Charles Hamilton pilots the first airplane in Washington on March 11, 1910.

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 4/09/2013
  • Essay 5423

On March 11, 1910, Charles K. Hamilton (1885-1914) takes off from The Meadows Race Track, located just south of Seattle, making the first heavier-than-air flight in Washington. Hamilton is touring the country as part of a nationwide tour sponsored by aviation pioneer and airplane manufacturer Glenn Curtiss (1878-1930). The air show in Seattle does not go well.

Previous Flights

In January, Hamilton performed at an air show in Los Angeles, and then piloted his plane over the Mexican border and back from San Diego. While in San Diego, he also flew a 3-minute moonlight flight over the Pacific Ocean, landing his plane at the polo field of the San Diego Country Club on Coronado Island. Afterward he traveled north for demonstration flights in Fresno.

In February, Al Crofton -- Hamilton's advance manager -- announced that the aviator would visit Seattle in March, following an exhibition in Portland. Tacoma boosters met with Crofton and asked if Hamilton could fly in their city, but were unable to schedule an appearance.

Before Hamilton's arrival, Crofton and others scouted sites in Seattle for the demonstration flight. They looked at the former Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition grounds at the University of Washington campus, as well as Madison Park and the Washington Park playfield, before settling on The Meadows, a racetrack located south of Seattle near where Boeing Field would be built less than two decades later.

Heightened Expectations

On February 27, Crofton signed a contract with the Western Washington Fair Association, which sponsored the air show and posted a heavy bond to insure the pilot. James Clise (1855-1939), president of the Fair Association, announced special rail and water excursions for those wishing to see the three-day air show, which was scheduled for March 12 to 14.

Meanwhile, Crofton regaled the press with tales of Hamilton's aviation prowess, including his feats of "hawking it 1,000 feet into the air and then dropping with hair-raising swiftness" and performing a "buzzard start," wherein the plane made a quick takeoff after a 100-foot rolling start. Crofton predicted that Hamilton would attempt to break the current altitude record of 4,300 feet, as well as fly to Mount Rainier and back from The Meadows -- a distance of more than 120 miles.

On March 7, Hamilton flew at an air meet in Portland where he performed what he called the "Hamilton Glide," a stunt in which he turned off the engine hundreds of feet in the air and glided the craft down to safety. This new maneuver came about by accident, when his plane's crankshaft broke during his performance in Los Angeles, and he silently glided his plane to earth. The audience thought he stopped the engine on purpose, so Hamilton added the powerless glide to his act. He promised to perform it at The Meadows.

First Flight in Washington

Anticipation for Hamilton's visit to Seattle was palpable throughout Puget Sound. Commanders of all local military installations planned on attending. The Fair Association received dozens of applications from women wishing to accompany Hamilton up into the air. William Harbeck (1868-1912), a Seattle motion picture producer who had filmed the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, planned on filming Hamilton's flight. The Bon Marche held a flying machine contest for young boys who built model aeroplanes.

The aviator and his craft arrived in Seattle by rail on March 9 to begin setting up for the big show. When Hamilton heard how many women wanted to fly with him he made no promises, noting that if he took one person up with him then everyone would want a ride. Hamilton also told the press that after seeing how far away Mount Rainier actually was, and how high it was, there was no way he was going to make a flight there and back.

On March 11, after his assistants had spent the previous day assembling his aircraft, Hamilton went to The Meadows to perform test flights. After looking over his Curtiss biplane -- a 550-pound craft with an eight-cylinder engine -- Hamilton calmly lit a cigarette, climbed aboard, sped down the racetrack, and took to the air. After twice circling the racetrack to the delight of a few onlookers, Hamilton swooped down and skimmed the surface of a small pond, washing the mud from his wheels before rising again. He made one more turn and landed the aircraft.

Up, Then Down

On March 12, more than 10,000 people descended upon The Meadows for the first day of the air show. They cheered as Hamilton took wing, but almost immediately went silent in awe of seeing the marvels of modern aviation. Hamilton twice circled the track, barely fifty feet above the ground, and then landed in the center of the field. He took off again, and flew in a wider circle, two to three miles across.

After his second flight the crowd was in frenzy. On his third flight he performed the "Hamilton Glide," shutting off the plane's engine at around 500 feet and then gracefully landing the craft in front of the grandstand. The roar of cheers and applause was deafening. Hamilton took to the air again, and that is when things went awry.

From about 500 feet, the aviator dove his craft toward the small pond, hoping to skim along it as he had done the day before. On his first attempt, his wheels didn't enter the water, so he circled around to try it again. This time, his wheels hit the water hard, flipping the plane over in a spectacular crash.

