Dakota Datebook

First Airplane Ride

Saturday, October 4, 2003

In 1905 on this date, Orville Wright piloted the first flight longer than a half hour. It lasted 33 minutes, 17 seconds and covered 21 miles.

Five years later, the first airplane flight in North Dakota happened when Archie Hoxsey, a member of the Wright brothers’ team, came to Grand Forks and took Frank Kent up as his passenger. Twenty-six year old Hoxsey, a colorful daredevil, also gave Teddy Roosevelt his first airplane ride on October 11th of that same year, making TR the first president to fly.

Hoxsey and his teammate Ralph Johnstone, dubbed the “The Star Dust Twins,” were the stars of the Wright Brothers’ Flying Circus circuit. Although the fledgling aviation industry had already lost more than 30 aviators to accidents, Hoxsey and Johnstone were constantly trying to outdo each other in tricky maneuvers and setting new records.

On October 24th, above the Belmont racetrack, New Yorkers witnessed a spectacle never seen in America before. On the fifth day of the tournament, a howling west wind narrowed the day’s program to one event for distance and altitude. The meet offered $3,750 for the highest altitude, another thousand for a world record and a $5,000 bonus for flying higher than 10,000 feet. With surface winds at 20 miles per hour, it looked there wouldn’t be any entrants, but Hoxsey and Johnstone started up their bi-planes and took off into the gale.

They rose much more rapidly than normal, but it was soon clear that they weren’t just flying against the wind, they were actually being pushed backwards by it. Forty-five minutes later, with their engines at full power, Hoxsey and Johnstone had drifted back over the woods to the northeast of the racetrack and then out of sight.

Ten minutes passed. Fifteen, then thirty, and still there was no sign or word that they had landed. The Wright team, as well as the thousands of fans in the grandstand, began to worry that the pilots had lost control or that they had been carried out over Long Island Sound and run out of fuel.

An hour and a half later, Hoxsey had climbed as high as he dared go and landed in Brentwood, some 40 miles away. But 24 year-old Johnstone still hadn’t come down. He had reached an altitude within 200 feet of the world record when he suddenly realized he was almost out of the fuel. He looked down to where dust clouds were traveling along at about 60 miles an hour and realized that to get back, he would need every bit of power his engine would produce. But the moment he pointed down, the engine began to miss, because the gas drained away from the carburetor. He managed to come down only by see-sawing the plane to keep the gas trickling. When he was finally at ground level, the wind turned him around and landed him front end backwards. He survived that one, but less than three weeks later, Johnstone died in Denver when his plane went into an unrecoverable vertical dive.

Hoxsey continued on without his partner, trying to fly to higher and higher altitudes, and on December 26, Hoxsey set an altitude record of 11,474 ft. above San Francisco. Pilots – who had no cockpits to protect them – struggled with numbing cold at just a quarter of that altitude. At more than two miles above the ground, it’s difficult to say what Archie Hoxsey experienced.

Four days later, as he tried to go even higher, he either lost control or something broke; his plane spun thousands of feet from the sky and crashed, killing him. He was 26.
The following year, after many more accidents and untimely deaths, the Wright brothers disbanded their team, but the lust for flight didn’t die with their Flying Circus. Fifty-eight years later, man would land on the moon.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from North Dakota Public Radio.

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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