The crazy man of the air: C.K. Hamilton wows crowds in 1910

Aviation burst upon the American public in 1910 through a frenzy of air meets, contests, daring flights and maneuvers. Over the year, 100 regularly organized meets and exhibitions were held. New records were set and broken almost every week. During that one year, the art of aviation made such extraordinary advances that there are few comparisons in the history of technology.

Aviators became heroes, and the top heroes changed constantly. Cosmopolitan magazine called the new birdmen “Wizards of the Air” for their daring do. One of the most active and daring pilots was Charles K. Hamilton, who in 1910 became famous for thrilling the crowds. During the year Hamilton would appear in events from coast-to-coast, along the way setting records.

Charles K. Hamilton with a Curtiss biplane, March 1910.

Before becoming a heavier-than-air pilot, C. K. Hamilton tried just about every kind of flying machine, including kites, balloons, and dirigibles. He also earned a reputation as being a real “dare devil,” being “without fear” and “the crazy man of the air.” As he continued to fly, he invented new tricks and became the pioneer American stunt pilot.

During the summer of 1909 while he was flying his dirigible in Japan, Hamilton learned of Bleriot’s crossing of the English Channel and of Glenn Curtiss’ victory at the Reims air meet in France. He decided his future would be in flying heavier-than-air machines.

To this end he traveled to Hammondsport, N.Y., where he took lessons from Curtiss, who was impressed enough to place Hamilton under contract as an exhibition pilot.

Hamilton’s first appearance for Curtiss was during December at St. Joseph, Mo., where he flew off a frozen lake in a snowstorm. He next flew outside St. Louis at Overland Park after Christmas. He then continued on to Los Angeles, where he was part of the Curtiss team at the country’s first European-style air meet held outside the city at Dominguez Field, from Jan. 10-20, 1910.

Hamilton garnered a lot of attention at Los Angeles in a race against Louis Paulhan of France. The only event he won was a slow lap competition, completing one lap of 1.61 miles in 3 minutes 36 seconds. He also finished third in the endurance and speed competitions. This apparently pleased Curtiss because he leased his famous world Reims Racer to Hamilton for exhibition work and competition.

With the Reims Racer, Hamilton began his exhibition tour with an 11-city, two-month tour starting in Phoenix. The circuit took him to Phoenix, Tucson, San Antonio, El Paso, Oklahoma City, Salt Lake City, Sacramento, San Francisco, and Los Angeles before ending in San Diego. While in San Diego, Hamilton became the third American pilot to fly an hour or more, with a flight over the ocean to Mexico and back.

After appearances in the Southwest, Hamilton headed to the Northwest where, in early March, he made the first flight in Washington State at Seattle. He also gained a lot of attention when he crashed into the lake in the middle of the Meadows Race Course. A few days later he was back in the air and flew two more shows. During the last half of March he flew in Tacoma and Vancouver, British Columbia. The Vancouver flight was the first airplane flight in the province.

During April he flew in Spokane, Wash., before returning to the Seattle area for a flight on Mercer Island.

After his appearances in the Northwest, Hamilton traveled to Texas, where he flew in San Antonio and Beaumont. While in San Antonio he set a record for a quick getaway, making a takeoff start in 3.8 seconds, leaving the ground at 79 feet. This lowered the previous record held by Glenn Curtiss of 5.25 seconds and 95 feet.

In May Hamilton flew in Atlanta and Augusta, Ga. He then headed off to Mineola, Long Island, where Curtiss headquartered his flying school and operations. At this time the well-worn Reims Racer was overhauled and given a new fabric covering.

Hamilton’s greatest feat was his flight on June 13 between New York City and Philadelphia, billed as the first round trip flight between two large centers of population.

The sponsors of the flight, The New York Times and the Philadelphia Public Ledger, posted a prize of $10,000. In preparation for the flight, Hamilton made a flight of 66-¼ minutes over Governors Island in a 20 mph breeze.

He made the flight between the two major cities in just a little over 11 hours, which included the stop in Philadelphia. His average speed was nearly 51 mph. As he carried letters between the cities, he was credited with the “first fast aerial mail” by the Associated Press.

Hamilton in July 1910 making one of his sensational dives at the Mineola Field on Long Island.

In an interview with Scientific American Hamilton stated: “Driving an aeroplane at the speed of 120 miles an hour is not nearly as difficult a task as driving an automobile 60 miles an hour.” Hamilton picked up two world records for the inter-city flight.

Hamilton became a regular with the Curtiss Exhibition Team at this time, flying in June, July and August in Knoxville, Nashville, and Atlantic City. While in Nashville he performed the first night flight in America, in which he was aloft for 25 minutes and only landed when his engine quit.

