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October 4: First Airplane Ride

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In 1905 on this date, Orville Wright piloted the first flight longer than a half hour. It lasted 33 minutes, 17 seconds and covered 21 miles. Five years later, Frank Kent, the Grand Forks postmaster, became the first airplane passenger in North Dakota when Archie Hoxsey, a member of the Wright brothers’ Flying Circus, made an appearance at the Grand Forks fairgrounds and took Kent up for a nine-minute flight.

Twenty-six-year-old Hoxsey, a colorful daredevil, also gave Teddy Roosevelt his first airplane ride on October 11th that same year, making TR the first president to fly.

Hoxsey and his teammate Ralph Johnstone were known as the "heavenly twins" for their attempts to break altitude records. They were stars of the Wright Brothers’ Flying Circus exhibition team, constantly trying to outdo each other in tricky maneuvers and in setting new records.

It was dangerous business, and that November Johnstone became the first American to die while piloting an aircraft. A poorly repaired wing collapsed during one of his high altitude attempts and he crashed near Denver.

Hoxsey continued on without his partner, trying to fly to higher and higher, and six weeks later, on December 26, 1910, he set an altitude record of more than 11,000 ft. Four days after that, in Los Angeles, as he tried to go even higher, his plane spun thousands of feet to the ground, ending in a fatal crash. Contemporary sources blamed mountain sickness, the harmful effects of attaining a high altitude. It’s also speculated that he may have been thrown from the cockpit as the plane spun. Early planes didn’t have seat belts.

Less than six months from their appearance in Grand Forks, both pilots were gone. The following year, after many more accidents and untimely deaths, the Wright brothers disbanded their team, but the lust for flight didn’t die with their Flying Circus. Fifty-eight years later, humans landed on the moon.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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