Adirondack Birdman

by Richard E. Tucker | History, October 2018

photograph from the Adirondack Research Center at the Saranac Lake Library

The fantastic tale of aviator George A. Gray

As the sun
was setting on October 2, 1912, a half-frozen George A. Gray successfully landed his Burgess-Wright Model B biplane in a level field of grain stubble about 100 feet from a small house and a large barn. It was the first suitable landing place he saw after descending through the clouds and fog that had obscured everything below. He had no idea where he was. He had been lost, he was exceedingly cold and his plane had a fuel leak. It had not been a true emergency, but it had been close.

Upon landing, he was quickly surrounded by the property owner—referred to as Farmer Martin in contemporary newspaper accounts—and three or four of his children, all excited to see a flying machine unexpectedly descend from the clouds. Gray switched off the gasoline to save what he had left (and to avoid the possibility of a fire) and apologized profusely for the fright he had given them. Martin said he was glad that Gray had landed safely, and that it was a thrill to have an airship at his farm. He invited Gray into his house to warm up.

Gray learned he was near Bloomingdale, a disappointment. He had been headed for Saranac Lake, eight miles to the south. He asked to use the telephone and was told there was one at Whiteface Farm Cottage—known as the Fletcher Farm—a private cure facility for tuberculosis, only a quarter-mile away. Martin took him there in his buggy.

When the door opened at Fletcher’s, an excited Sarah Rogers, owner-manager of the sanatorium, asked Martin whether he had seen the airship that had gone by her place only a bit earlier, very low at a fantastic rate of speed. She feared he had crashed somewhere in the woods. Martin allowed that the man standing beside him was the pilot of that airship and that he had landed safely in Martin’s own field. “Thank God,” she said.

Her phone had been ringing constantly for the past hour and a half, a man from Malone wanting to know if she had seen or heard anything of an airship. Gray immediately called his mechanician, J. Chauncey Redding, to tell him that he had not crashed, and to come to Martin’s farm near Bloomingdale early the next day with the crew, the automobile, the toolkit and spare parts.

That business taken care of, Gray and Martin returned to the field, where Gray secured the aeroplane for the night. Meanwhile, John Rogers, Sarah’s husband, hitched up the teams and brought two wagonloads of very excited people from Fletcher’s to see the airship before it got too dark. George Gray was not known for his patience or his verbosity, but he spent quite some time explaining how it worked and answering dozens of questions. The Burgess-Wright Model B was a two-seat, open-cockpit “pusher,” meaning its two propellers, engine, fuel tank and drive train were located behind the seats. Pilots, rarely strapped in, steered the plane by warping the wood and canvas wings with lever-operated cables.

The next day in full daylight, Gray realized that Martin’s field was too short for a takeoff. Upon hearing this, Martin generously took down some fences, trimmed a few trees and loaned a horse to tow Gray’s biplane to Fletcher’s, where there was a bigger field.

Thirty-year-old George A. Gray was at the time one of the earliest licensed aviators in the U.S.; he had graduated from the famous Wright Flying School in 1911. He was an independent exhibition flier, a barnstormer, though one with creditors, and he had to keep flying to pay the bills.

In the spring of 1912, Gray had found a backer to finance him and signed a lease for the biplane for $500 per month, payable in advance with the posting of $1,000 to cover any damages. (In today’s dollars, that’s about $12,000 per month with $24,000 to cover damages.)

He set out as a barnstormer, providing flying exhibitions under contract at various venues. Except for an exhibition in Maine, when he landed his newly leased Burgess-Wright in a tree that had to be cut down to retrieve the plane, his flying career seemed to be off to a good start.

He ran into trouble in Montreal that September. There, the newspapers had hyped up his exhibition for days and a huge, enthusiastic crowd came for the show. Then the engine on his aeroplane refused to start. The crowd turned ugly, rushing him and tearing into his airplane. Fortunately, some policemen came to Gray’s aid, protecting both him and his plane. The next day the newspapers called him a fraud, a fake; they essentially ran him out of town.

Before leaving Montreal, Gray discovered that the Franklin County Fair in Malone was looking for entertainment. He contacted them and arranged to fly two exhibitions each day on Wednesday and Thursday of the following week. Any other flying would be done under his own arrangements at $25 for a five-minute flight.

To save money, Gray rented an automobile to tow his plane from Montreal to Malone. (Flying wasn’t advisable; in the infancy of aviation, a trip of that length would have required much more time to plan.) But the roads proved impassable with his biplane, so he returned to Montreal, secured a special railroad car and sent the biplane ahead by train. When Gray arrived in Malone, he discovered the struts on his plane had been damaged in transit. By the time he got them fixed, it was Wednesday and raining and that day’s flights had to be canceled. He had just lost half of his expected income.

The next day the weather cleared and he flew several circuits low over the fairgrounds, wowing an estimated crowd of 35,000. Then, upon landing, he caught a wing tip and broke some struts, forcing a cancellation of the rest of his exhibitions while repairs were made. The repairs were done by Sunday, the last day of the fair, but the weather had taken a turn for the worse—dumping snow and heavy rain on the fairgrounds. Flying was impossible.