It appears that Hamilton was running behind on lease payments for the Reims Racer and for the royalties due Curtiss on Hamilton’s winnings. Curtiss made a formal demand for arrears and sued Hamilton for $6,513.63, with Curtiss winning. Curtiss also repossessed the Reims Racer.

Hamilton’s separation from Curtiss left him without a machine. He set about to have a new one built by Walter Christie, a local auto racer, car and engine builder who had a factory in Manhattan. Meanwhile, Hamilton hung around Mineola flying whatever was available.

Completed on Aug. 31, he named his new flying machine the Hamiltonian. It was basically a Curtiss copy, but with a larger wing area. Its most remarkable feature was a 110-hp Christie engine, reported at the time to be the most powerful motor ever attached to a heavier-than-air machine.

By the first of September 1910, Hamilton was flying his new plane across California. A string of seven air shows in five weeks was planned, but on Sept. 9, while flying a routine stunt demonstration outside Sacramento, his Hamiltonian stalled and he plummeted to the ground at a steep angle. He was badly cut, bruised and burned by hot radiator coolant. Not one to be kept out of the air, he was flying again a week later at Sacramento. On Sept. 28, he was issued American pilot license No. 12.

In early October Hamilton arrived in Mineola, Long Island, to begin preparations for an international aviation meet to be held at the nearby Belmont Park race course. Still suffering from the results of his crash in California, he was hobbling around with the assistance of a cane due to injuries to his left leg.

With his new high-powered Hamiltonian he expected to make remarkable time in the second running of the Gordon Bennett Speed Competition, which was won by Curtiss in France in 1909. For the week before the race Hamilton was just making short flights in his weakened condition, saving his energies for the international meet. A high-speed trial run of Hamilton in his new machine proved fast enough that he was given a position on the team representing the United States.

After the Belmont meet Hamilton joined John Moisant’s exhibition team of international aviators. Moisant had gained fame in August by flying the first passenger across the English Channel and finished second in the speed competition at Belmont.

During November and December Hamilton performed with the Moisant team in Richmond, Va., Chattanooga and Memphis Tenn., Tupelo, Miss., and New Orleans. While in Memphis, Hamilton set a speed record of 79.2 mph, breaking his own record of 64.6 mph. The year 1910 would be the high point in Hamilton’s career, seeing him winning accolades and setting flying records. He never again performed at his previous high level, probably due to his physical condition from accidents and trouble with his Hamiltonian airplane and a troublesome Christie engine. (An ad for the engine in 1914 said it only had four hours on it.)

In February 1911 he parted with the Moisant team, which took possession of his airplane. He would continue to fly occasionally until January 1914, when he died of tuberculosis. Even though he died at the young age of 28, he had devoted 11 years to flying a wide variety of aircraft. This was an amazing record for anyone in that time period.

Dennis Parks is Curator Emeritus of Seattle’s Museum of Flight. He can be reached at dennis@generalaviationnews.com.

 

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Comments

  1. Colin Green says:

    A friend of mine recently forwarded this interesting and unusually complete article to me. I have studied Charles K. Hamilton for many years, trying to create a total picture of his life being somewhat akin attacking the Sunday New York Times crossword. My interest in him, beyond a general interest in pre WWI American aviation, is as a Connecticut resident who feels that Hamilton really doesn’t get the local coverage that he deserves. Anyway, a few comments: (a) I have no record of him flying in Knoxville; (b) he and Curtiss split on July 8, 1910, hence the reference to “July and August” is incorrect; (c) he flew in Nashville June 20 – 25; (d) he was scheduled to perform in Atlantic City, but did not; (e) the financial relationship between Hamilton and Curtiss re the Rheims Racer is muddy. The split between the two was based on two factors: Curtiss’s refusal to let him compete in the Albany/NY race, and Hamilton shorting Curtiss on Curtiss’s share of Hamilton’s winnings; (f) the Hamiltonian was being built for Hamilton prior to the Curtiss/Hamilton split; (g) when Hamilton split with the Moisants he left behind two aircraft, the Hamiltonian, now called the Black Demon, and a Bleriot XI. As for his health, he was visibly a consumptive, hence his dying of a lung hemorrhage was, eventually, no surprise. And yes, virtually every bone in his body had been broken at some time. But it may also be worth noting that he was a chain smoker and an alcoholic. That I make these points is, I assure you, not a “I’m smarter than you input” but just to tweak a nice article about a very interesting, and quite important early aviation pioneer. By the way, I suspect he was only the second American who was taught to fly.

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