Ralph Johnstone's Plane Lands in Middle Island


Plane lands in Van Horn's field, presently occupied by the K-mart parking lot. Photo courtesy of Nassau County Museum

At the end of October 1910, Long Island was host to an international aviation meet that surpassed any flying exhibition yet seen in the United States. From the 22nd to the 31st of October, twenty-seven of the world's leading aviators met in this historic multi-national tournament, held at Belmont Park Racetrack. Planned for each day of the tournament were cash prices for highest altitude, greatest distance, longest time aloft and fastest speed.

American tournament hopes rested primarily on pilots from the Wright Brothers and Glen Curtiss combination teams. Included in the Wright team were two of America's most famous exhibition pilots, Ralph Johnstone and Arch Hoxsey. Ralph Johnstone had gained fame for his daring aerial maneuvering and Arch Hoxsey for having flown former President Roosevelt in Saint Louis on the past October 11th. (Roosevelt was the first president to have ever flown.)

Hoxsey and Johnstone had flown together as part of the Wright Brothers exhibition team throughout the summer of 1910 and had been dubbed the "Star Dust Twins" for their altitude duels, each trying to out climb the other. The first days of the Belmont Park tournament were plagued with low clouds and strong winds, which prevented full scale flying. The weather cleared on October 24th, and New Yorkers witnessed a spectacle never seen in America before, ten aircraft aloft at the same time. Few Americans in 1910 had seen one aircraft fly, let alone ten at once. The events that occurred during this historic tournament made front page news around the world.


atthe wheel
Ralph Johnstone at the controls of his plane


The fifth day of the tournament, Thursday, October 27th, opened full of promise and closed with a howling west wind. The strong winds narrowed down the day's program to one hourly event for distance and altitude. At 1:30 P.M., when the signal bomb used by tournament officials to signal the opening of the altitude contest burst, the surface winds were 20 miles per hour. There was great doubt that there would be any entrants. These doubts were quickly put to rest, however, for seconds after the signal, Hoxsey and Johnstone started the engines of their Wright B headless biplanes, and took off into the gale.

Rapidly they rose. It was soon apparent that they were flying against the wind and at the same time being carried with it, a spectacle seldom if ever witnessed before in America. Climbing at 35 to 45 miles per hour, with their engines at full power, Hoxsey and Johnstone climbed directly into increasingly stronger head winds, and actually rose much more rapidly than usual. Forty-five minutes into their flight, Hoxsey and Johnstone had drifted backwards over the woods to the northeast of the racetrack, fighting the gale blowing in the upper atmosphere, beyond the range of the strongest field glasses on the ground.

Then ensued a period of great anxiety, which the Belmont Park spectators had learned to expect whenever one of the aviators made a real attempt for altitude. Ten minutes passed. Fifteen, then thirty, and still there was no sign of their return or word that they had landed. Anxiety began to manifest itself not only among the thousands in the grandstand, but also among team members around the hangars. They envisioned many alarming possibilities. Had the aircraft been thrown out of control by the high winds and fallen from their great height? Could they have been carried out over Long Island Sound and run out of fuel? Still, no word came in.

Hoxsey, climbing as high as he dared go, was the first to decide to come down. At 2:55 p.m., Hoxsey landed in an open field 25 miles east of Belmont Park and about two miles from Brentwood, Long Island. Even as Hoxsey landed, Johnstone did not come down.

Arch Hoxsey was one of the aviators to appear at both the 1910 Los Angeles and Belmont air meets. He was killed on December 31, 1910, in Los Angeles, while trying to better his own world altitude record.


As Johnstone reached an altitude he believed near nine thousand feet, within 200 feet of the world altitude record 9,186 feet, Johnstone knew he would not have the fuel to return to Belmont Park, so he concentrated on achieving the altitude record.

After his engine had been at full power for one and a half hours burning fuel at a high rate of consumption, Johnstone knew he better start down. The following afternoon, Johnstone recounted the story of the remainder of his flight. "Tell you what, boys," Johnstone said when he landed at Belmont Park, "It was just the mercy of providence that saved my neck. When I thought I was within touching distance of the new world's record I kind of forgot all about the wind and began to reach out for more height. Then I suddenly said to myself, 'Young man, you better see how much gas you've got.' It's the truth. I had just enough to turn over the two propellors. When I kept her nose up, the juice ran down into the engine and she coughed. The moment that I pointed down, I lost my fuel and she began to miss. I was not much scared until I got down to the earth and saw what a gale there was. Then I was frightened for fair. While I was tossing pennies with myself, the wind turned me clean around and landed me front end backwards. But that was just what saved me. If I had come down head first, the wind would have picked me up, tipped me over and smashed me to pieces.

