Stardust

Hoxsey

October 11, 1910. Kinloch Field, St. Louis. As Eugene Ely struggles to make the first aeroplane trip between Chicago and New York, former president Theodore Roosevelt arrives in St. Louis to campaign for Missouri Republican candidates. After initially declining a spontaneous offer to take a ride in an aeroplane by Arch Hoxsey, one of the leading Wright aviators, Roosevelt changes his mind and accepts. Hoxsey and teammate Ralph Johnstone will be dubbed the Stardust Twins within two weeks. Today, Hoxsey is the man who takes a U.S. president into the sky for the first time, performing a series of roller-coaster dips as Roosevelt clings to a strut. The Wright brothers are so incensed by Hoxsey’s recklessness that they consider firing him on the spot.

Archibald Eckles Hoxsey, born in downstate Illinois in April 1879, became fascinated by machinery from a young age. Named after his father, he went by plain “Arch” and was said to dislike the overly familiar “Archie.” His father died when Hoxsey was thirteen. Thereafter he lived with his mother, and would do so until well into his twenties. Eventually they moved to Pasadena, slightly northeast of Los Angeles.

Following the rise to popularity of the horseless carriage in the late 1890s, Hoxsey found employment as a chauffeur, obtaining one of the earliest licenses issued by the State of California. Dirigible pioneer T.S. “Captain Tom” Baldwin then arrived in Los Angeles in 1904 with his California Arrow, fresh off its triumph at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. On February 12, 1905, the Baldwin dirigible, piloted by Roy Knabenshue, won a cross-town race against a Pope-Toledo automobile for a hundred-dollar bet. The finish line was Hoxsey’s home town of Pasadena.

The capacity for speed of the airship fascinated the mechanic in Hoxsey, who began to associate with experienced aeronauts Knabenshue and Baldwin in order to learn all he could about dirigibles. Twenty-five year-old Hoxsey was described in the newspapers as a “boy genius” who spent all his time around machine shops.

In the autumn of 1905 Hoxsey built an airship of his own, based loosely on California Arrow. On January 2, 1906, he attempted his maiden sky voyage. “[F]inding that the gas bag would not raise the framework which he had built for his sky yacht, [Hoxsey simply] attached a [hot air balloon-style] basket, climbed in, cut loose the airship and sailed over the city at an elevation of thousands of feet,” for close to two hours. In the wake of that flight, Baldwin made a prescient comment: “I believe that I will live to see the time when some of we older fellows will have to take off our hats to him.”

Hoxsey gave up dirigibles soon after that first flight, however, sticking to the more remunerative occupation of driving automobiles. He served as chauffeur for Charles G. Gates, son of the oil and steel tycoon (and “barbed wire king”) John Warne Gates. A report published after Hoxsey’s death claimed that he had driven the younger Gates in Europe, which is certainly possible. But, by the end of 1909, Hoxsey was seeking new work.

Knabenshue, his old acquaintance and mentor, initially hired Hoxsey to assist in maintaining the engines of the Beachey-Knabenshue Racing Airships at the international aviation meet held in January 1910 at Dominguez Field, ten miles north of Long Beach. Two months later the Wright brothers were looking to assemble an aeroplane exhibition team, and they hired Knabenshue to manage it. He in turn recommended Hoxsey—who, if nothing else, had experience with flying machine engines, and even some time in the air.

Hoxsey, one of the first Wright students, went to Montgomery, Alabama, to take flying lessons. On April 29 he sent a telegram to his mother reporting that he had enjoyed his first ride in an aeroplane, with Orville Wright himself the instructor. Several weeks later Hoxsey flew for half an hour under the guidance of fellow student Walter Brookins. On May 25 the pair reportedly made two trips by moonlight, “circling, wheeling and going through all the evolutions customary in daytime.”

Hoxsey appeared in public for the first time at the Indianapolis aviation meet that Knabenshue arranged on behalf of the Wrights for the week of June 13. Hoxsey flew uneventfully for nearly three months after that, but early in September he had his first accident when he crashed into a barn in Lincoln, Nebraska. “Treacherous air currents,” rather than reckless flying, was identified as the cause. But in truth Hoxsey, like Johnstone, had grown overconfident and was experimenting with stunt flying.

Two days after Wilbur Wright ordered Johnstone and Brookins to quit all dangerous maneuvers at the Harvard-Boston meet, Hoxsey’s takeoff in Milwaukee went wrong when he was caught in a side wind. He crashed into the grandstand, without harming himself but injuring seven spectators. Immediately after the accident Wilbur Wright, having dispatched Hoxsey and Johnstone to Detroit for an unsupervised exhibition, felt the need to memorialize his strictures. He wrote to Hoxsey: “ I am very much in earnest when I say that I want no stunts and spectacular frills put on the flights there. . . . Please let Mr. Johnstone see this letter so that both may have the same instructions.” His final sentence underscores the extent to which the rivalry between the pair of flyers was genuine.

