Harry At­wood: Aerial P. T. Bar­num

Flight Journal - - CONTENTS - by John Lock­wood

The air­plane had barely been in­vented when the dar­ing new breed of men known as “pi­lots” be­gan stretch­ing the air­plane’s pur­pose and the pub­lic’s imag­i­na­tion. Ap­par­ently seek­ing a place in the pub­lic’s eye, they be­gan try­ing to outdo one another in dis­tance and speed. Harry At­wood, of Bos­ton, Mas­sachusetts, took a slightly dif­fer­ent tact, how­ever. He took his place in his­tory’s fact book by go­ing places no plane had gone be­fore, which guar­an­teed head­line sta­tus for his ex­ploits.

A grad­u­ate of MIT, At­wood took up fly­ing in the spring of 1911 at the Wright Brothers’ fly­ing school in Huff­man Prairie, Ohio, and barely a month later per­formed his first stunt. He flew his Wright Model B, 108 miles from Squan­tum, Mas­sachusetts, to New Lon­don, Con­necti­cut. He made the trip in a then-as­tound­ing two hours, con­sid­ered a nearly im­pos­si­ble speed back then. At­wood then flew from New Lon­don to New York City, 145 miles away, in 2 hours and 47 min­utes. A few months later, while still a new­bie airman, he flew 1,256 miles from St. Louis, Mis­souri, to New York City, mak­ing 11 stops and fly­ing more than 28 hours. The man had no fear! The ma­chine knew no lim­its! Or so thought breath­less news­pa­per read­ers na­tion­wide.

When in New York, he couldn’t help but no­tice the num­ber of land­marks that would present news­pa­pers with out­stand­ing photo ops. Take Lady Lib­erty, for in­stance. Cir­cling the Statue of Lib­erty gave his pub­lic yet another im­age of him do­ing what they doubted any sane man would do.

But greater fields beck­oned. What about the na­tion’s cap­i­tal? There were land­marks aplenty there. So At­wood an­nounced his in­ten­tion to cir­cle the fa­mous build­ings of Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and on July 7, he took off from At­lantic City, New Jersey (bear in mind, he had only been fly­ing a few months). He had a pas­sen­ger with him this time: fel­low avi­a­tor, Charles K. Hamil­ton. On July 10, they reached Bal­ti­more, at 9:38 a.m. At­wood and Hamil­ton might have flown on to the Col­lege Park, Mary­land, air­port near Wash­ing­ton right then, but they found the area’s no­to­ri­ous sum­mer weather so hot and hu­mid that they cut the flight short. At­wood said that the sum­mer weather was so bad that he de­scribed it as “bor­der­ing on the in­ferno.”

At­wood fi­nally set off, by him­self, the evening of July 13. When he was spot­ted over D.C., huge crowds came out, many head­ing for the Wash­ing­ton Mon­u­ment. At­wood first cir­cled the Mon­u­ment. Af­ter that, it was a turn of the White House, the Capi­tol, the Smith­so­nian Cas­tle, Po­tomac Park, and the Vir­ginia shore­line, with ad­di­tional trips to the Mon­u­ment in be­tween, cir­cling, div­ing, and as­cend­ing. Spec­ta­tors re­marked how strik­ing the plane looked in the glow of the set­ting sun. Even­tu­ally, At­wood flew back to Col­lege Park. One per­son who missed the fun that day was Pres­i­dent Wil­liam Howard Taft, who was out golf­ing at Chevy Chase, Mary­land. The next day, how­ever, At­wood landed on the White House lawn and, with his mother, met the pres­i­dent. Taft per­son­ally con­grat­u­lated At­wood and gave him a gold medal from the Wash­ing­ton Aerial So­ci­ety.

Even though At­wood was the last pi­lot in­vited to land on the South Lawn, he wasn’t the last to visit it in an aerial fash­ion. In 1974, 20-year-old PFC Robert Pre­ston, de­spon­dent over be­ing washed out of flight train­ing, took a joyride in an un­se­cured UH-1 Huey and, af­ter lead­ing govern­ment he­li­copters on a wild chase, landed on the White House lawn in a hail of bul­lets, which barely scratched him. Then, in 1994, Frank Corder, a drunk (and high) truck driver, stole a Cessna 150 and dove it into the South Lawn barely miss­ing a cor­ner of the White House. To­day, any un­of­fi­cial aerial vis­i­tors will be greeted by a wide va­ri­ety of an­ti­air­craft mis­siles. Pres­i­dents (and the Se­cret Ser­vice) now take a dim view of un­in­vited pi­lots vi­o­lat­ing their pri­vacy.

Harry At­wood lands on the South Lawn of the White House in 1911. He was the last pri­vate pi­lot to do so legally. (Pho­tos cour­tesy of Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

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