, Orville Wright was preparing to test his airplane for the Army and a great deal hung in the balance.

The successes of the AEA that spring and summer had cast some doubt as to whether the Wrights were the best airplane manufacturers available, especially when it was reported that the AEA was preparing to sell their planes at one-fifth the Wrights’ price. Orville’s consternation must have strained even his stolid character when he discovered that the military observer who was to evaluate the plane and actually go up as a passenger was none other than Thomas Selfridge, who had come to the trials in the company of Curtiss himself.