King of the Aviators

Aug. 1, 1960

Fifty years ago last month, an American aviator named John Bevins Moisant presented himself in Paris and requested permission to compete in the Circuit de l’Est, a major show being held there.

“How long have you been flying?” an official asked.

Smiling, Moisant replied that he had been up only twice. The application was denied.

Then came the day of the show. A large crowd arrived early and waited impatiently through what seemed an interminable period of preparation and engine warming.

Suddenly, a shout rose.

Just as the contestants were climbing into their kitelike flying machines, a small Bleriot monoplane appeared above the Parisian rooftops, Closer and closer it came, then eased down to a graceful landing at the center of the field. Out stepped Moisant.

The young American beamed and clasped his hands above his head. Then a passenger emerged from the craft. The crowd let out a tremendous roar. In that era, the carrying of aerial passengers was most unusual. His third time in the air, Moisant had become the first aviator to fly a passenger over a city. He had, in fact, staged a characteristic entrance into the field of aviation—with daring and bold imagination.

Here was a man of many parts —a twentieth-century renaissance character. He was a designer and mechanic as well as a brash pilot. Before coming to Paris, he had spent months in Cannes developing his own steel and aluminum monoplane. When he was finished, he had what amounted to a racing plane—a rather advanced model in view of the fact that he was yet to take his first flight. That came next.

“When I left the ground, my machine shot upward so fast I lost control,” Moisant recalled of that initial experience. “So I just cut off the motor and let her drop. I figured it was better to fall ninety feet than 300 or 400 feet.”

He also decided at that point to learn how to fly a slower airplane before again trying his metal racer. Shortly after stunning Parisians at the Circuit de l’Est, Moisant again flew over the French capital in his Bleriot. This time he took flyer Roland Garros along. This was the second time a pilot had flown a passenger over a city.

Next, Moisant became the first man to fly from Paris to London by compass. His seventh time in the air, he made this historic flight guided by a glycerine-floated compass he had borrowed. The instrument was balanced on Moisant’s knee during the 200-mile trip. His mechanic accompanied him on the flight. It was the first crossing of the channel with a passenger.

Moisant was born to French-Canadian parents in Kankakee, Ill., in 1873. At nineteen, he left home for California, where he and his three brothers purchased a farm, Then they drifted to Latin America, acquiring a sugar plantation near San Salvador. While there, he designed a cheap irrigation system that enabled him and his brothers to prosper and expand their holding to several thousand acres.

Then, in 1907, government troops swooped into the plantation ranch house and confiscated seventeen rifles. Two of his brothers were thrown into jail on charges of inciting revolution. Moisant escaped, however, and appealed to the US State Department. Dissatisfied with the answers from Washington, he concluded that as long as he had the name, he might as well play the game. He joined the rebels.

In his first action, he led 100 of the Nicaraguan army and 200 Indian natives in an amphibious attack on a government strong point. Following debarkation from a gunboat, Moisant and his force, in five minutes of battle, captured a well-fortified garrison, took the commander prisoner, and recruited 100 more rebels from the government troops.

Moisant then went up to San Francisco, possibly to seek funds, friends, or firearms. Whatever the outcome of this venture, we next find him in the banking business in Guatemala, once more in partnership with his brothers; the two who had been jailed were now out.

Meanwhile, Moisant remained in contact with revolutionary friends in Nicaragua. In 1910, he went to France on their behalf to look into the possibility of buying airplanes for use in another revolt. Latin American political affairs seemed forgotten, however, when he arrived in Cannes and began experimenting with his own plane. Next stop, as we have seen, was Paris.

After his startling flying successes in Paris, Moisant returned to the United States. An aviation competition was scheduled that fall at Belmont Park race track on Long Island. On the first day of competition, October 29, 1910, Moisant crashed. Helped from his damaged plane, he shook off the dust and said, “Hurt? No, not at all. Nothing ever happens to anybody flying.”

The next day, Belmont scheduled the “Most Colossal Race of the Decade.” An industrialist-millionaire had put up $10,000 for the flyer who clocked the best time in a thirty-six-mile round trip between the field and the Statue of Liberty out in New York Bay.

First, there were to be several warmup flights. Moisant was one of the first in the air, piloting his hastily repaired Bleriot. He crashed again. Miraculously, again he was unhurt. But it appeared, with his craft once more smashed up, he would miss the Statue of Liberty race.

Moisant tried desperately to find another machine. He went from plane to plane on the field, trying to find one available for his immediate use.

The race started. Claude Grahame-White of Britain and Count Jacques deLesseps of France soared into the air. The Englishman took the lead. Moisant was still on the ground. Then, in a Perils of Pauline turn of events, Moisant found a plane, jumped aboard, and took off after them.

