'King of Air'

Aviation pioneer made history in Toledo

Knabenshue Dirigible: In this airship A. Roy Knabenshue, Toledo aviation pioneer and son of Blade editor S.S. Knabensue, flew from the fair grounds at Dorr and Upton  to the top of the Spitzer Building on June 30, 1905.
Knabenshue Dirigible: In this airship A. Roy Knabenshue, Toledo aviation pioneer and son of Blade editor S.S. Knabensue, flew from the fair grounds at Dorr and Upton to the top of the Spitzer Building on June 30, 1905.

One hundred eight years ago a giant cocoon of Japanese silk sailed over the streets of Toledo.

Fifty-eight feet long and resembling a larval sac, the dirigible floated from the fairgrounds at Dorr Street and Upton Avenue on June 30, 1905. Balancing on a walkway only three inches in diameter, Augustus Roy Knabenshue maneuvered the airship 1,000 feet above the ground, steering it to the top of the 10-story Spitzer Building.

At 10:03 a.m., he landed amid smokestacks, wires, and spectators. The crowd swarmed around the young inventor and called for a speech.

“Well,” Mr. Knabenshue said to a silent crowd. “I said I could do it, and I did.”

The first powered flight in the state of Ohio, Mr. Knabenshue’s daring display thrilled sponsors and spectators alike. A. L. Spitzer, a wealthy Toledoan who offered $500 to the first aeronaut who could land on the building, called Mr. Knabenshue’s flight “the most remarkable demonstration of aerial navigation the world has ever seen.”

After filling his overheated engine with oil, the daredevil sailed his airship back to Dorr Street, landing between bags of sand as onlookers cheered for the “King of the Air.”

The son of Samuel S. Knabenshue, a former editor of the Weekly Blade, Roy Knabenshue belonged to a respected family that was ashamed of his aerial endeavors. His father became the United States consul in Belfast, Ireland, and his brother, Frederick Guy Knabenshue, was a Spanish-American War hero.

But Roy’s dreams reached skyward. At a Toledo Tri-State Fair in 1899, the young Knabenshue met a performer who gave rides in his gas balloon. He was so impressed that he bought a machine for himself, exhibiting the balloon as “Professor Don Carlos” to protect his family name from disrepute.

On Oct. 25, 1904, Mr. Knabenshue’s exhibitions took him to the World’s Fair in St. Louis, where he met fellow balloonist Thomas S. Baldwin.

Mr. Knabenshue piloted Mr. Baldwin’s lighter-than-air craft, the California Arrow, resulting in one of the first successful dirigible flights in America. During the flight, the drive chains connecting the propeller with the motor snapped, causing the aeronaut to lose control. It drifted across the Mississippi River and landed in Cahokia, Ill.

A. R. Knabenshue posed with his wife in 1928.
A. R. Knabenshue posed with his wife in 1928.

While Mr. Knabenshue viewed the flight as an accident, newspapers called it a success, dubbing him the “Wizard of the Air.” Eight months later, he would become the “King.”

After the fair, the 29-year-old electrical engineer returned to Toledo and built the “Toledo No. 1,” a model that improved the Arrow’s design and included a propeller at the bow of the airship. Constructed through the winter of 1904 and the spring of 1905, Mr. Knabenshue’s dirigible was ready for action by June, culminating in the King of the Air’s famous flight to the top of the Spitzer Building.

In August of that year, Mr. Knabenshue made the first airship flight over New York City, landing the “Toledo No. 2” on a tree in Central Park.

As the world’s fascination with airplanes grew, so did Mr. Knabenshue’s involvement with the Wright Brothers, who made the first airplane flight in 1903. In 1910, the former dirigible driver became the manager for the Wright Company’s exhibition team.

“By 1910, the big show was airplanes, not dirigibles,” said Janet Bednarek, aviation historian at the University of Dayton. “[Mr. Knabenshue] was essentially a showman, and when what people wanted to see shifted from dirigibles to heavier-than-air flying machines, he followed.”

Flying in New York, New Jersey, and large cities in the Midwest, the exhibition team disbanded in 1911 after the deaths of five pilots, said Tom Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Mr. Knabenshue remained involved in the aviation business until the mid-to-late 1940s, selling dirigible rides in California following his work with the Wright Brothers. His airship would star in the 1928 film Won in the Clouds, sailing from Pasadena to Universal City, California to attack a mock African village.

After the mid-1930s, dirigibles suffered a decline in popularity. The Germans lost the Hindenburg in 1937, and the last Navy airship was deployed in 1962, until the introduction of the American Blimp MZ-3A in 2006.

Today, “Toledo No. 1” has been replaced by Goodyear blimps in the skies. We have rovers on Mars, and we’ve got modern-day Knabenshues, adventurers like Felix Baumgartner who fall out of space faster than the speed of sound. But as we advance into the future of outer-space flight, we must remember the crazy Kings of the Air who made this technology possible, sailing their biplanes and dirigibles in Ohio — the Birthplace of Aviation.

Contact Rosa Nguyen at rnguyen@theblade.com or 419-724-6050.