P.P. Willis Details IMS Aero Field

This amazing article written by the outstanding motorsports journalist Peter Paul "P.P." Wllis first appeared in the Sunday, April 17, 1910 Indianapolis Star. Willis reports on the growing field of entries for the upcoming June air show at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as well as the burgeoning interest in the Hoosier state for all things aeronautical. Indeed, he forecasts with optimism that Indiana would become America's "crossroads" of air travel much as it had with railroads.
The primary reason for such enthusiasm was the view that the Brickyard was the nation's best airfield. Willis' words paint the picture: "Today at the Indianapollis Motor Speedway, where the largest inclosed aviation grounds in the world are being prepared, there is a small flock of these human birds daily laboring over their pet inventions that are calculated to cut aerial capers."
At this early stage of aviation gas-filled balloons and their pilots were lumped into a general "air travel" category by observers. It is easy to imagine that in some circles a debate continued over which option was more viable for useful air travel - the balloon, dirigible or airplane. In Indiana no one could mention balloons without the name of Speedway President Carl Fisher's balloon mentor George Bumbaugh popping up. And so it is in Willis' story.
"Besides the craft being constructed at this race course there are other places where these 'balloonatics' are putting into concrete shape the results of their imaginative flights. At present there are nine aeroplanes either completed or under process of being groomed in Indianapolis, besides several spherical and dirigible balloons and those on the inside say more aeroplanes are now being planned for trial flights this summer. The largest dirigible balloon in America is now housed at the Speedway aerodrome, waiting until the owners find an ideal opportunity to test it. Capt. Bumbaugh is now varnishing three balloons at the Coliseum at the Fair Grounds and has others tucked away at his home and at the Speedway, as has Carl Fisher."
Among the names mentioned in the article is Charles Crout who worked with Joseph Curzon and created a new airplane of his own design. Note that his three-wheeled machine was described as 28 feet long with wings on either side six feet long and four and one half feet wide. The hand-built engine had only 24 horsepower and the plane's total weight was but 450 pounds with a pilot on board.
Curzon also had a Henri Farman airplane at the track and used it to become the first man to fly such a craft at the Speedway. He had experienced an accident during practice the Star had covered weeks earlier. He was unhurt but the plane was damaged including the propeller, which is noted as the most expensive part to replace.
Fisher's recognition of the promise of the emerging field of aeronautics was evident in his decision to establish an airplane construction business, the first in Indianapolis. During the previous winter he and his team built three planes at his automobile dealership's service garage. One was stored in the Speedway's aerodrome. Interestingly, Willis reports that the durability of the canvas wings was tested by throwing a brick through them.
The Fisher plane was described as a cross between the Glenn Curtiss and Farman designs. Willis describes: "It is a biplane, thirty-two feet from tip to tip, and the planes (wings) are six and one-half feet wide. It weighs 550 pounds. The motor was especailly designed by W.W. Wall, engineer for the National Motor Vehicle Company, and is a seven-horsepower revolving power creator. The rear rudder is sixteen feet back, being farther back than on a Wright machine. The tilting planes or ailerons are modeled after the Curtiss types. Q.G. Noblitt and Captain G.L. Bumbaugh have spent many days working upon this craft, which, Mr. Bumbaugh declares, will fly 'like an old mother eagle' when it is given its initial trial."
Another name better known for auto racing but thoroughly invested in areonautics noted in the article is Ray Harroun, the winner of the first Indianapolis 500. Harroun was reportedly building his own airplane. While the article reports he was particularly focused on the motor details are lacking. That was deliberate as Harroun apparently felt there was market potential for his work and he preferred not to compromise any competitive advantage he might have with a potential product.
Among the ballooning set were Dr. Goethe Link and Russe J. Irvin who teamed to win the handicap trophy at the June 1909 national balloon championship event. Bumbaugh is again mentioned and an intriguing biographical note about how he started his career - as a parachute stunt performer leaping from hot air balloons - is provided. At the time of the article he was easily the leading Hoosier producer of passenger-carrying balloons at about six per year.
Bumbaugh and his family did much of the work out their home on North Illinois Street. The clutter must have been amazing and is described by Willis: "His home is filled from attic to cellar with all manner of things that go to make up a complete aeronautical equipment, ropes, ballast bags, anchors, to the 'merry widows' that are placed on the top of the big bags to let the gas out as the pilot so desires."
Bumbaugh is credited in the article as having produced the largest dirigible in America. It was named "The Indianapolis Star" based on a contest staged by the builder and the newspaper. The giant craft was also stored at the Speedway's aerodrome. Willis provides its dimensions in the article: "The frame of this cruiser of the sky is 105 feet long and the gas bag is 166 feet long and 32 feet in diameter. It will hold 1,000 cubic feet of gas and will lifet about seven tons when inflated with hydrogen gas."
According to the article the promise of the Speedway as an airfield and its upcoming air show captured the imagination of "aeronauts" countrywide. The aerodrome, housing shop equipment for working on aircraft in addition to garages, gasoline and gas company pipes for balloon inflation were cited as irresistible amenities. An added benefit, the article says, is that the Speedway offered enclosed grounds for "secret" flights. Among those from out of state using the facilities were Charles (incorrectly referred to as "Carl" in the article) Strobel (Toledo), A.P. Warner (Beloit, Wisconsin) and Charles Coey of Chicago.
America's airshow hero, Glenn Curtiss, is quoted with advice for aspiring airplane pilots - of which, the article reports, there were many in Indianapolis. Curtiss' victory in the James Gordon Bennett Cup the previous year at Rheims earned America the right to host the 1910 international air show. The Speedway had campaigned for the opportunity to host that event but failed. Curtiss counseled the neophytes: "Glide, glide, keep on gliding."
Gliding had emerged as a bit of a sport in the 1890's with people visiting such wind-rich venues as the Outer Banks of North Carolina to jump off dunes and hills, catching air and sailing kite-like well above the ground for extended periods of time. The sensations of flying had been experienced in advance of the Wright Brothers' success; the big leap being the attachment of an engine for sustained flight. Curtiss believed that mastering gliding not only provided an education in the sensations of flying but also prepared men to deal with the inevitable situation of mid-air engine failure. Staying calm and treating the suddenly powerless airplane as a gliding experience was essential to escaping danger.
The vision of Indianapolis luminaries such as Fisher is underscored in this article. It cites a contest Fisher initiated through the local Y.M.C.A. for the student who could construct the best model of a flying machine. Apparently the response exceeded expecations and the all-male (sign of the times) student body submitted impressive models reflecting great promise for the future at the time.
The article closes with a note that the upcoming June aviation show at the Speedway cost the track management $95,000 to stage. They had hurdled the central sticking point with the Wrights, and that being to obtain an exception to their successful court injunction preventing others to trade on what they claimed was their patented technology with respect to the invention of the airplane. Finally, the article notes that a second national championship balloon race meet was scheduled for September 1910.

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