Johnstone was also quoted in The New York Times on October 29th, 1910, concerning his flight. It sheds some additional information on the difficult landing that occurred at Middle Island. "Nothing but the lack of gasoline kept me from making a new world's record for altitude," he said, once he was back at the hangar at Belmont Park.

"I could have kept going up indefinitely had it not been for the fact that I might not have fuel enough to reach the ground. As it was, I just made it, and no more. The flight backward in that gale was the worst experience I have ever had in an airplane, although I found afterward that it wasn't half as bad up there as it was nearer the ground. I was driven back from the time I ascended. And soon, seeing that I couldn't get back to the field, I contented myself with trying to make a new mark for altitude. I was going up all the time, but presently I be thought myself of the gasoline. It was blowing like 60 and by looking below me where dust clouds were traveling along on the wind at 60 miles an hour, I realized to land I would need every bit of power my engine would produce. It was because of this that I began to look for a landing place. Finally I saw three fields beneath and behind me. I determined to drop into the first of them. I pointed the nose of my plane downward and was dismayed an instant later to feel my engine begin to miss. I was so short of gasoline that as the tank was tilted forward the gasoline ran down into a corner and refused to feed into the carburetor. I managed to keep the engine from stopping all together by every once in awhile straightening my craft out and letting the carburetor fill again, when I could descend once more until the gasoline which had accumulated was consumed. Then I'd straighten her out again and get a fresh supply in the carburetor. I might have done this until I made an easy landing, except for the fact that the wind was becoming more and more squally each moment, and I couldn't prevent myself sometimes from falling 200 or 300 feet. In some of these falls, I was deathly afraid that my engine would get so cold that when once again I should be able to straighten out and fill the carburetor, the engine would not respond. If it was located across Middle Country Road; which was the road adjacent to Artist's Lake. (K-Mart store now occupies the location).

The Patchogue Advance of November 4th 1910 described Johnstone's first moments after landing in Middle Island, "After landing and Without waiting to remove his goggles, he approached the nearest farm house and knocked on the door. The elderly lady who opened the door was naturally somewhat startled at the apparition. After Johnstone assured her that he was harmless and just a lost man, he was directed to the store of Edward Pfeiffer, where he had Pfeiffer quickly contact Wilbur Wright at Belmont Park and assure him of Johnstone's safety."

Due to Johnstone's remote location in Middle Island, reporters were unable to contact him after he had had Pfeiffer call Wilbur Wright. Reporters asked Wilbur Wright what Johnstone had told him about the incident.

"Incidents? There weren't any. It was just one straight forward progress, backwards. When they got up a thousand feet or more, they struck a wind blowing about 25 miles an hour faster than they could travel. I estimate that it must have been between 65 to 70 miles an hour. So they just drifted. hadn't, I guess I'd have landed in a heap.

As it was, I wasn't able to drop into the first field I had picked out, so fast did the wind blow me backwards. So then I aimed for the second one. This one, too, I missed and I realized then that if I didn't make the third field, I probably should alight on Middle Island itself and obliterate the whole village. There are only about three houses and a church there. However, I managed to drop into that last field. And I could tell you, it was my last chance for safety. For all around it were groups of trees and a patch of open was little more than four times the size of my craft."

Based on Johnstone's descriptions of the flight, one can interpret his landing at Middle Island two ways: Either he actually landed moving backwards or he landed downwind - it's difficult to ascertain which, due to the imprecise nature of Johnstone's description, "front end backwards."

Upon his rough and dangerous landing, Johnstone damaged two of his aircraft wheels and one of his aircraft runners.

Johnstone had landed near Middle Island, Long Island, 55 miles from Belmont Park. The small field he landed in belonged to Dr. A. N. Van Horn, and That's all there was to it. But I guess it's the first time in the history of aviation that anybody ever made a flight tail end foremost."

Johnstone had no trouble keeping the aircraft over night by covering it with canvas and tying it to trees. The following day, he brought his damaged wheels to Yaphank, six miles away, which was the closest location for his repair work. A local Middle Island boy repaired his damaged runner. Since an aircraft had never flown this far east on Long Island, any person within miles around who could made their way to Middle Island to see the aircraft. To quote the Patchogue Advance, "It was really a big day for our modest little community."

