PIONEER AVIATION - Frequently Asked Questions

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What was the difference between a pioneer aviator and a barnstormer?

Pioneer Aviator - An aviator who flew during the pre-WWI period. Almost all (but not all) exhibition aviators during the Pioneer Era utilized trains to move their aeroplanes from location to location, rather then flying them.

Barnstormer - An aviator who flew from place to place, giving rides and exhibitions. This term should be reserved for aviators who did so during the 1920's and 1930's, between the two World Wars.

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Why was the word "aeroplane" used instead of "airplane"?

In the U.S., until The Great War (World War I), aeroplane was the term used almost universally for heavier-than-air flying machines. "Airplane" came into general usage during World War I, so that after that horrific conflict "aeroplanes" were known as "airplanes." Perhaps one reason for this change was the fact that aeroplane was often misspelled, becoming areoplane, aroplane and the like. Heavier-than-air flying machines of the pioneer period should therefore always be referred to as "aeroplanes."

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What was an aeronaut?

An aeronaut was the operator of an airship. From 1905 to 1909 one-person exhibition engine-powered airships (with large gas bags from which were suspended wooden frames upon which the aeronaut stood) were the most common form of aerial machine in the U.S., especially during 1907, The Year of The Airships. People who operated balloons were known as aerostaticians since balloons were technically termed aerostats.

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What did the phrase "headless pusher" mean?

"Headless" aeroplanes were versions without the previously common front elevator device. Headless aeroplanes began to be used in 1911, when it was realized that the front elevators were actually impeding the aeroplanes and making them more difficult to operate.

"Pusher" aeroplanes had their propeller or propellers behind the wings, thereby 'pushing' the aeroplanes forward. Aeroplanes with a propellers or propellers in front of the wings were known as "Tractor" aeroplanes, meaning they pulled the aeroplane through the air."Headless pusher" aeroplanes were therefore ones with a pusher propeller or pusher propellers and without a front elevator. Curtiss Model D Headless biplanes and Wright Model B biplanes were examples of headless pushers.

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What were the main types of aeroplanes used during the pre-WWI period in the U.S.?

The Curtiss Model D Biplane (left, the Curtiss Reims Machine with front elevator assembly, the precursor to the Curtiss Model D Biplane) was by far the most commonly used biplane in the United States especially in its "headless" form, flown by both amateurs and exhibition aviators.

The Wright Model B Biplane (right) was also frequently used, especially by exhibition aviators. Cal Rodgers used a Wright EX, a version of the Wright Model B, for his transcontinental flight of 1911.


Among monoplanes, the Blériot XI (left), especially the versions using rotary engines and 'racing' wings, was by far the most frequently used. Because the Blériot XI monoplane was expensive to build and repair, when it was flown it was most often by exhibition aviators. Many Blériot XI monoplanes, notably simplified versions of them, were built by amateurs, although it appears that they were not flown as much as other types, perhaps because they were so unforgiving of errors.


The French Antoinette Monoplane (right), thought by many to be the most beautiful of all the pre-WWI aeroplanes, was flown in a number of locations in the U.S. by Hubert Latham, the famed English-French aviator.


The French Farman Biplane (left) also was seen in the U.S., flown by French aviator Louis Paulhan and by English aviator Claude Grahame-White as well as by U.S. sportsman and aviator Clifford Harmon.

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What did the words "aviatrix" and "aviatrice" mean?

Aviatrix and aviatrice were terms used to denote women aeroplane operators. Among the most famous aviatrices in the U.S. during the pioneer aviation era were Harriet Quimby, Blanche Stuart Scott and Ruth Law. As is the case today, aviator can be used to denote people who operate aeroplanes, regardless of gender.

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How can a Wright-type of aeroplane be distinguished from a Curtiss-type of aeroplane?

Wright-type aeroplanes and Curtiss-type aeroplanes are often confused with each other. One simple way to determine whether a pioneer aeroplane is a Wright-type or a Curtiss-type is to note the number of propellers. Wright-type aeroplanes had two pusher propellers while Curtiss-type aeroplanes had a single pusher propeller.

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What was a "rotary" engine?

Rotary engines were characterized by a stationary crankshaft around which the entire engine revolved, thereby cooling the engine and eliminating the need for a flywheel. Rotary engines, which were very expensive, were noted for their smooth operation, especially in comparison to more conventional engines used on aeroplanes during the period. The most famous series of rotary engines used during the period were those produced by Société Des Moteurs Gnôme in France. Many pioneer aeroplanes, especially Blériot XI monoplanes, were powered by Gnôme rotary engines. Indian and Gyro rotary engines, similar to the Gnôme, were built and sold in the U.S.

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Why was the term "exhibition" used and not "performance"?

The term "exhibition" was used to describe the display of an aeroplane and its flight. At the time "performance" had a meaning which was associated with "performing" animals and actors. While not incorrect, the use of the word "performance" should be avoided when referring to pioneer aviators, out of respect for the fact that during that period "performance" had a decidedly negative cast to at least some pioneer aviators.

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Why was the term "exhibition" used and not "air show"?

As noted above, the term "exhibition" was used to describe the display of an aeroplane and its flight. It would be inappropriate to use the later term "air show" to describe this activity.

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Why didn't pioneer aviators all have licenses?

Many pioneer aviators were flying before licensing was begun. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (F.A.I.) of France soon became the source for all recognized aviation licensing, and authorized national aero clubs to issue licenses to aviators who met the requirements of the F.A.I. Licensing of aviators did not become mandatory in the U.S. until the 1920's

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Why was the term "aviator" used and not "pilot"?

During aviation's pioneer era, the term "pilot" most often referred to a ship's pilot although it was infrequently used to refer to an aeroplane's aviator. The term aviator was used exclusively for a person who operated an aeroplane.

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