When the news broke of Orville and Wilbur Wright’s monumental flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903, it sparked the imaginations of inventors and daredevils across the country and kicked off one of the most important technological revolutions in recent history. Man had reached the skies before in hot air balloons, gliders, and dirigibles, but only for relatively short trips. The Wright brothers achieved something no one else had before—sustained and controlled flight in a heavier-than-air machine. Their success opened the door to others who wished to fly. Maryland’s first aviators, or birdmen as they were known in the early days, faced risk and ridicule to conquer the skies. Of this courageous and enterprising group, Charles F. Elvers and Howard W. Gill were the first to take to the air.
The Wright brothers’ success inspired a young Charles Franklin Elvers to begin experimenting with flying machines of his own design. Elvers filled notebooks with sketches of gliders, kites, and planes, and built and tested different airplane models which he flew like kites to see how they reacted in the wind. In 1909, he took a trip to New York City to examine the Glenn Curtiss plane which was on exhibit in a department store window. The plane had made successful flights in both the United States and France. Elvers carefully studied the aircraft and took what he learned home to begin work on his own plane.
Elvers first converted a glider into a plane by adding a motorcycle engine, skids, and a small propeller. His contraption was nicknamed the “Undertaker’s Pet.” The glider flew but was prone to crashing, and after a few flights, all that was left of Elvers’ glider was the engine. Undeterred, Elvers sold the engine to buy Norway birch lumber to begin building a real airplane. He set up shop at his father’s farm in Owings Mills and began construction, handcrafting all of the pieces and parts out of birch, spruce, bamboo, and assorted re-purposed materials from cars, motorcycles, and bicycles. The wings consisted only of stretched cotton slathered with linseed oil. A local cabinetmaker carved the propeller. The end product was a plane that weighed a mere 870 pounds, had a wingspan of 32 feet, and ran on a 27 horsepower engine.*
On October 22, 1909, Elvers’ plane was ready for its inaugural flight. He wheeled the plane out to a field with the help of a few friends, hopped in, put on his motorcycle goggles, and started the motor. It immediately sputtered and died. After some furious tinkering with the carburetor, the motor roared to life. Elvers signaled to his friends to remove the blocks from behind the wheels and let go of the wings. After taxiing around the field to ensure that everything was in working order, the plane finally became airborne.
Unfortunately, the trip was disappointingly brief. With a small crowd of nervous spectators gathered below, the plane quickly returned to earth. Elvers would later write: “I was sure of only one thing: I was going to come down. . ..It happened sooner than I expected. After soaring for 100 feet, I felt the plane lose its 20 feet of altitude. I pulled back on the wheel and landed, wobbling crazily. The handful of people cheered. I had flown.” (1) He had successfully completed the first flight in the state of Maryland.
The next day, Elvers took four more trips, with varying degrees of success. His longest flight was about half a mile, but ended in a crash. He was able to rebuild his machine within a few months, but another wreck ended his aviation career. His father, understandably more concerned with his son’s well-being than technological innovation, banned him from flying. Elvers dutifully gave up piloting, but he never lost his interest in aviation, becoming involved in the work of Maryland’s other aviation pioneers.
Howard Warfield Gill, began work on his airplane around the same time as Elvers. Like Elvers, Gill was excited by the Wrights’ achievements and began to build his own airplane. Gill had already proven himself a daredevil as a race car driver. He was also an experienced balloonist and was eager to try flying in a heavier-than-air machine. Gill shared Elvers’ courage, ambition, and lack of flying experience, but had more technical know-how than Elvers, having worked in his father’s auto garage.** He also had deeper pockets. Gill was born into a well-to-do Baltimore family and was already a successful businessman by the time he became interested in aviation. He opened a successful car dealership after dropping out of school, and these profits and a large inheritance from his father Martin funded his aviation hobby. Gill set up shop in his garage in Mount Royal and worked intently on his plane. His peers felt he was wasting his time and money, and that airplanes would never catch on, and Gill was essentially laughed out of town for his efforts. The story goes that he indignantly packed his plane into crates and shipped it to California, where businessmen were offering $75,000 in prizes at an air meet near Los Angeles.
Gill entered the Los Angeles International Air Meet, held at Dominguez Field from January 10 to 20, 1910. Some of the most famous aviators attended with their flying machines, including Glenn Curtiss and Lincoln Beachey. Two years prior, Beachey brought his dirigible to Baltimore. He awed crowds by flying his balloon over the Electric Park and beating a car in a race to downtown Baltimore all while tossing money and free passes to the amusement park from his airship to the gawkers below.
Gill’s decision to compete in the air meet was probably a foolish one. He had never flown a plane before, and now he was competing against some of the most accomplished birdmen in the world. It was decided that his friend, co-builder, and Lincoln’s brother, Hillery Beachey, would pilot the plane, even though he also had no flight experience. It did not go well. In a test run, the engine backfired and set a wing on fire. When they finally got the plane back in the air, it quickly fell out of the sky. Undeterred, they fixed it once again. Things finally seemed to be going according to plan for Gill and Beachey on January 19, the second-to-last day of the meet: the plane traveled nearly two miles and Beachey was poised to win the race. Then, once again, disaster struck. Beachey had to dive to avoid a collision with another plane and wrecked spectacularly. He walked away relatively unscathed, but the same could not be said of the plane.