The Detroit exhibition passed without incident. A few days later Hoxsey flew nonstop from Springfield, Illinois, to St. Louis, a distance he estimated as 104 miles (point to point, it was closer to eighty-five, but he spent time circling in the air). His accomplishment was hailed as an unofficial American sustained flight record, no doubt much to the Wrights’ satisfaction. In his enthusiasm, Hoxsey capped the feat by giving the unauthorized ride to Roosevelt.

The problem the Wrights faced, notwithstanding their opposition to risky maneuvers, was the popularity of their star flyers—and the amount of money the sensational flights made. During the Belmont Park meet, the Stardust Twins alone brought to the company over $10,000 in prizes within a ten-day period (the equivalent of a quarter million in today’s dollars). Every penny in prize money went to the Wrights, while Hoxsey and Johnstone were paid twenty dollars each for the whole week, plus fifty dollars for every day they were in the air—days that excluded Sundays, by order of the pious brothers. So the Twins kept their employment, even as they continued to make spectacular flights.

Ralph Johnstone died in the crash at Denver on November 17, within three weeks of his Belmont Park triumph. As it happened, the Wright team was next scheduled to appear in Los Angeles, so Hoxsey went home to Pasadena for a rest. While he was there, Georges Legagneux, a French aviator, set a new world altitude record of 10,499 feet.

The Wrights did authorize altitude flights, and on Christmas Day 1910 (unaccountably, a Sunday), Hoxsey flew up to just short of eight thousand feet with ease. When he returned, he “descended so rapidly that he seemed to be falling.” All told, he remained in the air nearly two hours, performing various stunts “while the crowd went wild in its appreciation of his efforts.” On the following day, before a crowd of seventy-five thousand, he flew to 11,474 feet—well over two miles high—surpassing Legagneux’s mark by nearly a thousand feet and reclaiming the world record for the Wrights.

Hoxsey also, for the first time in his career, participated in a mock bomb-dropping accuracy contest that day, rising two hundred feet higher than any of his competitors and demonstrating a cavalier attitude toward the contest by eating one of the oranges to be used as “bombs.”Even with a three-point penalty for “malicious waste of ammunition,” he took second place in the event. His playful attitude manifested itself as well when he dive-bombed the judges on the ground.

Hoxsey established a new American endurance record on December 30, staying aloft for three and a quarter hours as he sought to break his own altitude record. His mother was said to be in the stands, watching and waiting, as he fought his way through some “air holes” at seven thousand feet that nearly caused his engine to stop.  He figured to have easily eclipsed his own altitude mark, but it turned out he had misread the barograph, believing he was at 12,575 feet when he was exactly two thousand feet lower. Somewhat ominously, he told newsmen that he had found it difficult to breathe even as low as seven thousand feet.

On the final day of the year, certain that no one would eclipse any new mark he set for 1910, Hoxsey rose high into the sky, chasing the twelve thousand foot barrier he thought to have shattered the day before. By some accounts, he was concerned that his December 26 record might not be accepted by European officials.

Hoxsey was gone an hour and a half when spectators spotted him descending, first in circles and then—from roughly five hundred feet up—in an uncontrolled tumble to the ground. Unlike Johnstone, he did not appear to have been attempting any aerobatics. Still in his seat, Hoxsey was crushed beneath the engine. An apocryphal story maintained that the news of his death was going out by telegraph even before he hit the ground.

The condition of the corpse made specifying the cause of death impossible, although the barograph showed that he hadn’t gone above seven thousand feet. Hoxsey might, perhaps, have lost consciousness after climbing at an unusually steep rate while attempting to conserve fuel. At seven thousand feet, he shouldn’t have been affected, but it’s worth recalling that he had reported trouble breathing at that exact altitude twenty-four hours earlier. Also possible is that the machine somehow malfunctioned and that, by diving too quickly in an effort to get to the ground, he blacked out.

Hoxsey was cremated three days later, after a service in Pasadena. Reports of the funeral listed Ely and Curtiss among the pallbearers and recorded that thousands of people came to pay their respects. A true national celebrity, Hoxsey had enjoyed a flying career that lasted barely eight months. He was thirty-one, and he died a bachelor.

A more extensive article about Johnstone and Hoxsey is due to be published in the Summer 2016 edition of the American Aviation Historical Society Journal.

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Stardust

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