There’s a headstone in a Cape Cod cemetery that features a Wright Flyer. It’s the grave of James Clifford Turpin, a Dayton native who was once a star pilot of the Wright Company’s Exhibition Team. Turpin and his fellow aviation pioneers helped to bring flight to the whole country—but it’s likely you’ve never heard of him and once his flying career ended, he never spoke of his adventures. Commentator Paul Glenshaw has his story.
In 1910, the Wright brothers and lots of other airplane manufacturers wanted badly to create a market for flying machines, but they had a major obstacle to overcome—their airplanes actually couldn’t do much. In fact, the first real commercial use for the airplane was entertainment. Although the Wright brothers regarded show business with disdain, they knew they needed to promote their invention in order to compete. People—lots of them—would pay just to see them fly.
In the Spring of 1910, they started what they called their exhibition department with a motley crew of hurriedly trained young pilots, and made their debut in June at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. One of the pilots hadn’t even soloed yet and did so in front of 10,000 enraptured spectators.
Cliff Turpin decided this was the world for him. He had a degree in engineering from Purdue, and became enamored with flight while for his father’s motorcycle business. in Dayton. The Wrights took him on to help develop engines, but he trained to fly with another young mechanic named Phillip Parmelee. They became best friends, and were sent out as fledgling performers to meet their teammates already on the road in the fall of 1910. The air show business was exploding.
There were air meets all over the country, flying shows at state fairs, and records to be broken every day. Walter Brookins was the team’s first star. He made the first mile high flight over Atlantic City. Arch Hoxsey and Ralph Johnstone were called the Stardust Twins for their ever-escalating altitude competitions. Huge crowds came to the air shows and the money was very good. But it didn’t last.
Johnstone and Hoxsey were killed in gruesome crashes before the year was out. At the beginning of 1911 a fickle public was growing impatient with simple flights around a racetrack and their enthusiasm waned.
Turpin and Parmelee became the backbone of the team in 1911 – and they could still make the headlines, like: 20,000 Shout as Aviators Dip in Treacherous Air; Girls Try to Hug Birdmen After Death Defying Flights. And they were still stars at state fairs. They were having the adventure of their lives. Turpin fell in love, proposing to a young actress with a note on the back of a postcard depicting him and Parmelee flying in Los Angeles. “Birds of a feather flock together. Why not join the family?” he wrote. Miss Isabel Richards said yes.
The exhibition team became unprofitable and the Wrights disbanded it after less than two years. But Turpin and Parmelee rented two airplanes from the Wrights and stayed in Los Angeles—selling rides off Venice Beach, and flying for a film starring Mabel Norman, siren of the silent screen. In May 1912, they went to Washington State in a couple of Gage biplanes. Their adventure came to a crushing close, when Turpin, swerving to avoid a photographer on takeoff in Seattle, flew into a grandstand and killed a spectator. The next day they learned that Wilbur Wright was dead of typhoid fever in Dayton. The day after that, Parmelee’s airplane flipped in North Yakima and killed him instantly. Turpin retrieved the body, returned it to Parmelee’s grieving parents, and never flew again.
I met his grandson, who lives near the cemetery where Turpin is buried. He showed me the grave marker, and shared his memories of his grandfather. But he could tell me none of Turpin’s flying stories. “My grandfather never mentioned it,” he said. History lost track of Cliff Turpin, who lived long enough to see the airplane used in two world wars, jet airliners whisking passengers around the world, and satellites launched into space. Turpin and his Wright teammates helped it all get started. His gravestone is the only public monument to his role in the rise of flight.
Paul Glenshaw’s feature article on Cliff Turpin will appear in the next issue of the Smithsonian’s Air & Space magazine, available in print, tablet, and online at airspacemag.com. Visit our website to see photos of Turpin and the Wright Exhibition Team.
Aviation programming on WYSO is supported in part by the National Aviation Heritage Alliance and The Air Force Museum Foundation.