After the meet, Gill rebuilt his craft and continued to experiment with new types of planes. He also taught himself how to actually fly a plane, and was soon competing in races and air meets with mixed success, as he, like many of the new airmen, sustained many wrecks. Nonetheless, he became well-respected in the aviation field and eventually went to work for Orville Wright, impressing the famous aviator with his quick command of the different Wright aircrafts. He flew in races and meets to exhibit the Wright planes and was a crowd favorite—his daring and often reckless flying style and affable personality made him a household name. When he wasn’t competing, Gill helped to establish flight schools under the Wright name in Los Angeles and St. Louis. He and his business partners also established a company to produce airplanes, but it eventually folded due to the partners wide ranging interests.
Some accounts credit Gill with being the first Marylander to fly, but Elvers clearly beat him into the sky with his homemade flying contraption. The confusion may stem from the Los Angeles air meet, as Gill was listed as the pilot in the program. However, the meet took place several months after Elvers’ flight, and there is no evidence that Gill flew his plane before the meet. He had piloted hot air balloons for several years, but not a heavier-than-air craft. However, Gill’s pioneering attitude and his contributions to the aviation field cemented his reputation as a birdman. Gill is also credited with an international first: snapping the first aerial photograph.
Gill achieved another, albeit tragic, first—he became the first man to be killed in a mid-air collision when he collided with French aviator George Metasch during a race at an air meet in Chicago on September 14, 1912. All of the controls of Gill’s biplane were torn away in the collision, sending the plane hurtling to the ground. The impact threw Gill from his plane and broke his back. He died on his way to the hospital.
The race occurred late in the day and it had already begun to get dark when the competitors started the event, which may have contributed to the crash. Metasch had voiced objections to the race, because it involved different styles of airplanes: his monoplane versus Gill’s Wright biplane. Accidents on the air field were all too common, and many of the greatest airmen lost their lives while pursuing their dangerous career. Faulty planes and pilot inexperience were the principal cause of wrecks. In the interests of profits, promoters would also jam pack event schedules and force pilots to fly in perilous conditions.
Unlike so many of his cohorts, Elvers left the aviation field before it could claim his life. He led a successful and varied career away from the air field, eventually becoming a pathologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He did put his life at risk again in World War I when he served with the Hopkins Base Hospital No. 18 unit in France. The unit provided surgical care near the end of the war. Elvers also developed a keen interest in archaeology and anthropology. He excavated and studied American Indian tribal sites in the Western United States and was appointed the curator of archaeology at the Maryland Academy of Sciences.***
Maryland’s aviation history is peppered with notable birdmen and their achievements. Elvers and Gill were just the first to take on the challenge of flight. Others continued their brave and pioneering work and spawned an industry that supported the state for many years. (Lara Westwood)
*In contrast, a Cessna 172, a modern four-seater plane, has a similar wingspan, but weighs more than twice as much and has a 180 horsepower engine.
**Gill’s father had another Maryland first, as he imported the first car to the state in 1897.
*** Elvers created an “Indian Room” at the museum filled with artifacts he had excavated. One such artifact is frequently cited in alternative theories on the development of civilization. In 1936, Elvers discovered a pendant that supposedly had Sumerian markings at Pueblo ruins near Gallo Canyon in New Mexico.
Sources and Further Reading:
(1) Elvers, Dr. Charles F. “I Remember When… I Built Maryland’s First Plane.” Sunday Sun, June 25, 1950.
Cooper, Ralph. “Howard Warfield Gill, 1883-1912.”
Edward, John Carver. “Howard Gill: Baltimore’s Privileged Birdman.” In Orville’s Aviators: Outstanding Alumni of the Wright Flying School, 1910-1916, 41-60. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 2009.
“Howard Gill’s Death is Great Loss to Aviation.” Aero and Hydro: America’s Aviation Weekly, August 5, 1911.
“Indian Rooms Opening At Academy of Sciences.” Baltimore Sun, April 24, 1938.
Kidd, Travis. “The City And The Plane Are Old Friends.” Evening Sun, April 12, 1962.
McBee, Avery. “Baltimore’s Early Birds—They Flew!” Baltimore Sun, July 16, 1939.
Rasmussen, Fred. “Remember When City watched land-and-air race Contest: In 1908, a balloonist challenged a motorist to see which one would make the Northwest Baltimore- to-downtown round trip faster.” Baltimore Sun, Novenber 16, 1997.
Smithsonian National Air and SpaceMuseum. “The Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Aerial Age.”
Swann, Mark. “Baltimoreans pioneered in aviation.” Baltimore Sun, May 20, 1928.