Saturday, January 16, 2016

Early flyboys flocked to Newport News, Virginia

When the airplanes of the Curtiss Flying School first took to the skies over Newport News Point on Dec. 29, 1915, there was no Norfolk Naval Air Station or Langley Field. 


A century after pioneering aircraft builder Glenn Curtiss opened a flying school at Newport News Point, it's hard to imagine the sensational impact his soaring planes and death-defying pilots had on both the aviation world and the local crowds who gathered to watch them.

A champion motorcyclist before turning to aeronautics, Curtiss already reigned as the "world's fastest man" when he stepped off a ferry at Old Point Comfort, checked into the Hotel Chamberlin and drove to his Atlantic Coast Aeronautical Station for the first time in early January 1916.

Soon his hand-picked airmen were tearing up speed, endurance and altitude records in the skies over Hampton Roads with the same audacity and ambition that made the New York speedster famous.

Little wonder that their feats showed up in newspapers around the globe — or that would-be aviators from a half-dozen countries began waiting in line for the chance to belt themselves into one of his legendary planes and take lessons from his elite pilots.

But as the first class of 30 made their baptismal flights, no one could have predicted the fame that awaited a young Newport News dancing teacher who had talked his way in among a throng of Canadians eager to join World War I.

Within weeks, Harold Marcellus "Buck" Gallop would emerge as a natural pilot and one of the first students certified in both flying boats and landplanes.

He would fly alongside other Americans in the French Air Service's famous Lafayette Escadrille, then for the U.S. Army's 90th Aero Squadron.

So colorful were Gallop's exploits in the air and on the ground that — long after the war's end — they inspired former American airman John Monk Saunders' Academy Award-winning script for the 1930 film "The Dawn Patrol."

"For Buck Gallop, it was all about adventure and excitement — and he was looking for a way to change his life," says aviation historian Amy Waters Yarsinske, author of "Flyboys Over Hampton Roads."

"So when he had the chance to learn to fly he stepped right into that role."

Giant figure

As Yarsinske notes, "No Hollywood casting director could have been so lucky" when it came to the star power of the pioneering airmen in Newport News.

After piloting a V-8-powered motorcycle of his own design and construction to a world land speed record of 136.6 mph in 1907, Curtiss joined renowned inventor Alexander Graham Bell to produce a series of technologically advanced airplanes that mowed down speed and altitude records.

By 1910 he was building his own planes at the nation's first aircraft factory in Hammondsport, N.Y., where he developed not only the Model D "pusher" that made the first successful flight from a ship off Old Point Comfort in November that year but also a landmark flying boat that won the first Collier Prize for Aviation in 1911.

Five years later Curtiss was back in Hampton Roads, where the 20-acre tract he'd purchased near the entrance to the Small Boat Harbor in Newport News provided a protected, ice-free harbor and relatively snow-free landing strip that enabled his pilots to test his latest planes year-round.

"Curtiss was a revolutionary — and his Newport News school was one of the pioneering centers in American aviation," Yarsinske says. "So for Gallop and the other students, it was like flying with Lindbergh before there was a Lindbergh. Curtiss was a god."

Legendary pilots

Born in Currituck County, N.C., Gallop was barely 20 years old when he hustled his way into an elite constellation of fliers nearly as renowned as Curtiss.

As a young man who had little to show for himself besides a long string of odd jobs and a stint in Newport News as a dancing instructor, it must have been like stepping into a world that was larger than life, Yarsinske says.

Among its brightest stars was Victor Carlstrom, a Wyoming cowboy who set record after world record in the skies over Hampton Roads before losing a wing and spiraling to his death from 3,500 feet 16 months after the station opened.

"He was the cream of the crop — the best pilot in the country," Yarsinske said.

"He had the swagger. He had the good looks. He had the records and the skills. He had everything you needed to turn the heads of other pilots."

Joining Carlstrom was Walter Lees, who commanded so much respect after nearly four years of faultless flying that station manager Capt. Thomas Baldwin — the dean of American balloonists — tapped him to teach headstrong William "Billy" Mitchell, the father of the Air Force.

Then there was Bertrand "Bert" Acosta, whose record-setting resume included a long string of fines and suspensions for flying too close to buildings as well as under bridges.

"These were the top pilots in the world," says Curator Randy Leisenring of the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, N.Y.

