How the “biggest airplane in the world”, in 1915, came from Alexandria


Under clear skies in mid-June 1915, a newly built “hydro-plane” named Clare slipped out of its hangar at the foot of Duke Street and into the Potomac River.

AW Richardson, the designer, had spent a year and $30,000 (equivalent to about $850,000 today) to see this day. Among the most daring of the aviation projects of the time was the yellow-painted craft of wood and birch canvas resting on twin 28-foot-long pontoons on the river.

The exact dimensions of the Clare’s length and wingspan are lost to history, but a front-page story in the Alexandria Gazette boasted that it was the largest aircraft built in the world to date. , even beating the prototype of aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss for a long distance. seaplane that had emerged a year earlier.

The only surviving photo of the Clare – a Washington Times front page photo on the same day – confirms that it was at least one of – if not THE – largest aircraft built just over a decade later. Orville Wright’s first powered flight in a heavier aircraft. aerial vehicle on December 17, 1903. The photo reveals an unusual design, even for the time. The tandem biplanes are positioned fore and aft above a 6-foot-wide deck nestled between the pontoon floats. Two Emerson engines, provided by an Alexandrian named Victor Emerson, are placed between each set of biplanes. Each engine drove a set of two-bladed propellers at either end of the pontoons in a push-pull configuration. The Clare emerged on the waterfront in a furious burst of innovation in the global aviation industry.

Only six years earlier, Orville Wright had dazzled the Alexandrians gathered at Shooter’s Hill, the current site of the George Washington National Masonic Memorial, on the first demonstration flight of his “Military Flyer” for the US Army’s Signal Corps. “At first it looked like a vampire in sight, but it grew bigger and bigger every second,” reads a breathless account of Wright’s flyby in a 1909 Gazette article.

“The crowd was very enthusiastic and cheered loudly as the balloonists approached the hill.” The city’s first contact with powered flight planted seeds in a population eager to enter the aviation business. In the two decades following the Orville Wright flight, the Alexandrians would make a series of attempts to break into the aircraft manufacturing business, beginning with the Clare as perhaps the most ambitious – and ultimately tragic – of all. As pre-flight preparations continued for several days after the Clare appeared on the shore, hundreds of people descended on the Alexandria waterfront from across the region to admire the unusual sight.

For the city, the Clare’s success would turn Alexandria into a key manufacturing hub in the fledgling aviation industry a year before aviation legends such as Boeing appeared in Seattle and six years before Douglas settled in Southern California. Richardson had revealed plans to set up a manufacturing business called the Spanish American Trading Company in the former Pioneer Mills factory on the waterfront. He wanted to use the factory to assemble Clare seaplanes for a wide customer base, including military and airlines. Leon Rasst, who was described by the Gazette as a well-known agent of the Russian Embassy, ​​was spotted among the crowd of spectators that week, with a delegation of officials from the procurement staff of the US Navy.

Before the day of the first flight from the river, local journalists struggled to contain their optimism for the Clare.

“The Richardson machine, as it sits in the water, seems quite capable of carrying out its inventor’s purpose,” a Gazette writer wrote in the June 21, 1915, edition of the local newspaper.

However, Richardson’s contemporaries in the field of aircraft design may not have been so generous. Aircraft technology was developing rapidly at the start of only the second decade of powered flight. In many ways, the Clare’s design seemed to take a step backward rather than forward. In terms of size and length, the Clare’s closest rival was already flying in Russia.

The Ilya Muromets S-22 designed by Igor Sikorsky, who later founded the eponymous helicopter company after immigrating to the United States, entered World War I as a bomber, but was designed as a transport of luxury passengers. Sikorsky’s four-engined biplane featured an enclosed interior cabin, which could carry up to 16 passengers in wicker chairs. The passenger cabin was heated and even included a toilet.

No creature comforts are visible on the Clare. The design revealed some of the lessons the fledgling aviation industry had absorbed in the decade since the Wrights first flew. The horizontal and vertical surfaces used to control the aircraft in pitch and yaw were placed fore and aft of the lift-creating wings, much like the Wright brothers’ original design in 1903.

But the aircraft industry had already moved on, with the vast majority of new designs in 1915 featuring a standard layout that placed the wings forward and the pitch and yaw control surfaces on the tail. Most contemporaries of the Clare in 1915 were also fitted with enclosed cockpits and cabins to protect crew and passengers from draft and weather.

Having chosen “Spanish American Trading Company” as his brand name, Richardson may have envisioned his design as forming a future freight-carrying fleet, ferrying goods between, say, Key West and Havana.

The Clare carried enough fuel for a three-hour flight, according to a 1915 Washington Times article. If the propulsion system could reach an average speed of 60 mph, as designed, Richardson’s seaplane could travel 180 miles. But first Richardson had to prove that his 2,300-pound Clare could fly. Although several off-the-shelf propulsion options existed, Richardson had selected a local supplier to design a new engine from scratch. Unfortunately, the Clare’s twin Emerson six-cylinder engines weighed 325 pounds and produced 68 horsepower each, resulting in a mediocre power-to-weight ratio of almost 4.8 pounds per horsepower.

Emersons performed poorly in 1915, even compared to the Curtiss V-2-3 engine, which was widely criticized as inefficient for delivering a power-to-weight ratio of less than 4. Perhaps unsurprisingly, hours of waiting for a first flight turned into days, and Richardson’s outdated, underpowered design remained moored in the river at the foot of Duke Street. Finally, the Clare’s engines started on the morning of June 21, a Tuesday.

As Emerson’s engines revved to full throttle at a deafening 900 rpm, a crew of six piloted by Dean Van Kirk steered the Clare upriver towards Washington at speeds of up to 20 miles per hour. , but only for about 1.5 miles. The plane came to a halt in the current as the engines sputtered, necessitating lunchtime maintenance. A second attempt proved slightly more successful.

“The engines ran more evenly and the plane skimmed the surface of the water at a speed of thirty miles per hour,” the Gazette reported on June 22. of the motor. A boat was called to tow the Clare to a berth at the Alexandria wharf owned by the Norfolk and Washington Steamboat Co.

Tests on June 21 appeared to show that Richardson’s project was making progress. But testing revealed that Emerson’s six-cylinder engines would not suffice. In early July, the Gazette announced that no further motorized tests would be carried out on the Clare until Emerson could supply more powerful eight-cylinder engines. Unfortunately, the Clare remained at her berth on the Potomac, exposed to midsummer weather.

A raging thunderstorm raged across northern Virginia on the afternoon of July 20. Lightning struck a barn nine miles southwest of Alexandria in Fairfax County, destroying the structure and killing a stallion worth $1,000. The storm also downed trees in Franconia, tore up telegraph lines and washed out roads. On the quay in Alexandria, the storm lifted the Clare from its berth and sent it hurtling down the river.

Workers managed to salvage the engines, but the aircraft was a total loss. “Whether or not the machine will be rebuilt has yet to be decided,” the Washington Herald reported on July 21. No records exist to explain the fate of the Clare’s design and the plans of the Spanish American Trading Company, but the storm destroys the town’s first bid for a place in aviation history.


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