At last we are officially on the eve of the new millennium, safe from the correct but aggravating quibbling of perfectionists who insist the 21st century will not dawn until Monday. Beyond all doubt, the 20th century now belongs to historians. From this perch, it is interesting to look back at that awful and awe-inspiring epoch to consider what humanity hath wrought in the past 100 years.
Perhaps the century's most inspiring achievement was the dawning of the age of flight, which arrived in Utah ninety years ago February. Orville and Wilbur Wright had proved heavier-than-air flight was possible at Kitty Hawk in 1903, but Americans were slow to grasp the invention's possibilities. Europeans, on the other hand, saw not only the machine's potential but what the Ogden Standard called "a very rich harvest of dollars."
Such possibilities did not escape the notice of Louis Paulhan, a twenty-seven-year-old French aviator and star of the world's first air show, the 1909 International Air Meet held at Reims, France. Not to be outdone by the French, American newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst sponsored the Los Angeles International Aviation Meet in January 1910. It was held on windy Dominguez Mesa, not far from today's Los Angeles International Airport. Along with four planes and an entourage that included his wife and a black poodle, Paulhan set out to take the United States by storm.
The "daring little Frenchman," who weighed 123 pounds soaking wet, won the ten-day Dominguez meet. On January 19, Signal Corps Lt. Paul Beck went aloft with Paulhan and dropped three two-pound sandbags at a target, the U.S. military's first bombing experiment. Paulhan set a new altitude record of 4,164 feet and an endurance record, covering sixty-four miles in one hour and fifty minutes. The meet drew 226,000 spectators, and Paulhan flew away with a staggering $14,000 in prize money. In San Francisco, the crowd went wild as 50,000 people turned out to see him soar. Having conquered the West Coast, Paulhan loaded on railroad cars three of his planes--two Farman biplanes and a Bleriot monoplane--and set out for Salt Lake City.
Governor William Spry arranged for the Commercial Club to hold an aviation exhibition at the state fairgrounds. Promoters printed 100,000 tickets for the event, and The Salt Lake Tribune offered a coupon for a fifty-cent discount. The day the tickets appeared, 10,000 were sold before midnight. The show was set for the weekend of January 29 and 30. Utah being Zion, Commercial Club secretary Joseph Caine tried to persuade the French team to switch the exhibition dates to Saturday and Monday, but their schedule prevented any change.
Saturday's show fizzled. Paulhan decided to use his thirty-eight-horsepower, single-seat Farman, but the light biplane proved no match for the awful weather. The impromptu airstrip was covered with snow and mud, "uneven and dangerous at best." Paulhan made three unsuccessful attempts to get airborne. The show had to be canceled, but The Tribune reported "the kindly good nature of the disappointed crowd."
Undeterred, Paulhan prepared for Sunday's show. He unpacked his seven-cylinder, fifty-horsepower Farman two-seater, an "air car that looked like business," the papers wrote. "It looked so much more formidable than its little sister that the very air was surcharged with a feeling of confidence that Sunday's attempt would be a success."
Next Sunday: The exciting conclusion.
Utah author and historian Will Bagley wishes to thank Richard "Buz" Sawyer of the Hill Aerospace Museum for information and inspiration.