After the Wright brothers’ first successful flights on December 17, 1903, it wasn’t long before adventurous souls of both sexes began attempting to set distance and speed records. It was truly the golden age of barnstorming and of stunt flying. In 1911, for instance, Calbraith Perry Rodgers piloted the Vin Fiz, the first airplane to cross the United States, although he made many stops along the way.
Among this select group of record seekers is one Frank M. Hawks. In World War I, he flew for the U.S. Army Signal Corps and, after the war, became one of the nation’s premier barnstormers and record setters. In his day, he broke hundreds of speed records, dashing from one city to another. Perhaps his most audacious record was set in 1930, when he flew a glider on tow from San Diego to New York City. It could be said that he pogo-sticked his way across the country because he made so many stops along the way.
At the time, Hawks was chief of the Aviation Department of the Texas Oil Company, which gladly sponsored his glider flight for the publicity attached to it.
The glider was constructed especially for the occasion. It was a monoplane with a 21-foot fabric-and-steel-tube fuselage designed specifically for the stress of prolonged towing. Its wooden wing spanned 50 feet. It had both wheels and skid landing gear. It was unique in that the front part of the fuselage was removable, allowing entrance to the tiny cockpit, a crew member reattaching it after Hawks was strapped in. A small instrument panel mounted the absolute minimum of instruments required for the flight.
A telephone was included in the 500-foot towing cable to the airplane. The glider’s terminal velocity—that is, how much speed it could take and still tolerate the strain—was 125mph, which would be no problem because the tow plane, a WACO biplane, couldn’t come close to that speed even without the glider in tow. Hawks named his craft the Eaglet.
The Eaglet took off at 8:00 a.m. on March 30, 1930, from what was then Lindbergh Field in San Diego. Hawks carried with him a bag of mail, a parachute, and a potted palm.
The flight included some 20 planned stops along the way, with a scheduled final landing at Van Cortlandt Park in New York City. Before each stop, Hawks would cut loose and glide to a landing.
The distance covered during each leg of the trip varied from 65 to 195 miles. Things went well enough, except when, on the last planned day of the trip, he encountered a storm near Syracuse, New York. It was so turbulent that Hawks nearly parachuted out. But he plowed through the weather and safely reached New York City.
Scheduled to land at Van Cortlandt Park on April 6, 1930, he came in for a landing at 4:00 p.m. An airport employee left a white hat on the ground on which Hawks was to try to land. He touched ground just 15 feet from it. Some 15,000 cheering spectators witnessed the feat. As for the palm, it was planted where the Eaglet landed, although it was later relocated to the park greenhouse. Interviewed by the press, Hawks said that he made the flight to stimulate interest in gliding.
On December 8, 1930, Hawks attended a ceremony in Washington, D.C., in which he donated the Eaglet to the Smithsonian Institution. The gathering was reported to the nation by NBC Radio. The Smithsonian still has the plane, although it is currently in storage.
Looking back, Hawks wrote, “I’ve been scared in automobiles much more often than in the air.”
So, not much has changed in the intervening 83 years.
By John Lockwood