He knew he couldn’t overtake the Briton and Frenchman in a straight race. So he tried to outwit them. As the others headed south to follow the Long Island shoreline, Moisant selected a different route. He flew west over Brooklyn, then over the East River and the Battery at the southernmost tip of Manhattan Island. He rounded the statue, turned, and headed for home—then got momentarily lost. He had confused elevated subway tracks for the Long Island Railroad. Now he found the Long Island Railroad and followed its tracks back to Belmont Park.

The race judges calculated elapsed time. As Moisant thawed from the cold, the announcement came that he had beaten the Englishman by a mere forty-three seconds, covering the thirty-six miles in thirty-four minutes, 38.4 seconds. He also had set a new straightaway airspeed record, the last three and a half miles at 104.2 miles an hour.

Shortly afterward, Moisant left New York and started a cross-country tour. In December he was in Memphis, Tenn., setting a 2.4-second record for turning a full circle in the air. He turned so sharply his wings pointed almost vertically. Rene Simon, a Frenchman whose aerial antics had earned him the sobriquet “the fool flyer,” ran into a hangar, refusing to watch.

On December 8, Moisant, by then himself dubbed “King of the Aviators,” challenged the United States Navy to a duel. After flying directly over the US gunboat Aphitrite, anchored on the Mississippi River, he openly declared:

“As I swung over the warship, I could look down on her decks very distinctly. How easy it would have been to have dropped a detonating explosive on that big expanse. I have often said that a passenger-carrying, bomb-dropping aeroplane would put a warship out of commission ten minutes after sighting it. From my own observations, I am perfectly willing to take my chances any day if they’ll take theirs—that is, they can shoot at me all they want to if they’ll let me retaliate and drop a bomb on them.”

The Navy declined the offer.

Soon after that, Moisant was on his way to New Orleans for an international competition with aviators from the US, France, Switzerland, and Ireland. The day before the show was to begin, a California group offered Moisant $100,000 to stage a rival flying show in San Francisco. New Orleans was offering only $10,000, but Moisant kept his word. He flew to Louisiana—and the end of his spectacular career.

On December 24, Moisant took off from New Orleans’ City Park race track. He headed over the city, circling the business district four times. On the streets below, throngs of Christmas shoppers looked up and saw him. When Moisant returned to the field, with just three pints of gas left in the tank, his forty-six-minute flight was hailed as the longest sustained flight over a major city. Also, it was his fourteenth cross-city flight, a greater number than bad been flown by any other two aviators of the era combined.

The next five days Moisant raced his plane against small automobiles, performed a daring glide from 9,000 feet, braved a sixty-mile-an-hour gale, and tuned his fifty-horsepower engine for a contest with a 150-horsepower Fiat racing car. On December 30, he lost a five-mile race with the high-powered Fiat by a hair. Then he took time out for an interview with a local newspaper reporter.

“Don’t you worry about getting killed when you try those crazy stunts?” he was asked.

“I do not expect to die in an airplane,” Moisant was quoted in reply.

On December 31, Moisant and four other pilots competed for the $4,000 Michelin Prize, to be awarded to the pilot who stayed in the air longest. The world’s record was seven hours, forty-five minutes. Moisant figured he could stay aloft for eight hours.

Moisant passed up the red-painted monoplane he had designed in Cannes and had his mechanics roll out the Bleriot he bad crashed twice in New York. The craft had been completely reworked and was in top flying condition. An extra thirty-five-gallon gas tank had been installed under the frame.

Moisant took off in midmorning. Waving to the spectators who lined the City Park field, he headed for another field just outside New Orleans on a practice hop.

He circled the practice field three times at it 200-foot altitude and prepared to land. But rough air at twenty-five feet caused the plane to dip sharply. It almost stood on its nose. Moisant was thrown from the cockpit. He landed in a clump of bushes, his back broken. Within minutes the man they called the “King of the Aviators” was dead.

Ironically, even in death Moisant set a mark in flying. Scientific American magazine reported that he was the first aviator to be thrown from his plane in such a. fatal accident.

In New Orleans, where he died fifty years ago, Moisant has not been forgotten. In 1946, the city opened a new airport not far from the scene of Moisant’s death. The field is called Moisant International Airport. Jimmy Doolittle was present for the dedication ceremonies. He unveiled a monument which reads:

“In commemoration of a pioneer in aviation, John Revins Moisant, who lost his life in an airplane accident near this site December 31, 1910. He was the first pilot: to carry a passenger across the English Channel, inventor of the early all-metal airplane, a man of lovable character whose tragic death was a great loss to aviation.”

The author, Jerry Hopkins, is a staff reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. A journalism graduate of Washington and Lee University and Columbia University, he has also worked on newspapers in Virginia, North Carolina, and New York, covering “everything from politics to the DAR.” Mr. Hopkins, twenty-four, is an Army Reserve second lieutenant.