August 19, 1910. Sheepshead Bay, New York. As a publicity stunt, Curtiss aviator Bud Mars takes his wife, Marie, on a short ride. He then does the same with Mabel Ely. The effect is electric: crowds flock to Sheepshead Bay for the chance to see women in the sky.
Born in Michigan in 1876, diminutive James Caren McBride left home as a teenager and made his way to Chicago. Unable to establish a career in the theater, he turned to the circus, becoming a trapeze artist and the understudy to the high-dive specialist—and changing his name to James Cairn “Bud” Mars, in order to spare his family further embarrassment from association with a circus performer. Around 1892 Mars met hot-air balloonist Thomas S. “Capt. Tom” Baldwin, who taught him how to make parachute jumps from a balloon. He left the circus and went into the balloon exhibition business, billing himself as “Mars, the Lion-Hearted Dare-Devil.”
In 1904 Mars was living in Oakland when Baldwin sought him out for assistance in building the first “dirigible” (steerable) airship in America—what is today known as a blimp. They called their creation California Arrow. In August 1904, powered by a Curtiss motorcycle engine and with Baldwin at the controls, it flew a sensational circuit over Oakland. Baldwin and Mars thus beat the Wright brothers by a month in making the first American powered flight to begin and end in the same place. Mars continued his spherical ballooning career, at times ascending with his wife, Marie.
Representing the Oakland Aeronautical Club, Mars was present at the January 1910 Dominguez Field international aviation meet, where he was recruited by Glenn Curtiss for his nascent aeroplane exhibition team. Mars became the third member of that team, joining Charles K. Hamilton and Charles Willard, and he appeared in the first exhibition Curtiss staged personally, at Memphis in April 1910. The big news out of that exhibition was Curtiss’ lowering the world record for quick starts to just under six seconds. Mars, who called his Curtiss machine Skylark, concluded the meet by losing control in gusty winds, crashing into a parked car, and demolishing the aeroplane. Luckily, he injured no one.
Curtiss and the rest of his team met Eugene Ely at an exhibition held in Minneapolis at the end of June 1910. Mars and Ely went on to perform together in Sioux City, Iowa, where four thousand spectators turned up only to see flights described as “not thrilling. The ‘bird men’ were unable either to get very high or to stay in the air any great length of time.” Mars had to threaten to sue to collect the appearance fee.
Mars and Ely continued to struggle with their lightweight machines until the final two weekends in August, when the Curtiss team held an exhibition at Sheepshead Bay on Long Island. Competition was fierce at the time with the Wrights, who had just finished exhibiting in Asbury Park, New Jersey; in addition, patent litigation between the rival flyers was very much in the news. As a marketing strategy designed in part to curry public favor, Curtiss proposed to use the Sheepshead Bay meet to demonstrate the “science of aviation.” He authorized passenger rides for representatives of all the major New York newspapers, and for the aviators’ wives as well.
Carrying women passengers had little to do with the “science of aviation,” of course, nor was it a complete novelty. The first woman to fly as an aeroplane passenger in America was Sadie Van Deman, a friend of the Wrights’ sister Katharine and the wife of an army officer on the General Staff. On October 27, 1909, Mrs. Van Deman rode with Wilbur Wright for several minutes at a reported height of sixty feet.
Nevertheless, when Bud Mars made his Sheepshead Bay passenger flights (in a machine more powerful than his Skylark), newsmen were delighted to have the new focus. “Wives of the three leading aviators are much in evidence at the track,” noted the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. The two sizeable photos accompanying a story headlined “Aviators Thrill Spectators at Sheepshead Bay Meet” depicted no flights, but rather (a) Mars and Mabel Ely seated in an aeroplane on the ground, and (b) Mars chatting with Lena Curtiss, Mabel Ely, and Marie (see photo above).
But Curtiss manager Jerome Fanciulli had a bigger publicity stunt in mind: the suggestion that a woman might actually pilot an aeroplane. This too was not unprecedented—Raymonde de Laroche in France and Lidia Zvereva in Russia had done it earlier that year, and both were by then licensed—but, at the time of the Sheepshead Bay exhibition, no American woman had flown except as a passenger.
The press was quick to take the bait. “Mrs. Glenn H. Curtiss, wife of the American aviator, is going to become a sky-pilot. Mrs. Curtiss already understands [the] working of aeroplanes and her husband is going to teach her to become an expert flyer.” The Washington Post reported that Marie Mars and Mabel Ely (the latter described as being courageous to the point of recklessness) “have been pestering their husbands for small machines of their own.”
The day of the woman aviator is at hand. As automobiling has developed the woman chauffeur, so flying will bring within the next year the airette or airess or aviatress—whatever the term may be.
Curtiss was indeed contemplating the addition of a woman to his exhibition team: Blanche Stuart Scott (see 29 Jan 16 post). But none of the three wives would ever pilot a plane. And Mars was done giving passenger rides.
In anticipation of competing in an air race from Chicago to New York that fall, Mars obtained the eleventh license issued by the Aero Club of America. Curtiss tapped him to make the first attempt to fly off a ship in November 1910, but a freak pre-flight accident damaged his propeller. The mishap allowed Eugene Ely to make his pioneering flight two days later.
When Curtiss and Fanciulli persisted in giving Mars what he perceived as undesirable flying assignments, he quit the team in December 1910 to join Baldwin on a tour of Hawaii and the Far East. His unexpected absence caused Curtiss to summon Ely to the west coast, thereby providing Ely the opportunity to make his famous ship landing a few weeks later.
Mars, after a six-month global circumnavigation during which he exhibited in a Baldwin “Red Devil” biplane, arrived in New York “laden with trophies, dignified with more titles than he can remember or pronounce, and brimming over with anecdotes of his adventures.” He had flown in Honolulu, Manila, Sumatra, Japan, Java, Singapore, India, Siam (Thailand), China, Korea, Siberia, Russia and Poland. He lavished praise especially on the Japanese, reporting that they “believe that the aeroplane is cheaper and far more dangerous than the dreadnought [battleship], and they are bound to master aviation.”
Mars suffered a near-fatal crash in Pennsylvania in June 1911 but returned to flying and was reunited with Ely in August at a Chicago international aviation tournament. Toward the end of the year, the two aviators and their wives jointly rented an apartment/hotel suite in Manhattan. Following Ely’s death, Mars organized an exhibition to benefit Mabel Ely. He resumed regular flying later in 1912, having taken nearly a year off, but in September he crashed again and required hospitalization.
Although Mars flew occasionally after that, his aviation career was over, with the exception of instructional duty as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Service during World War I. An estrangement from Marie ended in late 1913, at which time she was quoted as saying there was “not enough money in the world to get her husband to fly again.”
In later years, Mars’ name became associated with a string of business ventures, including an air purifier, an aeroplane service station, various real estate ventures, and gas engineering. He was divorced by the time of the 1930 census and living alone in a New York boarding house. Regularly consulted as an expert in early aviation, he is credited with being the first person to advance the theory (finally confirmed in 2013) that the Hindenburg disaster had resulted from a dangerous buildup of static electricity.
During World War II the aging Mars reminisced about his 1911 tour of Japan, during which he had given crown prince Hirohito, age 11, an aeroplane ride. “I wish we had crashed,” he reportedly said.
Bud Mars died in 1944, at the age of 68, from an unspecified heart ailment while being treated in a veterans’ hospital. He is buried in Los Angeles National Cemetery.