Johnstone's departure from Middle Island required some preparation. "I had an awful task starting today, however. There were so many trees that I had to chop a good many of them down before I could get room to go up in. Once off the ground I was all right." He was unable to acquire enough fuel at Middle Island to fly nonstop back to Belmont Park so he had to land near Pinelawn, Long Island to take on more fuel. The proprietor of the hotel in Pinelawn gave Johnstone some 700 postcards to drop on the way back to Belmont Park.

Upon his arrival back at Belmont Park, the grandstand, full of 20,000 people, cheered wildly as Johnstone flew low by the grandstand. But there was one more surprise from this historic flight of the day before. After landing, officials studied the sealed barograph that Johnstone carried on his flight to Middle Island. It disclosed that Johnstone had achieved a new American altitude record by climbing to 8,471 feet.

Ralph Johnstone crossing the finish line in air race, 1910.

On the last day of the International Aviation Meet at Belmont Park, October 31st, 1910, in an aircraft in which he had never flown before nicknamed the Baby Wright Roadster, Johnstone would set the world's altitude record by climbing to 9,714 feet. But this would be Ralph Johnstone's last record. Less than three weeks later on November 17, 1910, near Denver Colorado, while flying an exhibition with Arch Hoxsey and Walter Brookins, Johnstone performed his famous dangerous swooping spiral dive and pull up. The day before, his wing tip had been damaged on landing against a fence and had been repaired. But apparently the strain of the spiral dive and pull up caused the repaired wingtip to fail and crumble, sending Johnstone, who was fighting the controls right to the moment of impact, to instantaneous death. He was the first American aviation casualty since Lt. Selfridge's death on September 17, 1908. Ralph Johnstone was the second aviation casualty.

In the eight months that Johnstone had been flying, his daredevil aerial feats made him one of the foremost aviators in the world. There was no other aviator like him. He had the strength of a trained athlete and the intuitive sense of balance that made him the best vaudeville attraction in America when he was heading bills from coast to coast as a trick bicyclist. Three months before his death, Wilbur Wright described Johnstone: "The trouble with Johnstone is that he will never be content with equaling the achievements of a rival. He must always excel. There is no way of holding him in. orders mean nothing to him." Back of his disobedience of the Wright Brothers orders and his constant practice in the air of some startling feat, was always his bulldog courage and obstinate purpose that eventually made him the great aviator that he was.

A quote attributed to Johnstone at the beginning of his professional career in the summer of 1910 sums up his own beliefs: "There ate two kinds of aviators. There's Wilbur and Orville Wright. They
have developed these machines and they have flown in them many times. But neither of them will break any records in them. They are the creators of the machines. I am in another class. I find these airplanes ready to be used for my purpose just as I found the bicycle. I couldn't invent either a bicycle or an airplane, but I can use them, and use them better than the men who made them. Moreover, I can go on and on in discovering new methods of controlling and handling them, because I have the vaudeville performer's instinct."

Perhaps his "vaudeville performer's instinct" pushed him too far. Just three days before his final flight Johnstone was quoted one last time. "It's going to get me some day. It's sooner or later going to get us all. Don't think our Aim is the advancement of science. That is secondary and is worked out by the men on the ground. When you get into the air, you get the intoxication of flying. No man can help feeling it. Then he begins to flirt with it, tilt his plane into all sorts of dangerous angles, dips and circles. This feeling is only the trap it sets for us... the non-mankilling airplane of the future will be created from our crushed bodies."

When Ralph Johnstone died his widow was quoted in the Kansas City Times, "I never was worried about Ralph. He was so brave and careful. It seemed nothing could happen to him. I did not take into consideration a mishap to his machine."

Today, when I look up at a small airplane passing over head, my thoughts bring me to 1910 and that historic flight. When I see 747's make their way towards JFK, I think of Ralph Johnstone. For these are the non-mankilling airplanes Johnstone envisioned, and which were created from the crushed body of this early pioneer aviator, the first to fly over Eastern Long Island.

The fact that Ralph Johnstone set the American altitude record on this flight enhances its historical significance. I request the Town of Brookhaven and its associated historical societies to erect an historic marker near the location of Ralph Johnstone's landing. I further request the marker be erected on the eightieth anniversary of I his flight, October 27, 1990.

Written by,
Peter Kockenmeister
Airline Pilot, Northwest Airlines
Former USAF Instructor Pilot

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