Monterey Stories

When the Bird-Man Flew in Monterey; The Colonel Has Second Thoughts about His "Gasoline-Bird"

Published on Wednesday, April 2, 2014

When the Bird-Man Flew in Monterey; The Colonel Has Second Thoughts about His "Gasoline-Bird"

Author: David Spradling

 As described in the Monterey Daily Cypress of March 20, 1910, “Daring Aviator” Colonel Frank H. Johnson thrilled a crowd of twelve hundred persons who gathered on the Del Monte race track the previous afternoon to witness flights of his Curtiss biplane.

“About a quarter past one o’clock Colonel Johnson made his first flight.  This was from one end of the field to the other.  He attained a height of about forty feet, and flew nearly a quarter of a mile. At the end of the field where he alighted it was very rough, and in coming down to earth again he broke several ribs in the machine. 


This did not take the love of flying out of the Colonel, and he finally got the machine on smooth ground and again flew back to the starting point.”

The Cypress notes that after repairs to the machine, Johnson undertook an exciting third flight.

“This flight was as pretty a one as could be wished for.  The machine arose from the ground as gracefully as a big bird, went up some forty feet and he flew down to the end of the field again.  He was not high enough in the air to make a turn and soar back, but before reaching the ground he had turned half way around.


In attempting to make a flight back to the starting point the tire of the front wheel broke clear in two, and the tire was thrown up into the aviator’s face.  Johnson caught the rubber in his hand, and although the wheel was stripped of its rubber he tried to make the machine rise, but the speed was not sufficient.”

The wheel was repaired, and following a rain delay, the Colonel made a series of successful flights, apparently without further damage to the airplane or the Colonel.

 “One of these flights was of four and a half minutes duration and during which he covered about five miles.”

Keep in mind that the Colonel’s flights in Monterey occurred less than seven years after the Wright brothers made history at Kitty Hawk.  Their longest flight of several on December 17, 1903 lasted 59 seconds and covered a distance of 852 feet.  The first several years of the “new century” was a time of great excitement and much progress in the new field of powered flight.  Flying these primitive machines was not for the faint of heart.

 Following his Monterey demonstration, Colonel Johnson entertained crowds in Alameda with his “gasoline bird”.  The San Francisco Call, in a dispatch of early April, 1910 notes that “twenty-seven different flights were whirled off with mishap”, as the Colonel exhibited “excellent control”.  But an additional (and incomplete) report notes that “Johnson’s biplane strikes heavily in alighting and the birdman is hurt”.

 Colonel Johnson, described as a “millionaire clubman” and financier from San Francisco, apparently was having second thoughts about flying.  In a story datelined San Rafael, appearing in the Call June 21, 1910 it was announced that Colonel Johnson had sold his aeroplane.

“Formerly he had electrified local society as an automobilist, and it is probable that the old longing to speed on safe terra firma has outweighed his inclination to soar aloft in a flimsy ship of the air.  His experience at the Alameda meet, when he landed in the bay and other harrowing adventures in which his aeroplane crashed into fences and chased crowds of spectators around the field have not been conducive to great love on his part for navigation in the upper elements”.


  Image:  Aviators Frank H. Johnson and Glen Curtiss, from the USC Digital Library









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