August 10, 1910. Asbury Park, New Jersey. The worst non-fatal accident in early American aviation occurs on opening day of an exhibition by the recently formed Wright Exhibition Team. Walter Brookins, the Wrights’ first pupil (and star of the team), is about to land after a successful flight when news photographers run onto the track to get pictures of the flying machine. With his engine shut off for landing, Brookins is unable to rise again. He swerves to avoid the newsmen and crashes into the grandstand, wrecking the aeroplane and injuring seven spectators. Brookins suffers a broken ankle and nose, and several of his teeth are knocked out. The day after the crash, ticket sales to the aviation meet increase by 100%.
The Wright brothers had lagged behind Glenn Curtiss in entering the exhibition business. Not until early 1910 did they invite Roy Knabenshue to assemble and manage a team of flyers, in connection with which the Wrights opened a “flight school” in Montgomery, Alabama. Soon they were rumored to be teaching half a dozen Army officers to fly.
In fact, the brothers at first brought to Montgomery only one man: twenty-one-year-old Walter Richard Brookins, their Dayton neighbor and a former student of their sister Katherine’s, whom they had known since he was a toddler. Just what might have impressed Wilbur and Orville about his potential as an aviator is unclear, but in March they personally set about giving him lessons at Montgomery.Brookins learned quickly and was soon teaching the rest of the Wrights’ would-be exhibition team. On May 25 he and teammate Arch Hoxsey reportedly made two trips by moonlight, “circling, wheeling and going through all the evolutions customary in daytime.”
The first public appearance of the team took place at Indianapolis in mid-June 1910, shortly after Blanche Stuart Scott passed through on her transcontinental automobile journey. Brookins flew for a total of nearly eight hours over the course of that meet, taking his machine up numerous times to nearly five thousand feet while repeatedly breaking the world’s altitude record.
The printed daily schedule at Indianapolis reflects the degree to which the Wrights desired a controlled, uneventful exhibition of their flying machines: specifically identified aviators flew each day at particular times. And yet, as noted by one reporter:
So far as the flying itself was concerned, the meet proved pretty conclusively that the Wright aeroplane is a very steady and dependable machine. There were about sixty flights during the six days of the exhibition, and there was no suggestion of an accident.
In the tranquility of the performances—the invariably successful starts, and quiet, uneventful landings—lay the chief beauty, from the writer’s standpoint[,] of the meet.
But in just that same tranquility lay its chief drawback from the standpoint of the box-office. Peace and quiet are all very well in their way, but after a man has loafed around a railroad station thirty-eight minutes waiting for transportation to the field, has quietly sat on a plank upholstered bleacher divan at a temperature of 120 Fahr. for three hours waiting for something to happen, and with equal peace of mind has finally watched—at a distance of half a mile or more—these great white birds rise gently into the air and sail placidly around the track until fancy moved them to descend, that man is apt to lean toward something more stirring than the prospect of quietly walking for two or three miles along a country road to where he can find a suburban trolley to take him back to town.
Alerted to the need for “something more stirring,” Brookins and the other Wright aviators would soon—against the express wishes of the brothers, who by then rarely took to the air—become known more for corkscrews and other aerial stunts than for the placidity of their flying.
Brookins appeared in late June at a Montreal exhibition with J.A.D. McCurdy, then traveled to Atlantic City, giving Glenn Curtiss his first opportunity to compete directly against a Wright aeroplane. The crowds were enormous and the flying spectacular. Curtiss made a fifty-mile overwater flight just offshore (ten laps of a five-mile course) for a $5,000 prize, while Brookins exceeded six thousand feet in altitude for a like prize, thereby becoming the first aviator to take an aeroplane more than a mile high. To verify his altitude achievement, Brookins carried with him a barograph (a barometer with an inked stylus). It was the first time the device had been used in flight, and it quickly became the standard method for judging altitude contests.
