Winged Victory

"All those who see me, and all who believe in me, share in the freedom I feel when I fly."

A Runway 25 Miles Long: Daytona Beach 1906 - 1929

Part One - from the beginnings (1906) to Ruth Law (1913-1916)

The gasoline-powered automobile came to fruition in about 1896, with car inventors around the world bring out their models. In the United States, one of the very first pioneers was Ransom Olds (1864-1950) who founded the Olds Motor Vehicle Company in Lansing, Michigan, on August 21, 1897. The company was bought by Samuel L. Smith, a copper and lumber magnate, in 1899. The new company was relocated to Detroit, and renamed the Olds Motor Works. Smith became President, while Olds was installed as vice president and general manager.

In 1901 Olds designed the Curved Dash Oldsmobile which sold for $650.00 (and is considered to be the first mass-produced, low-priced American car, preceding Ford's Model T by seven years). Over 600 Curved Dash were purchased. In 1904, there were 5000 of these cars on the roads...and on the beaches...since there weren't a lot of roads in the United States at that time.

Once enough cars became available, from the Olds Motor Works as well as other manufacturers, it was only natural that their owners should start racing them. Since there was a dearth of roads, these races had to be held where they could...and one favorite place was on those coastal beaches where the sand was packed hard enough to allow cars to drive without hindrance.

Daytona Beach -- the beach rather than the town (and later city) was from 300 to 500 feet wide at low tide, and ran in a straight line for more than 25 miles. Washed twice a day by the ocean, the sand was invariably flat, smooth and as hard as cement.

The New Smyrna News. Friday, January 9, 1914

Newspaper reports on women aviators were invariably positive (as opposed to editorials), but the wording of even positive articles does reflect the chauvanism of the day.

Ruth Law is referred to as "the little miss" twice, and the author is careful to point out she is not yet a suffragette.

It therefore soon became the place for motorcycle and car races…and once the airplane had been perfected -- after 1906 -- for airplane races as well.

The Preliminaries: 1906-1910

The 1906 Auto Races
As an event held as part of the subsidiary entertainment at the 1906 Auto Races, Israel Ludlow, a successful New York lawyer and an aviation enthusiast, sent one of his gliders down, to be flown as an exhibition with Charles K. Hamilton, a "diminutive, and very jug-eared, redhead"as the pilot. Hamilton was launched into the Daytona Beach on January 17, 1906. Unfortunately, after only a few seconds in the air, a wing rib broke and the glider crashed. Hamilton was unhurt, however. Another flight a few days later would also end in a crash.

March 29, 1909
Carl Bates (1884-1956), an inventor from Chicago, Illinois who built several gliders, came to Daytona Beach, along with two friends, with a heavier-than-air craft that reputedly had a gasoline-powered engine and was equipped with elevator, three-point landing gear, an air-cooled motor, metal propeller and wing rudders, for some test flights.

A previous attempt not having daunted him, on March 29 Bates tried again, and this time his machine rose into the air and flew for 460 yards before crashing. According to an article Bates wrote for Aeronautics magazine, published in April, 1909, "the machine was on the average about 10 to 12 feet above the ground, but on one occasion rose as high as 20 feet."

However, there were insufficient witnesses to this achievement, and so Bates' was not recorded as the first man to make an airplane flight in Florida. (A photo does exist of Bates in his craft, lined up next to Louis Strang in his Buick racer, sometime during the auto races in March 1909. There's even a starter with his pistol raised high in the air. It is presumed that this was a staged photograph, however, as local papers do not report that such a contest ever took place.) (The first man to officially fly a plane in Florida was Lincoln Beachey, who flew over Orlando in February, 1910.)

Cars and planes share the beach

Yearly Aviation Comes to Daytona Beach

1911: First Sustained Powered Flight at Daytona Beach
Civic leaders and hoteliers in Daytona Beach decided to organize a flying exhibition to bring tourists to the area, and in February 1911, they signed Glenn Curtiss to a contract for $3,500. One of his pilots, John A. D. McCurdy, was to make three flights from the beach in March.

