Look, Up in the Sky! It’s a… Dirigible!

October 25, 1904

The first successful flight of a dirigible (a type of airship) in the United States occurred when aviator and aeronautical engineer A. Roy Knabenshue flew the “California Arrow.” He took to the skies in that cigar-shaped dirigible from the World’s Fair (officially known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition) in St. Louis, Missouri.

Postcard image from 1905, captioned Knabenshue and his air ship

The 29-year-old Knabenshue piloted the California Arrow, which had been built by fellow aviation engineer Thomas Scott Baldwin, up to a height of 2,000 feet (609.6 meters) above the World’s Fair. While ultimately a triumph for Knabenshue, the flight had its share of danger and near-misses. Knabenshue barely cleared an exposition building at one point, for example. In addition, he avoided slamming into the Fair’s Ferris Wheel by just a few inches. 

Another potentially hazardous complication transpired when the dirigible’s motor broke apart during the flight. Knabenshue still managed to operate the California Arrow without any harm to himself or others. The Nebraska State Journal reported, “Notwithstanding the breaking of the motor, Knabenshue did not lose complete control of the machine, but with the momentum given by the wind he was enabled to steer the machine in a course that varied several points in each direction from the trend of the wind and land at a point of his own selection.”

Knabenshue was approximately 10 miles (16.1 kilometers) from the World’s Fair when he decided to land the California Arrow near the village of Cahokia in Illinois. The Kansas-based Leavenworth Times recounted, “When within about 10 feet [3.1 meters] of the earth Knabenshue threw out his grapple and one of the hooks caught in a tree standing on the edge of a clearing, and the large body settled slowly to the ground, resting upon its framework.” The newspaper also reported, “Immediately after landing Knabenshue stated that in his opinion the trial of the airship was a distinct success.” He had been airborne for an hour and 31 minutes. For more information on A. Roy Knabenshue and his aviation accomplishments, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A._Roy_Knabenshue.

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