Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Early Bird, Part 3

Walter Brookins (at left) grew up in the same Dayton,Ohio, neighborhood as did Orville and Wilbur Wright, and he was taught at school by the Wright brothers' sister Katherine. "Brookie," from the age of 4, began tagging after the brothers, who promised to build him a plane when he grew up.

In 1909, Orville Wright made Brookins his first pupil, and he performed his first solo flight after only 2 and a half hours of instruction. He flew with the Wrights in exhibitions but soon began making a name for himself. On July 10, 1910, in Atlantic City, N.J., he flew to a height of 6,175 feet, a world record.

At about that time, Brookins, had established his own flying school in St. Louis, Mo., and one of his first students was DeLloyd Thompson, an auto mechanic from Washington, Pa., who, like Brookins, was 21 years old.

(Dutch Thompson at the controls of a Wright biplane, circa 1911)
Thompson was also a quick learner. He made is first solo in a Wright biplane on Aug. 6, 1910. It must have been at about that time that Dutch had his photograph taken at the controls of the biplane, his tweed cap tuned rakishly backward and his upper lip bare of the mustache that would later be his signature for the remainder of his life. And it was at this time that the Wright company agreed to participate in Washington's Centennial celebration Oct. 3-8 with six consecutive days of flying demonstrations.
On Sept. 22, the Washington Reporter announced: "Wilbur Wright and Ray Knabenshue, the famous aeroplane men, have selected a large tract of ground on the Washington and Canonsburg trolley line as an ideal aviation field, and they believe that with fair weather conditions they will be able to break some records during the six days they will fly. Walter Brookins, the young aviator who has accomplished so many sensational flights during the past few months in Atlantic City, Asbury Park and on other aviation fields, will be one of the star performers at the Washington Centennial."

The next week's papers were peppered with flying firsts, including Brookins' winning of a $10,000 prize for smashing the distance record with a flight of 187 miles. On the day Wilbur Wright and Brookins arrived in town, a local reporter gushed: "Mr. Wright is very unassuming. He is just an ordinary man, of course, and never boasts of his achievements. Mr. Brookins is a very young man, pleasant to talk to and is overflowing with aviation enthusiasm."

The Reporter of Oct. 4 described Brookins' first demonstration: "… as the youth at the levers circled about the field in gigantic figure eights the crowd cheered and applauded. Just before Brookins started on his return to earth the afternoon train of the Pennsylvania railroad passed the aviation field and the engineer appreciating the situation greeted the birdman with a long series of toots from his whistle. Every window of the cars was filled with eager faces watching the conquest of the air."

Whether Dutch Thompson returned with Brookins and Wright to his hometown for its celebration and watched these flights is not clear. In all of the articles that week about the demonstrations, his name is not mentioned. He was still an unknown.
But that was soon to change.

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