October 31, 1904. Saint Louis. Balanced on a catwalk hanging below the Baldwin-Mars dirigible California Arrow, Roy Knabenshue rises two thousand feet above the Louisiana Purchase Exposition and completes a three-mile circular flight. With a Curtiss motorcycle engine powering the airship at better than six miles per hour, Knabenshue demonstrates his ability to fly “against the wind.” He crawls to the rear of the catwalk, and the dirigible rises; he scrambles forward to make it descend. A tiller operates a rudder that turns the craft. The moment Knabenshue touches down, a jubilant crowd carries him around the exposition grounds on its shoulders.
“Captain Tom” Baldwin, inventor of California Arrow, had arrived at the exposition eager to claim an astonishing $100,000 prize offered to the first airship operator able to fly three laps of a ten-mile circuit. But at more than 200 pounds the captain was far too heavy for his dirigible. With Bud Mars unavailable, Baldwin engaged as his pilot a slim balloonist he had just met.
Augustus Roy Knabenshue, born in 1876 and the son of a Toledo newspaper publisher, had quit his job installing telephone switchboards to become a professional balloonist. Like Mars, Knabenshue used an assumed name, “Professor Don Carlos,” to protect his family from embarrassment by association. He was at the St. Louis exposition operating a standard spherical hot air balloon, with which he took paying customers on “free ascents”—i.e., untethered to the ground.
Nearly twenty million visitors attended the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Knabenshue, after a shaky start, piloted California Arrow a total of twenty-three times, none more sensational than his three-mile flight on October 31. The period for claiming the $100,000 prize had expired, but the effect on crowds of seeing an airship sail overhead is impossible to overstate: “[C]lerks deserted their desks, street cars were stopped, and all business suspended until the machine passed.” Never before had Americans seen a man travel through the sky as he pleased.
After the exposition, Baldwin and Knabenshue brought California Arrow to Los Angeles. On February 12, 1905, Knabenshue raced a Pope-Toledo automobile across town for a hundred-dollar bet. The driver of the car blamed his loss on restrictive city speed limits, but the powerful Curtiss engine had shot Knabenshue over the nine-mile course in under twenty minutes. Knabenshue returned Toledo and went into the dirigible business, while Baldwin built a new airship and hired as his pilot the young man from San Francisco many would eventually blame for Eugene Ely’s death: Lincoln Beachey. After flying at the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition in Oregon, Beachey too left Baldwin and joined up with Knabenshue.
Four years later, when the Wrights returned to Fort Myer to complete government acceptance tests of their flying machine, Knabenshue and Beachey were in attendance and tried without success to persuade the Wrights to hire them as aviators. After the meeting, a frustrated Knabenshue vowed to build an aeroplane of his own, “take it off to some secluded spot and learn to fly,” and then send photos to the Wrights to convince them he could do it. If that didn’t work, he said, he would “move out to California again and give it up.”
Knabenshue and Beachey brought racing airships to the January 1910 international aviation meet at Dominguez Field, near Los Angeles. But, upon seeing Glenn Curtiss fly his high-powered aeroplane at sixty miles an hour, Beachey is said to have remarked: “Roy, our racket’s dead.”
Shortly afterward, the Wright brothers did hire Knabenshue—not to fly, but to manage the team of aviators who would exhibit on their behalf, in competition with Curtiss. The first Wright team exhibition took place in June 1910 at the newly resurfaced Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Beachey, though not a team member, was allowed to participate, but he failed to get aloft in a monoplane of his own design and ended up joining Curtiss as a mechanic.
At the end of 1910 the two leading Wright team aviators died in terrible crashes. Curtiss traveled to Dayton in April 1911, hoping to settle the patent litigation, and had a “long talk” with Orville Wright. Curtiss wrote to his business manager: “I also saw Knabenshue, who complains about the exhibition business going to the dogs.” Indeed, by the end of 1911 the exhibition era was all but over, and the Wrights soon disbanded their team. Knabenshue began managing aviator Glenn Martin, who in May 1912 flew a hydroaeroplane nearly seventy miles roundtrip between Los Angeles and Catalina Island, the most successful long-distance overwater flight to date.
At the end of 1912 Knabenshue returned to dirigibles, establishing a passenger service between Pasadena and the summit of nearby Mt. Wilson (famous for its observatory) while he worked on construction of the 28-passenger, Zeppelin-style airship he hoped to have in service at the 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exposition. He also attempted to establish dirigibles as personal transportation vehicles capable of displacing automobiles.
During the diplomatic tensions with Mexico in 1913, Knabenshue’s name was listed among the aviators said to have volunteered for the U.S. Aviation Reserve Corps organized by millionaire aviator Albert Bond Lambert (for whom the St. Louis airport is named). Knabenshue and his dirigible appeared in an early silent film, Won in the Clouds (1914).
He soon left the dirigible business again, and by 1916 he was associated as engineer and mechanical advisor for the United States Circus Corporation, which promised to revolutionize the modern circus by traveling from city to city in trucks, rather than trains. When Germany’s employment of Zeppelins to bomb Paris and London prompted the U.S. Navy to order military dirigibles, Knabenshue was the pilot hired to demonstrate their nighttime stealth capabilities. He spent the rest of World War I manufacturing captive observation balloons and providing instruction to student aeronauts.
After the war Knabenshue quit flying for good and went into various automotive businesses, including manufacturing, tires, and oil. He invented an auto gear-shifting mechanism as well as a foot-operated emergency brake. He even experimented with attaching a ground-based radio antenna to a small balloon so as to eliminate static.
Knabenshue was a founding member of the Early Birds of Aviation in 1928, membership in which was limited to those who had flown an airship or aeroplane before the U.S. entry into World War I. Later in 1928 he returned his focus to dirigibles, by then known as blimps. He proposed to build a 430-foot airship that could, using a new form of fuel, carry forty passengers all the way across the United States. The Great Depression ended his practical association with flying, although he did eventually take a job as principal aviation clerk for the National Park Service.
In 1934 Knabenshue was honored at a ceremony marking the thirtieth anniversary of his pioneering dirigible flight. He retired to Los Angeles, where his health declined. He was bedridden at the time of the fiftieth anniversary celebration of his St. Louis flight, but in early 1955 he reportedly retraced, by blimp, the route of his cross-Los Angeles race half a century earlier.
In 1959 Knabenshue christened a Continental Airlines 707 jet and rode with the press party from Los Angeles to Chicago, a trip that took only three and a half hours. Later that year he expressed skepticism about the notion of rockets ever carrying men to the moon. He was a guest of honor at the ceremony to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Dominguez Field air meet, but he suffered a stroke the following month and died in March 1960 at the age of 83.
Roy Knabenshue is buried at the Portal of the Folded Wings Shrine to Aviation in North Hollywood.