A close encounter of the strange and unusual kind, or, How did Clara the cow meet a Curtiss biplane in Staten Island, New York City, New York

An infuriated Clara shredding the Curtiss biplane piloted by George F. Russell, Dongan Hills, New York, 10 September 1910. Anon., “La vache et l’aéroplane.” Le Petit Journal – Supplément illustrée, 25 September 1910, 312.

Back in 1989, during an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled Up the Long Ladder, when Captain Jean-Luc Picard, a Frenchman with a British accent (!! – Hello, EG!), walked into a cargo bay aboard the starship Enterprise to investigate a fire set by a group of lost colonists he had picked up, Patrick Stewart allegedly found the dialogue so hilarious that he began to laugh, albeit not too loudly. He actually turned his back to the camera to hide this lapse in concentration. When Jonathan Scott Frakes, in character, playing Commander William Thomas “Will” Riker, approached Stewart, still laughing and very much out of character, the latter improvised a phrase appreciated by many “trekkers”: “Sometimes you just have to bow to the absurd.”

And this is what yours truly suggest we do today, and…

What does this balderdash have to do with the wonderful world of aviation and space, you ask, my reading friend? Haven’t you seen the coloured and colourful illustration above, of a cow shredding an aeroplane? Sigh.

If I may be permitted a brief digression, more than a few people of Irish descent found the portrayal of the colonists in question profoundly insulting.

After seeing the aforementioned illustration in the 25 September 1910 issue of the weekly supplement of the Paris daily newspaper Le Petit Journal, yours truly wondered how a cow had a close encounter of the strange and unusual kind with an aeroplane. That story began in August 1910, when the Richmond County Agricultural Society hired a relatively novice 30 or so year old aviator to make daily flights at the annual Interborough Fair held at Dongan Hills, near New York City, New York. If George F. Russell managed to make the 6 flights mentioned in his contract, he would fly away with no less than $ 3 000 – a princely sum equivalent to approximately Can $ 110 000 (US $ 84 000) in 2020. The aviator informally agreed to circle the island of Staten Island every time he would take to the sky.

You may thrilled to read (see?), or not, that this was apparently not the first time that the good people of Dongan Hills had seen an aeroplane from up close. In 1909, Emma Lilian Todd, a co-founder of the Junior Aero Club of America and one of the very first women in the world to design a powered aeroplane, put her creation on display at the Interborough Fair. And yes, my reading friend, Todd was mentioned in a November 2018 issue of our you know what, but back to our story.

Like many (most?) aviators of his day, Russell never got a pilot’s license. He actually taught himself how to fly using the Curtiss biplane he acquired in the spring of 1910. This was not / is not how his aviation career had begun, however, no siree.

Russell claimed that he had acquired a Curtiss biplane in 1909, but added that he had to promise not to use it until 1911. To ensure that the budding aviator would keep his word, American aviation pioneer Glenn Hammond Curtiss, a cofounder of Curtiss-Herring Company and an American gentleman mentioned in October 2018, November 2018 and March 2020 issues of our yadda yadda yadda, sold him an aeroplane without an engine. Russell displayed his non-flying flying machine in department stores and theatres between 1909 and 1911. As a result, he allegedly raked in no less than $ 10 000 – an imperial sum equivalent to approximately Can $ 365 000 (US $ 279 000) in 2020.

According to another version of the story, Augustus Moore Herring, the second cofounder of Herring-Curtiss, sold Russell an aeroplane with a dummy engine. The aeroplane in question was apparently a copy of the Curtiss No. 1 Golden Flyer, the very first aeroplane designed by Curtiss after the dissolution of the Aerial Experiment Association, a very important American and Canadian organisation mentioned in several, all right, all right, in many issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since October 2018.

If these stories are true, Russell was the first individual to buy an aeroplane entirely designed by Curtiss.

Would you believe that Herring tested a powered aeroplane of his own design in October 1898? He may have covered a distance of 20 or so metres (65 feet).

As interesting, and profitable, as the presentation of an aeroplane might be, Russell wanted to fly. He therefore bought a fully airworthy Curtiss biplane in 1910. Soon after, Russell climbed on board his pristine acquisition, at an airfield near Mineola and Garden City, New York, and made a brief flight – a hop really. This first flight went well. Greatly encouraged, Russell began to make longer flights. Before too long, he may, I repeat may, have managed to remain more than 30 minutes in the air.

By the time the good folks of Richmond County Agricultural Society contacted him, Russell was still somewhat of a novice, a fact that may be ascertained from what he had been up to in July and August.