"And they were not just training pilots but also testing all sorts of experimental planes to see how fast, how high and how far they could fly. There was a lot going on in Newport News."

Life transformed

Even before their first flights on Dec. 29, 1915, Curtiss' stellar pilots generated a wait list of would-be students that numbered in the hundreds.

But while British-born international dancing star Vernon Castle bought his way into the first class with extra cash, it's harder to understand why Baldwin made a place for Gallop.

"He came with no pedigree," Yarsinske said. "Even his nickname came from doing all kinds of things just to make a buck.

"So there must have been a lot of salesmanship on his part just to get in — plus the promise to do a few odd jobs and become an instructor once he became a pilot."

But like his fellow dancer, whom Baldwin described as "a born airman" and "one of the most apt pupils I have ever seen," Gallop's well-honed motor skills and quick mind combined to make a standout student.

In addition to learning to fly the station's landplanes, he completed the separate course of instruction for flying boats, too, and after earning his Aero Club of America certification in July 1916 he went on to become the school's first American graduate to qualify for both intermediate and advanced flight training with the Army.

So well did Gallop do after joining the Army's pioneering 1st Aero Squadron that — like his good friend William Schauffler — he became one of the Air Service's "Dirty Five," a group of Curtiss graduates held in high esteem despite the lack of a West Point commission.

Both men later proved crucial to the distinguished record of the 90th Aero Squadron in France, with Gallop taking command of the first unit to fly the American flag over enemy lines after Schauffler was stricken by illness.

Busted repeatedly for flying after being grounded, Gallop won renown for his daring reconnaissance and combat patrols — and he had few equals when it came to his exploits after his missions ended.

Yarsinske describes him as "the war's most successful hell-raiser," while historian John V. Quarstein recalls how newspapers and newsreels across the United States celebrated Gallop and his fellow pilots as "the knights of the air."

"They all had that lifestyle," Quarstein said, describing the aura of daring and romance that surrounded the early fliers.

"Every time they went up into the air they put their lives at risk — and a lot of them died. But when they came back down all they wanted to do was party."

Historic impact

Even before America entered World War I, the military began sending the first of more than 1,000 men to follow Gallop's footsteps in Newport News.

The Navy came first, Yarsinske said, with the original graduates of "Naval Air Detachment, Curtiss Field, Newport News" flying across Hampton Roads and mooring their seaplanes on stakes while waiting on the construction of Naval Air Station Norfolk.

The Army arrived soon afterward, tapping the flying school as its principal aviation training station just days after Billy Mitchell completed his first flight lesson on Sept. 4, 1916.

Writing in his journal, instructor Walter Lees described the air power pioneer — who would later total his plane during his first solo flight — as "very erratic."

"One day he would be OK, and the next, lousy," Lees noted.

Still, by the end of 1916 the school's burgeoning success had led to a landmark step in its undoing.

The Army and the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics joined to purchase a 1,659-acre Hampton tract that Curtiss had previously considered, then turned down as too expensive for an expansion.

Though Langley Field began operating too late to have much impact on the war, Mitchell transformed it into the center of Army air power after his return from Europe, eclipsing his old school even before Curtiss closed it in 1922.

"He was so far ahead of his time that — when he opened the Newport News school in 1915 — the Army and Navy came to him," Quarstein said.

"But he made himself redundant."

Hollywood fame

Though Gallop was among the pilots stationed at Langley after the war, his military career didn't last.

Soon he was barnstorming across the country with a flying circus, Yarsinske said, and when he tired of that he tried capitalizing on his post-war and "Dawn Patrol" notoriety with a New York advertising job — then married and divorced the heiress to the Jergens hand-lotion fortune.

Along the way, Gallop became a soldier of fortune employed as pilot by a Chinese warlord.

He died in 1943 at age 48, his life shortened by hard drinking and the lingering effects of a stomach wound.

By then the original 1930 film directed by former Army aviator Howard Hawks and starring Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. had been remade, with Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone and David Niven playing the leads in the 1938 version.

Both films are regarded as classic portrayals of the romance and danger of early aviation, with daring heroes, vivid combat flying sequences and deadly sacrifice as well as the all-too-real excessive drinking that helped kill Gallop before his time.

"With all these larger-than-life personalities sharing the same stage, this was a great era," Yarsinske says.

"But there weren't very many of them in the beginning — and they often didn't last long. A lot of them lived hard and died young."

Story and photo gallery:  http://www.dailypress.com

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