The morning of the first day of the long heralded aviation meet dawned bright and sunny, as only a Southern California January morning can. By seven o’clock vast throngs were hurrying southward to Dominguez—a broad plain midway between Los Angeles and the ocean—where much important aviation history has been made.
By nine o’clock the grand stand was packed and “automobile row” occupied by hundreds of motor cars, filled with ladies in gay apparel, their escorts and imperturbable chauffeurs. The crowd was beginning to circle the vast field, too, and nearly every face bore an excited, eager expression.
The events scheduled might well arouse the interest of a people just awakened to the possibilities of aërial navigation. Important prizes had been offered by wealthy men and corporations for the most daring flights of the meet. Ten thousand dollars would go to the aviator showing the most skillful and adroit handling of an aëroplane; five thousand for the longest flight; another five thousand 185for an endurance test and a like sum to the one attaining the greatest height. In addition to these generous purses, two thousand dollars would be given for the best starting and alighting device exhibited and two thousand for the best safety device. For speed several huge purses were donated, and altogether the aviators present would compete for more than fifty thousand dollars in gold, besides various medals and cups and the priceless prestige gained by excelling in a competition where the most successful and famed airships and aviators of the world congregated.
Therefore, it is little wonder public interest was excited and every aviator determined to do his best. Many thronged the hangars, asking innumerable questions of the good-natured attendants, who recognized the popular ignorance of modern flying devices and were tolerant and communicative to a degree.
The morning events were of minor importance, although several clever exhibitions of flying were given. But at two o’clock the competition for skillful handling of an aëroplane in midair was scheduled, and at that time the appetite of each spectator was whetted for the great spectacle.
The day seemed ideal for aviation; the sky was flecked with fleecy clouds and scarcely a breath of air could be felt at the earth’s surface.
186Now came the first appearance of the Kane Aircraft. It had not been brought from the hangar during the forenoon and, in watching such celebrated aëroplanes as the Bleriot, Farman, Antoinette, Curtiss and Wright, manned by the greatest living aëronauts, those assembled had almost forgotten that a local inventor was to enter the lists with them. The secretary of the Aëro Club and others interested had expected Mr. Burthon to protest against allowing the Kane device to be operated, on the ground that Kane was entered to operate it and was unable to do so; but for some unaccountable reason Burthon remained silent, not even appearing at the field, and Mr. Cumberford’s explanation that the “Kane” in this instance meant the young man’s sister, satisfied the officials perfectly. Naturally they were surprised and even startled at the idea of a girl taking part in the great aviation meet, but hailed the innovation with keenest interest.
Suddenly, while the field was clear and half a dozen aëroplanes hovered in the air above it, the Kane Aircraft rolled into the open space, circled before the grand stand and then, gracefully and without effort, mounted into the air.
Those who had witnessed Stephen’s prior performance were not astonished at this unassisted rise from earth to air, but all were delighted by 187the grace and beauty of the ascent and a roar of applause burst spontaneously from the crowd. The peculiar construction of the aircraft so diverted attention from its aviator that few marked the slender form of Orissa, or knew that a girl was making this daring flight.
There were some, however, whose eyes were eagerly rivetted on the indistinct figure of the flying girl and utterly disregarded the machine. Stephen, comfortably propped among the cushions of the motor car with his mother seated behind him and Sybil opposite, divided his attention between his sister and his creation. Mr. Cumberford, knowing what the machine would do, watched Orissa through a powerful glass and decided from the first that she was cool and capable. Chesty Todd also watched the girlish figure, with a more intense interest than he had ever before displayed during his brief and uneventful lifetime.
The reporter had been worried lest Mr. Cumberford neglect to warn the girlish operator of the Kane Aircraft of danger; so he pushed through the crowd about the hangar and just as Orissa passed the doorway, seated in her aëroplane, he said in a low voice: “Look out—for a collision!”
She started and cast an inquiring look at him, but there was no time to reply. The machine had been drawn by the assistants to a clear space and 188she must devote her attention to her work. As she threw in the lever Mr. Cumberford, who stood beside the aircraft, hurriedly whispered: “Be careful, Orissa—look out for danger!” Then she was off, facing the thousands on the field, with nerve and brain resolutely bent upon the task she had undertaken.
It was no indifferent thing this brave girl attempted. Until now her acquaintance with an aëroplane had been wholly theoretical; it was her first flight; yet so thoroughly did she understand every part of her air vehicle—what it was for and how to use it—that she had implicit confidence in herself and in her machine. Naturally level-headed, alert and quick to think and to act, Orissa was no more afraid of soaring in the air than of riding in an automobile. Aside from her desire to operate the aircraft so skillfully that her brother’s invention would be fully appreciated she was determined to attempt the winning of the ten thousand dollar prize, which would establish the Kane fortunes on a secure basis. Enough for one untried, seventeen-year-old girl to think of, was it not? And small wonder that she absolutely forgot the impressive warnings she had received.
The air is a mighty thoroughfare, free and untrammeled. The little group of aëroplanes operating over Dominguez—darting here and there, 189up and down—had little chance of colliding, for there was space enough and to spare. Orissa knew all about air currents and their peculiarities and she also knew that her greatest safety lay in high altitudes. With a feeling of rapturous exhilaration she began to realize her control of the craft and her dominance of the air. A masterful desire crept over her to accomplish great deeds in aviation.
Those who were watching from below—judges, friends and spectators—saw her steadily mounting, higher and higher, until she seemed to fade out of sight like the figure in a moving picture, with nothing but a little iron-and-wood skeleton and the chugging of a tiny engine to ward off death. Then she came into sight again, a little smudge of grayish white against the shifting clouds. To see her up there, a mere speck dodging among the storm clouds, reminded the observers, as nothing in aviation has ever done before, of the awful audacity of man in building these mechanical birds. As they watched they found themselves hoping—as a child might—that in some way the brave little speck would manage to escape those gigantic sky monsters. Then one seized the aircraft, and just as the sun caught and flung back to earth a flash from one of the busy propeller-blades a huge cloud swallowed up machine and aviator and they vanished like mist.
190It was odd how the terror of the spectators increased at this sudden disappearance; they knew that somewhere in that awesome, infinite firmament a frail thing made by the hand of man was battling with nature’s most mysterious forces for supremacy. And man won. In less than a minute there was another flash of sunlight and the little gray speck emerged saucily from behind the cloud and made a dive for another.
Then the speck in the sky began to grow larger, and Orissa attempted an amazing dive earthward that caused the throng to fall silent, motionless, gazing with bated breaths and startled eyes at the thrilling scene. It was a long swoop out of space and into being; a series of dives half a mile long and each nearly straight down.
The girl glided earthward until the aircraft nearly touched the ground; then she adroitly tilted it up again and tore away around the course in great circles, while the spectators, roused to life, thundered their applause.
Her control of the aëroplane was really wonderful. Again, encouraged by her success, she shot up into the air, rising to the height of half a mile and then performing the hazardous evolution known to aviators as the “spiral dip.” She began by circling widely, at an even elevation, and then dipping the nose of the aircraft and narrowing 191the circles as she plunged swiftly downward with constantly accelerating speed. It was a bewildering and hair-raising performance, and no one but Walter Brookins had ever before undertaken it.
A dozen feet from the ground Orissa reined in her Pegasus and glided over the group of hangars on her inclined ascent—the third she had made without alighting. There were other aëroplanes doing interesting “stunts,” and each aviator seemed to be exercising his ingenuity to excel all others, yet the eyes of the crowd followed the Kane Aircraft with an absorbed fascination that relegated other contestants to the rear.