A Loose Wire

The audience gasped and screamed, thinking that the aviator had been killed. But Hamilton, who was beneath the wreckage, made his way to the surface and tried swimming for shore. Stunned from the accident, he yelled out "I can't make it," and several bystanders jumped into the cold water and dragged him out. He was quickly taken by automobile to Providence Hospital.

Fortunately his injuries were not severe; according to the press, he only suffered bruises and slight shock. From his hospital bed, Hamilton told reporters that on his second descent a wire had come loose on his plane and he was trying to tighten it before he reached the water. He wasn't able to accomplish this, and couldn't steer the craft as he had wanted.

Al Crofton, his manager, assured everyone that the aviator would be well enough to fly the next day, and Hamilton apparently agreed: "I'm as good as ever. My only regret in connection with the incident is the alarm caused to the spectators" (The Seattle Times, March 13, 1910). Meanwhile, mechanics were busy making repairs to the aircraft.

Engine Troubles

Buoyed by Hamilton's positive outlook, thousands showed up again on March 13 to see the plucky pilot perform in the air. His mechanics worked all night and into the morning to get the engine running again, but were having problems getting it to start. Hamilton arrived at the Meadows by car at 2:30, and the crowd cheered as he limped over to the aircraft. The calf of his right leg was swollen to twice its normal size, and he had also contracted a bad cold from his plunge into the water.

Everyone patiently waited as the men worked on the aircraft, but after an hour the crowd became restless. There was some excitement as the plane was pushed onto the track, but the engine still wouldn't start. More time passed, and occasional announcements were made to the grandstand that the show would start in just a few minutes.

Time dragged on, and by 5:00 most of the crowd started to leave. By 5:45, thousands had jammed the gates demanded a rain check for the next day's performance. The crush of the crowd was so great that two women fainted and one boy sprained his arm.

Hamilton was frustrated, but found the crowd to be good-natured, even though he "expected at any moment to get hit with a brick" (The Seattle Times, March 14, 1910). The engine was sent to the Olympic Motor Car Company's shop, with orders to fix it overnight no matter what the cost.

Bad Blood

Because so many rain checks had been handed out the day before, admission to the final day of the air show was free. Unfortunately, Hamilton only made two flights before engine trouble grounded him again. Seattle's first air show was a big bust, not only for the spectators, but for the promoters and performers who got in a three-way dust-up over money issues.

The Western Washington Fair Association withheld $3,000 from Crofton and stated that its contract was with him, but that the contract was canceled because it was not carried out. Crofton countered that he had a contract with Hamilton, and that the aviator broke that contract by not flying for three consecutive days. Hamilton responded that Crofton was the one who told the press that Hamilton would perform after his accident, against his own wishes. Hamilton had even received a telegram from Glenn Curtiss urging him not to fly if he was injured.

Less than three weeks later, Hamilton performed at an air show in Spokane. Al Crofton was nowhere to be seen.


"Leading Aviators Leave Los Angeles," The Seattle Times, January 22, 1910, p. 8; "Hamilton Crosses Mexican Boundary," The Seattle Times, January 25, 1910, p. 10; "Aviators Will Fly Over City in Two Weeks," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 27, 1910, p. 1; "Aviator Will Come to this City in March," The Seattle Times, February 25, 1910, p. 1; "Hamilton to Make Flight at Meadows," The Seattle Times, February 27, 1910, p. 9; "Aviator Hamilton to Come Here Wednesday," The Seattle Times, March 7, 1910, p. 3; "Aviator Will Dare Death in Aeroplane," The Seattle Times, March 7, 1910, p. 3; "Aviator May Come to Seattle Tonight," The Seattle Times, March 9, 1910, p. 12; "Aeroplane Trip to Mountain Not Feasible," The Seattle Times, March 10, 1910, p. 3; "All in Readiness for High Flyers," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 11, 1910, p. 2-1; "All Ready for Opening Day of Aviation Meet," The Seattle Times, March 11, 1910, pp. 1, 2; "Aviator Rises With Ease in First Flight," The Seattle Times, March 12, 1910, pp. 1,2; "Aviator Flying Over Them Gives Birds a Fright," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 12, 1910, p. 1; "Biplane Turns Turtle and Spills Driver into Pond," The Seattle Times, March 13, 1910, pp. 1, 2, 13; "Dips Biplane in Lake and Comes to Grief," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 13, 1910, p. 1; "Hamilton in Fine Fettle for Flights Today," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 13, 1910, p. 2-1; ""Great Crowd Disappointed by Hamilton," The Seattle Times, March 14, 1910, pp. 1, 2; "Thousands Wait in Vain to See Flights," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 14, 1910, p. 1; "Aviation Meet Ends Very Poorly," The Seattle Times, March 15, 1910, pp. 1; "Hamilton to Make No More Flights Here," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 15, 1910, p. 1.
Note: This essay replaces an earlier essay on the same subject. The current essay was revised on March 5, 2015.

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