On 1 July, for example, near Mineola and Garden City, Russell was taxiing at high speed on the local airfield when he ended up almost under a biplane flown by Clifford Burke Harmon, a wealthy real estate developer and enthusiastic balloon / aeroplane pilot, which had just taken off. It so happened that Harmon had with him, in a perfectly honourable manner of course, Virginia “Birdie” Graham Fair Vanderbilt, the wealthy and smart spouse of wealthy yachtsman and automobile racing enthusiast William Kissam Vanderbilt II. Harmon was so concerned by Russell’s unpredictable shenanigans, which could endanger the safety of his passenger, that he promptly landed. In doing so, he inadvertently endangered that very safety. You see, Harmon alighted in an area of the airfield that several aviators had christened the graveyard.

On 8 July, again near Mineola and Garden City, as Russell, who was still learning the ropes, was about to land on the local airfield after a brief flight, he saw that the biplane designed and built by local aviator Frank Van Anden was out of its hangar. Worse still, he feared he might hit it. Russell immediately pulled up and cleared the obstacle, but not by much. He was also lucky to miss the wire fence erected around the airfield. Russell landed a tad hard. A couple of wires snapped on his aeroplane.

Sadly enough, Russell’s performance at the Interborough Fair, held between 5 and 10 September, was thoroughly underwhelming. On the first day, for example, in the late afternoon, the engine of his Curtiss biplane truly came to life after 2 misfires. The 4 000 people, both locals and New Yorkers, who had patiently waited were about to shout for joy when Russell landed after a rather short hop.

Russell allegedly remained on the ground for the remainder of the fair, much to the chagrin of its organisers and the public. As the days went by, said public even had to pay 10 cents to enter the holy of holies, a tent in fact, where the aeroplane was stored.

This underachievement was especially galling for the good folks of the Richmond County Agricultural Society, and Russell, given that, 3 days before the opening of the Interborough Fair, the aviator and his Curtiss biplane had remained 5 minutes in the air. Some of the people of Dongan Hills had seen him.

Worse was to come, however.

On 10 September, Russell took off from the grounds of the fair. One has to wonder if he did so before or after the gates closed. In any event, Russell landed in a nearby field, on a farm owned by one William Sinclair. It so happened that a cow named Clara was being pailed at that moment. The female Bos Taurus was so indisposed by this inopportune apparition in its immediate vicinity that it charged Russell’s aeroplane and seriously damaged it. The hapless aviator was not injured. Clara, who was also uninjured, was eventually driven away.

A brief comment if I may. Clara may, I repeat may, have been a Parthenaise, a French breed descended at least in part from the cattle which arrived in the Iberian peninsula in the footsteps (hoofsteps?) of the Muslim invasion of the 7th Century.

A brief comment on the previous comment if I may. The biplane in the illustration at the beginning of this article, which is supposed to show how Clara the cow had a close encounter of the strange and unusual with an aeroplane, is not a Curtiss biplane. It actually looks like a French Farman biplane of some sort. The clothing worn by the young woman on the right is also far closer to that of a stereotypical French farm girl than to that of a new world denizen. Still, the illustration is pretty dramatic – as were a great many of the colour illustrations found in the weekly supplements of daily newspapers like Le Petit Parisien and Le Petit Journal, published in Paris, France, before the First World War – and during that conflict.

Russell claimed or, in fairness, was said to have won several prizes in aerial competitions held in the early 1910s. Russell allegedly received one such prize from the vice-president of Cuba, Alfredo Zayas y Alfonso. And the truth was / is that he was one of the 4 members of the Curtiss aerial exhibition team involved in the first air meet held in Cuba, in late January and early February 1911. This aviation week was held to commemorate the 2nd anniversary of the 2nd Cuban republic. The 3 other members of this team were Lincoln J. Beachey, John Alexander Douglas McCurdy and James J. “Jimmie” Ward.

You may remember, or not, that Beachey was mentioned in a November 2018 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee. McCurdy, a famous Canadian aviation pioneer, on the other hand, was mentioned several / many times in that same you know what since September 2017.

The Cuban aviation week, held at the Campanente Colombo, at La Habana, Cuba, was a rather eventful event. On the first day, as he tried to avoid the crowd which had invaded the airfield, Beachey hit an automobile parked near the one in which sat a presumably startled Cuban president, namely José Miguel Gómez y Gómez.

The 4 members of the Curtiss aerial exhibition team flew on numerous occasions during the air meet, braving winds of up to 50 kilometres/hour (30 miles/hour). The crowds loved every second of every day of said meet.

