Flights of fancy during the Depression Airport: At the Curtiss-Wright field, planes were serviced and lessons were given. And on Sundays, the fliers put on a show.

Remember When

January 18, 1998|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

For the sheer thrill of watching daredevil pilots perform almost unthinkable stunts in their souped-up planes, Baltimoreans on Depression Sunday afternoons braved long traffic jams along Smith and Greenspring avenues to reach the Curtiss-Wright Airport, a 250-acre flying field that sprawled across the city-county line.

"Say 'Curtiss-Wright' to Baltimoreans of my generation and you'll conjure up a picture of Sunday afternoons spent watching old planes and 10-minute hops over North Baltimore for a dollar," Col. Henry H. Kelcey told the Sunday Sun Magazine in 1959.

Curtiss-Wright Airport was built in 1930 by the Curtiss-Wright Corp. and was leased by Col. William Tipton, one of Baltimore's legendary and flamboyant aviators, who had been a World War I flying ace and was known as Tip.

Seeing a bright future and the potential for commercial aviation, Tipton envisioned the airport becoming the city's air hub some day.

It never happened. Instead, Tipton sold and serviced planes and gave flying lessons at his airport, which also became a center for air shows and sightseeing planes that introduced many a queasy Baltimorean to the first view of the city and environs from a perspective normally reserved for the birds.

"Airmen in general were daredevils in those days, and Tip took advantage of this to stage exciting air circuses almost every Sunday afternoon. He brought in National Guard planes, held contests which attracted private fliers from a wide area and, of course, let those of us who had learned to fly there to take part also," said Kelcey.

Novelty act and group stunts

It wasn't uncommon for crowds of 25,000 to come and stare at the leather-helmeted and goggled fliers dressed in jodhpurs standing by their planes, and anxiously await their airborne high jinks.

Novelty acts included group stunts, with several planes tied together during flight, or spot-landing contests, when pilots cut their engines at 2,000 feet.

As a silent plane glided toward the earth, landed and rolled to a stop at a predetermined spot on the field, the crowd would roar its approval.

"One of the pilots who will take place in the air show climbs out of his airplane while flying over the field, after killing his engine, crawls down onto the landing gear and spins the propeller, then crawls back into the cockpit. The airplane meanwhile, is without a pilot," reported The Sun in 1938.

A popular event was always the bomb-dropping exhibition put ** on by the National Guard, which pelted stationary targets or moving automobiles on the field with 2-pound bags of flour.

"Tape cutting was another great sport," said Kelcey. "The object was to throw a roll of adding machine tape out of the plane at 2,000 feet and cut it three times with your propeller as it streamed down. I cut the time from two minutes to 55 seconds by the idea of throwing out the tape while upside down, then looping down to make the first cut immediately."

Aerial dogfights re-creating the aerial death duels of World War I also brought out the crowds.

Known for his "human bat" act, Archie Seese would plummet thousands of feet toward the earth before pulling the cord on his parachute.

On a May afternoon in 1938, Ruth Allen of Owings Mills, who was making her second jump ever, leaped out of a biplane, only to have her chute became tangled in the plane's door handle.

"For thirty seconds a 19-year-old girl dangled 1,800 feet above the Curtiss-Wright field yesterday," said The Sun, until she was released by the plane's pilot and then made "a near perfect landing" as spectators gasped.

Other noted airborne vaudeville acts included a pilot billed as "Farmer Brown."

Dressed in overalls and a floppy straw hat, Brown flew his plane away from his "instructor" and "took off from one wheel and the tail skid. After he was safely in the air, announcers informed the crowd that the 'farmer' actually was Lt. Harry Neidig, a veteran of 14 years of flying," The Sun reported.

Women's air show

In May, 1931, headlines in The Sun said, "First All Women's Air Show In U.S. Will Be Held Here."

"Starting at 2: 30 p.m., there will be ten events, winding up with a triple parachute jump, the jumpers all being girls, at 5 p.m."

"Women Bar Men at Tomorrow's Flying Carnival. Fair Sex Going To Monopolize Absolutely All Of Ten Events," proclaimed headlines in The Evening Sun.

As a crowd of 5,000 looked on, Thelma Elliott, a Baltimorean, set an altitude record when she climbed 16,800 feet in a "cabin plane carrying a barograph to record her highest point."

In a weight-loss scheme that predated Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig, The Sun said, "Matronly women were shown how to reduce by aviatrixes who went through loops, rolls, wing overs and left-hand spins."

Even an autogiro

At a fall gathering that year of women pilots, the guest of honor, Amelia Earhart Putnam, the famous flier who later disappeared while flying across the Pacific in 1937, failed to show up when her plane developed trouble and was forced to land at Willow Grove, Pa.

Baltimoreans were intrigued in 1930 when they had their first glimpse of an autogiro (a predecessor of the helicopter) that "literally landed and took off from a dime," observed The Sun.

"Mr. Ray, vice president of the company which manufactures the ships in this country, flew the Flying Windmill from Philadelphia and over the field made the ship do tricks in taking off, climbing and landing that had a large crowd incredulous."

In 1946, Curtiss-Wright Airport became Pimlico Airport. The land was later sold to a developer.

Today, all traces of the airport and its entertaining past have vanished.

Where biplanes and Ford Tri-motors once landed and took off, cars line up to find parking places in the Greenspring Shopping Center, which now occupies the site.

Pub Date: 1/18/98

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