These flights turned out to be very successful, with hundreds of people lining the beach to watch them. Perhaps one reason why so many people came to see the flights was because of McCurdy’s fame. On January 30, McCurdy had taken off from Key West in an attempt to fly to Cuba, and win an $8,000 prize for so doing. (Prior to this, only Louis Bleriot had successfully completed an over-water flight, across the English Channel.) McCurdy didn’t make it to Cuba by air, being forced to ditch, but he did set two new records--the longest flight to date, and the world’s longest flight over water, approximately 90 miles. (McCurdy was picked up by the U.S.S. Terry, one of four U.S. torpedo boats stationed along his route to ensure his safety, and thus arrived in Cuba via ship.)

1912: Aviation Becomes a Yearly Staple at Daytona Beach
So popular had been the McCurdy flights in 1910 that entrepreneurs found ways to bring aviation back in 1911. The owners of the Clarendon Hotel, located right on Daytona Beach, hired a plane and pilot from W. Starling Burgess, to fly hotel guests during the 1912 winter season (January to April). (Hotels on the beach were only open during the winter season, when snowbirds from other states would come to Florida. Once winter season ended, the hotels closed and the staff would relocate to a hotel in the Adirondacks or in New Hampshire for the next season. In 1912, it must be remembered, the beaches were not wall to wall hotels like they are today, nor open year round.)

Burgess, who had designed yachts before turning to airplanes, supplied a Burgess-Wright airplane, and a pilot- Harvard graduate Phil Page. Burgess also had a hangar built, just south of the hotel. Burgess himself test-flew the plane five times on January 12, 1912.

The aircraft seated its pilot and passenger side by side on the bottom wing (no cockpits yet), and women wearing the ankle-length skirts of the period had those skirts cinched around the ankles with a strap to prevent them from blowing in the breeze (and thus was born the hobble skirt, a fashion that is actually still in vogue today (

Ruth Law and Mrs. Robert Goelet in a model "B" Wright airplane
at Daytona Beach. Notice they are sitting on the bottom wing, not in a cockpit.

1913: Ruth Law Flies Passengers At Clarendon Hotel
Pilot Phil Page did not return to the Clarendon for the next, 1913, season. Instead, his place was taken by aviatrix Ruth Law…thus making Ruth Law possibly the first woman to make her living in the profession of pilot (as opposed to those women pilots who participated in air shows and races, which weren’t really jobs, per se.)

Law’s husband and agent, Charles Oliver, signed the contracts, and for the next four years Law spent the winter season at Daytona Beach, not only flying passengers for the Clarendon, but also making exhibition flights. Law would fly two planes, a Wright aircraft for passenger flights, and a Curtiss pusher for the demos.

1915: Ruth Law and the Grapefruit
The Brooklyn Superbas (who would later become the Brooklyn Dodgers), had their spring training at Daytona Beach. To open the season, the tradition already was that a dignitary of some kind would throw a ball into the field from a seat in the grandstand. To open the 1915 season, Ruth Law was asked to fly over the field in her plane, and toss a baseball to the catcher - Wilbert Robinson (the Dodger manager, and “self-styled expert at snaring high pop flies.) [This news was mentioned on the front page of the Xenia Daily Gazette, Xenia Ohio, March 9, 1915.)

There are two stories about one happened next. One says that Law had not been given a baseball before she took off, so a mechanic handed her a grapefruit to use instead. She took off from the beach, flew over the field, and dropped the grapefruit down to Robinson. The grapefruit "tore through Robinson’s outstretched catcher’s mitt, thudded on his chest, and knocked him flat on his back," evoking a cheer from the crowd.

The other story is that Law had a passenger in her plane that day, and it was he who tossed out, first a grapefruit, then a baseball, which Robinson caught without incident. Not surprisingly, it’s the first story that was the more popular in the telling.

Two Hangars
By the time Law left Daytona Beach for good, there were two hangars on the beach for aviation activity, located in front of the Nautilus Casino, just north of the Clarendon Hotel.

Part 2 to be uploaded December 15, 2009


  • Thrills, Chills & Spills: A Photographic History of Early Aviation on the World’s Most Bizarre Airport—The Beach at Daytona Beach, Florida 1906-1929. Dick and Yvonne Punnett. Luthers. 1990.
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