A highlight of the air meet was the flight during which McCurdy went from the Campanente Colombo to the Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro and circled this huge 16th century fortress guarding the harbour of La Habana not once, but twice. The Canadian aviator thus won a $ 3 000 prize offered by the city – a princely sum equivalent to approximately Can $ 110 000 (US $ 84 000) in 2020. I can only presume that most of that moolah went to Curtiss Aeroplane Company, a new firm mentioned in a September 2017 issue of our yadda yadda yadda – or to Curtiss himself.

The main highlight of the air meet was, however, the flight from Key West, Florida, to La Habana, a staggering 170 kilometres (105 miles) odyssey and the longest overwater flight attempted thus far, that McCurdy attempted to complete on 30 January. A mechanical problem forced him to alight on the water, a perfectly performed emergency landing by the way, 15 or so kilometres (10 or so miles) from the coast. McCurdy was undoubtedly the hero of the La Habana air meet.

Russell may, I repeat may, have been involved later on in the testing of the hydroaeroplanes designed by Curtiss Aeroplane, which were the first practical seaplanes in the history of our world.

Even though Russell may, again, I repeat may, have made his last flight in September 1912, he may have sold his Curtiss biplane in August 1911. He gave up flying at the request of his spouse, who was concerned for his safety. Two of her relatives had just died, in non aeronautical circumstances, and she was quite upset.

George F. Russell and his air launched radio-controlled glide bomb, Hoboken, New Jersey, 1915. Anon., “Inventor Thinks Air Torpedo Will Revolutionize Warfare.” The Terre Haute Tribune, 14 July 1917, 5.

George F. Russell and his air launched radio-controlled glide bomb, Hoboken, New Jersey, 1915. Anon., “Inventor Thinks Air Torpedo Will Revolutionize Warfare.” The Terre Haute Tribune, 14 July 1917, 5.

Interestingly, a retired aviator living in Hoboken, near New York City, one George F. Russell, completed the prototype of a 70 to 90 or so kilogrammes (150 to 200 pounds) dirigible aerial torpedo, in other words an air launched radio-controlled glide bomb, during the summer of 1915. Your truly will go a limb here and put forward the hypothesis that this russellian gentleman and the one mentioned earlier were / are one and the same. Are you with me this time, if I may quote Alexander Pearce, one the main characters of The Tourist?

By the way, did you know that this somewhat disappointing 2010 American romantic thriller was / is a remake of a rather more satisfying 2005 French motion picture entitled Anthony Zimmer? Apologies, I digress. I am the Remington Steele of the Ingenium Channel – and if you do not understand that line, feel free to google it. Using expressions like movie fan or film buff might help. I’ll wait.

[Music of the American television game show Jeopardy playin’ in your noggin.]

Welcome back, my reading friend.

Usable in daytime or nighttime, thanks, in the latter case, to a light mounted in its tail, Russell’s missile, because that’s what it was / is, could allegedly travel a horizontal distance of about 3 metres, or feet, for each metre, or foot, of altitude lost during descent. In other words, if launched from an aeroplane flying 2 000 metres (about 6 600 feet) above the ground, a Russell aerial dirigible torpedo could cover a distance of 6 kilometres (about 3.75 miles) – which was pretty darn good for 1915.

Whether or not Russell actually tested his creation is unclear. For one reason or other, yours truly does not think he did so.

Even though he claimed to have first thought about his missile in 1911, Russell actually began to develop it after the onset of the First World War. Even though he stated that he would prefer to sell his weapon to the American military, Russell claimed to have entered into discussions with governments on both sides of the conflict, quite possibly France and the United Kingdom, on the one side, and the German Empire on the other.

Indeed, Russell claimed that he had shown the plans of his missile to a group of German-Americans, presumably during the late spring of 1915, to pique the interest of the German military.

Oddly enough, news reports referring to the development by said German military of some sort of electrically-propelled radio-guided missile which could be launched from a rigid airship appeared in American newspapers, and Canadian / Québec ones too (La Presse of Montréal, Québec, and Sherbrooke Daily Record of Sherbrooke, Québec, of 12 July 1915 for example), after popping up in a daily newspaper published in London, United Kingdom. Other news reports stated that the German military was attacking French fortifications near the front using some sort of unusually precise weapon.

