Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Heroic Age of Aviation


“The American seaplanes are in Calcutta,” the papers in India reported on June 27, 1924. Four U.S. Army planes had arrived at intervals the previous day, each flying low over the Hooghly River crowded with shipping, before making a graceful turn and alighting on an empty stretch of water opposite Prinsep Ghat where people lined the banks to witness their arrival. The aviators were making the first aerial circumnavigation of the world with the help of the U.S. Navy which was providing logistical support. Twelve weeks after taking off from Seattle, they had not yet reached the half way point of their mission. 

In Calcutta, the planes were overhauled for the next leg of the journey. In addition to replacing the heavy pontoons with wheels—a change that would not be reversed until they reached Englandthe crafts were refitted with new engines and wings. The work required three days, allowing time for the local post of the American Legion to treat the young fliers and officers from their naval escort to a dinner in their honor.1, 2 The menu below marks this all-but-forgotten moment in aviation history.

This honoree banquet can also be viewed as a celebration of progress, one of the pervasive themes of American ephemera. Some of the earliest extant menus come from dinners celebrating the advent of the telegraph and railroad. Continuing well into the twentieth century, the custom arguably reached its apogee in the 1920s and early 30s when aviators were feted for their daring flights. A dozen menus transport us back to the heroic age of aviation.

The aerial accomplishments of other nations were also recognized. In July 1926, the Italian Colony of San Francisco honored Italian aviator Umberto Nobile at The Apollo, a large restaurant in North Beach.3 Two months earlier, Nobile, along with the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and American adventurer Lincoln Ellsworth, had flown over the North Pole in a dirigible. Although they did not know it at the time, they had probably been the first to reach the Pole.4 (For decades, Admiral Richard E. Byrd held the honor until it was discovered that the navigational data in his flight diary was fraudulent.) The menu still employs the catchy “Rome to Nome” theme of Nobile’s expedition, even though strong winds had caused the airship to divert seventy miles north to Teller, Alaska. 

The tone of such banquets became much more exuberant after May 1927, when Charles Lindbergh flew nonstop to Paris in a single-engine monoplane named “The Spirit of St. Louis.” During the summer and fall of that year, “Lucky Lindy” flew around the United States in his famous plane at the request of the Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics. Touching down in over seventy-five cities, he attended sixty-nine dinners in his honor. Below are menu covers from banquets at the Stevens Hotel in Chicago, the Texas Hotel in Fort Worth and the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia, the final stop of his 22,350-mile whirlwind tour.

Two weeks after Lindbergh’s historic flight, air racer Clarence Chamberlin and tagalong Charles Levine took off in a monoplane named “Columbia.” They landed in Germany 43½ hours later, successfully completing the second nonstop flight across the Atlantic. Within a few days, the American Club of Berlin honored them at their dinner dance in the luxurious Adlon Hotel. The menu below is signed on the back by Charles Levine. Known as the “Flying Junkman,” the truculent salvage dealer became the first transatlantic air passenger.

Arctic explorer Richard E. Byrd, having failed in his attempt to be the first to cross the Atlantic, finally departed with three others in late June in a high-wing, two-engine monoplane named “America.” Back in New York the following month, the commander and his crew, along with Clarence Chamberlin of second-crossing fame, were jointly honored at a large banquet hosted by Jimmy Walker, the city’s flamboyant mayor. 

In April 1928, Dr. Hermann Köhl (German pilot), Baron Günther von Hünefeld (German passenger) and Major James Fitzmaurice (Irish navigator) made the first east-west transatlantic flight, traveling from Ireland to Labrador in a monoplane named “Bremen.” The team, now dubbed the Bremen Flyers, was honored at the Chase Hotel in St. Louis where Lindbergh had been feted less than a year earlier. 

Charles Lindbergh promoted the development of commercial aviation long after his epic U.S. tour. This menu from an honoree luncheon in Havana in 1928 features California asparagus F.D., meaning fast delivery. 

The venues became decidedly less grand over time. When aviators Roger Q. Williams and Lewis Yancey returned from making the seventh crossing in 1929, they were welcomed home at the Richmond Hill Masonic Temple in their native Queens. 

In May 1932, five years to the day after Lindbergh’s historic flight, Amelia Earhart became the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic. (She had already achieved the distinction of being the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, participating as a member of a three-person crew in 1928.) Not surprisingly, Milwaukee’s Club of Business and Professional Women refer to her as “America’s Aviatrix” on their menu, rather than using the derivative nickname “Lady Lindy” coined by the press. Earhart was an inspiration to women everywhere, as indicated by the list of sponsors shown on the back.

As previously posted, aircraft mechanic Douglass Corrigan took off in a jerry-built plane from Brooklyn's Floyd Bennett Field in 1938 supposedly headed for California. Disappearing into the haze, he landed in Dublin the next day, claiming he had inadvertently flown the wrong direction. Hailed in the press as “Wrong Way” Corrigan, he became a national celebrity overnight. His ticker tape parade in New York attracted more than a million people, exceeding the number who cheered Lindbergh eleven years earlier. When Corrigan was honored at the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles, the bill of fare was printed upside down and backwards, mimicking the newspaper headlines that first reported his seeming blunder. 

Making the most out of the running joke, the likeable Texan stuck to his story, maintaining that he had simply done a poor job of navigation. Ironically, his comic stunt marked the end of aviation’s heroic era. 

1. One of the toasts at this banquet was given by Husband E. Kimmel, commander of the destroyers that were assisting the mission. When the Japanese raided Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Kimmel was a four-star admiral and the commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. After the attack, he was removed from command and demoted. 
2. Firpo’s was established in Calcutta by Italian-born Angelo Firpo in about 1917. The popular restaurant featured music, a large dance floor, and a set five-course menu. Firpo’s also operated a catering service that was used by Lord Irwin, the Viceroy and Governor of India, several maharajas, and other members of the ruling class. 
3. The Apollo was originally named Gianduja. Built in 1908 after the earthquake and fire, the restaurant expanded with each change of ownership. It reopened as “The Apollo” about a week before this banquet. 
4. Umberto Nobile (1885-1978) designed and piloted the semi-rigid airship “Norge,” which may have been the first aircraft to reach the North Pole, and indisputably the first to fly across the polar ice cap from Europe to America.

1 comment:

Jan Whitaker said...

"F. D." is an interesting detail. I wouldn't have guessed it meant fast delivery.