Later that summer, the Wrights publicly introduced their Model B Flyer as the replacement machine to be used by Brookins following his spectacular Asbury Park crash. The Model B had a 35-hp engine capable of propelling it at a brisk 45 mph, but—this was clearly an unintended consequence—its “headless” design made it better suited to aerobatic maneuvers. By September, the lead Wright aviators (Brookins, Hoxsey and Ralph Johnstone) were using their Model B Flyers to engage in “fancy aeroplaning.”
Johnstone’s favorite act was to indulge in steep slides, shutting his engine almost off, then suddenly shooting down until he almost touched the ground, then sweeping up like a bird in flight.
Brookins performed the most daring feat of the afternoon in making his famous short turns, standing his biplane almost on edge as he made a complete circle in scarcely more than six seconds. His machine reached an angle of more than 80 degrees at times.
Brookins’ signature stunt, popularly known as the “spiral glide,” was quickly copied by Hoxsey and Johnstone, who thereafter performed it routinely. Crowds showed up expecting to be thrilled, and the Wright aviators continued to risk their lives for a weekly salary of $20 (equal to $500 today), plus a $50 bonus earned on each day they flew.
Meanwhile, the possibility of long-distance air flights had captured the public’s imagination. On September 30, Brookins flew non-stop for half the length of Illinois, from Chicago to Springfield; his flight outdistanced each leg of Charles K. Hamilton’s record New York-to-Philadelphia trip, and it shattered the one-way distance record set by Curtiss along the Hudson River in May. Under the terms of his contract, however, Brookins was entitled to none of the prize money he won.
That same month marked the passage of two years since the sole aviation fatality to date in America (that of Lt. Tom Selfridge, when Orville Wright crashed during an acceptance test for the War Department). As flight after flight ended without serious accident, journalists began to comment on the apparent safety of flying machines as compared to automobiles. But the stresses placed on the bamboo framework of the machines were considerable, and the Wright aviators simply could not continue to fly as they did without consequence.
It all unraveled over the course of ten weeks at the end of the year. Wilbur and Orville had built a racing biplane, the Baby Grand, with which they expected Brookins to compete for the prestigious Gordon Bennett Cup at Belmont Park in October. Orville himself achieved an astonishing 78 mph during a practice run, but Brookins crashed the Baby Grand just before the start of the big race, and the machine was wrecked. Three weeks later Johnstone was killed when the wings of his Model B snapped and folded in the middle of a “spiral glide,” and six weeks after that Hoxsey died in a New Year’s Eve crash while attempting to break his own world’s record for altitude: 11,474 feet.
Brookins thereafter became a more cautious flyer, abandoning the “spiral glide” and devoting himself to scientific demonstrations of the aeroplane. During an aviation meet at San Francisco in January 1911, he took up as his passenger an army observer who shot aerial photographs from twelve hundred feet and made sketches while the pair tried in vain to spot an “invading” military force. Brookins later organized and led a “safe and sane” flying movement, intended to outlaw aerobatics as needlessly dangerous.
Following the disbanding of the Wright Exhibition Team in November 1911 (some commentators say Brookins “broke” with the Wrights), he experimented with the design of a flying boat, as well as a self-starting mechanism that would do away with the need to crank an aeroplane’s propeller. A story under his byline in early 1912 correctly predicted that aeroplanes would soon fly at a hundred miles an hour.
Brookins was employed as a military flight instructor until 1915, and he was the passenger in an aeroplane that crashed into Pensacola Bay at the hands of novice naval aviator Kenneth Whiting (famous for having successfully escaped from a submarine through its torpedo tube in 1909). Neither man was seriously injured.
Brookins worked as an aviation engineer in the 1920s. He gave up flying, only to resume it in 1930, by which time he was a member of the Early Birds of Aviation (he served as its president in 1937). He moved to Los Angeles and ran the Davis-Brookins aircraft factory, producing wing assemblies for B-24 airplanes during World War II. He eventually became associated with the Institute of Aeronautical History. In 1953, Walter Brookins died of a heart ailment at the age of 63. He was the first person to be buried at the Portal of the Folded Wings Shrine to Aviation in North Hollywood.