Russell strongly denied having sold the rights to his invention to the German Empire. He did, however, claim that the German military had copied said invention. Russell may, I repeat may, have gone to Washington, District of Columbia, to make a formal complaint. To whom, yours truly cannot say. Indeed, I cannot confirm that Russell actually went to Washington. And yes, you are right. Russell’s invention was an unpowered missile, not a powered one. And no, yours truly does not think that the Germans copied said invention.

Would you believe that Siemens-Schuckertwerke Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung, a subsidiary of the German industrial giant Siemens & Halske Aktiengesellschaft, began to work on a glide bomb of sort, a torpedo-carrying glider to be more precise, in late 1914? The missile in question was electrically controlled through an unreeling steel wire. The torpedo was to be released on command as the torpedo glider got within range of its target. The first of many prototypes, seemingly an unguided one in that case, apparently flew as early as early 1915, which matched the date of the aforementioned news reports. Even though later test launches from rigid airships of the Kaiserliche Marine showed that the missile could be controlled at distances of up to 7 kilometres (almost 4.5 miles), this very advanced weapon was not used in combat, either from an airship or a very large aeroplane, but back to our story.

At the German embassy, the naval attaché, a Kaiserliche Marine officer, Frigate Captain Karl Boy-Ed, denied having heard of Russell’s aerial torpedo. For one reason or other, yours truly does not think that this smart, popular, funny and cosmopolitan insomniac was lying.

And yes, I do realise that Boy-Ed and the German military attaché, Captain Franz Joseph Hermann Michael Maria von Papen, were running a spy and sabotage ring at the time, a ring active in the United States and Canada / Québec. Boy-Ed and von Papen were in fact expelled from the United States in December 1915 as a result of these abominable clandestine activities.

As far as Canada was concerned, said activities included the planting of bombs which damaged the railway bridge across the Ste. Croix River, between Ste. Croix, New Brunswick, and Vanceboro, Maine, in February 1915, as well as the factory of Peabody Overall Company in Windsor, Ontario, a firm which was producing uniforms for the Canadian Militia and the Canadian Expeditionary Force, in June of that same year. It looks as if no one was hurt when the bombs went off.

Other projects put forward by von Papen and / or Boy-Ed collapsed before coming to fruition. Some of these were so completely ludicrous that one could argue that their spy and sabotage ring was one of sorriest farces in the history of 20th century espionage.

Von Papen, who was not the sharpest pencil in the box, besides being arrogant and pompous, left the United States with numerous steamer trunks filled with secret documents which named most if not all the people involved in the spy and sabotage ring, not to mention many German Americans sympathetic to the German cause. He thought that the safe-conduct granted by the American (and / or British?) government meant that he would not be bothered by the fools in the Royal Navy ships which had been blocking all trade to and from the German Empire since the onset of the conflict. I kid you not.

The Royal Navy officer who boarded the passenger liner von Papen was traveling on did not bother him alright, but he politely seized all the steamer trunks. The members of the spy and sabotage ring who had yet to be identified were soon arrested and put on trial. Many German Americans sympathetic to the German cause apparently suffered the same fate.

In the fall of 1918, near Nazareth, Palestine, von Papen seemingly skedaddled from an Osmanli Ordusu, or Ottoman army, camp about to be overrun by a British cavalry unit. Would you believe that this dutiful officer may, I repeat may, have been filing his papers when the heavens fell on his head? Von Papen seemingly skedaddled without grabbing, or destroying, a great many secret documents which included material connected to the 1914-15 spy and sabotage ring. Informed of the situation, someone in London allegedly replied: “Forward papers. If Papen captured, do not intern; send him to lunatic asylum.” I find this hard to believe, but then, who am I to question the absurd? Sir Patrick Stewart? And back to our glide bomb we go.

Russell’s missile was briefly put on display, in the fall of 1915, in the West Washington Market of New York City, in a booth operated by the National Security League, a military preparedness organisation founded in December 1914. By then, it had gained the support of Herschel Clifford Parker, a well-known American physicist and mountaineer involved in the first ascents of mountain peaks located in British Columbia and Alberta, between 1897 and 1903.

The Russell dirigible aerial torpedo was never ordered by the American military – or by the military of another country for that matter. This intriguing weapon was scrapped at some unknown date, quite possibly in the late 1910s or early 1920s.

Did yours truly remember to mention that it was one of several dirigible aerial torpedoes developed in several countries during the First World War? Sorry about that.

I hope that you this brief excursion into the wonderful world of aviation and space was mildly entertaining.

See ya later.

This writer wishes to thank all the people who provided information. Any mistake contained in this article is my fault, not theirs.

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Rénald Fortier