Still, luck was with him. William “Caribou Bill” Cooper, an entrepreneur from Saranac Lake, approached Gray about flying exhibitions and passengers in that village. For some 20 years Caribou Bill had delivered the mail in the Yukon and in Alaska, in the process becoming a renowned long-distance dogsled musher. Now he had set himself up in the movie-making business in Saranac Lake.

Gray gave him a price for a day’s exhibition flying, plus expenses for himself and his crew. Cooper, for his part, promised use of the Saranac Lake racetrack—on Route 3, where BOCES is located now—and publicity, asking only that Gray grant him exclusive filming rights. Gray accepted the deal, having no other prospects until the Clinton County Fair in Plattsburgh, which was still many days away. Only then did he realize the special railcar that he had used to get his biplane to Malone was already gone. Undaunted, he acquired some maps and studied the terrain to determine whether he could fly there.

At 5:05 p.m. on October 2, against the advice of everyone—including his own chief mechanician—Gray took off, circling low and slow over the village of Malone, thrilling everyone who watched. They did not realize it, but Gray was actually warming up his engine and giving it a thorough test before heading the 47 miles south, following the railroad tracks.

All went well until he encountered a stiff headwind and cross-currents in the narrow gap between the Loon Lake Mountains to the west and Lookout Mountain to the east. He began to have trouble controlling the aeroplane. The connection to his gasoline tank had also begun leaking and he was losing a fair amount of his fuel. He wrapped his handkerchief around the connection to slow it down.

To avoid the cross-currents, he circled and climbed until he estimated he was at 5,000 or 6,000 feet. He had no altimeter or other gauges, nothing but his wrist watch and a small piece of map with his route penciled on it tacked onto his control lever. He was lost in the clouds, but since his plane would only go 45 miles per hour at full speed on the level, he felt he would have enough time to see and avoid any approaching mountains.

Gray was becoming increasingly cold as he flew higher and the light was diminishing as dusk approached. He thought he saw a small white patch below him through the clouds, though it looked far too small to land on. As he got closer, he saw it was the rocky summit of a very high mountain (Whiteface, though he did not know that at the time). He descended gradually in half-mile circles until he spied Martin’s field.

A fierce wind the following day made flying impossible. But word had spread like wildfire, and a crowd descended on Fletcher’s to view the birdman and his flying machine. Even 87-year-old hotelier Paul Smith motored out from his resort.

It wasn’t until five p.m. on Friday that Gray could finally take off. After landing at the Saranac Lake racetrack, the biplane was pushed into a tent provided by Caribou Bill. A guard was placed outside. This was partly a marketing ploy—Cooper and Gray had agreed that they would charge one dollar per person to view the airship up close. It was also a matter of security. Gray had learned early on that souvenir hunters would strip the biplane of any removable parts, even surreptitiously snipping pieces of cloth from the tail or wing ends, not realizing the danger they were creating for its pilot. A bulldog slept under the wing at night.

On Saturday, October 5, Gray flew from the racetrack to Lower Saranac Lake, where he air-dropped a box of H. L. Hildreth candy—one of his financial backers—to a young boy, a thrilling spectacle for those watching from their camps.

Later, he fielded a telephone call from Edith “Jack” Stearns, a well-to-do young woman from Virginia who was visiting a sick friend at a tuberculosis sanatorium. Gray turned her down flat when she asked for a flight, saying that a mountainous region was no place to fly a woman.

So Stearns donned her best riding suit—the closest outfit she had to flying toggery—saddled her horse and rode to the racetrack. She recognized Gray from his picture in the newspapers, with his puttees, his sweater rolled tightly about his neck and his cap worn backward. She introduced herself as the Miss Stearns from the telephone, asking him to reconsider taking her up. He again declined. She responded that she had always wanted to fly and that she had $50 in her pocket to pay for it. Gray said such a flight was easily $100 and that the air currents in the mountains were treacherous. She asked how paying more money would regulate the safety of the flight.

He laughed and agreed to take her from Fletcher’s to Saranac Lake that Sunday afternoon. His schedule was already packed, with a general exhibition, two aerial displays and flights with passengers. He also challenged an automobile on the track below in front of 1,500 paying customers. Gray lost by a third of a mile in a 10-mile race due to his inability to make sharp turns on the short track.

When he reached Fletcher Farm, Stearns was there waiting, along with some 300 others who wanted to see the takeoff. Dressed in her riding suit, she climbed onto the biplane and J. Chauncey Redding strapped her in. Redding’s parting words to her were, “Hold on tight. Aw! But what’s the use; if you fall, you fall.”

By the time the 17-minute flight was over, it was dusk and the Saranac Lake racetrack was packed with people waiting to witness the landing. Gray was afraid to land for fear of beheading someone. He circled and circled hoping the crowd would give them some room. They did not. He tried a dip to frighten them away. On the sixth time around, a small opening appeared and he decided to land, hoping the police would clear the way. Immediately upon landing, the plane was surrounded.

Stearns was nearly frozen from the cold. The mechanics towed them into the tent, where a man began hawking the crowd with a megaphone. “One dollar to see the lady who flew over the Adirondacks.” Gray bounded out of his seat and berated the man, telling him that Stearns was his private passenger and that it was an insult to sell views of her. Even so, she was mobbed as a celebrity everywhere she went for several days.

Gray never cashed Stearns’s $50 check for that flight. The pair were married in the fall of 1913, and Jack accompanied her husband for the next 19 years of barnstorming.

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