William Luckey, a test pilot and exhibition aviator for the Curtiss Company, came to aviation late in life.
Best known as the winner of The New York Times race around Manhattan Island on Oct. 13, 1913, Luckey was nearing 50 when he took an interest in aviation in 1912.
Just a year later, he won the race around Manhattan Island, for which he received much publicity in aviation magazines and in newspapers coast to coast.
The New York Times sponsored the race around Manhattan as a part of the Aeronautical Society of New York’s memorial to Wilbur Wright’s first powered flight. The Times had taken a keen interest in aviation in the decade prior to World War I. Indeed, it probably published more news about aviation than any of its contemporaries.
The newspaper offered $2,250 in cash prizes: $1,000 to the winner; $750 for second place; and $500 for third place. For this, the Aeronautical Society called the race “The Times Aerial Derby.”
The 60-mile course was run counter-clockwise around Manhattan. Departure was from the Aeronautical Society’s field at Oakwood Heights on Staten Island. From there the course ran up the East River over the Harlem River to the Hudson and down the Hudson across the Bay to the starting point.
The Times announced that 16 airplanes were to participate in the race, but only five actually raced around the island. The starters were Luckey (Curtiss 100 hp), Charles Niles (Curtiss 100 hp), C. Murvin Wood (Moisant monoplane, 50 hp Gnome), J. Guy Gilpatric (Sloan Monoplane, 50 hp Gnome) and Tony Jannus (Benoist Tractor, 75 hp Roberts). The winds at the start were reported as 28 mph out of the northwest. The two monoplanes were blown wide of the course and the old passenger-carrying Benoist was no match for the Curtiss machines. Given the conditions, it is interesting to note that not one incident marred the race and all the engines performed well. Luckey found his intake pipes freezing but was able to knock off the ice and keep going.
Coming down the Hudson with the wind at his back, Luckey was able to attain a speed of 75 mph. He was declared the winner of the race with a time of 52 minutes, 54 seconds. Niles was second in his Curtiss and Wood third in his Moisant.
“I think it was one of the most remarkable races ever pulled off here in the East, considering the course was almost entirely over water, while the fliers were exclusively land machines,” Luckey told the Times.
He noted that he suffered greatly from the cold weather: “My feet and legs were numb from the cold. I kept them clamped around the steering wheel.” He was dressed in his ordinary street clothes, with only a sweater thrown on at the last minute. He concluded, “I wouldn’t fly the race again tomorrow under similar conditions for $2,000.”
When Glenn Curtiss heard that Luckey won the race, he said that this was one of the surprises that aviation is continually springing. Curtiss reported that about a year ago Luckey appeared at the Curtiss camp in Hammondsport for training as an aviator. He was near the half century mark in years and had spent a long stretch of his life in New York manufacturing trunks for travelers, but had decided to take his turn at roaming through the skies.
“It was almost funny to think of this sedate-looking gentleman starting out to outdo Beachey and other youngsters,” Curtiss said. “His name proved to be a misnomer, however, during his early exhibitions and hard luck followed him. He stuck to it, though, and his final mastery of the intricacies of aviation may be best testified to by those four hard fliers who with him fought their way around Manhattan skyscrapers in the teeth of a gale.”
After the victory in New York City, Luckey did some test flying at Hammondsport for Curtiss. There is a report of Luckey testing an automatic stability device that was mounted above the top wing of one of the Curtiss Hydroplanes.
During the summer of 1914 he also did some exhibition flying as a member of the Curtiss Exhibition Team. Luckey then went on his own, performing exhibition work at fairs in the East. He also did some demonstrations for the Pennsylvania National Guard in which he carried two guard officers aloft. He also was slated to fly the state’s governor on an exhibition flight, but his exhibition career ended with a fatal accident at the Sturgeon Falls Fair in Canada on Sept. 6, 1915.
It was reported that after a successful flight, he was about to land when the tail of his machine hit a railroad embankment, throwing him to the ground. He was rushed to a hospital in Montreal where it was determined that he had a broken back. He died Dec. 20 of his injuries.
Though starting at an older age compared to most pilots of the era, Luckey, through his passion and skill, became one of the best and steadiest of the exhibition flyers. Luckey boasted of his record in one of his flyers, stating that he could fill more exhibition contracts at fairs, carnivals, celebrations, etc., “than any two aviators together in the United States and Canada.”
Dennis Parks is Curator Emeritus of Seattle’s Museum of Flight. He can be reached at email@example.com.