Flying Machines Over Zion: Aviation Comes to Utah, 1910-1919
-- Introduction --
From the ten minute flight of Louis Paulhan in 1910, to the trans-continental air races of 1919, Utah aviation changed drastically in its first decade. Flying machines would come to Zion in 1910 aboard railroad trains, unassembled and accompanied by a large volume of spare parts, unable to fly more than a few minutes at a time. By 1919, large military warbirds were transiting across the country, using Utah as a refueling and rest stop along their route of flight.
The early aircraft used in the first half of the decade were simple, fragile structures. Made of bamboo and wire, with cloth fabric covering the control surfaces, the emphasis was on keeping the aircraft as lightweight as possible. The underpowered engines of the time were barely able to lift the airframe, much less the aviators or any passengers. Engines often quit inflight, and some had no throttles at all, running full power from start to finish.
Few of the original aircraft exist today due to their short life span before they crashed. They were hard to control, responding in a sluggish manner to the pilot's input, and were very susceptible to strong winds which turned and rolled the light machines. Stall speed was often within ten knots of the maximum speed of the aircraft, and most climbs were done in "steps", leveling off at intervals to regain speed for the rest of the climb. On the ground, the aircraft of 1910 had no brakes or steerable wheels, and very hard tires, often making the takeoff and landing periods as entertaining as the flight itself. Flying the early aircraft was an adventure, often ending in death. In 1911, almost one hundred aviators were killed before the year was over, a rather large number when one considers the few aircraft that existed.
By the end of the first decade of flying in Zion, airplanes were using 450 horsepower engines and traveling at speeds of over 140 miles per hour. The aircraft of 1919 were almost entirely designed for the military in World War I, and had proven their worth under extreme conditions in Europe. Instruments such as the compass and altimeter were common, and pilots performed a variety of stunts in several different aircraft. Biplanes were still the design of choice at the end of the decade, but they were not the same species as those in 1910.
Aviation among the people of Utah began with a brief airshow in January, 1910, and continued to consist primarily of aerial exhibitions until America entered World War I in 1917. Throughout the War, civilian flying was banned, and Utah's interest in aviation continued through the pilots sent to fly in the Aviation Service. When they returned in 1919, a few of these experienced aviators organized a local flying company and began daily operations of a barnstorming nature in Salt Lake City. At the end of 1919, aviation in Zion was leaning toward the future, planning a new airfield, and preparing for the airmail business that would soon have its first transcontinental applications, and would dominate Utah aviation for the entire decade of the 1920's.
Aviation's start in Utah is really a result of the Los Angeles Air Meet of 1910. At this event, Glenn Curtiss flew the first aeroplane in the western United States, with several hundred thousand people watching. As it was an international competition, the daily results of the Air Meet were sent out around the world, and read by millions of people. Salt Lake City officials read the newspaper accounts of the Los Angeles Air Meet, and knew that if they could entice an aviator to perform in Utah, thousands of people would pay to see a flying machine, and the newspapers around the world would provide free advertising for the city by printing the daily news of the events.
City officials decided to recruit a young French pilot and his flying team performing at the Los Angeles Air Meet. While the Wright brothers worked in secret to prevent theft of their discoveries, the French had worked quickly to surpass other countries in aviation. To the French, the aviator was a national hero, a daredevil who instilled "aviation fever" in crowds of thousands. The pilot Salt Lake City officials sought to recruit was Louis Paulhan, a fourth-place finisher at the 1909 Rheims, France Air Meet, and the star of the Los Angeles exhibition. Paulhan, given the title "King of the Air" by the press, set a new world altitude record in Los Angeles, and made many enemies of American pilots with his daring stunts and reckless antics. Following the Los Angeles airshow, Paulhan performed in San Francisco for a few days, then boarded a train for his next stop, Salt Lake City. The "King" was bound for Zion.