October 17, 1911. Minneapolis. Curtiss aviator Hugh Robinson takes off from nearby Lake Calhoun in a “hydroaeroplane”—a type of flying machine invented by Glenn Curtiss only nine months earlier—on a proposed two thousand mile flight down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. Towns along the river have promised to contribute to a $20,000 fund that will just cover Robinson’s expenses, in return for his promise to touch down at those towns along the way. He has been authorized by Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock to carry a reported one thousand pounds of U.S. Mail.
Hugh Armstrong Robinson was born on Friday the 13th of May 1881, in Neosho, Missouri. Throughout his life he embraced 13 as lucky, even featuring the number prominently on his aeroplane. Robinson was adventurous from a young age, once accepting a dare from friends to ride his bicycle down the hundred steps in a local park (he crashed, wrecking the bike). Later he professionally rode and repaired bicycles, at one point performing a Circle of Death routine in which he rode around the inside of a large cylinder at a near-horizontal angle. He was at one time employed by the Grace Shannon Balloon Company to make parachute jumps from spherical balloons at county fairs. By 1909, however, he was trying to build his own aeroplane.
Robinson held a degree in mechanical engineering. He had already designed and built various machines, including an automobile, a glider that was towed behind a moving auto, and a dirigible—the last inspired by the sight of Roy Knabenshue flying California Arrow. During a 1908 visit to Europe, while serving as chauffeur to a wealthy businessman, Robinson watched Wilbur Wright fly in France and was moved to write an article predicting that the successful aeroplane of the future would be a monoplane with two or more propellers. When Glenn Curtiss met him in October 1909 at a St. Louis exhibition, Robinson was having difficulty getting a “tractor” monoplane of his own design aloft (the Wrights and Curtiss employed “pusher” biplanes). Curtiss loaned Robinson a propeller better suited to his needs, with which he achieved modest success.
Curtiss was then in the process of forming an exhibition team, and there is a suggestion he offered Robinson a job when they first met. If so, Robinson declined, but a year later he agreed to come to the camp on North Island (near San Diego) where Curtiss was spending the winter of 1910. Robinson then traveled with Curtiss to San Francisco in early 1911 and played a major role in Eugene Ely’s historic ship landing on January 18. Some reports credit a component of Robinson’s “Circle of Death” stunt as the inspiration for the tailhook design used by Ely to bring his aeroplane to a gradual halt.
Robinson returned to North Island and worked with Curtiss and Lt. Theodore Ellyson, U.S.N. (soon to become the world’s first naval aviator), on a hydroaeroplane with a tractor configuration. Although it was generally unsuitable for naval use because of the limited visibility offered by the spinning propeller, on February 17 Curtiss flew the hydroaeroplane across the bay, landed beside the armored cruiser Pennsylvania, and arranged to have it raised by a crane to the deck; after reversing the process, he flew back to his North Island camp. The feat was celebrated as proof that naval aviation did not require the use of an “artificial deck” for takeoffs and landings.
Robinson learned to fly Curtiss machines over the next few weeks and became so proficient that Curtiss gave him an exhibition contract. In his first appearance, at San Bernardino, he went aloft and scattered five hundred envelopes, three of which had tickets entitling the finder to a aeroplane ride, the rest containing advertisements for the local newspaper. Throughout the summer of 1911 Robinson flew primarily in a hydroaeroplane, most notably at the Seattle “potlatch” festival held in July. At a meet in Chicago, he demonstrated the usefulness of hydroaeroplanes for rescue work on open water when two other aviators crashed into lake Michigan. He also participated that summer in the first inter-city aviation race in America, between New York and Philadelphia. Flying a conventional Curtiss biplane, he took second place to Lincoln Beachey.
The commencement of Robinson’s Mississippi River flight was delayed because of weather, and by the time he reached Rock Island, Illinois, on October 21—four days after leaving Minneapolis—some of the downriver cities had grown frustrated by his inability to hold to a strict schedule. When they withdrew their commitments to the $20,000 fund, Robinson abandoned his attempt.
In January 1912, Robinson sailed with Curtiss manager Fanciulli for St. Petersburg, specifically to demonstrate the hydroaeroplane to the Russian government. He remained in Europe for several months, surviving a spectacular crash into the sea at Monaco (see photo above). Upon Robinson’s return to America, Curtiss allowed him to buy shares in the aeroplane manufacturing company and also made him chief instructor at the aviation school in Hammondsport (among Robinson’s pupils were three lieutenants in the Japanese navy). He is credited as a co-author of The Curtiss Aviation Book, which was published in 1912.
Robinson became associated with the Benoist aircraft company, which manufactured a “flying boat” in competition with Curtiss. He volunteered for an aviation reserve corps but quit exhibition flying in late 1913 to go into the motion picture business. The following year he resurrected his Circle of Death act, this time with a motorcycle. After injuring himself one evening, he trained his assistant to perform the stunt in his place.
During World War I, Robinson worked for the Curtiss Airplane Company and was credited with helping to design the engine for the famous Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” aircraft. In addition, he and his son experimented with wireless telephone technology as early as 1920. Later that decade Robinson moved to Coral Gables, Florida, renewing his association with Curtiss in connection with development of the AeroCar, an aerodynamic camping trailer. Around the time of World War II he was working as a consulting engineer in Washington, D.C. A member of the Early Birds of Aviation, he was much in demand for his anecdotes of the early flying days.
Robinson continued flying on his own into the 1940s. He died of a heart attack in 1963 at age 81, after which the airport in his hometown of Neosho, Missouri, was named in his honor.
Much more about Robinson’s life can be found in Hugh Robinson, Pioneer Aviator by Dr. George L. Vergara.