Taking Off: Pioneering New England Aviation, 1910
Links with feature additional commentary by Ted Russell of the Massachusetts Aviation Society.
W. Starling Burgess had been interested in flight since he was a schoolboy, but it was not until 1908 that he got his first real taste of aviation. Until then, the Wright Brothers had tried to keep their tests quiet and secluded. When Orville Wright came to Fort Myer in Virginia in 1908 to make a public demonstration to the United States Army, however, Burgess made sure he was there. Although the Wrights still held patents that made it very difficult for anyone else to build “aeroplanes,” Burgess took up the challenge nonetheless.
After the initial flight at Chebacco Lake, while the Herring-Burgess #2 (pictured, right) was being built at Marblehead, Burgess looked for a more permanent place to hold his tests. He settled on Plum Island, because its long expanse of flat land and distance from settlement made it a prime location for flying. The new plane, called the Flying Fish for the fin-like structures on top of its wings, made three short flights on Sunday, April 17, the first two piloted by Herring and the last by Burgess himself. Four more flights, at increasing heights and of longer duration, followed on Thursday, April 21.
By the beginning of May, Burgess and Herring’s partnership had fallen apart. Greely S. Curtis, a wealthy man with an aeronautical and engineering background, had approached Burgess at the Boston Aero Show and offered to act as a financial partner. He arrived at Plum Island on April 22, and in June they organized Burgess Co. & Curtis. The company was off and running, and the tests were in full swing.
Over the course of the spring and summer, Burgess continued testing at Plum Island with varying success, constantly repairing and remodeling his planes. A. L. Pfitzner and William Hilliard, the most successful Plum Island aviator, took over as pilots after Herring’s departure. After every crash or accident the planes were returned to the Marblehead factory for repairs. Debates raged all summer over the advantages of skids versus wheels, different control systems, and the use of ailerons. The Newburyport Daily News and increasing numbers of spectators at the airfield followed these developments with intense interest. The Boston Globe, which had covered American and international innovations in flight throughout the year, also kept tabs on the events at Plum Island.
These test flights however, were leading up to something bigger than just putting on a show for friends and local residents. The Harvard-Boston Aero Meet, set for September 1910, would be the largest aero meet in the country up to that time. Its list of competitors, featuring many of the most famous and daring pilots in the world, drew international interest. Local excitement was even greater. For most attendees, this would be the first time they had ever seen an airplane in flight. Not only was it a wondrous thing to witness, but it also stoked imaginations over the future possibilities of flight.