Walter Brookins’ pulse raced as his Wright Model B biplane climbed.
The date was July 9, 1910 — two days before his 21st birthday — and he had just become the first aviator to fly more than a mile high.
Brookins was 6,175 feet above the throngs of spectators gathered for the 1910 AeroMeet on Atlantic City’s Boardwalk, piers and promenades when the aircraft’s 30-horsepower motor sputtered and died.
Now the ground was rushing up as he struggled to control the plane, with only the wind to keep him aloft. Spectators gasped in shock and amazement as the plane plummeted toward the beach.
“What affected me most on the aerial journey was the splitting headache which attacked me when I was at the highest point in the air,” Brookins, the first pilot trained by the Wright brothers, told a newspaper reporter after a day of recuperation from the tremendous gravitational forces exerted on him. “The descent was so rapid that I can say I never made faster time in my experience.”
A subsequent attempt by Brookins at the AeroMeet to place the record even higher was foiled by a gasoline failure. But the estimated 100,000 people who traveled from across the region for the eight-day air show had plenty of other spectacles — records were also set for the fastest flight and the longest flight over water — to take in as pilots tested the limits of their airplanes.
The marvels of that week in July helped make Atlantic City an aerial resort; the resort would become uniquely entwined with the growing industry. From the first passenger flights in the 1910s to the next generation of air traffic control in the 2010s, the region has played a pivotal, but largely unheralded, role in aviation.
While “aero meets” appeared across the country in 1910 in places such as Boston, Indianapolis and Los Angeles, Atlantic City provided aviators with a unique venue to demonstrate a technology most Americans had only read about. Local historian Boo Pergament, 80, of Margate, said Atlantic City’s built-in audience — it was already a thriving resort — and wide-open beaches meant the largest audience possible for these feats of aviation.
“People thought it was a fad, like a hula hoop,” Pergament said. “These guys were trying to prove it to the world — they had the insight when most people didn’t.”
The resort’s proximity to three of the largest U.S. cities at the time — New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore — also made it an ideal location for the development of aviation for commercial flight.
Aviation captivated the imagination of the entire country, regularly making headlines in Atlantic City’s papers for decades after the Aero Meet. A number of those stories — from the first attempted trans-Atlantic crossing by a dirigible in October 1910 to the 1933 explosion of the USS Akron helium-filled airship off the coast — originated in the Atlantic City area.
“The whole country was becoming aviation crazy,” said Richard Porcelli, the Barnegat Township author of a recent book about Naval Air Station Atlantic City. “Pilots were the rock stars of their time. The opportunity to see them in Atlantic City must’ve been a tremendous draw.”
And that draw, Porcelli said, wasn’t lost on the city’s resort tycoons. The Atlantic City Aero Club raised the $26,000 costs of the AeroMeet from donations by businesses and private individuals; the sum equals $600,000 today in inflation-adjusted dollars. In a plea for additional funding before the meet, they mentioned the show’s benefits to Atlantic City, including “greatly increased patronage.”
“It’s related to a combination of the city fathers and hotel owners trying to stimulate a public interest in something they can say is Atlantic City’s own,” he said.
Porcelli said hotels used aviation events to draw tourists, even after the event.
Brookins, who was backed by the Wright brothers, wasn’t the only high-profile pilot to compete at the AeroMeet. Glenn Curtiss, at 32, had already gained notoriety as an innovator of airplane engines who had set motorcycle and airplane speed records. Unlike Brookins’ plane, which relied on a slingshot mechanism for take-off, Curtiss’ self-engineered plane could take off and land on the beach using wheels.
Curtiss would set a speed record of 38.5 miles per hour for a 50-mile flight at the AeroMeet, but his most famous demonstration would highlight the airplane’s potential as an instrument of war.
On the last day of the airshow, Curtiss strafed a yacht anchored offshore, and photographers on shore, with orange “bombs.”
“The bombs descended too rapidly for (the photographers) to get a good focus and they were crushed into pulp when they came into contact with the beach,” said a newspaper report of the demonstration.
William Albert Jones, a retired U.S. Engineering Corps colonel, told reporters that he was excited by the prospect of using airplanes against “hostile fleets.”
“It will take target practice to develop marksmen who can hit the deck of a ship with precision, but it can certainly be done,” he said.
The orange bombs foreshadowed Atlantic City’s long history with military aviation, starting in 1942 with the construction of Naval Air Station Atlantic City on old wetlands in Egg Harbor Township; it is now the site of the FAA’s William J. Hughes Tech Center and Atlantic City International Airport.
Less than a year later, Curtiss returned to Atlantic City to open a sightseeing business using the “flying boats” he had developed. He would also eventually open a passenger flight service between New York City and Atlantic City. His hangar — along with a number of competitors who sprung up after him — was located along Maine Avenue, with sea planes taking off directly over Absecon Inlet.
In 1919, Atlantic City would open its first municipal airport, which would later be named Bader Field after Edward L. Bader, Atlantic City’s mayor from 1920 to 1927. The airfield was the first “airport” in the nation, a name given to it by its founder, Henry Woodhouse, an aviation enthusiast and promoter of the Atlantic City Aero Club, the same group that sponsored the 1910 AeroMeet.
The seaplane even served a vital role in the illegal alcohol trade during Prohibition, said local historian Donald Nyce, 79, of Egg Harbor Township. Nyce said his father had taken part in a few deliveries, transporting the liquor by boat to establishments around the back bays.
Because authorities had virtually no ability to stop the planes as they entered U.S. waters, seaplanes were used to offload cargo from “Rum Row,” a flotilla of schooners that sat off the East Coast full of liquor from the Caribbean and Europe.
“The Coast Guard couldn’t touch them,” Nyce said.
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