Eye in the Sky

 

frank-coffyn frank-coffyn-2

February 7, 1912. Manhattan. Frank Coffyn, former member of the Wright Exhibition Team, takes off from the ice-choked Hudson River in a hydroaeroplane and flies over New York Harbor. Coffyn’s passenger is Adrian C. Duff, “The Camera Kid,”a photographer for the American Press Association. Photos have been shot from aeroplanes before, but Duff takes the first aerial pictures of New York, including a shot of Castle Williams (above right), constructed as part of the defensive system for the inner harbor. After the flight, Duff opines that a man with a camera in an aeroplane “could take pictures of any fortification in the world, down to their finest details.” A New York World editorial optimistically calls the results of the flight “only a suggestion of what the aeroplane may do to make war farcical in its preparation and too deadly for indulgence in its actualities.”

 

Frank Trenholm Coffyn was born in South Carolina in 1878, the son of a banker. In March 1910 he was working in New York City, married and the father of two children, when he saw pioneer French aviator Louis Paulhan fly at the Jamaica race track on Long Island. Wilbur Wright was also present, having come with his lawyer to watch Paulhan, against whom the brothers had brought a patent infringement suit.

Coffyn does not appear to have had any mechanical or engineering background, but he was already “an ardent flying enthusiast.” His father knew Andrew Freedman, one of the directors of the Wright Company; through Freedman, Coffyn met Wilbur Wright shortly after the Paulhan flight, begged for a job in the brothers’ company, and managed to extract an invitation to visit them. Coffyn traveled to Dayton around April 1910 and was adjudged competent enough to begin flying lessons. He received one and a half hours of instruction from Orville Wright, followed by an hour of check flights with the brothers’ first student, Walter Brookins.

Roy Knabenshue, manager of the newly formed Wright Exhibition Team, had been working since early March on logistics for the team’s first public exhibition, to be held at Indianapolis in mid-June. The brothers themselves proposed to do no flying there, but Knabenshue had assembled a team of six aviators: Coffyn, Brookins, Arthur Welsh, Duval La Chappelle, Ralph Johnstone and Arch Hoxsey. On the eve of the meet the aviators were presented with two-year contracts, under which they would be paid $50 for every day they flew ($1,250 in current dollars), plus a $20 per week base salary and $6 per diem for expenses and transportation. The contract prohibited team members from flying on Sundays or taking passengers not approved by the Wrights. If they quit before the term of the contract, they agreed not to fly professionally for a year. All six signed the contracts.

In advance of the Indianapolis meet, the assembled Wright aviators spent two days conducting private trial flights that were closed even to the press. The public performances that followed were carefully scripted, safe, and uneventful. During Coffyn’s first solo flight he was bitten near the eye by a spider that had crawled unnoticed into his flight goggles while they hung in the shed. He landed safely.

Although Brookins, Johnstone and Hoxsey would soon be known more for corkscrews and other aerial stunts than for the placidity of their flying, Coffyn never developed a similar reputation. He appeared at meets in Atlantic City and Toronto over the summer of 1910 without drawing any particular attention and survived three crashes that he attributed to “structural failure,” one of which resulted in his swimming from the wreck.

Beginning in January 1911, Coffyn was in Augusta, Georgia, operating the Wrights’ aviation training school, which was reputed to draw millionaire students. While in Georgia, he set a new nighttime altitude record (800 feet) and experimented with cross-country passenger flights.

Concerns about the Mexican Revolution caused the U.S. Army to form a Provisional Aero Squadron in March 1911 and station it in San Antonio. The only aeroplane the Government owned at the time was an obsolete 1909 Wright Flyer, so millionaire Robert Collier loaned his machine to the Army until a new Wright Model B could be shipped to San Antonio. On April 19, Coffyn came to Fort Sam Houston to demonstrate the new Wright machine. Eugene Ely arrived at the same time to fly the new Curtiss “War Machine.”

Before formal acceptance tests began on April 24, Ely and Coffyn made trial flights. Ely twice took Lt. George Kelly as a passenger, while Coffyn gave a ride to Lt. Benny Foulois, the sole army aviator designated for training in the Wright machine. Coffyn stayed aloft with Foulois for ninety minutes in a steady rain, proving it was possible to do so. During a military parade held to celebrate the San Antonio Spring Carnival, Coffyn (again with Foulois as passenger) and Ely flew before the military reviewing stand and a large crowd of civilians.

Captain Paul Beck and his board of student military aviators devised a practical test: the Southern Pacific Railroad would be “theoretically blown up” somewhere between San Antonio and Galveston, and the aviators would have to find the point of destruction. While Ely and Coffyn waited to make the test, they took each other as passengers into the clouds in order “[t]o show there is such thing as c[ama]raderie of the air.” The railroad test never came off, but the Army soon accepted both aircraft.

In September 1911 the Wrights “loaned” Coffyn to a pair of wealthy Detroit brothers who wanted to learn to fly. Because they lived on the shore of Lake St. Clair, Coffyn added aluminum pontoons to his Wright B, possibly the first of their kind in the world. Coffyn had grown quite comfortable with the hydroaeroplane by the end of 1911, when the Wrights disbanded the exhibition team. He returned to New York and went into business for himself, securing a contract with leading motion picture company Vitagraph Company of America to provide aerial footage of the city.

The Camera Kid, Adrian Duff, had never previously ridden in an aeroplane, so Coffyn’s flight with him over the harbor was in the nature of a test run. On February 13 they flew again, this time with Duff operating a hand-cranked motion picture camera, but his hands were so cold that he found it difficult to film. (The low-resolution footage can be seen here.) Coffyn subsequently invented a chain drive to operate the camera, dispensing with the need for a cameraman/passenger. He ultimately produced a thousand feet of film for Vitagraph.

On the same February day that George Beatty caused a sensation by landing in Central Park, Coffyn made a lasting impression of his own by flying his machine under the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. The publicity from his various flights produced $50,000 worth of additional contracts, but an automobile accident in Central Park kept him from flying for nine months.

Coffyn appeared with his aeroplane in an early silent film drama in which ex-President Taft made a cameo. He also served as test pilot and chief instructor for the Burgess Airplane Company before returning to South Carolina, where he ran the Wright Flying School. Among his pupils was Norman Prince, who later organized the Lafayette Escadrille, a squadron of American pilots who flew combat missions for France from 1916-18. After the United States entered the World War, Coffyn was commissioned a captain in the Air Service and was responsible for flight instruction at Waco, Texas, and on Long Island. Just before he was to be promoted to Major and sent overseas with five squadrons, the war ended.

Coffyn resumed his film acting career until the Great Depression. He served as well as a freelance pilot or “aviation consultant,” a term he despised. He wrote articles urging the establishment of more flying schools, because “60 percent of what constitutes good and safe flying lies in the human element.”

With the advent of World War II, Coffyn registered for the draft at the age of 63. He sold aircraft and worked for a company that produced flight instruments. He obtained a helicopter license at age 66, the third person so licensed by the C.A.A.. Even well into his seventies, he continued to lecture on aviation history. Coffyn was an 82-year-old “semi-retired” consultant for the Hiller Helicopter Company when he died in in 1960 in Palo Alto, California, the last survivor of the Wright exhibition flyers who had flown half a century earlier.

 

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Eye in the Sky

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